CEO Walla Elsheikh’s nonprofit enables African-descended young adults to discover their heritage and gain inspiration to become next-generation leaders.
By Willow Taylor Chiang Yang
Black history in the United States is fraught with systemic oppression, reductive stereotypes and a complicated relationship with the African continent—but Birthright AFRICA seeks to help the new generation of African-descended people dive deep into those roots to understand their ancestry as well as what the future holds for Africa.
Similar to the Birthright Israel concept, Birthright AFRICA is a nonprofit with a mission is to create the next generation of leaders, community members and innovators by providing young adults of African descent in the U.S. the opportunity to explore their African heritage by visiting sites of innovation and historical significance within the U.S. as well as in African countries. Their goal is to provide every person of African descent between the ages of 13 and 30 in the U.S. the opportunity to discover their heritage through trips in their area, around the country and in Africa. (Watch this video to learn more.)
Walla Elsheikh is CEO and cofounder of Birthright AFRICA. She has more than two decades of experience in education, corporate management and the nonprofit sector. She was born in Sudan and lived in Uganda and Sweden before immigrating to New York City, where she currently resides.
Elsheikh talked to ROAM about the impact of the Birthright mission, how it has changed and what the future holds.
ROAM: The 61 scholars to date have visited areas of historical significance both in the U.S. and in Africa. Though I understand every trip is different, what are some of the types of sites that scholars visit?
Walla Elsheikh: I actually want to expand on where we visit: It’s not just historical sites. What’s also particularly unique and exciting for Birthright AFRICA is that we place an emphasis on visiting places of innovation, business, that showcase us as leaders and entrepreneurs at the highest levels. I’m talking about your tech entrepreneur that’s raised millions of dollars, coworking spaces representing us in entrepreneurship, your vice presidents of corporate entities. I’m talking about having those conversations about career and life stories that resonate with our scholars, because they can see the future version of themselves and understand what it takes, including overcoming racism and microaggression in the workplace, so that you realize you are not alone.
The way the programming works is your local exploration is based on the city where you are. So, we want everyone in the United States to visit, if not the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in D.C., because they’re not within that range of distance, then a place like it because it gives you a great grounding and understanding of what happened here to connect back to the dots on the continent.
One of the major places that education partners choose is Ghana. If the scholars go, we want them to really hear and understand what their ancestors went through in the slave trade. So the Cape Coast Dungeon, or another dungeon, is a given.
There are also all these great contributions and achievements that you learn in the historical cultural sites and museums. Even though I grew up in New York City, I got to visit the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture for the first time with the scholars.
Then we find the counterparts of that in Ghana and South Africa. In Ghana you have places like the Kwame Nkrumah Memorial (pictured below), for the first president of Ghana, or the W. E. B. Du Bois Center, for an African American who decided to live his last year of life in Ghana. In South Africa, you visit the Apartheid Museum to understand how the system of apartheid was created, and in a lot of ways adopted from and inspired by the American system of Jim Crow and segregation. There are all these connecting dots.
But then, of course, we want to showcase this other side of Africa that you don’t see in the media that is full of entrepreneurial spirit, everywhere you go. You realize some of the innovations that you thought were created in the West actually started on the continent. We visit places like Impact Hub Accra, a coworking space. If you’re not going to go there, you’re going to go somewhere where you’re going to meet these leaders and entrepreneurs, and you’re going to see the day-to-day life and recognize people are doing really well overall on the continent, in spite of some of your general strife in culture and in society, which happens to all of us, but that has been too much the focus in our media.
We are also excited that, literally as soon as they [the scholars] land, there’s this sense of home. It cannot be explained. You just have to arrive and you see the commonalities and the basics of music, food and culture, and you recognize, “Oh, wow. We eat the same thing. We move and dance the same way and our mannerisms are similar.” It’s those kinds of nuances that you can’t even prepare someone for that are just the highlights of the whole experience and make it life-changing.
Another thing that has been really eye-opening to see is how much the scholars grab on this understanding and feeling of caring community and collective society that is just palpable in the way people interact and support each other. It is so very different from the U.S,. which is more of an individualistic, capitalistic society.
ROAM: How do you choose the countries you visit?
Elsheikh: We’re open to any of the African nations, as long as they’re deemed safe to travel by the State Department. It’s actually our education partners who ultimately make that choice, again as Birthright AFRICA, we really serve as an umbrella organization to this mission and movement of connecting youth and young adults of African descent in the U.S. to their cultural heritage. And with that, we’re really helping our education partners, who are these high schools, colleges and community-based organizations, build birthright programs in house and with our support in terms of guidance, technical expertise, as well as cofunding. It’s this collaborative partnership model. The education partners are there for driving programming, including where they choose to explore, locally and nationally.
ROAM: The education partners are a huge part of the Birthright AFRICA program. How do you find, connect and collaborate with your partners?
Elsheikh: Right now, it has really been word of mouth, or if they read about us in the media and social media. There’s obviously connections through our leadership and our board of directors for particular partners of interest that we already have a relationship with. We were able to pilot with the City University of New York, because our cofounder, Diallo Shabazz, had a relationship with the Black Male Initiative at CUNY. That helped kick us off. That was a pilot that included the largest urban university in New York City. It really helped elevate and stamp our credibility, so folks have just been hearing about and reaching out to us.
We are now at just over 60 potential education partners as we wait for safer conditions to travel. In the interim, we’re looking to engage them in virtual explorations with their participants.
ROAM: Since you cofounded this program in 2015, we’ve seen America change pretty drastically. How does Birthright AFRICA connect to current events and the way that America has changed over the past couple of years?
Elsheikh: What happened with Covid was that it helped everyone stand still and then recognize that we still had issues around Black lives mattering with the George Floyd incident that just propelled it to the next level. There’s the question of not only do Black lives matter, but where are the Black leaders? Where are we in places of position and power to demonstrate as a society that Black lives do matter? If there are these major discrepancies, then we’re clearly saying, “There’s a gap.”
That’s one of the questions that we’ve been asking. The main reason Birthright exists is to develop these global leaders and entrepreneurs at a level that demonstrates our talents, our abilities, our capabilities that have too often been oppressed by a system that has kept us undermined.
What’s happening over the last couple of years is that a lot of folks and especially white folks are realizing they have no clue about the history of this country or the depth of the racism and the oppression that particular groups have been facing, including those of African descent. We’ve been developing and understanding that that’s one of the issues that we are addressing for ourselves as African-descended people. It’s great to see that the rest of the world is realizing that they need to catch up as well to this truth and this understanding beyond enslavement and colonization, that [enslavement and colonization] were things subjected on people that had great histories and civilizations, and were creators and inventors since [the] beginning of time. Now we need to really recognize and reconcile and repair that. And it puts Birthright Africa in a very unapologetic place to do that.
It’s been really phenomenal for me as a leader to almost feel propelled into a position where I don’t have to worry about white fragility anymore because it’s a thing [people see] now. And it really was an understanding that I don’t have to be navigating and trying to be apologetic about the greatness in who we are as African-descended people.
ROAM: How has Birthright AFRICA been adapting to the Covid-19 pandemic?
Elsheikh: At first, it just felt like a standstill; like, “Oh my God, we can’t do this anymore,” or “What’s happening? What are we doing?”
Initially, you’re just more concerned about health and just everyone’s safety. Then you pivot, and you begin to realize, “Oh, we can still do this in a more creative, innovative way.”
It actually speaks to our mission of exploring our cultural roots and legacy of innovation. So as we inspire our scholars of African descent to aspire to their legacies of innovation, we demonstrate it as an organization. We look to be as creative and innovative in our space of education and what we call heritage-based leadership development. It dawned on us that we can just connect via virtual communication and video and find those particular outlets, whether it be Instagram Live, YouTube, Zoom or whatever [the] digital platforms are.
It got us thinking even bigger and realizing that we have over 23,000 registered Birthright scholars on our database who we haven’t even sought out yet, that we are looking to ultimately refer to the Birthright process. We realized we actually need to engage them before they get a chance to physically travel, which could take a few years. So the need to pivot to virtual exploration actually helped us create an opportunity for exploration that we didn’t even realize we needed.
Now we’re looking at building out entire experiences for our scholars to build out their own portfolios of exploring and letting them drive their own virtual exploration in theme with Birthright AFRICA. It’s actually quite exciting.
ROAM: How can people maybe interested in helping out the program that are not maybe eligible to be a scholar or an education partner provide support for Birthright AFRICA?
Elsheikh: Of course, as a nonprofit, there’s always an ability to join our Birthright tribe as a donor and support monetarily. We also definitely invite people to consider volunteering their skills. And if you work at a corporate entity, there is the opportunity to consider sponsorship of scholars and actually engage your employees of African descent. You can sponsor that scholar who is working on your behalf and support their leadership and growth, because ultimately that’s what this is. It’s a sense of understanding the self, understanding your culture and your heritage. You can have pride and confidence in that, as opposed to what has been happening in the past, in terms of seeing it as a deficit or something to have to constantly overcome.
As someone said to me the other day, people want to see Black people win now. That’s what’s going on. So if you are that person, you want to see Black people win, this is the ultimate experience for that. Donating financially, volunteering, connecting us to your corporate entity, or if you sit at a foundation—we invite everyone.
We’re starting to get interest from countries aside from America that are wanting to build a similar mission or program. This allows us to see that we can go beyond the U.S. I’m not sure when that will happen in a very concrete way, but the idea is that we are a global nonprofit that wants to support this work and mission around the world to have the young diaspora of people of African descent. We also connect their roots where they’re located, because that’s the point too. We have our birthright and our heritage and our contributions in the places where we’ve ended up growing up, but also bringing it all the way back to discover those roots and uncover our greatness. It’s our tagline!
ROAM: Looking at your personal experience, what is it like being a Black, female CEO advocating for more representation and more opportunities for people of African descent within the United States and within the nonprofit world?
Elsheikh: I feel very honored and privileged to be in this work, especially at this time. Given the elevated awareness, we’re starting to adapt the work of heritage and history. We’re understanding the necessity for that to be a part of someone’s education and particularly how to instill that pride, that confidence that we talk about. So, in a lot of ways, it has helped even shield me from some of those challenges of facing the system of oppression very directly because I’m cocooned by this work that just constantly elevates and affirms me in my position.
I would have been otherwise easily a vice president or something in the corporate sector since I come from finance. I think about my colleagues or friends who are of African descent that found themselves in this time of great awareness, but also [a time] that could be triggering and remind you of the microaggressions that you have faced over the years, particularly in the workplace.
Just carrying that weight and knowing eyes are on you by white folks, Asian folks, others who are looking genuinely to understand and to support but feeling yet again, “Oh, here’s another burden for me to carry and help others become aware.” I didn’t have any of that. Instead I had the fatigue, if you will, of just recognizing the depth of the work that I’m in. I’m still learning. I come more from a Black immigrant lens as opposed to a lens of enslaved ancestry. So for me, my optimism and my hope was challenged. This problem is even bigger than I thought. It’s in the fabric of every day of every moment in our society.
I can look back and realize that even in my entrepreneurial journey as a Black, female CEO, there are statistics that we do not receive as great a funding as your average white male in the nonprofit world. Does that surprise me? No. Does that disappoint me very much? Greatly, because what’s particularly detrimental in the nonprofit space is that oftentimes we are serving the same communities. We, as leaders, as Black leaders and leaders of color, get to serve the communities we understand and have a fairly similar shared lived experience with. We come with this extra knowledge and understanding, but if we’re not receiving the level of funding at the same level, there is a missed opportunity for us to have an even greater impact. And that’s where I probably have seen more challenges in terms of building a nonprofit, but that has quickly changed now, luckily, because of the elevated understanding of our mission. We actually raised the most amount of money in 2020 [that] we ever have. I’m really excited about moving forward and the exposure that we’re receiving.
Willow Taylor Chiang Yang
© ROAM Family Travel 2021 – All rights reserved
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