Menna Demessie ’02

Professional background:

  • Joint PhD in public policy and political science from University of Michigan.
  • Vice president of policy analysis and research for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.
  • Adjunct professor at the University of California Washington Center; worked for U.S. Congresswoman Barbara Lee on issues of poverty, unemployment, and foreign policy.  

What elements of your personal and professional life would be helpful to you in your service as a trustee?

Menna DemessieI am deeply committed to Oberlin remaining a safe and diverse space for college students to receive a world-class education that is affordable and fosters progressive thought, social justice, and racial and ethnic unity. I also want to work with others to ensure Oberlin remains a leader with its world renown music conservatory as well as ensuring eco-friendly living becomes a way of life on campus moving forward.

I bring an open mind and genuine commitment to diversity that recognizes and appreciates differences in race and ethnic identity, opinion and political ideology, socioeconomic and cultural background, religion, and sexual orientation; I see this as an invaluable asset in not only understanding the world, but making it a better place for all communities. Oberlin College encouraged me to be proud of these traits and having worked on behalf of vulnerable communities and racial and ethnic minorities for most of my life, I understand that collective action requires bringing people to the table with different opinions in a healthy dialogue and appreciating different opinions as much as one’s own opinion. Positive change is often incremental, but putting the time and dedication in with others who recognize the significance of receiving an Oberlin College education in today’s society will help us get there.

What do you spend your time working on and thinking about?

I spend my time strategizing on public policies to help racial and ethnic minorities and immigrant communities receive the rights and benefits they deserve, but so often do not receive. I work with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle and other nonprofit organizations to help advance an agenda of equity and equality for vulnerable communities disproportionately affected by racial discrimination, poverty, policy brutality, unemployment, etc.

As an adjunct professor at the UC Washington Center, I also spend lots of my time with college students working on innovative ways to advance policies on electoral reform, immigration reform, criminal justice reform, and college affordability. In my job and in the classroom, I try to effectively answer the two questions Professor Paul Dawson taught us are key to activating groups to collective action: “So what?” and “Who cares?”

What else do you want your fellow alumni to know about you as they consider how they will vote?

I serve on the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy Alumni Board at the University of Michigan, have been the National Youth Coordinator for the Society of Ethiopians Established in the Diaspora for fifteen years, have studied and lived in China and Vietnam, and worked on democratic governance and women’s issues in four African countries.

What attracted you to Oberlin?

The progressive legacy of Oberlin College being the first college in the country to accept African Americans and women, the unapologetic and celebrated social justice commitment of students and faculty to racial and ethnic minorities, women, and the LGBTQ community, the first-class liberal arts education, and the world renown music conservatory and long term investment in creative, cultural, artistic, and musical expressions as a way of life. 

What about Oberlin resonates with you today? 

The value of “Oberlin College education,” which fosters analytical rigor, critical thinking, eco-friendly awareness and serious engagement and appreciation for diverse points of view inside and outside of the classroom is of utmost importance to me. Moreover, the ability of students from across the socioeconomic spectrum to be able to access and afford an Oberlin College education is always top of mind as I was fortunate enough to receive an Oberlin College education myself because of financial aid. Being able to do my part to help and assist so other students may have the same educational opportunity and work with alumni, students, and faculty to that end resonates with me today and is one of the main reasons I would be honored to be part of the Board of Trustees. 

Tell us of one specific instance in which you wished to understand someone with different values from yours.  What happened? 

When working for Rep. Barbara Lee on extending federal unemployment benefits legislation when Democrats were in the minority, I had to create a platform to engage former Speaker John Boehner and former Majority Leader Eric Cantor with Rep. Barbara Lee and Rep. Robert C. Scott to discuss the merits of extending emergency unemployment benefits to millions of jobless Americans – a bill the republican majority and leadership were adamantly against. It was clear the odds of the bill moving forward were not in our favor, but I looked at the situation as the perfect opportunity to bring opposing sides to the table not so much to pass a bill, but to help the republican leadership understand my boss’s side. The bill never went anywhere, but I succeeded in securing and attending a meeting for the four of them to discuss the merits of the bill nonetheless and was reminded of the invaluable power of bringing people to the table of understanding and civil dialogue even when they disagree. Being open-minded means listening and engaging with those whose value system and beliefs are different from my own. My time and experience on Capitol Hill underscored my belief that wisdom is gained through recognizing that the quest to understand someone with different values does not mean you are relinquishing your own set of core beliefs and values, but actually strengthening them.  

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 in the same. We all make time for what matters to us. Therefore, investing time to do the hard and necessary work to preserve, enhance, and support progressive institutions and environments that promote social justice with academic rigor is second nature for me.

I am currently serving my third and last year on the Alumni Board of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan where our goal has been to support diversity and inclusion and minority enrollment in addition to advancing a robust and top-notch public policy undergraduate and graduate curriculum. I also have served as the National Youth Coordinator for the Society of Ethiopians Established in the Diaspora (SEED) for over fifteen years helping promote academic excellence and community service for youth. Finally, as Vice President of Policy Analysis and Research at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, I am blessed to spend my day to day thinking, strategizing, and working ultimately towards improving the lives of African Americans, immigrants, and other minority communities as well as joining forces and coalition building with various communities aimed at providing equality, economic opportunity, and civil rights for those often denied it.

I am drawn to individuals, institutions, and communities of people 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. I share in that sentiment and commitment.

Share an Oberlin experience that shaped who you are today.

As senior class president in 2002, the 9/11 terrorist attack happened on the second week of my senior year and a week after I delivered my first speech on Constitution Day talking about why Oberlin College was such a great institution that brought together amazing and diverse minds from all across the globe. I immediately sprung into action with the administration and students to hold a three-day student-faculty conference to ensure a safe space was given to our Muslim students and other students to share their feelings, stories, and opinions during that vulnerable time. President Dye wrote me a letter afterwards congratulating my efforts as she supported me turning the idea into a reality from the start. I was blown away by her support along with the faculty and administration. The experience and friendships I made 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 has forever shaped my belief in the power of unity across cultures, religions, and races.