Naquetta Ricks was 13 years old when three soldiers came to her family’s home in Monrovia, Liberia, searching for her mother’s fiancé, a government official.
Elected in America
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"They held my mother at gunpoint for over two hours while my sister and I watched," Ricks said, cringing at the memory. The soldiers found the official, Cyril A. Bright, hiding in the house and, after interrogating the couple in the driveway, tossed him into the back of a pickup truck.
"By the grace of God, really, they left my mom and they took off," Ricks said.
Mother and daughters hurriedly packed a suitcase and fled to a relative’s home. Bright and 12 other deposed ministers were later tied to poles on a Monrovia beach and shot by a firing squad — casualties of the 1980 military coup.
Within two months of the interrogation, the family escaped to the United States and joined relatives in the western state of Colorado.
Ricks, 54, is now a lawmaker in the Colorado General Assembly, elected in November 2020. A Democrat, she represents the 40th District just east of Denver, including Aurora, the city where she grew up.
Hers is one of the most diverse districts in a state where almost one in 10 residents is foreign-born — mostly from Latin America, with Asians and Africans following — and another one in 10 has an immigrant parent.
Ricks is the first Black immigrant elected to Colorado’s Statehouse. A mortgage broker and co-founding president of the African Chamber of Commerce of Colorado, Ricks said her decision to seek public office was influenced by the struggles of "coming here as an immigrant."
"When we came, my mom applied for political asylum, and we were not able to prove our case" that Liberia’s political turmoil posed personal risk if they were to return, Ricks said. "But, you know, we're not lawyers. We were not able to defend ourselves in court."
Route to citizenship
Rick’s family found a pathway to citizenship in 1986, when then-President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act. The law not only tightened enforcement but also made unauthorized immigrants who had arrived before 1982 eligible for amnesty. Ricks became a U.S. citizen in her early 20s.
In June 2021, she stood by Governor Jared Polis as he signed legislation that she helped sponsor making Colorado the first U.S. state to establish a legal defense fund for low-income immigrants facing deportation.
"It will help immigrants like my family who came here, who did not have a lawyer," Ricks said, recalling her late mother, Mariam Eudora Ash.
This session, Ricks also successfully championed several other pieces of legislation aimed at accelerating the growth of small businesses, diversifying the ranks of Colorado’s teachers, and establishing a pilot project for renters to build credit history and improve access to loans. The measures’ passage was smoothed by Democrats’ control of both legislative chambers and the governorship.
"What I see from Representative Ricks is a ton of work to represent her constituents, and especially those who are often forgotten in the political process," said Michal Rosenoer, the former head of Emerge Colorado, part of a national organization that has trained Ricks and other Democratic women to run for elective office.
"It speaks to the importance of having people who can understand the problems of their community in positions of power to change those circumstances," Rosenoer said.
Ricks said she never set out to become a politician, but politics "does run in my blood" and extended family.
Her paternal grandfather, John Henry Ricks, had been a state representative in Liberia "before I was born," she said. Her maternal step-grandfather, General Glakron Gblodell Jackson, was superintendent of Bomi County and was killed after ousted politician Charles Taylor launched a rebellion in late 1989 that brought years of civil war and a quarter-million deaths.
"When Naquetta said she was going to run, I smiled because I said she was going to take Papa’s place" in politics, said Adriana Henderson, Jackson’s daughter and Ricks’ maternal aunt.
Henderson lives in Aurora outside of her niece’s district, so she couldn’t cast a vote of support. But she is a fan.
"When I went to her swearing-in (ceremony), I was so elated," Henderson said. "I am very proud of her. … Coming from our little African community, we try to uplift each other."
Ricks describes herself as "a person of faith," baptized at 13 as an evangelical Christian in Liberia.
"I keep praying. I fall down, I get up," she said.
Ricks’ faith sustained her through two unsuccessful bids for public office — the University of Colorado Board of Regents in 2014, and the Aurora City Council in 2017 —– and when she ran for the Assembly seat. She was the underdog, challenging a Democrat who had party leaders’ support. But Ricks enlisted friends and associates to assist with campaign outreach. In the general election, she claimed 59% of the votes.
A handful of Ricks' backers, mostly immigrants from Africa, gathered one June morning at Endless Grind, an Ethiopian-owned coffee shop in Ricks’ district. Among them were a Cameroon-born health worker who organized a COVID-19 vaccination clinic; a local businessman who promotes African culture; a Nigerian pastor; a Kenya-born policy analyst interning at Ricks’ office; and the U.S.-born executive director of the African Chamber of Commerce.
Kabongo Serge-Patrick, a Congolese-born chef, said he was "the first to jump in the line" to gather signatures endorsing Ricks. With her election to the Assembly, "Now we have a voice to see how we can prosper here in America," he said of African immigrants.
On a driving tour of her district, Ricks strolled outside Aurora Central High School, where she arrived as a shy freshman. Then, she was one of few students of color. Now the school’s 2,200-some students are a widely diverse mix, predominantly Latino. The public school system reports its students speak in more than 160 languages.
A banner near the entrance declares the high school’s ambition "to graduate leaders who are self-aware, locally active and globally engaged."
Ricks embraces those ideals. Aside from her work in the Assembly, she continues advocating for entrepreneurs and small businesses through the African Chamber. She has brought investors to Liberia, hoping to create opportunities for them, as well as "to incentivize people to create businesses" and jobs in the West African country, she said.
She has looked out for her home country in other ways. When the deadly Ebola virus swept into Liberia in 2014, Ricks "was on almost all the radio stations soliciting materials," said Daniel Moore, a past president of the Liberian Community of Colorado. "We were able to ship a containerload of medical supplies and food items."
Two years later, Ricks created a nonprofit foundation to support socioeconomic empowerment of Liberian youth and women. "I’m passionate about helping young people reach their full potential," she said.
In Colorado, Ricks’ legislative efforts are getting recognition. In October, the Colorado LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce honored her as Government Official of the Year for advocating "inclusion and diversity within the larger business community." The state’s Independent Bankers Association and nonprofit housing group Habitat for Humanity both awarded her for championing the legislation for the pilot program to help renters improve credit scores.
In the next legislative session, Ricks anticipates more work on consumer protection, education and immigration issues. She emphasized that she works on behalf of all her constituents.
"I do talk a lot about underserved communities and underrepresented communities," she said, "but I care about all of my community. … We do have the same needs, whether it’s education, health care, you know, financial opportunities, jobs, small business. We all want a place that's functioning, where we can all thrive and grow."
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Naquetta Ricks' opponent in the Democratic primary for the Assembly seat. He was neither the incumbent nor African American.