The brainchild of the Hon. Senator Alfred Rattray, Esq., Jamaica’s fourth Ambassador to the USA, NAJASO was officially incorporated on July 04, 1977 in Washington, DC when representatives of Jamaican groups from across the USA met in Washington, DC and launched this national body to address immediate problems which primarily affected their communities in the USA. Deliberations revealed a plan reflecting Ambassador Rattray’s leadership that NAJASO play an integral role in community development throughout the regional areas of the U.S. rather than top-down organizational management from the Embassy of Jamaica in Washington, DC. Midwestern and Eastern U.S. regions were initially the two primary areas with strong NAJASO presence but shortly thereafter California created a Western presence making this new organization a tri-regional entity.
In the early 1970s, Ambassador Rattray found many vibrant, active social organizations throughout the USA but there was no uniting factor between these groups except that the members were of Jamaican heritage. NAJASO was therefore created to unite these splinter groups under an umbrella organization for more inter and intra-communication channels for efficiency and effectiveness.
NAJASO’s JOURNEY ACROSS THE DECADES (1977-2017)
- In the first decade of NAJASO’s successful journey, the Hon. Rev. Collin Bennett, OD and the Hon. Pat Szopinski, OD were both outstanding leaders receiving Jamaica’s highest honor of Order of Distinction (O.D) for excellence in NAJASO leadership. Under Rev. Bennett’s leadership from 1977-1982, Jamaican organizations were galvanized throughout the USA as President Bennett inspired new members with purpose, orchestrating travel among NAJASO regional members thereby creating strong enduring bonds that still exist today. Several projects were implemented including: NAJASO’s financial contributions to the Jamaica Adult Literacy (JAMAL) program; The Adopt-A-School program with the Mountain View Basic School in Kingston, Jamaica being the first of many basic schools to be built by NAJASO; the 1978 Marcus Garvey Scholarship Fund, an annual scholarship for 3 Jamaican students attending the University of the West Indies (UWI); and the erection of a bust of the Most Right Excellent Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Jamaica’s first National Hero located in the Hall of the Americas, Organization of American States (OAS), Washington, DC in 1980.
- NAJASO’s second president, Mrs. Pat Szopinski (1982-1993) had the longest tenure, establishing NAJASO not only in the U.S. but also in Britain and Canada, forming the National Association of Jamaican and Supportive Canadian Organizations (NAJASCO). In 1984, she formed the Committee for Economic Growth of Jamaica (CEGJ), a business initiative promoting US investments in Jamaica and import trade ventures into the U.S. President Szopinski’s pioneering vision of economic power and growth for Jamaican nationals created partnerships between Wisconsin and Jamaica and between NAJASO and Victoria Mutual, facilitating the financial needs of Jamaican nationals in the USA for over three decades. She also collaborated with the National Guild of New York in 1987, playing a major role in the U.S. Immigration Amnesty Act of 1986 by mobilizing illegal and undocumented Jamaican nationals to seek legal status.
- In the second decade, President Szopinski led NAJASO during Hurricane Gilbert’s devastation of Jamaica in 1988. NAJASO’s disaster relief response became legendary: a 1988 Hurricane Relief Fund (HRF) involved shipping trailer loads of clothes, bedding, tools, and emergency equipment in collaboration with Air Jamaica to Jamaica; NAJASO facilitated four (4) medical expeditions of 23 medical personnel from the University of Florida School of Medicine in Gainesville to Jamaica visiting 6 hospitals…Black River, Lucea, Montego Bay, Falmouth, Kingston Public and Linstead; in 1988, NAJASO sent US$1M worth of medicines/medical equipment to hospitals and the Ministry of Health in Jamaica, collaborating with Canada’s Connaught Laboratories in donating and shipping vaccines to Jamaica; and the Huntley All -Age School in the parish of Manchester, Jamaica was repaired totaling US$110, 000. In 1992, after 11 years of excellent leadership, President Szopinski appointed a committee chaired by Dr. Montague Oliver of Gary, Indiana to study NAJASO’s constitutional reform resulting in term limits for the presidency; an initial 2-year tenure was decided with the option to repeat the 2-year term consecutively but limited to 4 years in succession.
- The Hon. Dr. Alston Meade, Jamaica’s Honorary Consul to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and NAJASO’s third President (1993-1997) was keenly aware by 1996 that members were traveling less for regional meetings. In fact, face-to-face communication among members had rapidly changed to reflect the new age of information technology (IT); increased faxing, emailing, cell phone usage, and video conferencing. Returning Residents to Jamaica had many concerns including IT which triggered Dr. Meade to lead a committee to dialogue with Jamaica’s Prime Minister about this situation. President Meade’s tenure highlighted education with NAJASO achieving the following: in 1995, University of the West Indies (UWI) students attended the NAJASO convention in Jamaica; in 1996, NAJASO sponsored a Boston University Jamaican student as a delegate of a Model United Nations conference in the Netherlands; and in1997, two (2) UWI students attended the NAJASO conference in Chicago, IL. NAJASO continued its goals of assisting the Ministry of Health by donating approximately US$50,000 worth of medical supplies to Jamaica.
- Dr. Joyce El-Ali (nee Hall), NAJASO’s fourth president from 1997-2001, recognized IT’s impact on face to face meetings, particularly regional meetings and annual conventions that created less member participation and more fiscal challenges. Although, the1998 proposal to establish a national Bond system was put on hold by the Board for future consideration, the concept of the Jamaica Diaspora was developed by the late Mr. Glen Gilpin and approved by NAJASO’s executive board before its submission to Jamaica. Gilpin proposed that organizations work united, taking ownership in the development of Jamaica. NAJASO donated US$500,000 worth of medical supplies and equipment to Jamaica in 1997 while NAJASO strengthened members through cooperation and inclusiveness not only by donations but in other fiscal measures. NAJASO became a learning organization and students were targeted for mentoring to fill various roles for the future. The Marcus Garvey Heritage Foundation was initially presented by Dr. Alston Meade with relevant discussions of the scholarship program during Mrs. Ali’s tenure.
- NAJASO’s fifth president, Mrs. Vernette Byron-Meade presided from 2001-2005 in the new millennium when collective hopes were high, Y2K fears forgotten in a strong U.S. economy, particularly in the real estate and mortgage banking industries. However, two months after her election, NAJASO, the U.S., and the world changed forever, particularly air travel after the infamous “911” terrorist attacks in the U.S. NAJASO implemented an aggressive recruitment of small businesses for affiliate member status. Constitutional reform saw Bermuda added as a NAJASO member, a controversial initiative regarding sovereignty, honorary status, and full membership. Mrs. Byron-Meade also showed strong financial and legal management in the face of fiscal and legal challenges, a timely action as the Marcus Garvey Heritage Foundation evolved from the prestigious Marcus Garvey Scholarship Fund.
- Mrs. Catherine Tomlinson, NAJASO’s sixth president in the third decade from 2005-2009, began her tenure in a strong U.S. economy with donations to Basic Schools in Savanna-la-Mar and Linstead, infirmaries, the CCCD, and Maranatha Care Centre in St. James, Jamaica. This was a time with an unprecedented number of white paper presentations at NAJASO conventions encouraging entrepreneurism and business ventures between the USA and Jamaica. One proposal submitted to the Ministry of Education in Jamaica on May 21, 2007 was the Alfred A. Rattray and Collin B. Bennett Learning Corridor Centre (Vocational Training Center for Inner City Youths and Adults) at 179 Orange Street, 2nd Floor, Kingston, Jamaica. The training space was donated by Mrs. Winifred Bennett, wife of the Hon. Collin Bennett, first NAJASO President. By 2008, in President Tomlinson’s second term at the start of NAJASO’s fourth decade, the U.S. would experience one of the worst economic recessions in history. Suddenly, NAJASO members left the organization as individuals lost their jobs or firms closed their businesses. This was a tough time for inter and intra-connectivity as NAJASO worked with its members for sustainability.
- In the fourth decade, Mr. B. Roy Davidson, NAJASO’s seventh and current president from 2009-2013, mounted an aggressive campaign to reactivate member organizations. Of the 500 Jamaican and Supportive groups in the USA and the Caribbean, only 10 percent were active members of NAJASO in 2009. NAJASO’s new membership drive now offered life membership for 30 founding members, challenging them to recruit at least five new members in one year, while re-activating former members and seeking new membership, thereby ensuring a doubling of the portfolio by 2012. Mr. Davidson also introduced the following initiatives: established the NAJASO Young Professional Group with a national Chair in the USA and representatives in Jamaica, Eastern Caribbean, Bermuda, and the Southern Caribbean Region empowering them for Jamaica’s development; introduced the NAJASO National Public Relations /Media Chair to market and promote NAJASO; created the NAJASO National Ambassador post to share Goodwill; created an accounting system using Quick Books Pro; facilitated NAJASO’s Board of Directors’ voting of the Marcus Garvey Heritage Foundation as Life Member of NAJASO; formed the NAJASO President and NAJASO Distinguished Awards for the Caribbean and USA to recognize NAJASO Presidents and Presidents of member groups for their service and grass roots leadership in commemorating Jamaica’s 50th Anniversary of Independence.