The U.S. State Department’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) program brought 500 Mandela Washington Fellows to higher education institutions across the United States over the summer. The Presidential Precinct was the only partner selected in Virginia. For six weeks, the Precinct partners hosted 24 of Africa’s brightest, emerging civic leaders from 15 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa for leadership training, public policy seminars, mentorship and collaboration with local faculty and community members. The fellows included human rights law- yers, advocates and NGO community development workers, researchers, and teachers. The group also included an eye doctor, an accountant, and a computer scientist.
The closing ceremony was held Wednesday, July 25, 2018, in the Wren Chapel. President Rowe delivered the keynote address followed by Nerima Ware, who represented the Fellows. Excerpts from their remarks are included here. The Presidential Precinct is a Virginia-based nonprofit consortium made up of six prestigious institutions — the University of Virginia, William & Mary, William Short’s Morven, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, James Monroe’s Highland and James Madison’s Montpelier. It empowers and inspires emerging global leaders by providing leadership tools, training and a virtual network for continuing education and collaboration.
I want to begin tonight by sharing just a little bit of my own story. I began to share it earlier this week with the YALI fellows when we first met a few days ago, and I’m going to connect that to some reflections on leadership that were prompted by our conversation together in the last few days. As I shared on Monday, much of my early childhood was spent in West Africa. My family lived in Lagos, Nigeria, until I was nearly five. My father was working with local leaders to develop standard- ized educational testing systems for Nige- rian schools and higher ed and to bring in the first computers used in the Nigerian school system. My mother, who is a labor economist, was doing the research for her PhD. She studied the universe of Nigerian entrepreneurs, manufacturing industry entrepreneurs in particular, who used electrical power in their companies.
My mother interviewed all the industrialists in the greater Lagos region. A significant minority were women at the time — she recalls as many as 5 to 10 percent because much commerce in West Africa was traditionally led by women, as many of you know. She says that there was a time when both she and I could say a polite hello in Yoruba, Igbo and one of the Rivers State languages. Unfortunately I did not carry that skill into maturity.
What I did carry from that early experience was an understanding from both of my parents that the best solutions for systemic challenges are locally grown. In the social sciences — that’s my mom’s field — research is generally classified in two ways, what are called emic and etic viewpoints. The etic view results from an external observer. The emic view, which was the approach my mother took with the entrepreneurs, emerges from an em- bedded perspective within a group. And though both of those perspectives are valuable in research — indeed we often need them together interacting — we know that in community development as in entrepreneurship a local vantage point can be more effective in generating lasting solutions to community problems.
As YALI fellows you along with countless other young African leaders will offer the best to solutions to the issues your communities and countries confront now. You know that to scale up the change you desire is going to require real and sustained effort. I don’t need to tell you that; you know that already. All of you bring extraordinary creativity and innovation to this task based on a deep understanding of the communities that you serve. But what was striking about talking with you this week was your focus on learning from those communities and from each other. And in the network that you are building now of change leaders, you were describing an emic mode of entrepreneurship that is based fundamentally in collaboration and team-based problem-solving. So I want to explore with you that idea of team-based problem-solving and leadership in three critical aspects of your growth as human beings. I’d like to do that by way of an athletic analogy to soccer — or more properly in the world outside of the U.S., to football.
Lesson one: Play well with others, because the best individual player doesn’t always win.
It’s easy to see that lesson illustrated in this summer’s World Cup. We saw Ronaldo and Messi, viewed by many as among the world’s best football players …. Neither alone could ensure that their teams would advance beyond the round of 16. Teams with rosters that are much less well known around the world advanced instead. Croatia is a wonderful example. And their upsets depended on multiple players stepping up in different ways based on their different skills. In leadership as in football you cannot succeed beyond the ability of your partners, your collaborative partners.
Lesson two: Play to your strengths — not just your own personal strengths but team strengths.
Successful teams establish their identity based on their strengths, which define a collective style. Some teams win based on explosive offense. Some dominate defensively, patiently waiting for the right moment for a counter-attack. Great teams define and identify publicly what their strengths are and work through those strengths, and their leaders will emphasize their team’s collective achievement. The story that exemplifies this for me from football starts with Portia Modise’s extraordinary goal against Sweden in the 2012 Olympics — one of the most beautiful football strikes you will ever see. Has anyone watched it? Yes? 37,000 views on YouTube. It’s available by the way. It’s a strike from midfield. She pivots and one- foots it. Some of you will remember that Portia Modise became the first African player of all — men and women — to score 100 international goals in a career total of 124 caps. And yet she always insisted that football is a team sport like an orchestra. This is a quote from Portia: “People like to talk about titles and what you’ve won but at the end of the day you play for and with your team and not just for yourself.”
Lesson number three: be aware of your weaknesses and play to improve them.
No leader is strong in all areas, of course. Our weaknesses are opportunities to grow ourselves in collaboration with others. That’s something that we talked about together early in the week. Portia Modise talks about growing up playing with boys. It was a very rough path she chose but she also talks about the way in which playing with those who are bigger and stronger made her better. This year Number 12 assumed her first professional coaching job. I don’t know if you know this but she’s coaching a men’s team in the SAB, and her ultimate goal is to coach in the Premier League.
In an interview this spring she still describes herself interestingly as a learner: “I’m learning each and every day,” she says, “and my team are giving me something in return.” Given the extraordinary obstacle she faced as a woman player in South Africa and that she faces now as a woman coach, we should trust her emphasis on collaboration as a key to success against entrenched opposition.
Collaborative partnerships and learning are one of the most effective ways to expand our impact as a leader.
There are two questions I asked myself as a leader and an athlete that I hope will you will take with you into the work that you have ahead of you.
The first is how will you as a leader build a team that enables those with complementary strengths to partner with you?
And the second is how will you empower them and create the opportunities for your team to learn from each other so together you can scale up the work you do?
I’d like to close these reflections in what is now going to be a familiar place for you with words that you’ve grown to know well in your time together from Judge John Charles Thomas’s poem, "Light the Soul.” I know this was among the first things that you heard during the YALI program as it was for William & Mary’s Class of 2021. I believe you have each to receive your own copy which was such a generous gift from the author. I understand many of you have taken these moving words as your text for your work together, so I’m going to invite you to hear them anew now in the light of my theme of collective effort for those who are new to this poem. What I’m going to read is an excerpt that begins with the line, “It has been given to some to handle the light.” So listen as I read to the way the poem shifts from exceptional individuals to the first person plural the collective pronoun we:
It has been given to some to handle the light
To mold it, to craft it, to bend it to right
It has fallen to some to sculpt what we see
To sharpen, to brighten, to make it run free
To those who would hold light in their hands
There is much to remember, to understand
In the Right Light, Love can shine
In the Right Light, We can leave Wrong behind
By the Light there is good we can know
In the Light Justice can grow: Light the Soul!
So, YALI fellows, you have embraced these words as your charge. May you increase your influence in the years ahead via the partnerships and collaborations for justice that you will grow. I think that is a key part of what it means to lead in the light. Thank you.
As we’ve gone through the six weeks’ journey it feels like a lesson of many lifetimes in a very short time. And not just a lesson from the Presidential Precinct and from the facilitators and faculty, but a lesson from everyone that I’ve met — from my fellow fellows, from sitting in the evening and chatting with my roommate, from having group discussions. And it’s been transformative to come out six weeks later and know so much more than I did before.
The founding of civil society in a democratic society is something that a lot of us struggle with. But the Presidential Precinct taught us that civil society not only needs to exist but is the foundation for democracies. And our role is to advocate for the inclusion of everyone and to make democracy transform our country and make it different.
William & Mary was memorable for us for a number of reasons but mostly because of the history around this institution and its traditions. Some are very fun, but mostly it was the fact that you can have an institution for 300 years that is still ongoing, that still wants to revive and revitalize itself, that still wants to reach out to more people. We don’t see that very often because a lot of our institutions at home haven’t quite lived that long….Judge Thomas, your poem really set off this fellowship and gave us an understanding of what light means beyond what we carry….And to my fellow fellows, I would like to say, speaking from Judge Thomas’ words, we are in the business of spreading light. We have a privilege that many, many of our brothers and sisters do not have, not because they’re not smart, not because they’re not equally as brilliant, but because opportunities are too few.
And when we get [opportunities] we need to appreciate that we are here representing not just us, not just our organizations, but millions of young Africans who could do this with us — who could do this even better than us — but we were chosen to come here. And what we do with that privilege really does mat- ter when we go back home. What do we plan to give back? …
So it’s not just that we’re here for us. We’re here for our continent. We’re here for all those millions of young Africans who can do this but don’t have the opportunity, don’t have the time, don’t have the space.
I would like to finish by referencing Black Panther. Black Panther was amazing for a number of reasons but mostly because it allowed us to imagine an Africa without colonization. We do not have that opportunity because we were colonized, but it’s possible to see that we can be so far away from colonization that it will not matter anymore that we were colonized.
That takes the process of unlearning what we knew, and learning new lessons for what we can be. And Black Panther mythologically showed us what we can be. So we have to strive for that.
I’m going to end with a quote from one of my favorite political leaders, Thomas Sankara:
“We have to work at decolonizing our mentality and achieving happiness within the limits of sacrifice we should be willing to make. We have to recondition our people to accept themselves as they are, to not be ashamed of their real situation. To be satisfied with it, even to glorify in it even.”
The process of decolonizing our continent starts with us. We have to decolonize our minds, and we have to see Africa as Wakanda.