When I left Ethiopia for the United States at the age of 11, I promised that I would return and give back. What a tremendous honor today to be recognized as a Champion of Change alongside a dynamic group of leaders with roots in the Horn of Africa. For the Diaspora, our engagement in social change is inextricably wedded to our lived experiences and personal connections with Africa. One of the most valuable contributions we can make to our communities is to own and tell our stories in whole, placing our work in the context of our personal narratives.
Since I left Ethiopia, I have traveled to and/or worked in approximately 25 countries throughout Africa. I have lived in both disenfranchised inner city neighborhoods and middle class suburban towns across America. I have attended underfunded ESL programs as well as the most elite Universities. Through these encounters, my sense of identity has also expanded and contracted, occupying multiple “minority” statuses as a black woman, an African among Black Americans, and an Oromo, a historically marginalized ethnic group, among Ethiopians.
As I traversed these complex layers of identities, communities, and places, I grappled with questions about the nature and focus of my contribution. Where is community and home? What is the most appropriate and effective role for me in the US, Ethiopia, and Africa? Where do I add the most value and why?Over the past decade, I explored these questions through different academic and career lenses, working with grassroots, international, multilateral, advocacy, and philanthropic organizations.
What did I learn? Identity is fluid, dynamic, inclusive, and ever-evolving. Home and community are made over time and with experience and mine are found in and between many parts of Africa and North America. As Diaspora Africans, our lived and indigenous knowledge of Africa—coupled with our financial, intellectual, and human capital—gives us a unique perspective and platform in social change. We play critical roles as intermediaries of ideas, people, communities, and institutions that do not or cannot talk to one another.
We are intermediaries of access and opportunity.I spent over five years overseeing the Africa portfolio at The Global Fund for Children (GFC), a public foundation that invests in innovative grassroots organizations that work directly with vulnerable children and youth. Examples of these trailblazing organizations include: Horn Relief, a Somali-led organization, which has addressed environmental and sustainable development issues in the Horn of Africa region since 1991; Nia Foundation, which runs the first school for children with autism in Ethiopia; and Center for Domestic Training and Development, which is working to standardize and professionalize an unregulated domestic work industry in Kenya. In this role, I was able to facilitate access to funding for African organizations that are at the forefront of social change in their communities but limited in their financial reach and networks.
We are intermediaries of culture and representation.When news of the recent famine and drought in the Horn of Africa broke, many of us in the Diaspora cringed immediately at the disparaging ways in which the region was represented. The stories and images in the media often denied subjects their dignity and humanity and focused exclusively on lack and victimhood. In response, we created HornLight.org, an online platform that promotes nuanced, diverse, and dignified narratives on the Horn of Africa.
We are connectors that can transfer and translate knowledge, skills, and resources to and from the continent.The global African Diaspora sends over $40 billion in remittances each year. We are an indispensable stakeholder and partner in African development, though we are not always visible or integrated in conversations around development, philanthropy, and policy. On the other side, throughout Africa, there are a countless number of social change organizations and ventures that are tackling the most pressing challenges in their communities through innovative programming. Although they’re engaged in transformational work, they don’t always have access to resources.
Currently, I am working with a colleague, Zanele Sibanda, to establish an organization that connects the skills and resources of the Diaspora with the knowledge and innovation of Africa-based organizations. Once launched, Africans in the Diaspora (AiD) will provide a platform for the Diaspora community to invest in and volunteer with indigenous social change organizations and ventures, thereby unleashing the Diaspora’s collective intellectual and philanthropic capital to advance sustainable social and economic development in Africa.
What inspired an 11-year old to make a grand statement about giving back? I was leaving behind friends who were eager to receive a better education, relatives who were hungry for work, and a community that wanted sound leadership. With my newfound access and opportunity, I wanted to give back to the very people who gave to me. After all, development is personal.
Solome Lemma is a philanthropist, activist, and organizer and co-founder of HornLight. She currently serves as a grantmaking program advisor at The Global Fund for Children (GFC).