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Colorado is growing, and that's leading to all kinds of tension across our state. Growing Pains is an occasional series looking at the various challenges facing communities along the northern Front Range.

Black, Immigrant Teen Embodies Changing Demographics In Rural Colorado

Chrisnel Akele
Stephanie Daniel
Chrisnel Akele, an immigrant from Benin, West Africa, does the Wakanda Forever salute in front of his home in Fort Morgan. He said the movie Black Panther made him proud to be African.

Chrisnel Akele's house in Fort Morgan, Colorado is undergoing minor renovations. His parents are in the process of converting the garage into a family room, but Akele has already added his own personal touch.

Hanging on one of the walls are two, big varsity sports posters. In one, Akele is wearing a black wrestling jacket. In the other, he's in a red and white soccer uniform.

"I like to call it my wall of fame," he said. "I was thinking about adding all this stuff that I had like this year, like drama stuff, like wrestling stuff, soccer stuff. Even like different little prizes that I got."

There's one more thing the 18-year-old, recent graduate of Fort Morgan High School plans to add: his homecoming crown. Last fall, he was the first black student to be crowned king.

"I'm proud of him," said Arnold Akele, his father. "I thank God that I have a good kid,"

Chrisnel Akele is from Benin, West Africa. His parents won the diversity lottery visa and immigrated to Aurora when he was 12. A year later the family moved to Fort Morgan, which is one of the state's few minority-majority communities.

Wall of fame
Credit Stephanie Daniel / KUNC
Chrisnel Akele has coined a small section in his house his “wall of fame.” He played on the varsity wrestling and soccer teams and the was the first black student to be elected homecoming king at Fort Morgan high school.

Data from the 1970 census found Morgan County, home of Fort Morgan, to be 99.9 percent white. But since then, the city has diversified greatly. In 2018, 44.8% of residents identified as 'white alone, not Hispanic or Latino,' while 'Hispanic or Latino' and 'Black or African American alone' residents accounted for 46.9% and 6% of the population, respectively.

Since its founding, Fort Morgan has attracted different waves of immigrant and refugee labor from around the world. This is due to the city's agricultural roots, said Eric Ishiwata, a professor in the department of ethnic studies at Colorado State University.

"I think there's been a lot of growing pains over the years," he said. "There's always been a handful of people within the town, longtime residents who've been doing their best to try to smooth out some of the adjustments that were needed when you have a new group coming in from different cultures and different languages."

The town's diversity is reflected at Fort Morgan High School. Almost 80% of Akele's graduating class, 155 students, were minority students. He said his friends are from all over the world.

"Some of them are immigrants, some of them are like actual like Americans here. Some of them are like black, some different races," Akele said.

This doesn't mean going to school was easy. Despite the diversity, less than 6% of the school's population is black or African American. So Akele had to deal with the prejudices of some students.

But when Black Panther was released in 2018, Akele said the movie made him proud to be African. He even wore a traditional Benin outfit to the homecoming dance.

Homecoming King
Credit Stephanie Daniel / KUNC
Chrisnel Akele was the first black student at Fort Morgan High School to be elected homecoming king. He wore a traditional Benin outfit the dance.

Black Panther helped him find his voice.

"I like stood up like you know. I am who I am, like accept it and if you can't, get out of my way," Akele said.

So, it's not surprising that Akele's favorite part of high school was the drama department. Because of acting, Akele said the whole school knew him. In his final performance, he played Patsy in Monty Python's musical Spamalot.

Akele plans to study theater at Metropolitan State University in the fall.

"He accomplish a lot. We are really proud of him," said his mother, Houefa Akpamoli. "In this town, you have to build your own personality and I'm really proud. He did it."

Colorado's population is not only growing, it's also becoming more diverse. Over the next 30 years, the number of ethnic and racial minorities will more than double. By 2050, they will make up about 46% of Colorado's population, according to state data.

Even with some of its issues, like dealing with racial hate crimes and adding prayer in schools and workplaces for Muslim residents, Eric Ishiwata said other communities can look to Fort Morgan for guidance.

"Look exactly how they were able to do this and to get to the point where we now have children of West African immigrants being homecoming king at the high school," he said.

The “American Dream” was coined in 1931 and since then the phrase has inspired people to work hard and dream big. But is it achievable today? Graduating from college is challenging, jobs are changing, and health care and basic rights can be a luxury. I report on the barriers people face and overcome to succeed and create a better life for themselves and their families.
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