National fellowship brings young African leaders to Portland

Portland State is the first institution in the Pacific Northwest to host the Mandela Washington Fellowship.

Doctors, entrepreneurs, industry leaders and politicians from 21 sub-Saharan African countries have joined the PSU community this summer to develop skills focused on civic leadership through the Department of State’s Mandela Washington Fellowship program.

“The program is an important contribution to the university’s focus on internationalizing the campus, and [is] crucial for the development of cross-cultural understanding and citizen diplomacy,” said Vandy Kanyako, Ph.D. director of the Mandela Washington Fellowship program at PSU.

Kanyako, a conflict resolution professor at PSU, became familiar with the Mandela Washington Fellowship after meeting a few young professionals in Ghana and Nigeria while doing research for a book.

The program was conceived by the Obama administration as a way to engage young professionals from sub-Saharan Africa with a record of leadership within their communities according to Kanyako.

Annually, the program receives over 42,000 applications; only 1,000 are accepted. It is funded by the Department of State under the Young African Leaders Initiative.

“The fellowship is designed to engage with change agents on the African continent,” Kanyako said.

During the six-week program, fellows enter one of four academic tracks: business and entrepreneurship, civic leadership, public management, and the most recent addition, the specialized institute on energy. Currently, 40 American universities host different Mandela Washington fellows programs.

The Mandela Washington fellows at PSU are involved in the civic leadership track, with their projects expanding on the work they have already accomplished at home.

“The fellows come with really advanced skill sets in a wide range of work that falls under the umbrella of human rights, civil rights and activism,” said PSU’s Chief Diversity Officer Carmen Suarez.

One fellow is a doctor who provides free healthcare to those in slum communities. Another fellow directs a program that enrolls underprivileged children into school. Other projects from participants concern women’s advocacy, LGBTQ rights, environmental issues, anti-corruption and freedom of the media.

Gift Mambipiri, a fellow from Zimbabwe, is a media activist who is placed at Oregon Public Broadcasting. During his first visit to OPB he met with Executive Director Sarah Jane Rothenfluch, sat in on an editor’s meeting and discussed his objectives for the fellowship.

“I know this would not be possible without the gratuitous spirit of the people within the city who, from the fellow passengers I met on the bus to the driver and all, have really been helpful,” Mambipiri said in an email to Kanyako. “I am also grateful to the people at [the] OPB newsroom, as media houses are often busy areas, but they had the time even when they appeared not to really know what this fellowship is all about until I shared. They were just eager to help.”

The Mandela fellows are between 25 and 35 years old. According to Kanyako, the purpose of the program is to polish the skills the fellows already possess so they can serve their communities most effectively.

It is unique that the fellowship does not end once the fellows have completed their final presentations. They continue to be funded once they return home. The fellowship also hosts an annual gathering where all of the cohorts spend five to seven days brainstorming and sharing the impact of their work.

“The whole idea is to make the program have two-way traffic,” Kanyako said. “It’s not just these students coming here and learning about the United States, but also the other way around, where young people can take a genuine interest in Africa on things that don’t necessarily make the headlines. When it comes to Africa, there is always a stereotype about what the continent and its people are, but I think what these young people are doing is the kind of work that doesn’t make the headlines. I think it would be good for people from here to know what they are working on and how they are bringing change.”

The Mandela Washington fellows at PSU are entering the halfway point of the program. Their last few weeks will be focused on grant writing, public speaking and a final project. The project is a TedX style talk, where the fellows answer the question: “If you had the attention of President Obama, what would you tell him so that he remembers you five years from now?”

These presentations are open to the public with details forthcoming.

Kanyako urged that if any students are interested in volunteering with the program they can reach him by emailing [email protected].