Dalitso Sulamoyo traveled a long way, literally, to become the new C.E.O. of the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission (RPC). Originally from Malawi, Africa, Sulamoyo came to the U.S. in the early nineties to attend college. Out of all of the college applications he sent out, the first acceptance came from Springfield College of Illinois. He arrived on campus with no home, no money, and no family or friends in town. From these humble beginnings, he went on to earn a Ph.D, serve as president/CEO of the Illinois Community Action Development Corporation in Springfield, and receive numerous accolades for his work in community development and social justice. On June 1st, he took the reins at the RPC in Champaign County. I spoke with Sulamoyo this week to learn more about his background, the work of the RPC, and his vision for how it can continue to impact our community.
Smile Politely: Tell me about leaving Malawi to attend school here in the U.S.
Dalitso Sulamoyo: I came here in the early nineties. At the time, Malawi was going through a political transition. It had been under an authoritarian regime for 30 years and there were pressures to change that system. I looked at school in the U.K. and the U.S. I applied to Springfield College, a junior college, without even knowing what a junior college was. I thought it was going to take me two years to get a bachelor’s degree! When I arrived in the U.S., I spent a week or two in St. Paul with a cousin who went to Macalester College. I stayed on campus with him, experienced the college life, assuming that’s what it would be like when I got to my college. I then took the Greyhound to Springfield. The international student advisor met me at the bus station. As we’re driving to campus, she tells me I don’t have enough money to get my own place. I said “you mean you don’t have any dorms?” She says, no, we’re a junior college...we found a family for you to live with. I stayed with a family from Uganda, who I didn’t know. It was a single mother with four kids, and she agreed to take me on as well, someone who she didn't even know. I stayed with them for a semester, until my parents could send additional funds and I could get my own place. Then the Malawi currency became devalued and my parents couldn’t send any more money. I found another family in Springfield who took me in, and actually paid for my college all the way through my first master’s degree, without asking anything in return. I lived with them until I got married.
SP: So my next question might be obvious then, but what was the most difficult part of your transition to the U.S.?
Sulamoyo: Being 8,000 miles from my parents and not being able to get the resources I needed right away was very challenging. I didn’t know anyone in Springfield. Most folks when they come to the U.S., they move to a place where they have friends or family...I didn’t have that. It was really having this family that stepped in and helped (that made the difference). To this day that’s where we go for Thanksgiving and Christmas. They kind of adopted me.
SP: How has your background and experience shaped your career?
Sulamoyo: Malawi is known as the “warm heart of Africa." In spite of the challenges we have, we are very friendly and welcoming. Having moved here, I got a better sense of how impoverished we were. One of the things I initially wanted to do was pursue a career with an international non-governmental agency such as the United Nations or World Bank. However, it was very challenging to get into those types of careers. When I came across community action, it so much aligned with what I wanted to do, which was work with those in poverty. I applied to work at the assocation (Illinois Community Action Development Corporation), and I was very intrigued by this whole effort of community response to addressing poverty. I really liked being able to advocate at the the general assembly in Springfield or with members of Congress, and identifying resources for families and individuals that find themselves in the predicament of poverty.
SP: So what brought you to Champaign County and the RPC?
Sulamoyo: I always said to myself when the right time and the right opportunity came for me to do something local, then that’s what I wanted to do. This came up, and I love this community. But also, this organization is very multi-faceted. You have everything from social services to economic and community development, police training...I’m still learning it all. I find it very interesting how all of the pieces come together. I wanted to be part of community solutions and bringing all of these resources together to address the issues that we have. We have a tremendous team that has already been doing that work, and I’m happy to be a part of that team.
SP: For folks in C-U who don’t know much about what goes on here, what are some ways that community members can recognize the work that the RPC does?
Sulamoyo: The bike path is one. We also have about 12 sites, including several Headstart sites, we operate rural transportation, and we provide police training to three counties. We also operate the Youth Assessment Center, where we work with youth in our community who are dealing with various issues. We also provide financing to small businesses. We are touching every facet of this community.
SP: You actually went to Springfield and spoke to the general assembly about some of the programs here that receive state funding, one of those being LIHEAP (the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program). Can you speak about the importance of that program?
Sulamoyo: It's important in the sense that there are a lot of families and individuals who simply cannot afford their utilities. Most households pay anywhere between four and six percent of their income toward utilities. Low income families pay anywhere from 20-30 percent of their income. LIHEAP bridges that gap, and we work with the utility companies to do that. The funds go to the utility company, then households are credited on their bill. We use both federal and state funding. The state funding is generated by regulated utilities that assess a surcharge for their customers. For the last two years during the budget impasse, I was fortunate enough to be in a role where I could engage the general assembly and the governor's office to make those resources available.
SP: Do you have any further thoughts on the budget situation over the past couple of years?
Sulamoyo: Unfortunately, the folks that have been hurt by the budget impasse are the ones who don’t have high-powered lobbyists or folks advocating on their behalf. We’ve seen a lot of social services decimated as a result of not only the impasse, but the state’s inability to pay vendors that they owe money to. I hope that some group, perhaps we will do it here, will do an economic impact study to assess how folks have been affected. A lot of the news has focused on downgrading the financial rating of the state, but I’d like to see a study that shows how much further we’ve driven people into poverty.
SP: Headstart is one of your biggest programs. How vital is early childhood education to children’s success later in life?
Sulamoyo: Very very vital. There are many aspects to Headstart. A lot of folks think of it as just getting ready for kindergarten. But there is a whole socialization component to the program that also involves the families. It helps them with health, nutrition, things we may take for granted in other households. Headstart has been in place since 1964 and has had tremendous success. If you visit any of our sites, you’ll see how it’s an important part of our community.
SP: What’s your vision for the work of the RPC?
Sulamoyo: I’m very interested in how we can effectively integrate technology into what we do. Technology, innovation, entrepreneurship even; coming up with new programs that meet the needs of our community. We are working in an environment where our resources are continuing to shrink. So how can we be smart in the sense that we can even generate resources to support our mission? On the social services side, I’m interested in providing a seamless point of entry for our customers. When they come into our agency for any reason, we should be able to determine what other services we can provide to them on the spot and maximize their opportunities to become self sufficient. There are many cost effective ways to use technology for social services. Most folks have access to smart phones, including those at the income levels that we serve. I’m interested in how we develop our own platforms that we could use to engage our customers. They’d have information at their fingertips for what we could provide for them here at this agency. I can’t wait for us to develop our first app.
Answers may be edited for space and clarity. Visit the Regional Planning Commission website for more information on how their work impacts the community.