Formed in 2015 by co-founders Walla Elsheikh and Diallo Shabazz, Birthright AFRICA’s heritage-based leadership program inspires scholars to draw pride, confidence, and creativity from their cultural roots and legacy of innovation in the U.S. and Africa.
Recently, Birthright AFRICA hosted its Inaugural Gala. It was a hybrid event, live and virtual. It was co-chaired by Grammy Award-nominated multi-platinum artist and actor Jidenna; award-winning entrepreneur, Tastemakers Africa CEO and founder Cherae Robinson; and the manager of Intra-African Trade Initiative at Afreximbank - African Export and Import Bank, Temwa Gondwe.
Birthright AFRICA is committed to providing a free educational trip to Africa for youth and young adult of African descent ages 13 – 30 in the U.S. With its Education Partners–high schools, colleges, and community-based organizations–61 scholars of African descent have received their birthright to explore the resilience and brilliance of their heritage locally, nationally, and across the African continent.
For Jidenna, it was only natural to participate in not only in the Gala but the organization itself.
Jidenna, who rose up the music charts in 2015 with two hit songs --“Classic Man” and “Yoga”--was born in the U.S. to a white American woman and a Nigerian father. He lived briefly in Nigeria as a child before returning to the U.S. Still, Jidenna is close to his Nigerian roots.
“It was a national evolution for me to be part of Birthright AFRICA,” Jidenna told NewsBreak. “It has been an idea I’ve been broadcasting since I was a teenager--the idea of centralizing a decentralized people. I care deeply about making sure we’re creating a pipeline and bridge across the diaspora to the continent. So being part of a nonprofit that is actually doing the work is something I had to be a part of.”
Jidenna has become a worldwide sensation and a role model to many. “I think everyone over 21 is a role model whether they want to be one or not,” notes the singer. “I’m proud of my generation; I think we’re doing what politicians for years could not do, we’re doing what so-called leaders for years could not do. That is to make the Black experience look fresh on the continent and in the diaspora, and that has built a union between the two.”
Jidenna has some advice for the Birthright AFRICA scholars and others of African descent. “What I'd like to pass on to young Africans is not to be afraid to go down the path less traveled. My entire career has been based on that. I want Africa, in general, to take that approach in architecture, in agriculture--to believe that you have a God-given right to a better life and an innovative life and not to follow in the footsteps of Europe, America, Asia, but take from every place that took from you...(and) ultimately create something that is uniquely African,” he offers.
He continues, “Don’t be afraid of our past because our past is littered with gold more than it is littered with trash. What people think about Africa has been shaped for years by negative propaganda...I care more about what Africa knows itself rather than what other people think about Africa. I want Africans to travel within Africa, to cross borders. We have so much beauty, potential, and beautiful history.”
Birthright AFRICA is playing its part in spreading the word about the talent within Africa. Most recently, it raised nearly $100,000 to support Birthright AFRICA’s nationwide outreach for the first time to select 12 young people of African descent to join Jidenna for the first cohort of Birthright AFRICA Scholars to return to Ghana since the Covid-19 pandemic began. More than 23,000 young people of African descent have registered as Birthright AFRICA Scholars and now have access to virtual programs to explore their ancestral roots and legacy, and this is a significant achievement.
“I started Birthright AFRICA because I needed it as someone of African descent in the diaspora that felt very disconnected to my heritage and lacking understanding of our history-- that in America and on the continent,” says Walla Elsheikh, who was a young professional in the U.S. in the finance world at the time.
Elsheikh was born in Sudan and raised there as well as in Sweden and Uganda before immigrating to New York City.
Elsheikh was living the American dream but felt something was missing. “But I started to see the gaps more glaringly, particularly with the lack of Black leadership. As a Black immigrant in the United States, I had a very idealist view of the country. For the first time, I truly questioned whether I was being perceived as a leader because of my Blackness.”
She wondered why Black people didn’t receive birthright to Africa. “I knew if I needed it, then a whole bunch of us just need it to have pride and confidence in our heritage, particularly to overcome self-doubt in a system of racism and oppression that makes you question your value.”
Elsheikh then went about researching how Birthright AFRICA would operate. “I worked in the field of college and career readiness for ten years to learn how the first Birthright AFRICA mission would fit within the educational ecosystem to support preparing young people of African descent with a knowledge and an understanding of their history as a part of building up the pride and confidence needed to fulfill on future aspirations, especially in a system of racism and oppression that creates the gaps in leadership and diversity that I had seen in my own experience in Corporate America,” she shares.
In 2015, she incorporated Birthright AFRICA. The following year she met her co-founder, Diallo Shabazz.
The pair piloted the first Birthright AFRICA cohort in 2017 with the City University of New York through the Black Male Initiative.
“Since then we’ve had multiple cohorts and helped bring over 60 young Black people in collaboration with our education partners, particularly in 2019 with the year of return that included our first high school - Frederick Douglass Academy in Brownsville Brooklyn as well as our first community-based organization GrowHouse NYC explored African heritage and innovation in the U.S. before traveling to Ghana and South Africa,” explains Elsheikh.
Birthright AFRICA programs visit cultural sites, museums, universities, and innovation partners (businesses managed, led, or owned by people of African descent) to explore the historical and present-day legacy of civilizations, leaders, and entrepreneurs of African descent that have contributed to the world for centuries until now.
Elsheikh and Shabazz have continued to expand the scope of Birthright AFRICA. “We’ve built a collaborative partnership model to drive the mission of Birthright AFRICA where we serve as an umbrella organization to our education partners - high schools, colleges, and community-based organizations that build Birthright program in the house to serve the youth and young adults of African descent that they are looking to impact with the free educational trip to Africa,” Elsheikh says.
She added, “Together, we co-fund Birthright Programs while Birthright AFRICA supports with technical expertise to help build Birthright programs that start with local and national exploration in the United States the culminate with the transformative experience of being on the continent for the first time. The impact has been tremendous, with 100% of our alumni saying the experience has been life-changing, saying they all want to go back to the continent multiple times to multiple nations and can even see themselves living and working on the continent in the future. As an educator, I’m proud that 98% of them feel like they have more resources, clarity, and belief in themselves to fulfill their future career and life goals.”
Birthright AFRICA reaches out to an age range of 13 to 30.
“The decision to include higher age ranges was very intentional. I was still reconciling a lot around identity, culture, and even a career in terms of exploring my passion and purpose in my late twenties to understand how I would build myself up with skills and knowledge and networks to achieve my career and life goals,” offers Elsheikh.
She adds, “Many of us are still coming into who we are in that age range of 25 to 30 knowing that an experience like birthright could be significantly impactful in helping a young person believe in themselves, I felt very confident about including the higher age ranges.”
The higher age range also allows the organization to reach out to college students and beyond. “College students including graduate students and even those who may have started late in college as well as the community-based organizations that have participants across various ages and we have seen those young people thrive,” notes Elsheikh. “Because they’re even closer to or already in their careers, the impact can be quite immediate in the kinds of career and life choices that they make moving forward because of the clarity they can gain and believe in themselves. Along with the resources that they now know they have through the Birthright AFRICA ecosystem of leaders and entrepreneurs that they meet along the way, including those on the continent….they can pursue their leadership and entrepreneurship to fulfill their dreams, the community around them, and the ancestors.”
While the gala event allowed the organization to celebrate its past achievements, Birthright AFRICA also announced its new initiatives.
“This coming year, we are excited for the first-ever nationwide search and selection of a Birthright Cohort to travel in late December through early January to Ghana and meet our newest executive board member Jidenna Mobisson, better known as the global recording artist Jidenna. Not only did he co-chair the Gala, but he was an emcee and performed live to help raise funds for that Dec/Jan cohort. We continue to raise funds coming out of the Gala until the end of the year to meet our goal of sending 500 young people of African descent to the continent for the first time in collaboration with our education partners,” says Elsheikh.
Looking forward, Birthright AFRICA has a lot of plans. “Over the next five years, we are looking to build the Birthright AFRICA ecosystem to include 500 partners to collaborate and send 5,000 young people of African descent to the continent. We are committed to the young African diaspora to receive the transformative birthright experience to discover their roots and uncover that greatness,” Elsheikh says.
Elsheikh wants to change the perception of African youth. “The youth of Africa as our Birthright AFRICA scholars come to find out they are connected to their culture as well as contemporary life gave their technological access to the world,” she says. “They have aspirations and ambitions just like their peers all over the world and work hard with an entrepreneurial spirit -- this permeates throughout Africa. African youth are very welcoming and excited to meet Americans and foreigners from all over the world and very open to sharing their culture as they look to learn from others. They also look for an opportunity to collaborate with their peers and counterparts.”
African youth who have immigrated to the U.S. can also be involved in Birthright AFRICA. “My parents immigrated from Sudan when I was 11, and because of immigration status that we had, I was not able to go back to the continent until 15 years later, and so that disconnection was genuine for me, and I know that exists across the continental African diaspora," shares Elsheikh. "We’ve made the criteria such that if you have an immigrant background from Africa as long as you have not been back after the age of 12, then you are eligible for the birthright experience that begins at the age of 13 up till 30."
Elsheikh and Shabazz have a lot on their plate as they expand Birthright AFRICA. “We are engaging corporations and partners in Africa who see the value of the young Africa diaspora being a part of Africa’s economic development and supporting the birthright experience knowing that once a young person sees and feels the continent first hand, they will forever be transformed and find their place in its innovative future where ever they end up living in the world – they are connected to the motherland," she says.
She adds, "We are thrilled to continue the life-changing mission that will transform the African diaspora for generations to come as we fulfill the promise of our ancestors to build on their legacy through our own and gain both recognition and wealth for the contribution of our creativity and innovation in the 21st century and beyond."
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