Dr. Menna Demessie is the Vice President of Policy and Research for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, Inc. (CBCF), where she works on public policy issues relevant to African Americans. She is also an adjunct professor at the University of California, Washington Center.
In her latest publication, Toward A More Inclusive America: African Americans & Voting Rights, she discusses the significance of restrictive voting law changes in the context of the Voting Rights Act and recent age discrimination. Prior to joining CBCF’s staff, Dr. Demessie worked for U.S. Representative Barbara Lee as an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow focusing on unemployment legislation, poverty, and foreign policy. Her honors include the NCOBPS Presidential Award for Outstanding Dedication and
Association Congressional Fellow focusing on unemployment legislation, poverty, and foreign policy. Her honors include the NCOBPS Presidential Award for Outstanding Dedication and Service (2010), the Ginsburg Award for Community Service and Social Action (2010), the Congressional Research Award (2008), and the National Conference of Black Political Scientists Graduate Paper Award (2008).
Dr. Demessie holds a joint doctorate in Public Policy and Political Science as well as a Master of Arts in Political Science and Certificate in African American, African and Black Transnational Studies from the University of Michigan. She also earned a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and Law and Society from Oberlin College. She has been interviewed on NPR and other media outlets and currently serves on the Alumni board for the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, on the advisory board of the Diaspora African Women’s Network (DAWN), and has served as National Youth Coordinator for the Society of Ethiopians Established in the Diaspora (SEED) since 2000.
Dr. Menna Demessie in her own words
1. Being a part of the Ethiopian diaspora to me means?
Being a member of the Ethiopian community is a badge of honor I wear proudly. Home to one of the oldest fossil in the world, the birthplace of coffee, the only country to claim to have the Ark of the Covenant, the only country with unique foods like injera, home to Lake Tana – the source of the Blue Nile, home to the oldest written bible on earth, never colonized, and defeating the Italians in the Battle of Adwa and after, the site of universal black liberation, home of the Africa Union, the list goes on and on. We come from a long lineage of pride, resilience, and history, so to be part of the Ethiopian diaspora is not only a distinct honor, but a huge responsibility to ensure our legacy and history continue. Furthermore, any diaspora community is privileged to sit in between two cultures, so for me working to be a bridge builder and empower my community is almost inherent in the definition of my identity. It means recognizing the sacrifices of my parents and their generation as they assimilated in the United States and understanding that I stand on the shoulders of my parents, so that I can do my part to let my brothers and sisters stand on my shoulders, so they may have a better opportunity to pass on to the next generation.
2. What advice would you give a younger you?
I would tell my younger self that self-care is important to having the endurance and strength to achieve your dreams, especially when you’re calling is to help people. It is often difficult to slow down when you are trying to champion major problems of the day and serve the most vulnerable communities in need. However, taking time to sleep, meditate, pray, and workout is the fuel one needs when signing up for any major challenge, goal, or dream. I would also have told myself to learn about financial literacy, business ownership, and accruing capital as a key strategy to helping my community, especially the black community. Often times, we don’t think about increasing our wealth as a medium to social service impact, but I’ve come to appreciate the liberty of changing one’s community for the better in the way you want when you can be your own boss with your own stream of income.
3. What interest haven’t you pursued, but have always wanted to and what draws you to it?
I have always wanted to try out for Saturday Night Live for years! Still do! Most people know me in my professional capacity, but I am a child at heart and have always been silly. I always got away with being silly in school because I was a good student, but it’s just part of who I am. As much as my parents would get concerned about me being silly, I actually got my humor from my dad, so I blame him! However, all my friends know me for my corny jokes, loving to laugh, and taking advantage of random opportunities like trying out for American Idol in 2008. I grew up watching Martin, Jamie Foxx, Dave Chappelle, and Saturday Night Live, and I absolutely LOVE comedians. I think it’s one of the hardest and most fulfilling jobs out there. Who doesn’t want to wake up every day getting paid to make people laugh? I love it so much I would do it for free, I just need the time. I’m drawn to comedy because it brings people together from all walks of life, it’s good for the soul (actually makes you live longer!), it’s the best ice breaker on earth, a great stress reliever, and brings people together!
4. What is your favorite Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. quote?
One of my favorite MLK quotes is “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” For me, this lies at the root of one’s purpose in life. My Jewish grandfather who helped bring my parents to this country once said, “Life is not worth living if not shared with others.” I try everyday to live by this creed. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is the epitomy of self-sacrifice, humanity, universal love, justice, equality, etc. We often forget his efforts to stand for the poor, for worker’s rights, and the ways in which he was targeted for standing up against the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. He was a revolutionary, that should never be forgotten. His purpose in life was to help the oppressed see the day when they could live their true and full purpose in life. For this and so much more, I will always be indebted to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for the sacrifices he made, which ultimately benefited every single human being who sets foot or lives in the United States of America.
5. What is your message on MLK day of service for your fellow Ethiopians and Ethiopian-Americans?
My message on this day is to be just as proud of our black, African, and African American history as we are of Ethiopian history, for at the end of the day, it is all our history to love and be proud of. Black history across the globe is the history of resilience, inspiration, creativity, humanity, and sacrifice. Never let white supremacy tell you otherwise, for it exists to keep black people separated from realizing our true, unifying strength. Colonization on the African continent and slavery in America have accounted for most of our struggles with black identity, but let us never forget Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the many civil rights leaders who sacrificed their lives for not just black Americans, but for all Americans. We have a job to do to embrace our black brothers and sisters during these unstable times when our own president has referred to countries in Africa as “shithole countries.” We must never become normalized to the serious dangers affecting black and brown people across the globe and in the United States.
It is not enough to simply acknowledge MLK, but do what he would have done if he were still alive today. Remember, even President Ronald Reagan did not initially support MLK (and overturned by Congress) and was advanced because of Rep. John Conyers, the longest serving member of the U.S. Congress in 2017. It was an African American who fought for America to pause every third week of January on MLK’s birthday to recognize him as a symbol of freedom, justice, and equality. The picture here was taken on September 16, 2016, when I had the privilege of introducing Rep. Conyers on a voting rights panel and took time to thank him for his leadership in making the Martin Luther King Jr. a national holiday. May we all continue to be inspired by his legacy and more inspired to act on it!