By Rediate Tekeste, Founder and Executive Director of Ethiopian Diaspora Fellowship
The Ethiopian Diaspora Fellowship (EDF) trains young Ethiopian professionals in leadership development, service, and creative storytelling skills before sending them to Ethiopia to serve at partner organizations for 6-month fellowships. While in Ethiopia, fellows participate in peer-to-peer mentorship and use storytelling to increase their own cultural identity and become a catalyst for growth and change in Ethiopia. Our partner organizations’ work ranges from technology, education, health, gender empowerment and an intersection of multiple areas. Our vision is to be one avenue in which young Ethiopians can engage with Ethiopia in a meaningful way.
If you had asked me what being Ethiopian meant while I was growing up in Cedar Falls, Iowa, (yes, Iowa) I would have told you it meant, “eating injera, smelling like onions when my mom cooked, and having beautifully unruly hair.” The complexity of identity did not occur to me until I was 24 and I found myself accidentally living in Ethiopia. I say “accidentally” because like many other diaspora, I went to visit home and just did not want to leave. In Ethiopia, a country of 94 million people, many new things were happening, and at the same time, life moved at a slower pace. I looked around and people looked like me, but I was still a bit of a ferenge (a foreigner). The identity discovery that happens when you go back home is complex, and not fully realized until you return to the U.S. and try to acculturate again.
After extending my trip multiple times, I finally returned to the U.S. I felt very alone in my identity exploration until I started meeting young Ethiopian diaspora, Indian diaspora, Ghanaian diaspora and other young people with similar narratives and experiences. Unknown to me, there was a whole generation of bi-cultural, code switching, educated, young people! We walked the line between two cultures sometimes wishing one side would fully let us in. Our lives have always been full of decisions based on the careful balance between two cultures, sometimes an exhilarating and confusing experience.
As I built a community around this experience I was asked the same questions from young people looking to go back home – How did you live in Ethiopia? Where did you find an organization to work with? Do you know anyone I can connect with? I spoke to friends and family and helped build connections with my networks in Ethiopia. The experience of working in Ethiopia as an Ethiopian diaspora is different than the experience working as a foreigner. Consequently, it was hard to find a platform that understood and engaged our young diaspora population. With the strong support of other young diaspora with similar experiences, we brainstormed possible solutions. Before making the leap to start anything new, we wanted to do our research. We sent out surveys to young Ethiopian diaspora and we were shocked to receive almost 400 responses. Our peers answered 23 questions about their identity, education, and relationship with Ethiopia. Of the respondents, almost 84% stated they would consider a fellowship opportunity in Ethiopia, and over 90% belonged to or wanted to belong to an Ethiopian community. We discovered through the survey results that the culture our parents had instilled in us was not only alive, but it was strong. The young Ethiopian diaspora were connected to their culture and had a desire to engage in service and learning opportunities in Ethiopia. Their responses showed us that creating a structure to provide those opportunities was one solution for that demand. Ethiopian Diaspora Fellowship (EDF) was our response.
The idea of entrepreneurship never crossed my mind. The idea of stability always did. I grew up the daughter of two hard working immigrants striving for the original “American Dream,” an opportunity for an education. I say, the original “American Dream,” because a new narrative is becoming a reality from young diaspora and first generation people. With shows like Fresh Off the Boat and FirstGen (http://www.firstgenshow.com/#!whatisfirstgen/cr0k), many young people are using their experiences publicly and telling their stories in creative ways. The young diaspora are bi-cultural, we are millennials, we are informed, we are interested, we are active, and well connected. Many times we feel the push and pull of not only two cultures, but of our unconventional millennial ways. Serving this population demands flexibility and an understanding of their complexities.
Launching EDF was the beginning of an everyday adventure. Our team, our program director, our advisors are focused on providing an opportunity for fellows to increase their leadership skills, understand the importance of service, and harness the power of storytelling. These skills will make our fellows better students, professionals, and agents of change in their own future and hopefully, the future of Ethiopia.