By: Samuel M. Gebru
June 24-30, 2010
On Thursday, June 24 I departed Boston, Massachusetts for Washington, D.C. to attend the first annual 2010 Ethiopian American Youth Initiative Conference. EAYI’s Conference was designed to “do what other Ethiopians have not done, which is to act” as I fondly have said in the past. The 2010 EAYI Conference was hosted at the Howard University Blackburn University Center, thanks to the unflagging support of Vice President Barbara Griffin, Chief of Staff Keith Miles, Blackburn Director Roberta Mcleod-Reeves, Professors Mbye Cham and Alem Hailu.
I arrived to the District of Columbia on Thursday in the late afternoon. Howard University Professor Alem Hailu hosted a networking dinner for some of his students and me at U Street’s Almaz Restaurant. The students were a Nigerian, an Ethiopian and an Eritrean. Joining us was Ethiopian American organizer Andrew Laurence. The abundance of intellectualism we discussed could never, sadly, be put in concrete words in this article. It would take me hundreds of pages in a book to capture the deep Pan-Africanism exhibited at our six-person dinner.
The necessity to involve youth as change agents beyond the Ethiopian scope was discussed. Ethiopia is not an island, however its people have developed a mental state of being that will not help progress the Horn of Africa or the African continent. I emphasized the necessity of having youth leadership forums for Africans in Africa and in the African diaspora. Likewise, Professor Alem’s Doctoral students emphasized the need for the Ethiopian American Youth Initiative to include other African organizations—civic, cultural and youth—in our conferences.
By the end of a few hours at Almaz Restaurant, our enriching discussions provided me with an encouraged vision for the youth of the African diaspora, which encompasses the Caribbean, African Americans, African Europeans and whomever else. Although Ethiopia lit and sustained the torch of African unity, it has backtracked in recent years from its continental and global leadership. Our six-person dinner did not offer the clear-cut solution to address our people’s sliding leadership, but it paved the road for us—the youth—to answer it through dialogue.
On Friday, June 25 I spent the entire day preparing for the weekend’s activities. In the afternoon I spent a few hours at Howard University finalizing arrangements with the Blackburn University Center’s Director, Roberta Mcleod-Reeves, who has the pleasure of being known as an “Honorary Ethiopian” as she fondly lectured me of her involvement with our community. I assured her that it is my wish to continue a relationship with Howard University as it further enhances the Ethiopian-African American experience. It is, after all, incumbent on my generation to further the relationship we have with African Americans—and on their side, it is incumbent on our peers to do so too.
Later in the evening Nahom M. Beyene, a dear brother of mine, arrived into the city. We spent the night together dining at the 2010 EAYI Conference’s preferred eatery, the Queen of Sheba at 9th & P Streets. Its owner, Ethiopian singer Embza Sebhatleab, was the only Ethiopian American restaurant owner that was receptive to our wish of using a restaurant for our social networking dinner on Saturday. Nahom is an esteemed former President of the Ethiopian Students Association International and currently is a Doctoral student at the University of Pittsburgh.
In our dinner, Nahom and I further discussed the necessity of working together to achieve the shared interests and visions that Ethiopian youth, students and young professionals have in transforming our homeland. We have much in common and share many interests when it comes to empowering our peers for community leadership. Over the past year, young Ethiopians have been contacting me from all over the world advocating for unity in our disenfranchised communities. I recognize that extremely hateful partisan groups that are self-proclaimed “nonprofit corporations” have poisoned the Ethiopian diaspora. Recognizing this and hearing the demands of my peers, it would only behoove us to work together to collectively address whatever problems are of priority in our communities and countries.
On Saturday, June 26, dressed in Ethiopian traditional clothing, I made an early morning arrival at Howard University. Soon enough, very important young visionaries began to arrive at the Blackburn University Center hoping to learn and be inspired. Sadly, United States Congressman Michael Honda (D-CA), Chairman of the U.S. Congressional Caucus on Ethiopia and Ethiopian Americans, was unable to join us. The Congressman had to fly to his state to attend to important legislative activities. As I was introducing his Legislative Correspondent and Executive Director of the Caucus, Ahmed Bhadelia, I jokingly said it was good to know that a Congressman is actually hard at work for his constituents.
Congressman Honda’s message to us was that of encouragement. As a former teacher, a Japanese American and now as an elected official, he knows the importance of youth involvement and civic engagement. He praised the Ethiopian American Youth Initiative as a venue for public discourse and social responsibility to happen. In addition to the Congressman, world-renowned Ethiopian academician and elder, Professor Ephraim Isaac delivered the Keynote Address. On Monday, June 28, the Initiative published a Press Release entitled “Young Ethiopians Unite for Action” and I believe that it captures well what Professor Ephraim taught us on Saturday morning:
Professor Ephraim Isaac of the Institute of Semitic Studies delivered the Keynote Address on Saturday, June 26. In his address Professor Ephraim stressed the importance of knowledge and understanding. He stated that Ethiopia has tremendous potential to develop. Professor Ephraim reminded the audience that, “Ethiopia became a literate country 1,000 years before Europe did; but the question is whether we are behind now.”
Historic philosophy was emphasized in the address. Professor Ephraim drew teachings from Hateta Zera Yacob (Expressions of Zera Yacob), work of the Ethiopian Medieval Philosopher-Emperor Zera Yacob. He noted that Emperor Zera Yacob, in the 400-year-old Ge’ez text, advocated for gender equality and interfaith relations, topics that are now considered to be “progressive” in the U.S. The address also drew on the teachings of the Ethiopian female philosopher Kristos Semra, whom Professor Ephraim fondly called the “mother of peace” in her observation that God and Satan should solve their quarrels through peaceful means, serving as examples for humans to do so with each other.
Moving forward, Professor Ephraim advised for Ethiopians to “stop attacking each other with bad words” because it had become “Ethiopians against Ethiopians.” He also advised to not meditate for internal happiness because it “does no good” and that the importance should be to meditate for the strength to serve others. In closing, Professor Ephraim Isaac asked the delegates to act, “Preach to them what Zera Yacob preached to me and us.”
In my speech, I stressed the power of committing to action. I referred, as I often do, to what inspired—and embarrassed—me to get involved in community organizing five years ago when I was a 13-year-old 8th grade student. The lifetime commitment to action that Doctors Reginald and Catherine Hamlin displayed inspired me to articulate the need for efficient and sustainable projects that will put my peers and me in decision-making capacities. Furthermore, I stressed that no endeavor, Ethiopian or not, will ever be sustainable without involving youth.
In the evening we held our Social Networking Dinner at the Queen of Sheba. This dinner was quite reminiscent of Thursday night’s dinner at Almaz Restaurant. What was supposed to be a “social” night became an interdisciplinary strategy session! Again, the energy was for moving forward and not for finger pointing. We discussed various events and projects that our Initiative could work on. In the immediate, we decided that efforts should be given to organizing a United States-wide “Day of Service” for Emperor Haile Selassie’s 120th birthday. In organizing this, we all agreed to involve as many church, youth, student and community organizations as possible.
Joining us at the Social Networking Dinner was a multi-dynamic man who has failed to be unimpressive. Tebabu Assefa heads Media 4 Green, “a film and multimedia production, screening/broadcast portal and promotional venture, established in partnership by Mark Leisher Productions, a Maryland based film Production Company and Tebabu and Associates, a multimedia publishing, marketing and promotional network.” Tebabu, who has lived in eight countries throughout his life, currently lives in Maryland and is someone I categorize as a progressive Ethiopian adult because of his undying commitment to promote social responsibility in Ethiopia and elsewhere by using what he does best: communications, film and broadcasting. Tebabu has hosted screenings before at Capitol Hill. He fondly mentions, “I have been from the halls of Capitol Hill to the hills of Ethiopia’s coffee growing regions.”
On Sunday, June 27 I was at the Blackburn University Center again for the second day of conference programming. Professor of Sociology from the University of Minnesota, Dr. Solomon Gashaw, really wowed us all. His examination of Ethiopian history from the decline of Axum, rise of Islam to the Zemene Mesafint and modern era tied into what we were all looking for: answers to move us forward. During the discussion time, I mentioned that knowing Ethiopian history alone does not mean anything, but it is how we can use the history we have to write tomorrow’s history. Professor Solomon’s presentation stirred a discussion that lasted almost one hour.
For our session on the Ethiopian diaspora, I was excited to hear what insight Ethiopian American community organizer Teddy Fikre had to say. A lot of the discussion was also inspired from a blog article written by “Young Ethiopian,” which mentioned the urgency to discuss about issues we Ethiopians face in the diaspora, and in our case, the United States.
“What made you come here?” This was a question that was boldly asked to attendees. Bold questions require bold answers. The unanimous understanding was that we are tired of the constant rambling in our community and the power of change is invested in us, as a collective community of individuals. Instead of inspiring us, the “Professors” and “Engineers” and “Major Generals” of the Ethiopian diaspora discourage us from wanting to get involved in a highly polarized and dysfunctional community. To use the words of a Professor who attended our conference and who is in his late 40s, “It is important that we disconnect ourselves from such a dysfunctional group of individuals.” The wonderful man I was staying with, put it quite simply, “My father’s generation suffered so many traumatic events that it is unthinkable for them to ever unite on anything.”
At the Closing Plenary Session, I unveiled the new name of the organization from the Ethiopian American Youth Initiative to the Ethiopian Global Initiative. I believe it is important that we utilize the social and intellectual capital of each other for the benefit of our communities and Ethiopia. Knowledge, if used for good, will significantly transform Ethiopia. I left the attendees with one major assignment, which is to identify and research different problems in Ethiopia and our local communities so that the Ethiopian Global Initiative may begin launching realistic projects with realistic goals in September.
On Monday, June 28 I visited Capitol Hill to meet with Ahmed Bhadelia, Executive Director of the U.S. Congressional Caucus on Ethiopia and Ethiopian Americans and Legislative Corresponded to U.S. Congressman Michael Honda. My meeting on the Hill was very productive. Ahmed and I were able to update each other more on the future and current programming of both the Caucus and the Initiative. I paid close attention to how Ethiopian Americans were not using the Caucus as their tool on Capitol Hill, although it was indeed created to give us a microphone at the world’s most powerful legislature. I assured the Caucus that EGI would identify ways we could work with them in a very proactive and constructive manner.
On Tuesday, June 29 I had a morning meeting with former United States Ambassador to Ethiopia, David H. Shinn, who, although retired from the U.S. Government, serves as an Adjunct Professor at the George Washington University. Ambassador Shinn invited me to his residence for a two-hour meeting that touched a lot of topics. We discussed Ethiopian political developments, with emphasis on the recent elections; peace and security in the Horn of Africa, youth leadership as well as the state of the Ethiopian American community. Regrettably he was out of town for the conference. However, he was interested to see how our discussions over the weekend transpired. Ambassador Shinn has constantly been a friend of Ethiopia and Ethiopians and I thank him for that.
Later in the afternoon, I was invited to the United States Department of State to visit the East Africa Bureau and speak with the Ethiopia Desk Officer, Joel Wiegert. My meeting with Joel was centered on how Ethiopian and American youth could take advantage of the healthy relations between Ethiopia and the United States. I mentioned that EGI is planning to develop a program that would send United States college students to Ethiopia for volunteer and internship opportunities in their fields of study. I stressed the importance of involving the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa and the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington, D.C. for this process, particularly because it is important for them to help facilitate cultural and educational exchange opportunities between the two nations. Ethiopia and the United States have a diplomatic relationship that dates to 1903 and Ethiopians have been living in the United States since 1808.
In my discussions with the Ethiopia Desk at the U.S. Department of State and the Congressional Caucus on Ethiopia and Ethiopian Americans I have learned that Ethiopian Americans are not utilizing these very important U.S. Government resources that are at our disposal. Instead of coming with clear and proactive solutions, most of our community members approach these institutions with a laundry list of demands that are either impractical or not in their place to address. One of my goals is to position the Ethiopian Global Initiative as a valuable resource and contact for the United States Government and its Embassy in Addis Ababa.
Later in the evening I met with Mimi Alemayehou, who was nominated in March 2010 to serve as Executive Vice President of the United States Overseas Investment Protection Corporation and in June 2010 to serve as a Board Member of the United States African Development Foundation. I was meeting Mimi just a few hours after her hearing at the U.S. Senate whether to appoint her to Executive Vice President of OPIC. Mimi shared her extensive experience working in the United States Government and provided me with some important advice in moving forward, particularly with leadership. Mimi and I originally made contact when she was nominated to serve as the United States Executive Director for the African Development Bank. She is a wonderful role model that young Ethiopian Americans, particularly women interested in leadership, should look up to.
Today, June 30 I departed Washington, D.C. after jokingly being told that I took over the city in a matter of a few days. Although I have left the nation’s capital, there is much work that is ahead of the Ethiopian American community in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, home to the largest concentration of Ethiopians outside of Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Global Initiative remains committed to building a strong network throughout the United States, particularly in the nation’s capital where so many of us are.
As I write this trip report and reflect on my journey, I must acknowledge the small group of individuals that made my working trip possible and successful: Vera Outeiro, Caleb and Shanna Beyah, Nahom Beyene, Nolawi Petros, Markos Tadesse and Winta Teferi. I thank them for the confidence they have in me as a person and as a community servant. I would also like to commend the superb service of Sankofa Café and Bookstore, Queen of Sheba Restaurant, Almaz Restaurant, Yetenbi Café and Axum Restaurant.
Samuel M. Gebru is the President of the Ethiopian Global Initiative. You may read more of Samuel's articles on his personal blog.
The Ethiopian Global Initiative is an international nonprofit organization that combines and captures the social and intellectual capital of students and professionals for the transformation of Ethiopia through a new generation of socially responsible leaders. Working throughout the world, the Initiative serves as a catalyst for community-based projects to promote civic engagement and economic prosperity.