When the truth hurts, ignorance is bliss. Especially if that bliss is wrapped in wishful thinking such as with Santa Claus, or the Tooth Fairy … or the American Dream.
Walla Elsheikh’s life started as a globetrotter. Her father was a foreign diplomat for Sudan. So before age 10, she had lived already in three countries– Uganda, Sweden and Sudan. When her her father lost his diplomatic post, Elsheikh with her parents and her three younger siblings moved to New York City.
In no time, Elsheikh assimilated into American life. She was an honor student.
“I was proud to be an American, because America rescued me and my family,” Elsheikh said. “I had no desire to go back to Africa.”
She graduated from college; got a corporate job and worked hard, with her sights on moving up “the ladder of success.”
As far as Elsheikh was concerned, the story of her Black immigrant family was an anecdote about how to achieve the American Dream. Her experience was evidence that if you grind, get an education, stay focused and …
“Hold up! Do you know what actually happened to Black people in America?” one of Elsheikh’s friends asked her one day.
“And I realized I did not,” Elsheikh recalled thinking in response. “I got the, Hey, we had slavery, fought a civil war, freed the slaves … and then, there was the Civil Rights Movement. So we’re good now, right?”
Elsheikh wanted to believe– had convinced herself, even– that life for Blacks in America was good, if you worked hard. But in her heart, she knew something was very off. She had already begun to notice weird microaggressions and disparities on the job. “There were these gaps I started seeing, like there’s not a lot of me in the workplace, especially at the leadership level.
“It made me think of all the times I wouldn’t see myself in honors classes,” she said, although her world travels had shown her no evidence that white people were smarter than any other ethnicity. “I thought back and was like, I don’t remember reading a single black author in school. Can you imagine? Like, I may have. But I don’t remember it…”
“Of course Africa was not studied,” she continued. “And then I realized that there was clearly a lot I didn’t know about Black American history– at least not the depth of the history. So all that time, I was operating with this deficit narrative.”
Elsheikh’s journey into learning and understanding as much as she could about American history, Black American history (and her own history in Sudan) went into overdrive.
What brought it home for Elsheikh was when she learned that two friends of hers of Jewish descent were getting their birthright, a 10-day trip to Israel for free to study their history and culture. “And I thought, Why isn’t this happening for Black people? I mean, I need this! If I need this, as global and worldly and as educated as I thought I was,” she said, “then a whole bunch of us must need this. I need to start a Birthright Africa!”
Elsheikh began researching and found out that the work was actually already happening in small pockets around the country, through schools and community based organizations. They were taking young people to the Continent. Still, what she wanted to build was one organization with the infrastructure and resources and tools that would provide access for every youth and young adult from the African Diaspora to go, if they wanted. And for free!
“How do we build an infrastructure and institutionalize this work so that it can really scale and provide an opportunity for everybody?” she asked herself. She wasn’t sure…
So Elsheikh enrolled in Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business to get her MBA with the intention of learning what she needed to start and manage a non-profit. Then, to ensure Birthright AFRICA had the most impact, after getting her MBA, she began working with college and career readiness organizations to better understand how to fit her mission inside and alongside existing youth development programs.
In 2015, Walla Elsheikh with Diallo Shabazz, a global education policy advisor, launched Birthright AFRICA, a heritage-based leadership program committed to providing a free educational trip to Africa for every youth and young adult, ages 13–30, of African descent.
“More specifically,” Elsheikh added, “those who are of enslaved or colonized history and who have been marginalized for being from the Continent.”
Shabazz brings decades of experience working with government agencies and NGOs in North America, Asia, and Africa and currently directs activities of the NY State PTECH Leadership Council. He also manages Braven Solutions, a strategic consulting firm that advises large organizations on multi-sector and trans-national economic and social policy initiatives.
So through collaborations, they’ve helped organize and fund so far six trips to Ghana and one to South Africa for different youth organizations around the country. Elsheikh and Shabazz hope to extend that reach soon into places like Senegal, Ethiopia, Kenya and Rwanda.
On September 29, Birthright AFRICA celebrated its 5th anniversary with a fundraiser in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. The intimate event was hosted by Cherae Robinson of Tastemakers Africa and GRAMMY® Award-nominated multi-platinum singer, producer and actor Jidenna. The gala was simulcast at Republic Bar and Lounge in Accra, Ghana.
The electricity, excitement and love around the organization’s mission was palpable. Jidenna and singer Carmen Rodgers performed, along with Ray Hodge and the Dwana Smallwood Performing Arts Center. Actor Boris Kodjoe gave a special shoutout and the afterparty lit up with afrobeats sounds by Nana Kwabena and Niara Sterling.
“I Googled Birthright Africa, because I was looking for something that connects people from across the Diaspora to home,” said Jidenna, whose father is Nigerian. “When I found out that Walla was the founder and the sister of one of my good friends, that was it! I called and got on the board.”
Before beginning his music career, Jidenna, a Stanford University graduate, worked in the nonprofit world as an educator. And so the mission-based work he’s been doing since 2018 with Birthright AFRICA is like riding a bike again after a long break– the familiarity never leaves.
And it’s a journey that is somewhat spiritual: He references his own identity connection to Papa Legba, a trickster deity whose origins trace back to the Dahomey Kingdom of Africa (now Benin). Papa Legba is a master communicator, a truth teller and a teacher that opens doors and forges new paths. Papa Legba’s Yoruba roots and significance extend all over the Caribbean, into parts of Brazil and the American South. So for Jidenna, the work he’s doing with Birthright AFRICA feels like a natural calling, and he simply understands the assignment.
Aside from sitting on the board as an advisor for Birthright AFRICA, Jidenna accompanies the youth on their trips and works with Diallo Shabazz, assisting the young men and women in their journey into adulthood.
“Before we send them on the trip, we sit down and talk to them about their own history in their communities,” Shabazz said. “We need to think really seriously about this, because it is another layer of complexity. So the first question is: How do we send people on trips? That’s what we’re solving, that’s what we’re figuring out.
“Then, how do you prepare them for the trip? What happens to them when they come back? How do you build an alumni network so that they collaborate with each other and stay in contact with people they’ve met over there? And then it’s just, how do you develop them over a lifetime?”
“The kids held stereotypes of Africa,” he continued. “They thought they would be unsafe; they wouldn’t fit in. And they went over there, and they were blown away! They saw people who looked like them, who dressed like them, who talked like them. It was a bit of a homecoming.
“One young man whose last name was Ware went and was walking through an area and saw a poster on a wall of an African King whose last name was Ware (Wah-Ray). And for the first time, he thought about his identity and having an immediate connection to a royal. It’s like he had never thought of himself as a royal until that moment.
“So, just being there, young people can have those opportunities. There’s always a connection there waiting for you. So we ask people, ‘Are you ready? Are you ready for your Birthright AFRICA Experience?’”
Elsheikh says what she’s seeking now are educators open to integrating the concept of identity into their curriculums, “Because the system is not really driving education at scale in a culturally responsive way. We can leverage those Black leaders who maybe left education and fold them into this.
“Because we actually have a collaborative partnership model with educational systems and community-based organizations, we’re taking the leaders of African descent and saying, ‘Hey, build a birthright program! What we’ll do is give you the technical expertise to make sure you get the funding and support to make it a reality for the youth and young adults in your community!’”
To send one youth to Africa is $4,000. Over the next five years, Elsheikh is looking to partner and build programs with 500 educational institutions around the U.S. to send 5,000 or more young people of African descent: “We’re just a vehicle and the infrastructure to raise awareness and make it happen,” Elsheikh said. “And right now, we’re looking to raise the tens of millions of dollars that it’s going to take.”
“That’s the future,” Elsheikh said. “And the more of us that do this, the more we will naturally be in community the way we see others in community.”
Elsheikh and Shabazz and their Birthright AFRICA are transforming young black lives. They are demonstrating through education, exposure and experience that the truth doesn’t have to hurt at all, if you are culturally aligned.
They are demonstrating that ignorance is what hurts you. And that the truth can be the sweetest bliss.
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