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Mandela Washington Fellow: My Leadership Journey

By Abdirisak Yusuf Ali

Beginning the Journey

I first came across the Mandela Washington Fellowship-Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) on social media. Then I started hearing conversations about the YALI program on the news and at social gatherings. Finally, a friend of mine at Oxford sent to me notice of the program. I studied the program closely and found that it matched my goals. Once I applied, I felt uncertain, and wondered where my application would fall among the millions of vibrant African youth. When I was accepted for the Fellowship, it refueled my dreams of building my leadership more.

My experience started when I arrived at Rutgers Centers for Global Advancement and International Affairs (GAIA) in New Jersey for a 6-week academic study in civic leadership. My first class session was an introduction to leadership with Dr. Ronald Quincy. It was a mind opening exploration of leadership styles and the nonviolent leadership movement. I learned about governance, leadership, ethics, communication skills, organizing and engaging communities, establishing and sustaining nonprofit organizations, marketing, fundraising, social networking, and the arts and science of public policy.

The program went beyond classroom trainings, and involved demonstrations of real world applications. We visited local and international nonprofit organizations to learn how they are exercising nonprofit management skills and strategic plans in their daily work. We also visited government offices. At the New Jersey State Capitol we attended state-level legislative sessions. Additionally, we traveled to a number of historic landmarks in New Jersey, New York, Philadelphia, Virginia, and Washington DC. I volunteered at a community soup kitchen and garden, which was a good lesson about the culture of volunteerism in the U.S.

Furthermore, I experienced the life of American families through host family opportunities. One golden chance for the 25 fellows in my program was when our academic director and his wife hosted us at their house. We enjoyed a delicious dinner, interesting talk, and a night spent in their house.

The Mandela fellows come from many different backgrounds and areas of expertise, including, civic leaders, social entrepreneurs, educators, media members, and political scientists. Interacting, learning and exchanging ideas among the fellows created a strong collaborative atmosphere so that the fellows could continue their relationships when they return to their respective countries. The GAIA center and the academic team were outstandingly supportive and professional.

The presidential summit portion of the fellowship was a historic event. The 500 fellows from 20 universities across the U.S. came together for the first time to hear the opening remarks of Secretary of State, John Kerry, followed by the long awaited address from YALI’s founding father, President Obama. I found that noble moment inspirational because of President Obama’s belief that African youth can transform their communities.

Venturing West

In my expectations after staying in cities like New York and Washington DC, Colorado felt like a far corner of the U.S. I pictured old cities and cowboy towns, but my expectations were challenged the moment I arrived. The people were welcoming and hospitable, and the beautiful landscape of Colorado Springs, including the lovely view of the green mountains from my window, made my stay very enjoyable.

Working at El Pomar was a high level professional development process involving a variety of programs, including organizing civic forums on local issues, research projects, and grant writing. I participated in leadership trainings through Leadership Plenty, Nonprofit Management classes, and a grant writing seminar. These experiences further developed my skills in civic engagement, which will help me promote economic development and public organizing in my own community.

El Pomar also gave me the opportunity to meet with nonprofit sector executives and government officials in Colorado. I met with the Lieutenant Governor, the Mayors of Denver and Colorado Springs, the deputy chief of staff of Colorado governor’s office, and the president of Colorado College. These meetings helped me understand how elected officials can support their community and how the nonprofit sector works. I hope that the connections I made will act as sustainable networking ties between the US and Sub Saharan Africa. Also, I visited historic places in Colorado Springs including the Pikes Peak COG Railway, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, and the Will Rogers Shrine of the Sun.

My internship at El Pomar was a rewarding professional experience which will help me to continue my leadership journey. I am thankful to El Pomar’s Board of Trustees, Senior Staff and Fellows for being collaborative, and courageous. I recall the welcoming and kind words of El Pomar’s President and CEO, Mr. William J. Hybl, who wished us good luck as we foster cooperation, multi-cultural exchange, and the practical application of our academic studies.

My sincere thanks also goes to Obama’s Administration, the International Research and Exchange Agency, and all who made this phenomenal program possible.

Looking Onward


Through the Mandela Washington Fellowship, I achieved a savvy understanding of the organizational dynamics of the nonprofit sector, corporations, businesses, and government. I will walk away from this nation a talented and highly motivated Mandela Washington Fellow, looking forward to sharing the experience and knowledge I acquired with my community, country, region, and the world.

Allow me to share with you one of my favorite quotes:

“When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. I found it is difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my nation. When I found I couldn’t change the nation, I began to focus on my town. I couldn’t change the town and as an older man, I tried to change my family. Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, and suddenly I realize that if long ago I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family. My family and I could have made an impact on our town. The town’s impact could have changed the nation and I could indeed have changed the world.”-Anonymous

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