Menna Demessie '02
- Currently serves as Senior Vice President, Executive Director, Taskforce for Meaningful Change, Universal Music Group.
- Served as Senior Vice President of Policy Analysis and Research, Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and currently serves as an Adjunct Professor at the University of California Washington Center.
- Completed joint PhD in Public Policy and Political Science from University of Michigan (2010).
What attracted you to Oberlin?
My father was an Ethiopian American Field Service student who was sponsored by a progressive Jewish family in Oberlin in the 1970s and attended Oberlin High School his senior year. The head of the family (I think of him as my Oberlin grandfather) told me I could go to any college in the country, as long as it was Oberlin College! So, all through my childhood, I was in and out of Oberlin and came to appreciate the college’s progressive legacy. This includes being the first college in the country to accept African Americans and women, as well as the celebrated social justice commitment of students and faculty and the first-class liberal arts education that Oberlin offers its students. As a lover of music, I was also drawn to the world-renowned Conservatory and Oberlin’s long-term investment in creative cultural, artistic, and musical expressions as a way of life.
Service on the Oberlin College Board of Trustees represents a significant commitment of time and effort. What draws you to this service?
I see service and success as one and the same. We all make time for what matters to us. Therefore, investing time in the hard work necessary to preserve and enhance Oberlin—a progressive institution that promotes social justice with academic rigor—is second nature for me.
I am drawn to service because it empowers others who lack opportunity. I am drawn to individuals, institutions, and communities of people that are trying to make the world a better place in their own small way, not because they have to but because they want to and make the time and effort to do it. Oberlin is a place where this happens.
Share an Oberlin experience that shaped who you are today.
During my senior year at Oberlin, the 9/11 terrorist attack happened. As senior class president, I was immediately called into action with the administration and other students to help organize a three-day student-faculty conference to discuss our feelings, stories, and opinions about this horrific event. One of the things I felt most strongly about was ensuring that our Muslim students and other vulnerable students had a safe space during that time. I was blown away by the support this forum received from students, faculty and administration. The experience and friendships I acquired putting that conference together and witnessing the student body come together in meaningful and compassionate ways—regardless of differences in religious, racial, or sexual orientation—forever shaped my belief in the power of unity across cultures, religions, and races.
What elements of your personal and professional life would be helpful to you in your service as a trustee?
During my nine years at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, I worked closely with legislators, civil rights leaders, and business executives to create programs and advance more equitable policies for African Americans and the global Black community. I learned to work across racial and political lines, and how to get the right people in the room to “make things happen” in Washington, DC. This included promoting dialogue between people of varying views, and respecting differences. I believe my experience with strategic decision making and a mission-driven focus would serve me well on the Oberlin Board of Trustees. I also have a working perspective on academic governance gained through work I’ve done on a number of other boards, including the board of the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Policy and the Board of Trustees at Western Reserve Academy.
Tell me of one specific instance in which you wished to understand someone with different values from yours. What happened?
Prior to my nine years at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, I worked for Congresswoman Barbara Lee on legislation to extend federal unemployment benefits to millions of jobless Americans—at a time when Democrats were in the minority. I was tasked to lock in a meeting with then Speaker John Boehner and then Majority Leader Eric Cantor with Rep. Lee and other progressives to discuss a bill that the Republican majority was adamantly against. I looked at the situation as the perfect opportunity to get opposing sides talking in order to help the Republican leadership understand my boss’s position. The bill never went anywhere, but the experience, along with my time on Capitol Hill, underscored my belief that understanding someone with different values does not mean you are relinquishing your own core beliefs and values, but actually strengthening them.
What do you spend your time working on and thinking about?
Like with many Obies, my work is my life. Inside and outside the office, I spend my time strategizing on public policies to advance equity and social justice for minorities, immigrants, and other marginalized groups. As an academic, I think about diversity and college affordability in the broader context of higher education, as well as about how to motivate and inspire my students, including teaching classes on Black Lives Matter and Race and Ethnic Politics. Nothing makes me more thrilled than to get a letter from a student telling me how discussions in my class changed their perspective! In my new job, I am also thinking about how music and technology can be a tool to advance social justice and connect and mobilize different groups of people to promote access and opportunity.
What else do you want your fellow alumni to know about you as they consider how they will vote?
I am deeply committed to Oberlin College. I was born in Cleveland to immigrants from Ethiopia who came to the United States for a better education, and Oberlin gave me the tools to understand education as an empowering tool for positive change. If I am elected, I pledge to work to support Oberlin—its academic excellence as well as its historic social justice mission. As someone who depended on financial aid to go to Oberlin, I understand the importance of the college providing an affordable education to a diverse student body. I believe that diversity recognizes and appreciates differences in race and ethnic identity, as well as in religion and sexual orientation. I also believe an equity framework for understanding different outcomes for students can help us better identify pathways, programs, and policies that promote sustainable opportunities for the next generation of future leaders.