'It just reminds me of back home': From Ghana to Las Vegas to Peoria, this immigrant is in love with River City
Last week dozens of newcomers to the Peoria area gathered at Cyd's in the Park for a "Peoria Transplant Party," an event celebrating the city's new residents.
David Aduama Jackson was one of the hosts of the party.
He's the communications manager for the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council, a nonprofit focused on attracting businesses and residents to the Tri-County area.
Originally from Ghana, Aduama Jackson moved to Peoria from Las Vegas earlier this year. Though central Illinois is a place he never expected to live, he loves the region with all his heart – and hopes his story inspires others to love Peoria, too.
‘I want anything to do to have an impact’
As a young boy growing up in Accra, Ghana, Aduama Jackson watched journalists on CNN fearlessly reporting news from around the world.
Though his parents wanted a different career for him, Aduama Jackson studied at the Ghana Institute of Journalism. But he quickly realized practicing journalism in Ghana was not what he expected.
Journalists in his country made little to no money and were often paid directly by public relations teams.
“My role models I was looking up to were Anderson Cooper, Christiane Amanpour. I didn't have a local hero,” Aduama Jackson said. “It’s so strange. I was sort of disenchanted by the standards in my country at a very early age. I always felt like my competition was not local. It was always going to be international.”
Toward the end of college Aduama Jackson's had a chance meeting that would change the course of his life.
He became close with the British founder of Esoko, a company that uses SMS messaging to provide market prices, weather forecasts, agronomic advice and more to smallholder farmers in Africa.
Aduama Jackson's first assignment was meeting a pineapple farmer who, after working with Esoko, was able to bring his earnings from $300 per acre to $3,000 an acre.
The farmer was able to re-roof his house and send his son back to school.
“Honestly, that was my turning point,” he said. “There's so many things wrong with how development work is done, and how nonprofit work is done. But like, finding the stories, and seeing the impact, even if it's just one life … how it trickles down to generations … It was incredible. And so at that day, I was like, ‘I want my work to have an impact. I want anything I do to have an impact.’”
After working for Esoko for a few years, Aduama Jackson was hired in a communications role for U.S. Aid's West Africa Biodiversity and Climate Change project.
From 2016 to May of 2019, Aduama Jackson traveled to 15 different countries throughout West Africa and beyond. He told stories related to wildlife trafficking, deforestation, coastal weather issues and more.
It was not a coincidence that Aduama Jackson sought work for British and American nonprofits.
He was one of few openly gay men in Ghana. Though the country was one of the more tolerant of West African nations, he could still have been fired for being gay.
“Growing up, I was bullied a lot. I was bullied a lot because I was skinny, I was feminine,” he said. “I decided, you know, I am not going to let the world win. So I told myself, I'm really just going to live my authentic self. My first boss, Mark Davies, was British … He was not going to fire me because I was gay. I knew I when was working for U.S. Aid project, I was not going to get fired because of my sexuality.
“…Yes, my African colleagues would have a problem if they should find out and they'll treat me differently. But I told myself, I was going to live my authentic self. I wasn't going to let someone's opinion about me stop me from living life fully.”
‘Everyone that knew me … felt like I wouldn't survive in Peoria’
In 2019 Aduama Jackson moved to Las Vegas.
He worked remotely for US Aid for six months and eventually took local marketing jobs.
But his felt Nevada was not going to be the place where he'd achieve his American dream.
“I was so frustrated, being in Vegas, because like I said, ultimately, I wanted my work to have some sort of impact,” he said. “The job I was doing, they'll come to you and be like, ‘Make sales, make sales.’ Like, I'm not a salesperson. I'm not your average marketing guy where I'm thinking about the bottom line. I'm telling stories to make an impact.”
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Feeling lost, Aduama Jackson applied to communications jobs in New York City and Chicago.
“I knew I wanted to work in development,” he said. “I want to build a career in development and nonprofit work, to tell stories. To tell stories of the marginalized, tell stories about organizations that are doing great things to improve people's lives, and to improve a community. To improve a region. To improve even the life of animals and trees. Like, that's what I wanted to do. Vegas wasn’t a great fit for that.”
Unfortunately, Aduama Jackson kept being passed up for jobs by American nationals. Then, one day, he stumbled upon a job ad on Indeed.
The Greater Peoria Economic Development Council was hiring a communications manager.
Aduama Jackson applied. After one interview he had an offer.
Though he knew nothing about Peoria, something in Aduama Jackson's gut told him to take the job.
Sight unseen, he signed a lease at the corner of Knoxville and Forrest Hill. And in May of this year he moved.
“My friend who moved from Vegas around the same time, was in New York, was always telling me, ‘Come to New York … Oh my God, you're so fabulous. You should be in New York. Why are you in Peoria?’” he said. “Literally, everyone that knew me, and knew like sort of my personality and my lifestyle, felt like I wouldn't survive in Peoria. Felt like I will be bored out of my senses.”
Aduama Jackson says his friends couldn't have been more wrong.
“I’m having fun in the place that I actually live in, and I can afford to have fun,” he said. “And for the first time in my life, I've actually made friends in the States.”
‘We are our own ambassadors’
Many things about Peoria surprised Aduama Jackson.
He unwinds at Diesel, a nightclub where drag queens perform in front of rainbow flags. He's met fellow immigrants from all over the world.
He assumed he'd have to drive to Chicago to find ingredients for "fufu," one of his favorite African dishes. But he quickly found a local supplier of fufu powder.
And though he is a minority in more ways than one at work, he feels empowered to share his ideas.
“Hiring an immigrant … hiring a Black person to take on the communications of the EDC … it says a lot about this region,” Aduama Jackson said. “Everyone has been sweet to me. … The community is great. It just reminds me of back home because like, this is what I'm used to. It's like people care about you. People want to get to know you.”
Peoria is a place Aduama Jackson feels proud to live – a place he genuinely wants to improve through his work. He can’t wait until his mom visits so he can show off Grandview Drive (if the timing works out, the Peoria Riverfront Market is a must-stop on the tour, too.)
Aduama Jackson hopes his affection for Peoria inspires longtime residents to feel proud of their community and work together to overcome the region’s challenges.
“There's this story of resiliency in Peoria … I think people that live, you have probably forgotten about how resilient you are,” he said. “Peoria used to be the whiskey capital of the world. And Prohibition really ruined everything. But still, Peoria got back up and built something of itself by being a manufacturing hub.
“… Yes, Caterpillar moved [from] here, and I think the region is still in shock from that happening. But we should also remember that something similar happened to us in the past, and we overcame it. We became known for something else. We will get there. As a region, as a city, as a community. We will get there. It's just that we are not there yet. We are on our way. We are on the path.”
“… But there are a lot of things we need to celebrate. I honestly think we should just love this place. Because I love it. And I know a lot of people love it. So we should love this place, and be proud of it. When someone goes, like, ‘Eww, Peoria.’ … Tell them, ‘No! I love living in Peoria! These are the great things…’ We are our own ambassadors. We need to tell our own stories and not let the outsiders tell the story for us.”