Watch this interview on The Voice of Africa TV
TVOA: Welcome to the voice of Africa today. We have a very special guest with us, Dr. Menna Demessie, Senior Vice President, Policy Analysis & Research; and the Leadership Institute. Please tell us why you started in your field.
Menna Demessie: I started in my field actually as a political scientist to explore how African immigrants might be politically mobilizing in the United States and how members of Congress are representing their interests and this came out of my passion to uplift the African Community and understand what it means to be a child of African immigrants. I originally started with questions around voting trends of African immigrants in the United States because of how racial data is collected in the United States. There is not an opportunity to look beyond race to understand the different black ethnic groups and how they mobilize around issues. What issues do they care about? And why? Where do they live? Have they lobbied? Have they run for office? So that was what sparked my interest in the beginning to pursue this field and of course, with the election and re-election of President Obama, much of the world has woken up to the fact that black people are not a monolithic group in the United States and we say it’s a land of immigrants it really is and that also applies to black people in the United States.
TVOA: What have been some of the strategic aims/goals of the Foundation?
Menna Demessie: We have three goals: to develop leaders, inform public policy and educate the public and our mission is to advance the global black community across all policy priorities that end up marginalizing black people. Most of what we focus on is in the United States concerning domestic policy, but we also do work in a global space so it is very rewarding, and that the CBCF would not have existed if the Congressional Black Caucus did not exist. So to my earlier remarks about this Legacy Global Summit for Africa conference this potential and actualization of groupthink for black people who have often operated for group interest as a proxy for self-interest is a very real thing that has had amazing consequences for advancing communities of color particularly African and African-American communities both here in the United States and abroad.
TVOA: What is your ideal roadmap for anyone wanting to follow in your footsteps?
Menna Demessie: I would say, first of all, follow your heart because what you’re good at you’ll likely be great at and there is no one way to affect change, oftentimes we look at a resume and it looks like it was all figured out, it wasn’t. I like to say I’m still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up but in all seriousness, it is true that I didn’t know I’d end up this way. I just knew that I had a passion and I tried to work very hard and be open-minded to opportunities because networking is a huge part of getting to where you want. It’s not just being in a room studying books and getting good grades, it’s being in the right place at the right time and you can increase your probability of doing that by getting out there meeting people who look like you and who don’t look like you and being true to yourself, which means you explore things out of the traditional nature. So I was expected for all intents and purposes as a child of African immigrants to become a medical doctor and I thought that was what I was supposed to do. Although it bothered me that I was not feeling as passionate about biology and chemistry as I was about law, economy, and politics and I had to go through the rhythm and row of understanding in college that it wasn’t for me, even if it was well-intentioned that wasn’t for me. So I switched to studying economics, there is no perfect path, and a lot of people that make it to where I have or others have often had to go through some trials and tribulations before getting there. It didn’t all just workout, if you’re interested in Africa and investing you don’t have to be a political scientist or economist, or even a business person. I mean you can do it in many ways, you could be a teacher, you could go to live in Africa. You could create your organization. It could be a nonprofit that helps support trade and investment or startup businesses on the continent and there are so many ways to engage so it’s good to be imaginative about that and be confident about exploring and trying new things.
TVOA: What do you envision for the relationship between Africa and the diaspora?
Menna Demessie: I envision a return to our roots because our roots explain how we got this far amid people that lived and breathed to make sure we didn’t move on and get ahead. I mean I’ve often talked about the concept of Freedom and Justice in the United States which were big Ideas that were never made real when Africans first came to this country as enslaved Africans and the fact that our people imagined creatively, ideas of liberation, equality, the abolishment of slavery before it was ever realized, that’s what I mean by sort of powerful-like dreaming made real. If they did not dream and feel that they could conquer their dreams, we would not be liberated and the pan-African congress has convened the concept of the Africa Union itself. This is so inherent in our culture to think about the community that we should not stray from that. Oftentimes we feel like we have to do something new and different, you don’t have to do new and different if what is old and the same has been working well for you and African people.
There is so much power in the collective and we’ve seen that get us to where we are now so that I want us all to be honest about how race and racism continue to marginalize our people here in abroad. I want us to be honest about the repercussions of colonization in Africa and slavery in the United States and understand that any forces that are trying to divide black people are a consequence of a divide-and-conquer strategy because I get goosebumps when I think about the last scene in Black Panther, that whole movie was revolutionary because it highlighted that if we all just went back to our roots we could take over. So when you hear Ambassador Dr. Arikana Chihombori Quao talk about The Wakanda Villages that she imagines happening in Africa where they’re self-sustained, these are things that can happen, and actually, they did happen. Our ancestors had to rebuild from nothing, stripped of everything they knew and had, and having to start over again. I mean the decolonization of Africa is not that long ago. I mean Ghana was first in 1957, that’s not that long ago. The Civil Rights movement in the United States was not that long ago. So, there are examples where sometimes we talk about Historic Acts or legislation and isolation of context and I always have to give credit to my advisor, Dr. Hanes Walton who was the first black man to get his Ph.D. in political science at Howard University and all his books in political science created the subfield of black politics and it allowed us to understand the moment like we’re in the middle of figuring out who the next president of the United States is going to be but we have to understand why it’s such a problem.
Like why are people going crazy? Why is Trump here after Obama? that political context is important. Why is the person who started the birther movement, the president after President Obama? How did that happen and why? These are things that we have to unpack. So, I just think it’s really important that we understand the role that institutions that are for liberating black people are just as important as any other mainstream westernized or Eurocentric institution that has a lot of power in the capital, look at the African continent of Free Trade Agreement, no other country in the world was going to encourage an agreement like that except for Africa for Africans is not in their interest to have African people join Hands Across borders in this way. Some forces don’t want things to happen. But then when these things happen they want to profit from it. So we are the ones that are going to give credibility to institutions like ECOWAS and AU and all of these African, heads of state that have been working together as a United Force against oppression, those things cannot get lost. So when you talk about AGOA, it’s not like the US had an epiphany and decided that Africa can now be a trade partner. Go back to apartheid, it took 15 years over Reagan’s veto to divest from South Africa. Why? Was it because the United States just realized that apartheid was wrong? No, it was because members of the Congressional Black Caucus again who thought about the group interest of their African brothers and sisters abroad like Congressman Ron Dellums another person who co-founded Congressional Black Caucus. They sponsored the legislation that ended up passing in 1986 with the comprehensive anti-apartheid act that was because of black people in the United States who were fighting for civil rights, not just for African-Americans in the United States but on behalf of us abroad. Those stories get lost and then we kind of give credit to people who don’t deserve it and then we dismiss the value proposition and the currency of our institutions that we created to liberate ourselves. And so the AU becomes very instrumental and we have to hold the AU accountable but it makes us realize not to keep those entities on the side but make them the central part of Africa’s Destiny.
TVOA: Can you tell us your thoughts about the Legacy Global Summit?
Menna Demessie: I love Dr. Remi, I love her energy. I love her vision. I think that a lot of this is around congregating the right people who are thinking in similar ways about Africa’s development and growth. And this has been an extraordinary conference in the middle of a global pandemic. She is right there making things happen so that we stay connected because Africa needs us and we need Africa and the players must be at the table to define the moment and strategize on how to make it better. So I appreciate having this kind of conversation around investment and trading capital and as I mentioned giving my remarks at the conference.
I appreciate spaces to allow for people like myself who come from a political science background to have a role in these discussions. It’s really important. I a similar event a couple of years ago when the prime minister of Ethiopia came to power, Dr. Avi Ahmed. The state department in DC had a huge conference but it was focused primarily on Ethiopia’s kind of emerging market economy in light of the new prime minister and I was in the room with maybe 500 other people and it was again celebration, excitement, discussions about U.S.A investment in Africa and a lot of us who identify with the country and the people and the politics understood that this needed to be sustainable and that nobody in the room was talking about political stability. I asked a question and both the US ambassador to Ethiopia and the Ethiopian ambassador to the US were on the panel and I said, this is a great moment, but I don’t hear anyone talking about how any of this economic trade and growth potential will be sustainable with the potential for political instability and the reason we’re even in this room excited about Economic Opportunity is because of the shift in political leadership, but we wouldn’t even be talking about economic growth if we were in a different scenario so how do we have those conversations? How do we facilitate a healthy politically stable environment that allows for economic growth?
I love that I can be part of this conference and have those conversations at the Legacy Global Summit. I think there’s a lot of potentials and it’s a reminder that we don’t need to wait for anybody to have an impact. We have to legitimize our own spaces to understand how we can leverage our power in these ways. And this is where the diaspora becomes incredibly important so I hope that other entities and groups of people will continue to value our voices and work with us because we have a comprehensive outlook on what Africa needs because again if you have capital you have choices and the way the capitalist system works, it doesn’t require you to think about the masses. You don’t have to, so when we talk about, ‘Oh, it’s great that our friend just opened up this business and is making so much money and living in a huge mansion while tens of millions of other people are not.’ Who is that success for? We cannot force people to invest in certain sectors, but what we can do is provide incentives, government incentives, policies, data information that helps business investors understand and even trade partners in other countries understand where the gaps are so that we can diversify our investment. This happens all the time.
You can get tax incentives to implement State-based policies. Some states would implement otherwise you can create incentives for investors to come and invest in profitable even profit-driven shelter homes or schools, libraries, and health facilities. I mean it can be twofold that you benefit personally, but that it also benefits society but that information needs to be shared. We have to collect better data to understand what the needs are. A lot of African diaspora means we give back and formalize remittances. We spend hundreds of billions of dollars that go back to Africa and that potential is huge and we need to formalize it in the way the African Union is doing with the Free Trade Agreement. We also have potential, that’s essentially what we try to do and are trying to do with the Ethiopian Diaspora trust fund. We didn’t wait on anybody. It was all volunteer-based and we raised six million dollars from 25,000 Ethiopian diasporic people all around the world, and we created our institutions to do a request for proposals from businesses and organizations residing in Ethiopia—that was one of our requirements. They have to be based in the country and that we would fund them so that they could do the work that they’re doing and I referred to it as the first modern-day mechanism of formalized remittances for Africans by Africans. That’s that and I hope this model gets spread across the continent.
TVOA: Thank you very much.
Menna Demessie: Awesome. Thank you, so much appreciated