Visiting Africans from 18 countries prepare to become 'transformative leaders'

(Photo courtesy of U of M) Twenty-five young African professionals studying on fellowship at the U of M, Rep. Keith Ellison at center

The University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs this summer hosted 25 young African professionals in its first year as part of the Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders. The Center for Integrative Leadership operates under the auspices of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), which the Obama administration started in 2010 to “spur growth and prosperity, strengthen democratic governance, and enhance peace and security across Africa.”

Several of the 25 fellows, who have nearly completed their six-week leadership program, recently talked to the MSR.

“This program was partially appealing to me because it has an African focus and recognizes that there is opportunity for us to learn from other Africans,” noted Danielle Manuel, the deputy for infrastructure policies and strategies in the Department of Transport and Planning in South Africa.

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There were 50,000 applicants for the fellowships, from whom 500 were selected earlier this year to come to the States this summer, explained Helawi Beshah of Ethiopia. “I’m an architect [and] work for the government” at a local university, he said. “I never had formal training and coursework [in] public management.” He expects the fellowship will help him in his plans to create publications and other media for African youth.

Ketty Ruhara, the International Leadership Foundation deputy operations director in Burundi, pointed out that since her work experience mostly has been in the private sector, “I needed to know what happens on the other side and how that private-public partnership takes place. [This] was the reason why I applied for this fellowship.”

“We started the curriculum with introducing them to tools for public engagement [and] tools for getting people into multiple small groups in a way that really helps them gather information,” explained Project Director and Humphrey School Associate Dean Laura Bloomberg. The program funding included a federal grant that the university had to match “dollar for dollar,” she added. “A substantial contribution from the university and the Humphrey School [along with] in-kind contributions. All of my time as director is an in-kind contribution.”

The fellows also visited Hennepin County offices, met with the Metropolitan Council and the African Development Center, which is located near the Humphrey School in the Cedar-Riverside area. They also attended a Fourth of July “potluck picnic” at an African immigrant’s home in Brooklyn Center, says Bloomberg.

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison earlier this month answered questions from individuals during an hour-long session at the Humphrey Center. “I have a strong affinity for international affairs and America’s role in the world,” said Ellison afterwards. “To meet young leaders who are ascending rapidly to top leadership is a great privilege.”

Regina Kpotor, a public procurement control and communication specialist from Togo, told the MSR that she was impressed with the congressman’s openness. Ellison offered his personal views on several issues both domestic and African. “Politicians in my country sometimes [aren’t open]. It’s not so easy to say what you have in your heart,” she said. “He [Ellison] tells what he thinks.”

Bloomberg called the first-year Center for Integrative Leadership a prime example of the school’s overall commitment to adult learning. “[Adults] want to learn something new, but they don’t want to be told. They want to experience. They want to apply new concepts to their own reality.”

This is even more important as it pertains to the 25 native Africans ages 25-35 from 18 countries, said Bloomberg. “They are people who will come with a lot of their own professional wisdom and experiences. The most important thing we can do is to enter into a learning partnership with them.”

Nonetheless, Bloomberg said it was challenging to ensure that the Center’s first year met the needs of the participants: “How do you get 25 people organized to do anything when they have different opinions, different ideas, different preferences? …Some are observing Ramadan and some are not.

“Personally I can’t begin to tell you what an experience this has been,” she said. “It is really eye-opening and hearting to see how serious and engaged these fellows are.”

Although she was excited to be a fellow, Manuel said she had been concerned that the six-week program would mostly consist of “how to” lectures: “how to go about [doing] our leadership in our country, how to go about solving our problems — that’s what I thought when I came here, that I was going to be lectured on how to do these things. I believe that only Africans can help African issues, and we have the ability and the capacity to identify our own course of action.

“I was actually surprised,” she continued. “We are not being told how to run our government, but instead we’re collaborating and exchanging notes. We’re exchanging experience from the different countries.”

Beshah says he likes the networking aspect: “I come from a very close community. I don’t have a lot of connections with young African peers back home. What a chance to know young people my age…”

“Just being here with 24 other people and realizing that sometimes we find ourselves as an island at home, that you feel you are the only one feeling the way you are feeling,” said Ruhara.

Elizabeth Hamupembe of Namibia said, “My expectation was that I would meet diverse, skilled people…who can share with me and I can share with them.” She and Rachel Syengo (Kenya) both work with adolescent girls in their respective countries. “We will take our ideas at the end of July to the First Lady,” said Syengo.

The participants’ culminating activity will be a presentation “about their recommendation for peace and regional security across all of their countries in Africa” at the White House later this month, said Bloomberg. “We will change the curriculum a bit because I want to make sure that this year’s fellows have a say in how we design next year’s curriculum.”

The group aspires to become “transformative leaders, a powerful, powerful network of change,” said Manual. “We’re coming up with solutions which are Afro-centric in focus. We understand our challenges and we know the assets that we have. We share some common values.”

“People are so passionate about their country and their continent,” noted Ruhara, who suggested that each fellow use what they learned to reach a common good. “I want to say thank you to the University and also to Minnesota,” she concluded. “Everywhere we went, we have been warmly welcomed.”

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    Charles Hallman's picture
    Charles Hallman

    Charles Hallman writes regularly for the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder and blogs at Another View.