UMBC Center for Global Engagement welcomes its second cohort of the Young African Leaders Initiative 

Published: Jun 18, 2024

A large group of young African leaders gather in a lobby
UMBC Center for Global Engagement 2023 cohort of the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders. (Image courtesy of UMBC's Center for Global Engagement)

This summer, UMBC’s Center for Global Engagement (CGE) is excited to welcome its second cohort of the prestigious Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, the six-week flagship program of the U.S. Government’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI). The new cohort includes 25 innovators from countries across Sub-Saharan Africa representing education, journalism, tech, health care, and more. The fellows will spend six weeks living at UMBC networking and attending diversity and leadership skills workshops. They will also meet with campus, local, and state leaders, learn more about Baltimore’s LGBTQ+ leaders of color, developmental disabilities at The ARC Baltimore, trauma-informed practices, and more.

“The fellowship is a beacon of hope,” says Jok Thon, M.P.S. ’24, entrepreneurship, innovation, and leadership, a 2018 University of Delaware YALI fellow and UMBC’s first Global Peaceworker Fellow. Thon is a father of four and the director and founder of Promised Land Primary and Secondary School and Promised Land College in Juba, South Sudan, which has educated over 1500 displaced students. “As a witness and participant in this transformative experience, I wholeheartedly attest the journey is as profound for the mentors as it is for the fellows.” 

A large group of young of high school students from the Promised Land Primary and Secondary School in South Sudan wearing blue and white uniforms gather to take a photo.
Promised Land Primary and Secondary School in Juba, South Sudan. (Image courtesy of Thon)

Thousands of leaders ages 25 – 35, across 49 Sub-Saharan African countries covet a prestigious YALI fellowship. YALI hopefuls must condense years of leadership in business, civic engagement, and public management into one application, demonstrating concrete ongoing efforts to broaden access to education, health care, and workforce development. These 700 spots across 28 U.S. educational institutions are considered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, for both fellows and host institutions, to strengthen connections between the U.S. and Africa and establish enduring partnerships between fellows, local communities, and private businesses through their expertise, perspectives, and experiences.

“YALI is a huge deal in my country and Africa. It’s a journey I want to take with my whole community, nation, and the world,” says 2023 UMBC YALI fellow Victoria Merab Akinyi. She is the CEO and co-founder of Streetlights Uganda, a visual and performing arts-based organization empowering children living on the streets with entrepreneurship and life skills to become self-employed and engaged citizens.

A fashion designer stands in front of a class teaching how to design a skirt.
Victoria Merab Akinyi teaching a fashion design class at Streetlights Uganda. (Image courtesy of Merab Akinyi)

“I have a master’s degree in fine arts and two fashion companies. I don’t take my degrees, work with my community, and my YALI experiences for granted because they have all helped open doors for me.”

Creating a Retriever YALI Village

Becoming a YALI host is also an arduous but worthwhile process. It requires developing a six-week international residency program unique to the institution’s resources and the fellows’ needs. When Ryan Sheldon, M.A. ’15, teaching English to speakers of other languages, director of the English Language Institute and special programs within CGE, and Madison Pickard, M.A. ’24, intercultural communication, and assistant director of special programs and co-academic director of the YALI Fellowship, applied to bring YALI to UMBC in 2023, Thon was excited to join the team as a program assistant.

“It was so valuable to our fellowship having Jok as a program assistant and a resource for the fellows while they were here,” says Pickard. “Jok assisted the fellows in leadership activities, accompanied us on on-site visits, and facilitated their weekly feedback and reflection sessions as our leadership coordinator.”

Young African leaders meet with Anthony Blinken and Elizabeth Allen.
(l-r): Jok Thon, YALI fellow Blessing Ashi from Nigeria, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Undersecretary of State Elizabeth Allen, and YALI fellows Shange-Ndamona Mungoba from Namibia and Khwima Mkamanga from Malawi. (Image courtesy of Thon)

Designing a “Retriever YALI Village” requires many hands. The village was equipped with campus housing, transportation, catering, activities, and a budget for each fellow. Thanks to campus and community partners, it also included workshops, projects, events, and speakers. 

“We invited trusted partners aligned with our fellows, had conversations with them, and created a space for the fellows to choose their level of engagement,” says Pickard. The proposal was a winner.

A large group of young African leaders gather at Baltimore City Hall
YALI fellows at Baltimore City Hall with Baltimore City Mayor Brandon Scott.
(Image courtesy of Mirab Akinyi)

In summer 2023, 24 young African leaders came to UMBC to share and learn new skills to empower them as critical leaders in addressing issues facing women, girls, and children, mental and public health, education, community organizing, NGO management, sustainability, and more. Fellows engaged in academic sessions, community service, site visits, and networking events and met state and local government leaders, businesses, and community organizations. They also joined in Baltimore’s baseball season at the Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Young African leaders at the Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore.
YALI fellows at the Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore City. (Image courtesy of CGE)

“Together, we explored the notion that true leadership is rooted in service and that we can drive meaningful progress by embracing diversity and harnessing collective strengths,” says Thon. Due to the program’s success, UMBC was chosen to host again in June 2024. 

All for all

Fellows are often inspired into action by personal experiences. Their superpower is knowing they alone are not the answer. Fellows share their community-building strategies and acquire new expertise to address ongoing challenges. It’s not all-for-one, or one-for-all, but all-for-all.

Leveraging social media for social justice is a key approach for Ellen Kalaputse Nanyeni, a financial modeling and valuation analyst from Namibia. As a survivor of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), she understands the victim blaming and legal hurdles survivors face to access care and protection. Nanyeni promotes equal opportunity rights and the safety of women in Namibia via the #Shutitalldown Namibia SGBV awareness social media movement and through the #Breakfree #Befree support services initiative established by Monica Geingos, the First Lady of Namibia.

In Nigeria, Sunday Emmanuel Onuche networks with schools and disability organizations to further disability justice. Onuche promotes inclusion, leadership opportunities, and self-reliance for people with disabilities like himself via his VisionLink Initiative. 

Skateboarding is John Kabiye Kalenga’s community development tool. As a professional skateboarder and the coach for Zambia’s first Olympic skateboard team at the 2022 Tokyo Olympics, Kalenga lives and breathes the sense of belonging skateboarding has given him. As vice president of the Skate Association of Zambia, he teamed up with more than 30 international skatepark construction volunteers to build Zambia’s first-ever skatepark creating a safe haven for young people. 

CNN World: Zambian instructor empowers kids through skateboarding

These are just a few of the 2023 YALI fellows who connected over the summer of 2023 and returned to their countries with new leadership skills and tools for change.

Implementing the YALI Way

YALI is one summer, but it’s what comes afterward when the fellows return home that the work truly becomes YALI work. Merab Akinyi returned to Uganda intent on expanding Streetlights Uganda’s reach. She fundraised to remodel old houses in areas of high need. The additional classrooms and offices launched the Ntunga project, Changing Lives Through Fashion. It equips women and children with marketable skills to sustain their families. Her team continues to run the Mwalimu Mentorship, an apprenticeship connecting artists with youth, and the Unseen Me children’s exhibition. 

Currently, Streetlights Uganda manages two training centers for women and two for street children. Merab Akinyi and her team of seven organizers have reached over 60 women in the past 3 years and over 400 street children.

Merab Akinyi’s next project is inspired by a YALI fellow who reuses empty bottles for building construction. “Many bottles are lying around. We are looking to develop an awareness campaign on how to use bottles to save the environment,” says Merab Akinyi. “These bottles can be repurposed to fix drainage problems around the centers and add more space.”

Pickard notes this is the goal of the fellowship. “We create opportunities for fellows to learn from each other and for everyone to challenge and develop their personal growth and values.” 

Overlapping hearts and minds

The deep sense of camaraderie drew the attention of UMBC community members outside of YALI resulting in powerful friendships and mentorships that continue to this day. Pickard connected Merab Akinyi with artist Ariel Valéria Barbosa, M.P.S. ’24, community leadership, after noticing Merab Akinyi’s passion for using art as a vehicle for change. Barbosa is the program coordinator for UMBC’s food pantry Retriever Essentials and leads A Gente, an organization that gives opportunities to Black artists to travel to the African Diaspora to co-create free exhibitions for the local community. 

“There are similarities in our surrealist art styles and wanting to use the little we have and our charisma and intelligence to expand impact for our people,” says Barbosa. “Victoria is really good at what she does, and I want her talents to be nurtured and supported.” Barbosa linked Pickard with DewMore, a nonprofit that uses poetry as a platform for youth leadership.

“It was full circle for me to listen to Victoria read a poem she wrote during the DewMore poetry workshop about her experience in Baltimore,” says Barbosa. “She carries herself with a lot of composure and dignity, like a voice for the people. That is just who she is.”

Two young adults stand side by side with their arms around each other smiling at the camera.
Ariel Barbosa and Victoria Merab Akinyi. (Image courtesy of Merab Akiniyi.)

A smile goes a long way

Lovetta Y. Qualah is the founder and CEO of Positive Actions Driving Safety (PADS), which addresses period poverty by providing free sanitary products to women and girls in Monrovia, Liberia. She found a kindred heart in Namrata Oruganti ’24, biology. As a summer conference assistant, Oruganti helped code keys, fold towels, organize sheets, and prepare comforters for the fellows. “I was blessed to be at that desk,” says Oruganti. The first night, the YALI group organized a party for a fellow who had arrived on his birthday. 

“I couldn’t believe the fellows weren’t familiar with each other. Each person contributed something they already had,” says Oruganti. They invited her to share a meal and, once they learned of her love for Afro-beats, to dance.

Oruganti had no idea they were CEOs or experts. “Not one person made me feel like I was less than them. People in leadership sometimes forget that,” says Oruganti, known to her friends—which now include the fellows—as Smiley. “Sometimes I forget.” 

“Smiley took an interest in me as a person, my work, and my progress,” says Qualah. “Smiley was a really good ambassador for UMBC. She is an image of positive energy. Always checking in on everybody.”

A college student sits in front of a statue of a dog with their cap and gown.

As Oruganti applies to medical school, she keeps her YALI lessons in mind. “The fellows are the most amazing, sweet, and humble people. They taught me how to be a collective,” says Oruganti. “They will always be part of my life story.” The fellows congratulated her on her recent graduation on their WhatsApp chat. “Smiley wasn’t even a part of YALI but she became an integral part,” says Qualah.
(Image courtesy of Oruganti)

Conversation + connection = action

Deep understanding is the goal. Mentorship is the path. To listen, think, share, and reflect is the YALI way. With the help of mentors like Joby Taylor, Ph.D. ’05, language, literacy, and culture, and director of the Shriver Center, fellows build mentorship tools to better communicate with their communities and instill mentorship programs. Taylor led a workshop on place, sense of place, and placemaking as social change in Africa and Baltimore City.

A large group of people kneel and stand to take a group photo inside a room with glass walls.
YALI fellows at OCA Mocha with UMBC Shriver Center and CGE staff, Peaceworker fellows, and the Baltimore Entrepreneurship and Leadership Network. (Image courtesy of Sally Scott, director of graduate programs in community leadership at The Shriver Center.)

“Jok and I have had a two-year conversation where we have learned so much about leadership from each other and South Sudan and Baltimore,” says Taylor, who is also Thon’s host family. “Living and working with him makes you want to be a better person.” 

Thon put theory to practice by helping fellows complete paperwork and hone their professionalism skills. “This was my favorite part because I saw myself in their work and they saw themselves in my work at UMBC and back home in South Sudan,” says Thon. He played basketball with them every Sunday. “They called me their mentor and big brother.”

Merab Akinyi appreciated the intention, “Beyond the classes, the dedication, and humility of the facilitators—especially Ryan Sheldon, Madison, and Jok—were great lessons to me as a leader and great virtues for me to take back home.”

(l-r): Pickard, Merab Akinyi, Sheldon, David Di Maria, senior international officer and associate vice provost for international education. (Image courtesy of Mirab Akinyi)

A year later, Qualah continues to reflect on the fears she had while at YALI and how UMBC community members helped her overcome this. “While at YALI I had imposter syndrome. I was looking for validation every day,” says Qualah. “Everything changed when I met amazing people at UMBC: President Valerie Sheares Ashby, Sally Scott, Madison Pickard, Ryan Sheldon, Jok Thon, and, my dear friend and YALI fellow, Lillian Ndilwa. They challenged my perspective, highlighting the unique value I bring and the importance of my contributions. Words like ‘You deserve to be here,’ and ‘Your work is needed’ resonated deeply.” Today, Qualah puts these beliefs to work and is a visible and outspoken leader sharing PADS’ success and her UMBC YALI experience on Facebook.

Africans for Africa

This year, YALI celebrates its 10th anniversary. Nearly 6,500 leaders have taken YALI’s multi-tiered mentorship approach across all sub-Saharan countries. Thon notes convening 20-plus African leaders in one room is a feat on its own. “It’s hard bringing people together in Africa,” he says. “I can have connections in Congo or Kenya because those are my neighboring countries, but you cannot really know what the young people are doing in South Africa from South Sudan or a West African country.”

A large group of young African leaders gather for a photo in an atrium
YALI 2023 fellows at their farewell ceremony with the CGE team, Peaceworker Fellows leadership, and Oruganti (center front row wearing red sneakers).
(Image courtesy of Oruganti)

This summer Thon will extend the YALI ripple effect, working as a partnership associate at CorpsAfrica, a non-profit organization focused on engaging youth and helping rural communities overcome extreme poverty.

A college student wearing his cap and gown stands outside next to a statue of a dog
Jok Thon celebrating his 2024 graduation from UMBC.
(Image courtesy of Thon)

“Every little act of peace and kindness gets us closer to building a just and prosperous society where there is no weak or strong, poor or rich,” says Thon, “but a society that thrives on the basic principles of living a dignified life guided by empathy.”

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