SIT alum Joe Wiah honored for service to Vermont, refugees

September 29th, 2022

A man with glasses and a dark suit.
Multicultural Community Center Director and SIT alum Joe Wiah

SIT alum Joe Wiah has been recognized by the Vermont Community Foundation for efforts to “build a better Vermont” through his work with refugees and other under-represented community members.

Joe is director of the Multicultural Community Center in southern Vermont, where, as part of the Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC), a national refugee resettlement agency, he has helped to resettle more than 120 Afghan and other refugees since January through an innovative, community-based resettlement model.

On Sept. 28, he received Vermont Community Foundation’s Con Hogan Award for Creative, Entrepreneurial Community Leadership, named for a longtime Vermont policymaker and community-builder who died in 2018. In a stirring speech at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier, Joe urged Vermonters to "act without fear, engage, and perservere" to build a more equitable and diverse state.

He emphasized the assets that refugees bring to Vermont, including adding diversity to the second whitest state in the country; expanding the population of one of the nation's least populous states; and growing the economy in a state that has suffered a precipitous decline in the size of its workforce since 2010.

The Con Hogan award, which comes with a $15,000 prize, recognizes a community leader who envisions “a better Vermont and seizes the responsibility for making that vision real.” Awardees demonstrate deep community involvement, generosity, enthusiasm, a collaborative approach, and a focus on data and measurable outcomes in their work.

In an introduction, Dr. Karen Hein said Con Hogan and Joe shared "a world view that encompasses all people and a view of Vermont that embraces a more diverse, inclusive population in our brave little state."

In his remarks, Joe said, "I have three little things I ask of you today: first, educate yourselves and others about refugees and immigrants in general. Second, listen. Third, react."

"You will recognize that these are intelligent and creative people whose dreams are no different than yours," he said. "A lack of educating ourselves can prevent us from seeing the issues that have enormous impact on the people around us: the lack of equal opportunity, equal treatment before the law, equal treatment from financial institutions. When we fail to see these issues we do a disservice not only to the immigrants, but to ourselves."

Joe spoke both from professional and personal experience. Born in 1973, he grew up in Liberia in the midst of civil war. He became a refugee himself, escaping to the Ivory Coast. When he returned to Liberia, he spent seven years with Catholic Charities coordinating and supervising programs that led to the disarmament, demobilization, rehabilitation, and reintegration of child soldiers. He was also a member of the Child Protection Agencies of Liberia, which assisted with children’s participation in the Truth and Reconciliation process.

Joe came to the United States in 2009 to participate in SIT's CONTACT summer peace-building program. He returned to earn an MA in Intercultural Service, Leadership, and Management from SIT in 2013. He also holds a BA in philosophy from the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, Nairobi, Kenya, and at one point said he had considered becoming a priest.

He saw the brutality that war inflicted on child combatants and vowed to dedicate his life to creating peace and helping refugees.

Con Hogan Award Committee Chair Scott Johnson

In his current role, Joe works in partnership with state and national government agencies, SIT and World Learning, Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation, and a broad network of local organizations and individual volunteers. Through this unique community-based approach, Joe and his team have helped more than 120 Afghan refugees resettle in southern Vermont since January.

A woman and two men smile facing the camera against a wooded backdrop.
Joe Wiah, right, with ECDC Executive Director Dr. Tsehaye Teferra, left, and SIT President Dr. Sophia Howlett on campus in 2021 to celebrate the opening of ECDC's Multicultural Community Center.

In an interview with Vermont Public radio, Joe talked about why he has chosen this path. “As a young man, I had to leave my home country to go to a country that I knew nothing about as a refugee. And the Ivory Coast speaks French, not English. So the whole new language, going to another country, knowing no one, going through the UN process, finding that new life in a new country. That experience as a refugee in Africa positioned me to understand where refugees are coming from and some of the challenges they face, because I've faced them before.”

That experience as a refugee in Africa positioned me to understand where refugees are coming from and some of the challenges they face, because I've faced them before.

Joe Wiah

Vermont Community Foundation Award Committee Chair Scott Johnson said the committee was impressed by Joe's "amazing journey of persistence through setbacks and taking risks in pursuit of a vision.”

“He saw the brutality that war inflicted on child combatants and vowed to dedicate his life to creating peace and helping refugees," Johnson said.

After graduating from SIT, Joe worked with the Africa Research Project at the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children; as housing case manager for Southeastern Vermont Community Action (SEVCA) helping Vermonters access housing, fuel, food, and home repair services; and at Pathways Vermont providing outreach, case management, advocacy, and other services to unhoused individuals struggling with mental health issues and people returning to communities after serving time in prison.