BY TODD CROW
As UNITY winds down its first convention with a new name and a new alliance partner, the organization must also look for a new executive director.
Onica Makwakwa, executive director of UNITY for the past six years, is stepping down from her position in September to take a job with an international consumer rights group.
“It’s been six years, it’s been six years,” Makwakwa said, exhaling deeply. “It’s time.”
Makwakwa became executive director in September 2006 and is the only director to have served for two UNITY conventions, held in 2008 and 2012.
During Makwakwa’s run as executive director, UNITY has gone through several changes. The National Association of Black Journalists left the organization in April 2011. In September of that year, the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association joined UNITY. Then in April 2012, UNITY board members voted to change the name from UNITY: Journalists of Color to UNITY Journalists.
“It’s not a big secret the departure of NABJ was difficult on the organization, and I think that for me personally as well,” Makwakwa said. “Recent changes have been really difficult to navigate. The name change was the most difficult one … it was a very difficult conversation for me to observe for the organization. I think that was truly the moment that I just really felt that a new type of leadership was probably needed going forward.”
Putting together two conventions was exhausting, she said.
“It takes a lot of years off of you, I think,” Makwakwa said. “But I feel good about it.”
Despite the challenges, Makwakwa said there have been great accomplishments during her tenure. In 2008, UNITY experienced record level fundraising and attendance, the NewU program was started and Makwakwa helped get UNITY new grant support, she said.
Makwakwa will become head of Africa for Consumers International, a consumer rights group. She will lead and support “the development of consumer protection and empowerment in Africa by supporting CI members in the region,” a release from Consumers International said.
“It’s not about UNITY so much as it is about me stepping up to a new challenge, a great opportunity, and going back home,” said Makwakwa, a native of Soweto, South Africa. “I came here as a student to go to Grinnell College, and I am going back home as an adult. I’ve been yearning to be so close to my family.”
Makwakwa has extensive experience working in nonprofits and fundraising. She has worked for the Black Women’s Health Imperative, the National Low Income Housing Coalition and the National Council of Negro Women.
UNITY President Joanna Hernandez will form a committee to search for a permanent replacement, but she is in talks with an individual to take the position on an interim basis.
“The thing is that we have not yet finalized things, so I am not at liberty to say who it is,” Hernandez said. “We will have someone within two weeks, in order to be able to go over with Onica and prepare them to take over. But I do have someone very qualified in mind, and who has worked with UNITY previously.”