Menna Demessie: The Wheel of Justice

Born in Cleveland, Ohio from Ethiopian-American parents, Menna Demessie (Ph.D.) has fond memories of how the Ethiopian culture was embedded in her parent’s household. Her parents met through the American Field Service in 1970 when they did their senior year of high school in the United States. They raised Menna and her brother Nebyat instilling in them great Ethiopian pride.  Her parent’s home was a global hub of friends from all over the world, including their Jewish family, the Gittlers. Menna immersed herself in different global communities with the encouragement of her parents. Most of her values: inclusive personality and sense of the importance of equity, justice, and peace grew from her experience and exposure.

Cultural immersion, a global celebration of diverse cultures, identities, and religions were a second language for Menna. She went to Jewish Community Center (JCC) for pre-school where she prayed in Hebrew and a Catholic middle school where she attended mass, even though her family identified as Coptic Orthodox Christians. Her exposure to different religions other than her own further influenced her ability and passion to connect and empower people.

Growing up in a diversified community, Menna’s sense of justice and equity started at an early age. The young passionate 8th grader took action to ensure a Black History Month program was established at her middle school along with books on black history in the library. For her initiative, Menna received a Recognition Award from the Society of Ethiopians Established in the Diaspora (SEED). She was one of the first recipients. SEED was co-founded by her father and friends in 1993. As giving back is one of her principles, Menna served SEED as the National Youth Coordinator from 2000-2019.

Menna double majored in Economics and Law & Society then graduated with honors from Oberlin College. She was also selected to give commencement speeches at both her high school, Western Reserve Academy in 1994, and as senior class president at Oberlin College in 2002.

In April 2010, Menna received a Ph.D. in Public Policy and Political Science from the University of Michigan – the number one Ph.D. program in American politics in the country. In conjunction, she earned MA in Political Science and Certificate in African American, African and Black Transnational Studies. Menna’s dissertation, “Navigating the Boundaries of Blackness: Congressional Caucuses, U.S. Foreign Policy, and African Affairs,” is the first and only study of African congressional caucuses in the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. foreign policy. In her study, she discusses the importance of emerging black ethnic constituencies in American politics and the need for the US government to value working in partnership with the diaspora communities when addressing foreign policy. In 2021, she published a chapter in a prestigious Congressional journal, “Congress and the Presidency” titled “Race and Ethnicity in Black Congressional Representation: The Case of US Foreign Policy towards Africa”. Menna is a pioneer in exhibiting the power of the diaspora community in the US & the globe.

Her study also won Senate funding from the Dirksen Center for her pioneering research. This later led to her being selected as one of the five scholars to receive the prestigious American Political Science Congressional Fellowship in 2010. She then worked for Representative Barbra Lee in the US Congress. Her time in the Congress encapsulated the areas she wanted to impact– working on federal unemployment benefits legislation, anti-poverty initiatives and foreign affairs. She has deep gratitude and is constantly inspired by Congresswoman Barbara Lee, one of the most progressive democrats who was the only vote against the authorization of use of military force in Iraq.

Menna would then spearhead the policy and research department for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation (CBCF), an institution established in 1976 committed to advance equity in the Black community through educating the public, informing public policy, and developing leaders. She led CBCF for nine years taking on different positions focusing on initiatives affecting African Americans and the global Black community. Her last position at CBCF was as a Senior Vice President & Policy Analyst. To her credit, Menna co-founded the CBCF’s Journal for Policy Analysis and Research, a multidisciplinary peer-reviewed journal analyzing public policy issues related to Black politics in the United States and abroad. 

Given Menna’s leadership on several policy initiatives such as voting rights, minority access to capital, equity in education, and criminal justice reform, her focus on working with allies to fight racism and create policy solutions that advance racial equity is at the core of her purpose driven life. She says, “Unfortunately, racism and discrimination continue to define opportunity and we know this because the data tells us so – unequivocally”. She stresses, “If you want everyone to be free, fight for justice and equality for all people who don’t have it.”

Menna currently serves Universal Music Group as Senior VP and Executive Director for global Task Force for Meaningful Change (TFMC), focusing on the Criminal Justice System. She says the best part of her job is working with like-minded colleagues through trust-based philanthropy to empower communities across the globe. She was named Billboard’s 2022 Women in Music Top Executives and Variety’s Champion for Change list.

Menna loves teaching, especially teaching the power of political representation to the next generation of leaders. She taught for 12 years at University of Michigan and currently serves as an adjunct professor at the University of California, Washington Center. Her classes focus on race and ethnic politics, political advocacy and public opinion, and Black Lives Matter. Menna received the Mayor’s Community Advocacy Award in 2016 for successfully lobbying the DC City Council to empower the African Community with increased budget and grant-making authority. Through her team’s efforts, the African nonprofits in DC were able to source more funding.

Menna is eternally grateful for and inspired by her Ethiopian Heritage. She continuously promotes the rich history, whether it’s by inviting friends over for her Ethiopian home-cooked meals, coffee ceremonies, or formal engagements like her five-year board service on the Ethiopian Diaspora Trust Fund (EDTF). She was appointed by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in August 2018 and completed her term as chair of EDTF in May 2023.

For Menna, success equates service. She understands that the power of community is invaluable, so being able to strengthen the community by ensuring one’s success expands opportunities for others. This should be a goal and not just a good option.

Menna is a person with a sense of humor, she says “I take my work seriously but I don’t take myself too seriously, I love having fun”.  Her leisure time activities include playing basketball, going to the movies, comedy clubs, concerts & live music, playing piano, cooking and traveling.

In 2019, Menna gathered 25 of her friends from different walks of life and traveled through Ethiopia to celebrate her 40th birthday. The group came from different corners of the world and ended up forging a lifetime bond. Her motto in life is “Live Life, Laugh Hard, Love Lots”. She is also working hard to live by this motto every day!

Menna is grateful to God for creating this beautiful world, her parents for their indescribable love and sacrifice that exposed her to countless opportunities, her brother for continuously inspiring her to be proud of who we are, for all the people who helped her making her dream a reality. She sends her gratitude to AWiB as it is important to share stories of successful women with the youth in Ethiopia and creating the space for women to learn and grow. She believes in the power of human connectivity and says “People are our power in life”.

Menna’s advice to young Ethiopians is to be proud of your heritage and be united across religions and ethnicities, and never pass an opportunity to positively impact others. Sometimes it could be as simple as a smile and she adds “Show up how you want someone to show up for you”. She also adds that aligning oneself with people who are doing what one wants to do is an important part of success.

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