How a Mandela Washington Fellow and Wisconsin Community Member Sparked a Groundbreaking Collaboration

The Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders is the flagship program of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI).

The Fellowship brings young leaders to the United States for academic coursework and leadership training and creates unique opportunities for Fellows and Americans to collaborate and as they spur growth and prosperity, strengthen democratic governance, and enhance peace and security across Africa and the United States.

BIOS

Recognized by the Mail & Guardian as one of 2020’s Top 200 Young South Africans, Mpho Seipubi regards the work she does as a writer and editor as key to everything else.

She has over 7 years of experience in the public sector in South Africa with positions at both the Departments of Education and Treasury and works with several other networks in the public management sector. She has been at the core of groundbreaking projects in the rural Northern Cape and North West, South Africa, including Empower, a free publication that was distributed to more than 50 villages. Her international experience includes the Mandela Washington Fellowship (public management track at the University of Wisconsin), the YALI RLC Southern Africa, collaborative engagements with the United Nations Economic and Social Council, and project-based work in Lesotho.

Mpho regards service, integrity, and compassion as critical characteristics in any practice, and this has been evident in the community initiatives she has founded throughout the years. She sees Whose Stories Will We Hear as a moment in time for the African narrative, a platform for Africans to tell their own stories and be at the forefront of how history views Africa and its people.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating to millions, especially those who are most marginalized, Kathi Seiden-Thomas believes that this moment in history is an opportunity for our global community to dismantle systems of oppression and rebuild a more just society that respects the planet, relies on indigenous wisdom and centers leadership with those who are most impacted by disparities.

Kathi is a strategic partnership specialist with over twenty years of experience co-creating with multi-sector partners in the areas of health and wellness, racial justice, education, women’s rights, and community development in the U.S. and throughout the world. Her connection to African countries and communities began in her early career as a Health Educator with the Peace Corps in Mali.

She sees Whose Stories Will We Hear as a vehicle to shift the deficit narrative that many in the U.S. have of Africans and Africa, restoring dignity to a people and a place. 

Tell us about how you met during the 2019 Mandela Washington Fellowship Leadership Institute at UW-Madison in Madison!

K: I remember meeting Mpho at the welcome dinner in Dejope Hall and listening to her passion for community journalism and youth development and her personal interests in cycling, hiking, and traveling. During the weeks she spent in Madison, we developed a friendship through hours of conversation while paddling on Madison’s lakes, attending campus events, and over lengthy dinners. In late 2019, our family had the privilege of traveling with Mpho in South Africa and Eswatini and it was during this trip that our idea for a collaborative project was born. 

Tell us about “Whose Stories will We Hear?”

 M: Whose Stories Will We Hear (WSWWH) is an initiative that aims to uplift stories of the African continent. We believe that every story is worthy of being listened to and being heard. In our attempt to understand and tell African stories, we also recognize that our role is not limited to compiling these stories but is also extended to prioritizing the narrative of the communities that have given us the privilege of collaborating with them. 

WSWWH is currently running Series I: The Lives of Africans during the COVID-19 Pandemic, which to date has published 28 stories from 16 African countries on our website. We have virtually presented the project to a U.S. high school, will soon be featured on the social media channels of the Alumni Affairs Office in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, and are exploring other U.S. and global partnership opportunities.

K: We are soliciting funds to launch the next phase; to print and tour the Series I collection throughout South Africa, the African continent, and the U.S. with a series of events based on a community conversation model. Series II will expand to include multi-media documentation of stories. Our hope is that once it is safe to travel again, Mpho and I will be able to tour the project together.

How did you come up with this storytelling project?

M: We initially wanted to collaborate on a meaningful project that would be reflective of our experiences in storytelling, a way to document everyday experiences as told by the people in the stories. We came up with the project during the first few months of the Coronavirus outbreak to highlight the stories of everyday people whose lives were affected because of the pandemic but did not make the headlines. We wanted a project that would not only bring these stories to the surface but would honor the voices in these stories. 

K: I remember a specific conversation in March 2020. I shared with Mpho the reports that I was seeing from South Africa and wanted to know if they matched what she was seeing in the country. They were not. We shared the frustration that we rarely see first-person narrated stories and that this often perpetuates the negative stereotypes that are held of Africa and Africans from outside of the continent. We asked ourselves: Whose stories will be told 5, 20, 50 years after the pandemic? And who will be telling those stories? 

M: I see this initiative as a moment in time for the African narrative, a platform for Africans to tell their own stories and be in the forefront of how history views Africa and its people.

K: Similarly, I see it as a vehicle to shift the deficit narrative that many in the U.S. have of Africans and Africa, restoring dignity to a people and a place.

How has the 2019 Mandela Washington Fellowship Leadership Institute at UW-Madison program influenced your work?

M: The Mandela Washington opened my eyes to the diversity and importance of youth participation in the development of the African continent. I have opened my work up for collaborations now and I believe that because of the fellowship I am equipped with essential skills to sustain all the projects I pursue. The fellowship allowed me to tap into the work I regard as important and understand the power of both local and international partnerships. 

K: Spending time with the Fellows in 2019 re-ignited the passion that I developed for global partnership work while living in Mali years ago and has prompted my mid-career shift to focus on the field of international exchange and public diplomacy, with a focus on Sub-Saharan Africa. I am incredibly grateful for the friendships that I developed through my involvement with the program and for the significant impact they had and continue to have on my life and the life of my family.

You can contact Whose Stories Will We Hear via email, and read more about Kathi here, and Mpho here.

The Mandela Washington Fellowship is a program of the U.S. Department of State with funding provided by the U.S. Government and administered by IREX.