Showing posts with label Empowerment. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Empowerment. Show all posts


To my 15-year-old self...

Last Thursday, October 11th, the UN and the global community celebrated, for the first time, the International Day of the Girl. This was a much needed acknowledgment of the all too common suffering, inequality and abuse imposed on girls worldwide and a tribute to their collective strength and determination. Sadly, this first celebration was marked by the shooting two days prior of Malala Yousufzai, a courageous 14 year-old girl and activist for girl's education and women's rights under the Taliban regime. She remains in intensive care and in our collective thoughts and prayers.

To support this brave girl and others like her, several of inspiring women were asked by CNN to share their response to this question: "Looking back, what one piece of advice would you give to your 15-year-old-self?" Though I was a little disappointed not to have a response from Michelle Obama or Alice Walker, I found that the most insightful advice came from the lesser-known figures. Forget my 15-year-old self, these words have their place in my life today:
"Believe in your dreams and ideals and pursue them with determination and motivation. Always find the time to do something for other people. Indeed, there is nothing more rewarding than making someone else happy." - Fabiola Gionotti, Physicist
"I have bad news for you: You're not clairvoyant. Not even a little. You have no idea how the future will unfold. But it will unfold, slowly and quickly and slowly again, in ways that you cannot now begin to imagine. So stop trying to guess what's coming next. All the effort you put into figuring out what will happen, all the scenarios you play out in your mind - they're useless. And that's a good thing. Relax and let the future arrive on its own time and in its own way. Allow yourself to be astonished." - Robin Bernstein, Historian.
If asked the same question, my advice would be simple: love yourself beyond limits, unconditionally. Looking back, I think that might have solved a few problems, eased a few passages, and assuaged many anxieties. I'm still working on it. Of course my girlhood and those of the CNN interviewees are certainly much different from that of Malala Yousafzai. However don't we all, as girls, women, human beings, need the same fundamental advice, care, support, and encouragement? What advice would you give your 15-year-old self?

Just a little brain and heart food to munch on in honor of the first International Day of the Girl....


Africa's Place in the World: Ruminations on a historic dialogue

My husband just returned home from an evening out with a group of West African friends and to my surprise, he was livid after a heated debate about Africa, its history, its people and its place in the world. Apparently the conversation, which had been cool, calm and collected, had taken a turn for the worse after his friend had, with complete confidence, stated that at a conference when asked what Africa had contributed to the world (a question I already find offensive, because it is never asked of other continents), this friend of my husband's had, with the same confidence, stood up as an African and proclaimed to his fellow conference attendees that the continent had not contributed a thing. 

The conversation that followed was full of dismissive remarks about the continent and its peoples' histories, including slavery and systemic oppression under colonial rule. That was all in the past and it is over now. It's time to move on and stop complaining and making excuses. Why can't black people ever stop complaining, this group asked. My husband said he had yelled to the point of losing his voice; for those who do not know him, he is a relatively quiet and calm guy. My husband's friend, to be fair, is a really nice, well-educated person who is a natural-born entrepreneur and has lived in the US for over a decade, without ever once returning home. 

My husband made two major points in this heated argument, yelling over the many voices of the group who debated just as passionately against him:

1. Making the statement that Africa has not contributed and, even worse, has nothing to contribute is the surest evidence you have of Africa's systemic oppression. You who believe this are the system's worst victims and your rejection of history is a rejection of your own heritage. You have to understand, acknowledge this oppression in its varied forms to be able to move forward in any sustainable, healthy way. 

2. The world as we know it has only been made possible due to Africa's many contributions, the majority of which were taken unwillingly and some of which have been freely shared. Europe's industrialization and America's economic force were built on exploited African ingenuity, labor and natural resources. But that is not all Africa has to offer - it offers a diverse set of cultures, with different values and definitions and priorities. It offers us alternative modes of living, relating to each other and relating to our built and natural environments. To deny this is to blindly accept one occidental way of life that has been spoon fed to you and deny yourself and everyone else the possibilities of countless alternatives. 

While upon his return home, my husband was still unsure of whether his points had been enough or  even heard, we continued to discuss the conversation, one I have personally heard before and know is but a continuation of a historic dialogue. There has always been some level of conflict and resentment between African Americans and other black immigrants to the US, who, upon arrival have often openly questioned why blacks in America haven't seized the opportunities of the American Dream and done more with themselves. Tinges of this historic resentment surfaced in the conversation described to me. Why can't they be more entrepreneurial? 

In our post-debate conversation, my husband and I took his argument a step further. Last week I wrote about the universal and fundamental importance of empathy. Well, it is my contention that to truly aspire to be filthy rich in this society, to make this your singular ambition and your source of happiness as so many people have,  you have to be willing to give up a certain level of empathy for others. Climbing to the top, after all, means possible slowing down, putting down, if not crushing, those beneath you. So once this trade-off has been accepted, people anticipating the imagined rewards of the capitalist system, start shedding their empathy right away. With that empathy goes indignation at mass injustice, along with acknowledged historical oppression and recognized continued systemic inequities. To become a winner, one must accept that capitalism creates winners and losers and, against all odds, maintain the winner's mentality, free from all of the baggage and inconvenience of reality. 

Sadly, I fear this is what many entrepreneurial African immigrants, like my husband's friend, do. What is most disturbing though, is that they are right to do so in order to accomplish their stated goal, because our society rewards this behavior. This reminds me of a favorite quote from the interesting historical figure of Jiddu Krishnamurti, who said that "it is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society." I couldn't have stated it better myself.

One thing that my very wise husband says often in these types of conversations is that we, as humans, like latching onto one part of something that we deem to be true and then accept the whole thing, though perhaps not wholly examined, as truth. This is true with science, technology, capitalism and so forth. Something about it works, so, regardless of its faults and its known inequities and known unknowns, we launch ourselves into it and forget that this seemingly inevitable and hegemonic system hinged, at one point, on a single choice. 

Another telling quote from Krishnamurti, "You must understand the whole of life, not just one little part of it. That is why you must read, that is why you must look at the skies, that is why you must sing and dance, and write poems and suffer and understand, for all that is life." Amen.


Do we 'have it all' wrong?

Photo by Phillip Toledano. The Atlantic Magazine, July/August 2012
Whether or not you've tuned into the recent debate prompted by The Atlantic's cover story, "Why Women Still Can't have it All," by Anne-Marie Slaughter, you are likely already familiar with this old debate: Have we reached a point as a society where women can be as successful as we want to be both in our personal and professional lives? As women, can we truly "have it all"? What surprised, disappointed, saddened and even angered many readers was the fact that Anne-Marie Slaughter, former and first woman director of policy planning at the U.S. Department of State under Hillary Clinton and tenured professor at Princeton, responded with a firm "nope."

According to Slaughter, even with the full support of a committed partner, "juggling high-level government work with the needs of two teenage boys was not possible." Once her two year term in DC was over, she rushed back home to Princeton where her family and tenured academic position were waiting. According to Slaughter, the reactions of her friends and colleagues ranged from sympathetic (oh, how unfortunate!) to condescending (maybe it's just you?). 
The typical young Generation X or Y young woman has been raised to think of her ideal future 'self' as an educated, successful career woman, with a life partner, children and a busy productive life well into retirement years. We are academics, entrepreneurs, artists, business women and we are daughters, sisters, mothers, aunties, godmothers, girlfriends, wives. We are raised to believe that these two categories need not overlap and limit each other. I'm sure many of us can at least imagine the feelings of guilt and even shame at not accomplishing what has now become a 'feminist' expectation of doing everything at once, 'having it all.' But is it so wrong to want to make compromises for a more balanced life? Does that make one old-fashioned, lazy, or unaccomplished? 

Part of what is to blame, Slaughter points out, is the so-called feminist mantra of trying to be everything and do everything, without compromise. She admits, "I’d been the one telling young women at my lectures that you can have it all and do it all, regardless of what field you are in. Which means I’d been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot)."   

Perhaps everything all the time, is not what it's cracked up to be? One of the most practical and sage pieces of advice I’ve received from one of the many professional women in my family is to plan to be ‘off balance on purpose’ in different areas and times of life. This means rather than striving to do it all, all of the time, be realistic and know what to prioritize when.

Don't get me wrong - I am not in complete agreement with Slaughter. For many women it is possible to juggle both career and family obligations. My own mother is a great example. As a high-level official within the U.S. Agency for International Development, she has managed to excel in her career and be there for me and my sister. But she was able to do so with the support of my wonderful father who, after his own career in finance and at USAID, took on the role of a stay-at-home-dad as he developed into a professional artist. While things are not always perfect in our household, my parents are my example of what a good partnership can accomplish. 

Obviously this is not the typical set-up among most couples. In her 2011 Barnard Commencement address, Sheryl Sandberg, former COO and first female member of the Board of Directors for Facebook (as of last week), noted that generally "men make far fewer compromises than women to balance professional success and personal fulfillment." She sited data stating that among heterosexual couples women do, on average, twice the amount of housework and three times the amount of childcare than their male partners. Ironically, Sandberg advised the audience of young women that "the most important career decision you're going to make is whether you have a life partner and who that partner is."

But what if we are asking ourselves the wrong question to begin with? What if instead of debating over the possibility of 'having it all' we should be discussing what 'having it all' really means? 

Oddly enough, some profound insights about life shared by Clay Christensen, a Harvard Business  scholar and an MBA favorite, may bring some clarity to this often obscure dialogue. Christensen, who has advises the leaders of many of the world's most successful companies, asks his students on the last day of class to answer a few thought-provoking questions, including: "First, how can I be sure that I’ll be happy in my career? Second, how can I be sure that my relationships with my spouse and my family become an enduring source of happiness?" These questions are, to me, much more salient than the vague notion of 'having it all,' and perhaps a better compass for success and happiness over the long-term.

In his article, "How Will You Measure Your Life?" Christensen employs six business insights and frameworks as guiding principles. He points out how people, like many companies, say they want to accomplish X and yet allocate all of their resources, including time and energy, to Y. He explains,"if you study the root causes of business disasters, over and over you’ll find this predisposition toward endeavors that offer immediate gratification. If you look at personal lives through that lens, you’ll see the same stunning and sobering pattern: people allocating fewer and fewer resources to the things they would have once said mattered most."

Clay Christensen. The guy with the answers?
In 2010 Christensen was diagnosed with cancer. He ends his article with simple words of advice: "I’ve concluded that the metric by which God will assess my life isn’t dollars but the individual people whose lives I’ve touched. I think that’s the way it will work for us all. Don’t worry about the level of individual prominence you have achieved; worry about the individuals you have helped become better people. This is my final recommendation: Think about the metric by which your life will be judged, and make a resolution to live every day so that in the end, your life will be judged a success."

While Christensen finds his own grounding in his Christian faith, I find his advice relevant in my own life, which is decidedly nonreligious. Plan your life as you would your baby start-up venture. Have a strategy and allocate your resources accordingly. Think long-term. Cultivate and maintain the relationships you need. Choose the right metrics for measuring your success and take time to evaluate yourself along those lines.

I think as women, we often get so caught up in trying to push boundaries, make statements, and live up to societal ideals and expectations, that we set aside these universal truths and quickly find ourselves lost, burnt-out, and falling far short of our potential happiness. Is 'having it all' really the 'end all be all' or do we have it all wrong?


Ambassadors for Africa: Bridging the Gap

by Ebele Ifedigbo

 A version of this post originally appeared on under its "My Journey, My Africa" section.

My Journey with Africa started as one of deep confusion and chronic discord. Like most African children born and raised in the United States, I struggled with my Nigerian status. Growing up, I was particularly perplexed as to why my parents chose to curse my life with such a weird name as ‘Ebele’- didn’t they know that people would continually butcher the pronunciation or, worse, give in to the temptation of calling me incredibly stupid nicknames like ‘Belly’?

Being the hybrid product of a Nigerian father and a black American mother only compounded my African identity struggle. It seemed like I never really fit in on either side: Africans saw me as essentially black and they tended to see blacks as lazy and uncultured; blacks saw me as essentially African and they tended to see Africa as a place full of naked tree-swinging tribes and starving babies.

Of course I had my family there to keep me grounded in Nigerian culture and values but, given the fact that I was actually raised in a black American community, I felt a lot further removed from my African identity than from my black American identity. As I got older and the desire to truly know myself set in, I became increasingly curious to learn more about Africa: I got my Nigerian cousins to teach me Igbo, I started listening to music artists like Flavour and 9ice to complement the Bob Marley and 2pac collections that had long flooded my iPod, and I took so many Africa-focused electives in college that I ended up qualifying for a minor in African Studies. But just knowing about Nigeria and Africa wasn’t enough for me. Deep down, I really wanted to understand more about the intersection of the African and black American experiences: How might we learn to find strength in our similarities while still proudly celebrating our differences? And, most importantly, how could I use my inter-sectional positioning to help bridge the deep cultural divide I’ve unfortunately had to navigate my entire life?

My passionate drive to unite my bifurcated communities has led me to create a new organization called Ambassadors for Africa (AFA). Founded in February 2012 by me and my partner Shirley Torho, AFA brings together black American youth ages 7-24 from all walks of life for a program designed to develop their global leadership capacity while preparing them for a life as advocates for meaningful and sustainable African development. At the core of AFA’s program model is our abiding belief that the black American community has been a sorely overlooked ally in the ongoing struggle for lasting African prosperity. Furthermore, we believe that exposure to the African cultural and socioeconomic milieu will empower black youth with a more complete perception of their personal identity and equip them with a more dynamic understanding of the pressing issues facing Africa-descendant communities, both in America and abroad.

After completing a curriculum rooted in responsible volunteerism & cultural exchange, social entrepreneurship, and Black & African Studies, youth participate in service trips to Africa, where they form sustainable relationships with African youth & community partners in key sectors. Upon their return to the United States, participants complete collaborative social action projects to effect change in the areas of African development most meaningful to them. Long term, AFA will serve as a critical facilitating link between AFA alumni and continental African communities and organizations, fueling and facilitating their contributions to the continent over time.

While my personal Journey with Africa has been a decidedly rocky one involving years of inner-conflict, discovery, growth, and self-acceptance, I am forever grateful because the challenging journey has led me to a place of unwavering appreciation and genuine empowerment through my African identity. Best of all, my Journey has led me to what I believe is my true life purpose. Through Ambassadors for Africa, I have the invaluable opportunity to use my bi-cultural life experience as a platform for creating a powerful and mutually-beneficial cross-continental exchange of ideas, resources, and support. The prospect of strengthening and unifying both sides of my Africa-descendant community brings me immense joy and satisfaction and I am quite excited to see where this Journey will take me next.

To learn more about Ambassadors for Africa and to join our nascent movement, please visit and 'like' our Facebook page at: or email us at:

If you would like to help us with funding (and you definitely should!), you can contribute to our Indiegogo campaign at:

Ebele is a budding social entrepreneur whose foremost passion in life is the pursuit of lasting social and economic empowerment for the black community worldwide.