Building Bridges Home
As Ethiopia grows to become the second largest population in Africa, Ethiopian-Americans are America’s second largest diaspora. While many first-generation diaspora develop connections to their ancestral homeland, the path to finding opportunities to work and travel to Ethiopia doesn’t always seem so clear. The Ethiopian Diaspora Fellowship (EDF), founded by Rediate Tekeste, engages young Ethiopian-American professionals who want to serve, connect, and lead their community. Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng recently spoke to Rediate about her plan to build more bridges between Ethiopia and its diaspora.
What’s the story behind EDF?
I was born in Ethiopia, but grew up in Iowa. My parents moved to America for scholarships in Minnesota. For there, they got additional scholarships at the University of Northern Iowa. Iowa is similar to Ethiopia in the openness of the people. In the town where I grew up, people would leave their doors open and neighbors interacted a lot. That was the way my parents wanted to raise us in Ethiopia. The only difference in Iowa was that everyone was American.
My Ethiopian heritage was front-and-center in my household, but I also spent a lot of time visiting relatives who lived in Minneapolis, which was only three hours away.
During college, my mother took us back to Ethiopia for the first time since left. It was the first time I was in a place where everyone looked like me and knew how to pronounce my name. We got off the plane, and saw people who hadn’t seen me since I was three years old. They were crying and hugging me. It was a moment of belonging, but even as we walked around, there was still a feeling a difference. A lot of diaspora will feel this sentiment of push-and-pull, of belonging but not quite fitting in.
Ethiopian Diaspora Fellowship emerged from that feeling. After college, I went back to Ethiopia for three months and ended up staying a year in Addis and traveling all over the country as I worked for World Vision. I got to see places in Ethiopia that my parents hadn’t even seen and experience the richness of the country’s diversity, something that most diaspora don’t get to see.
After I moved back to America, I started working on a documentary film that sent me back to Ethiopia a couple of times. I just kept getting opportunities to go back to Ethiopia and be in that space in different roles.
During graduate school, my thesis was supposed to focus on how to integrate millennial diaspora back into Ethiopia. It didn’t end up working out due to the difficulties of coordinating schedules with different groups, so I ended up focusing on another topic. But I still had all this literature about how important the diaspora was to development, and I couldn’t walk away from the idea.
In August 2014, I worked with Meseret Hailu (our current Program Director) to send out a survey to Ethiopian diaspora to figure out if this is something other people would be interested in doing—in going back to Ethiopia and serving. We started off the survey thinking we’d get 200 people at most. We got almost four hundred people responding in three weeks to over twenty-three questions. It was a lightbulb moment for us. Seventy-six percent of respondents considered themselves two or more cultures. These first-generation kids really embraced the idea of a fluid identity.
We used the survey results, the work I had initially done on my thesis, and forged connections with other diaspora focused groups like Indicorps, which works with the Indian diaspora. Indicorps no longer operates, but the founder was integral to us getting EDF off the ground. We’re focused on investing deeply in a smaller group of people rather than casting our net too wide at first.
Do you think that there are other countries that have been successful at mobilizing their diaspora that Ethiopia and other African countries can look to for lessons?
We are learning from many diaspora populations – including people from older Ethiopian communities. There is this movement of African diaspora and you can almost feel the energy within us. Outside of Africa, we’ve also learned a lot from the Indian diaspora since 1 of our advisors is a leader in their space.
The point that the Indicorps founder made was that they were sending Indians back to India before it was cool to do so. Back when they started in 2000, people weren’t excited to go back to India. One of the reasons they stopped the program in 2012 because young diaspora were going back on their own.
While it’s not the reason that people started going back, it did help increase visibility. There’s a time and a place when organizations like Indicorps, and now the Ethiopian Diaspora Fellowship, are needed. When they aren’t needed anymore, we should be satisfied because it means that we will no longer have to be the bridge and it’ll be easier to just go back and forth.
Would you say it’s still difficult for Ethiopian diaspora to just move back and start a business or go back and find a job?
Definitely. I would say it’s difficult for young millennials in the diaspora to go back and find meaningful work. Despite growing up in Ethiopian households in the diaspora, there are many who don’t know the culture or language. On top of that, starting anything in Ethiopia comes with some red tape. As young, black children of immigrants, many often lack social capital at home in the United States and then abroad in Ethiopia.
Why did you decide to make EDF a six-month program?
The fellowship is trying to answer human resource capacity issues that persist even as Ethiopia develops. The second issue is the diasporic identity and the idea of “deficiency” –of not quite being enough of anything. We’re trying to shift from that view of deficiency to one of cultural empowerment. What about the bi-cultural experience is an asset? You’re a cultural translator, an ambassador who can walk into various spaces and understand the differences and similarities that bring people together. That’s the shift we’re trying to achieve.
Six months seemed practical in terms of management and experience. A few weeks weren’t sufficient, but we wanted to give enough time to create those shifts in thinking.
We sent five people last year, and two of them got full-time positions and are staying in Ethiopia. Naome, grew up in Atlanta, had never been to Ethiopia, and was minimally proficient in Amharic. Now, she’s working full-time, proficient in Amharic and loving her position.
Is that the kind of experience you’re aiming for with EDF fellows?
If it’s right for you at that time in your life, you’ll stay. We’d love for that to happen. But just because you return to the US doesn’t mean you’re not still connected. One of our fellows who returned to start a Ph.D. program actually switched his focus from business to education because of his experience in Ethiopia. We need some of those people to come back because to really foster that exchange behind Ethiopia and its diaspora, we need to have thought leaders on both sides of the ocean.
How do you establish relationships with partners?
Our first year, we established connections through people. I had met a number of people during my year in Ethiopia, and we also tapped into our network of family and friends. The second year, we obtained many current partners through word-of-mouth or through stumbling across our website. It’s been very organic so far.
Last year, we had a fellow working in education. Others worked in television, health and ICT, and youth development. This year, we’ve expanded to hospital care, public policy, and entrepreneurial development. We’re all across the board.
I once read a statistic from an Ethiopian government official that there are more Ethiopian doctors in the city of Chicago than in the entire country. That shows a clear need in the health sector, but are there other industries where Ethiopia could use diaspora support?
I personally think that the gaps that are the most visible are in marketing and communications, especially on the digital side. But when I say human capacity gaps, I don’t want diaspora to go back to Ethiopia to take over jobs or become the new elite. The advantage of the diaspora is they often have more access to information and opportunities. We place our fellows at middle-management positions so that they learn how to manage up and down, and contributing to systematic efficiency. It’s 90% about listening, and 10% about implementing.
How do you fund fellows?
We are independently funded through fundraising campaigns. Last year, we weren’t eligible to apply for grants because our theory of change wasn’t proven yet. But now that this first class of fellows has come back, we know it works. We have a lot of supportive individuals who believe in our mission.
Who is the ideal EDF fellow?
We have our requirements on our website, but broadly our ideal person is in a place in their life where they want to grow and change. They aren’t set in their ways, but they want to bring value to the table. They have to have some kind of technical skills they can bring to the partner, but also personal skills—the fellows live together. They have to be able to step up and be a leader. There are only five fellows each year, so it’s important that the people we bring embody our pillars: leadership, service, and creative storytelling.