Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
Africa is the second largest and second most populous continent and also one with the youngest average population – 19.7 years compared to 30.4 years worldwide. It’s a continent where many wonderful things are happening, but too often the mainstream media informs public opinion by focusing on the negatives – wars, coups, and famines. A continent with 54 countries has many other stories to tell and Jacqueline Sibanda, who was born in Zimbabwe, raised and educated in England, and now lives in the Washington, D.C. area, has set out to do just that with 54 Stories, interviewing women entrepreneurs in each African country. You won’t want to miss this interview. Click to listen.
Top photo by Jacqueline Sibanda: Lighthouse at Cape Agulhas, the southern most tip of Africa.
Jacqueline Sibanda was born in the African nation of Zimbabwe, then raised and educated in England. She now lives in the Washington, DC area. Noticing more and more startups in tech, storytelling and other industries powered by African women entrepreneurs, Jacqueline was inspired to launch 54 Stories, conversations with African women entrepreneurs on the continent and in the diaspora.
Timing is everything. And the time for The Mosaic Theater Company’s season 2 opener, Charm is now. Starring the charismatic B’Ellana Duquesne as ‘Mama Darleena,’ and directed by Natsu Onoda Power, the two-hour and 20 minute long play explores the struggles faced by youth navigating their sexuality—from transgender to gay and a cisgendered couple. Against the backdrop of an etiquette class taught by Mama Darleena, an African-American transgender woman, the group laughs, cries, loves and hates, running the gamut of emotions and emotional struggles of trying to be ‘you’ in a world that says you or your kind don’t fit.
In the age of screens—TV screens, mobile screens, big screens—it’s easy to forget that once upon a time, the best way to enjoy stories was in real life, on the stage. From the opening scene when Mama strides onto the screen, the very definition of charm and etiquette, there is a tinge of bittersweet as your both admire her elegance and wonder what it took for her to stride a world that is hostile to members of the LGTBQ community, as they go about their daily lives.
Mama’s relentless effort to ‘school’ her class on the rules of proper behavior (according to her) finally breaks through as the group begins to appreciate and even enjoy their newly acquired manners. As new and unlikely friendships are formed, lives that sometimes seem like a constant battle—for survival, for dignity, for simple acceptance—are touched with a tinge of warmth. Somehow, with her easy elegance and gentle determination, Mama helps the group work through their struggles of identity, poverty and prejudice, all the while guiding them gently to see life as a beautiful journey, not a constant battle.
Together, Mama and her students bond as they discover and define what charm means to each of them and enjoy the mutual respect it inspires in their individual and collective lives.
It’s not too late for a bit of Charm. The show runs until January 29.
With Naomie Harris’s raw and powerful performance, a charming cameo by Janelle Monae, and with Barry Jenkins at the helm as writer and director, Moonlight is a gem, a powerful coming of age tale.
At the center of the film is Chiron (played by three actors – Alex Hibbert, as the young boy, Ashton Sanders, as an adolescent, and Trevante Rhodes as a young adult). With Chiron as the vehicle, the film explores the intersection of race, identity, and the ravages of addiction in South Florida. As the latchkey son of a drug-addicted mother, Chiron tries to come to grips with the growing realization that he’s not like other boys his age.
The real beauty the film is how it delicately, unapologetically explores a topic that is polarizing, especially for black men, skillfully grounding it in the most universal of truths: love, is love is just love.
The young actors who play Chiron deliver considered performances, transitioning the character from his beleaguered youth to a physically powerful, yet still vulnerable, young adult as seamlessly as skilled athletes hand over the baton during a relay race.
Alex Hibbert and Mahershala Ali
We would be remiss to ignore Mahershala Ali’s performance as Juan, who skillfully portrays a drug dealer at the height of war on drugs, who also manages to be a caring surrogate father to a young man who is in need of an anchor.
Moonlight, which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in September, is one to watch when award season rolls around.
Moonlight opens nationwide October 28, 2016. Highly recommended.
Top photo: Alex Hibbert Photos by David Bornfriend courtesy of A24
Before you set eyes on Dr. Jeri Dyson, you will likely hear her hearty laugh and feel a positive energy engulf the room. She is one of those people who are probably described as larger than life quite often.
“Charismatic is the right word,” says Dr. Stacey Eadie, who first met Dyson during her medical school residency. Dyson, a D.C. native, and Eadie, who comes from Baltimore, Md., immediately connected.
“Jeri was always my go-to person [in residency] on handling issues,” says Eadie. “Although she was my senior, I found her friendly and approachable.”
It is perhaps that quality, Dyson’s sense of warmth, tinged with a rich, raucous and easy laugh that resonates with adolescents who have encountered Dyson through her a work as an adolescent medicine physician specializing in sexually transmitted infections. A combination of that work and her personality, landed Dyson a spot on the BET’s popular music program, 106 & Park, for an International Aids Day #RapItUp panel discussion. “I have always felt the need to give back to the community,” recalls Dyson, who attended Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) for her undergraduate studies and medical school.
That appearance on 106 & Park changed the direction of Dyson’s life. As she watched the young audience, Dyson was shocked by the crowd’s cavalier attitude in a conversation about a topic as serious as HIV/Aids. “I went home and cried,” she says. “That was the life changer — it wasn’t so much disrespect but rather the disregard these kids had for the subject. It was alarming.”
Pausing as she recalls that day, Dyson adds, “I knew that I had to do more. These young people, already in a high risk category, were even more at risk because they were not taking the issue seriously.”
According to the Center for Disease Control, African Americans are the racial group most affected by HIV in the United States, for a number of reasons–ranging from poverty, which often also means a lack of access to health services, to a lack of awareness about HIV and prevention options.
Dyson’s work with young people goes beyond their physical health, to shaping the whole person so they are informed and empowered to make decisions that impact their lives in positive ways. Despite the challenging topics she addresses through her work, Dyson’s personality and engaging presentation style helps connect with audiences of all ages.
“Dr. Dyson was absolutely awesome at the National Executive Youth Leadership Society! She kept the attention of over 300 students and parents the entire time,” Chonya Johnson, Director of the National Executive Youth, Leadership Society held at the U.S. Capitol, effuses as she recalls Dyson’s impact on members of the organization she leads.
It is perhaps ironic that in a hyper-connected society, people young and old can feel disconnected or lost. Dyson works with people of all ages helping them to resolve issues around intimacy and understand the difference between sensuality and sexuality.
Dyson is part of growing community of lifestyle coaches, or gurus even, who have recognized a growing need, especially among women, to find more meaning in their lives. Her own life exemplifies that idea — of living ‘an authentic’ life. “In order for me to make a difference, I really had to do my homework,” she says. “I was always studying, looking up statistics. I wanted to give [people] fresh and up-to-date information. A lot of times I was overly-prepared.”
As her transition from doctor to a hybrid motivational-speaker-educator-coach evolves, Dyson’s advice for her peers or others aspiring to this area of work is to be prepared to encounter people that will both encourage and discourage their ambitions.
She also emphasizes the need to be patient and persistent. “It is such a life-changing decision that I’ve made,” she says. “Every overnight success is 10-to-15 years in the making. You have to be patient and you have to stay on the path.”
Their paths kept crossing until the time was right to launch their brand new, all women-owned company, Flowstate Films
They say timing is everything. That has certainly proven to be true for the three founders of Flowstate Films, Kiley Kraskouskas, Leola Calzolai-Stewart and Rachell (pronounced Rah-shell) Shapiro. Opportunity and timing aligned around their collective values and creative visions when they officially launched Flowstate, in April. The company is the culmination of over ten years as friends and colleagues, working at other production companies.
From the beginning, the award-winning trio realized that they had a shared goal to make films that mattered and had a social impact. Their new Washington, D.C.-based venture brings together their combined 30 years of experience and passion for mission-driven storytelling.
Rachell Shapiro (Photo: Jacqueline Sibanda)
Ahead of this year’s Academy Awards, much was made of Oscar’s whiteness. However, the film industry’s diversity problem goes beyond culture. It is no secret that despite some progress, it is still largely male-dominated. Increasingly frustrated with being overlooked for opportunities that she was as qualified for as male peers, Rachell Shapiro used her frustration as inspiration to start her own business.
She was on the verge of launching when Flowstate was born. “The website was up. I was about to make an announcement. I had even printed my business cards, when Kiley called,” says Shapiro. Shapiro and co-founders Kraskouskas and Calzolai-Stewart discussed their vision for Flowstate at length for over a year. They chose the name because it captures the essence of their creative process and mindful approach to life and business.
Building the business in D.C. made sense, partly because of family roots and other commitments. There is also more to the District for filmmakers than just national monuments and providing topical locations for political series like House of Cards and Scandal. Although D.C.’s film industry is smaller than the better-known film markets in LA and New York, it is still the country’s third largest film market. While the bigger markets are better for networking, there are opportunities in the nation’s capital that are unique to the context—the international community and interest in international affairs.
Kraskouskas used her move to the area after a stint in New York as an opportunity to explore her interest in film. Shapiro hired her as an intern and the rest, as they say, is history. “If I had started my [film] career in New York, I would have been competing against every NYU film student,” says Kraskoukas. “I would never have had a shot,” she adds.
Like Shapiro, Kraskouskas is conscious of the film industry’s gender disparity and in her own career has made an effort to help drive change. As president of Docs in Progress, an organization that provides resources for documentary filmmakers, Kraskouskas used the opportunity to show that good leaders can be female. Kraskouskas has never shied away from speaking up when she sees sexism in the industry. She credits her father, a business owner who always talked to her like an adult, for raising her to feel like she could do anything.
Nevertheless, the lack of women in the film industry is still cause for concern. “I do worry that as we go out and interface with clients, we will have to deal with the inherent bias that people have,” Kraskouskas says. “They simply expect to see a man walk in.”
Calzolai-Stewart started her career in international relations. After successfully passing the U.S. foreign service exam the first time (three quarters of people who take the exam each year fail), her husband was posted to South Africa.
The Tufts University alumnus used the opportunity to step out of her comfort zone to explore her long-held interest in film. Not quite sure what she wanted to do in the industry, she enrolled at a local college and interned at various production companies in Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city.
On her return to Washington, Calzolai-Stewart met Shapiro and Kraskouskas through work. She and Kraskouskas went on to collaborate on the award-winning independent documentary, The Last Song before the War. The film documents Mali’s annual Festival in the Desert, as its future is threatened by economic and political unrest in the West African country.
This summer she will lead the production of Flowstate’s first documentary project, Black Diplomacy, which explores the overlooked history and struggle of unsung black diplomats in the post-World War II era. The film has already attracted Emmy winner and Academy Award nominee, Sam Pollard, as executive producer. Pollard’s previous credits include Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke and Jungle Fever.
Besides full-length, independent documentaries, Flowstate Films will also be creating branded, client-based content. The three principals have recently worked with a diverse array of organizations including, The George Washington University, BAE Systems and Big Picture Media, producing films and video geared toward advertising elements.
Top photo: Kiley Kraskouskas, right. (Photo: Docs in Progress)
Kenyan-born Zain Verjee spent 14 years at CNN as an anchor, reporter and interviewer, before bringing together her passion for Africa and interest in online communications with the creation of aKoma, a digital storytelling platform. Beyond the many countries she has covered as a reporter, Zain also invests her personal time in understanding people around the world.
Can you point to one event that triggered your interest in your career?
I was hosting the mid-morning radio show in Nairobi, Kenya, on the 19th floor at Capital FM, when I heard a loud bang and felt the building shake. At first I thought it was an earthquake. We saw smoke coming out of an area of downtown Nairobi. It was a terrorist bombing of the U.S. embassy in August 1998. This shifted my personal interest from music and entertainment to hard news, and a desire to understand more about the world and why this happened.
What about this career choice did you find most appealing?
It was serious, impactful and I developed a huge depth of knowledge, for both the issues at stake and how to present them in a way that viewers or listeners could easily process.
What steps did you take to begin your education or training?
I trained on the job and I believe that’s the best way to learn. You can turn to the internet today for tips on how to be a better journalist, a host, a reporter, a producer, a fixer, an engineer, whatever you would like to be—you can learn by doing. Take advantage of all learning available online, for free and combine it with finding a space to do what you love. Make it happen.
Along the way, were people encouraging or discouraging?
I received a great deal of encouragement. I learned to rely on a handful of folks I trust and really take their opinions and critical feedback to heart. Being a public figure means you are fair game and everyone has a point of view. You can’t take all of it on, so you have to filter what makes sense and what doesn’t. I have been quite fortunate in that at key moments of my career the right person was there at the right time, championing my career and encouraging me to take risks and believe in myself.
Did you ever doubt your decision and attempt a career change?
No. I am grateful for everything I have experienced.
When did your career reach a tipping point?
I’ve completely redefined myself and my goals, while remaining in a space I am interested in and passionate about: storytelling and Africa. I view growth as key to a career. While in London with CNN, I felt I was no longer evolving either as a professional or as a person and I knew that to learn and achieve more I had to move outside of CNN and traditional media. So I left the company in March 2014 to start aKoma, a digital storytelling platform that aims to bring unique African stories and perspectives to the world. I’m creating akomanet.com with a core team and am very excited about our progress. Digital and social media are the future and I want to be on the front-lines, applying my traditional media knowledge to it, and taking new risks. It’s been very challenging and at the same time exceptionally rewarding.
If you can you describe a challenge you had to overcome?
My battle with my skin has always been a challenge. I suffer from severe psoriasis and when I have a flare up, I do not feel completely stable! There are natural and traditional methods of healing. I have done both.
What single skill has proven to be most useful?
The most useful skill I have is the ability to laugh at myself and not to take everything too seriously.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
I am most proud of receiving my Masters of Studies in Creative Writing at Oxford University this year. It was very hard to juggle CNN and writing, and then a start-up and writing. I tried all different genres of writing: a screenplay, a book of poetry, memoir, short stories and fiction. I deliberately put myself out of my comfort zone and evolved as a writer. My brilliant CNN producer and I co-wrote a sitcom (she did most of it) and I am really proud of the work. It’s set in a TV newsroom where the prime time shows and the morning shows battle each other for guests!
Any advice for others entering your profession?
With a changing media environment and the pace, pressure and access to varied forms of information, it matters more than ever to stick to the principles of solid journalism. The cardinal rule is “it’s better to be right than first.” Don’t forget that, and enjoy the journey.
Located in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia’s population of over 90 million makes it the second most populous country in Africa. Ethiopians began arriving in the US in the 1970s, some fleeing from political turmoil in their country and others just looking for new opportunities.
Over time, America’s capital city became known as ‘Little Ethiopia,’ and the second largest Ethiopian city in the world. However, as Washington, D.C. has undergone a visible change and development over the years, so has its Ethiopian community.
The First Generation
Rebecca Gebreyes came to the US in 1970. After completing college in Boston she moved to D.C., where she had a brother. She remembers a community that was less than welcoming of newcomers. “D.C. was aloof about including blacks in those days,” she recalled. “It was hard for us to date or socialize,” said Gebreyes, explaining the impact of being discriminated against by both white and black Americans.
A French scholar in her native Ethiopia, Gebreyes used her language skills to land a job at the Embassy of Senegal, in D.C.. That job, where she has worked for over 20 years, offered her refuge from the hostility in her new country and opened the door to a vibrant African diplomatic community that welcomed her.
Rebecca thinks the struggle to assimilate faced by her generation contributed to the strong sense of community that Ethiopians enjoy today. “We had no choice but to support each other,” she said.
Beakal Tekola raises awareness about his app and funds for good cause.
By the time Beakal Tekola, 35, moved to America in 1991, the Ethiopian community had become an established and visible presence in the District. He arrived at the age of 11 without speaking a word of English, which added another layer to the complexity of starting a new life in the land of opportunity.
As is the pattern with immigrant communities, newcomers typically go where they have existing connections. Tekola and his family started their American dream in South East D.C., where he had aunts and uncles. Just six months into their new life his mother witnessed a shooting. They relocated to Reston in neighboring Virginia, soon after.
Despite the language barrier and a lack of diversity in Reston, playing soccer at school helped Beakal make friends. The sport would connect him to communities throughout his young life, including at Virginia Tech where he found his first non-family community through the Africa Students Association; and subsequently in Indiana, where he worked as a mechanical engineer for two years at Ford.
When friends started sharing Ethiopian music using an app they had developed, in 2010, Tekola didn’t think much of it. Then he discovered another app that made it easy to find Ethiopian businesses in the D.C. area. Tekola sat up and took notice. “It was the first time that I started to see the Ethiopian community as a viable and serious business opportunity,” said Tekola. As a co-founder of Arisoft, Tekola has since developed several apps specifically for the Ethiopian community, including ArifZefen, which lets users stream Ethiopian music.
In the 24 years that he has lived in America, Tekola has seen a tangible shift in the community. “We have gone from just trying to survive to being highly educated, successful and occupying leadership positions or starting businesses.”
In Tekola’s opinion, the growth of Ethiopian hubs in the suburbs is not surprising. “Areas like Kensington, Springfield, or Silver Spring, in Maryland, meet the needs of both high and low income Ethiopians,” he says. And like D.C., the new hubs have Ethiopian restaurants, coffee shops, grocery stores and Hookah bars, as well as other Ethiopians?—?all ingredients that make a community feel like home.
The Outsider Looking In
In his job as an urban planner, Dan Reed looks at the different issues that face a given place and makes recommendations for solutions to architects, engineers, or policymakers. Dan has lived in the D.C. area his entire life and in Silver Spring, Md., since 1991, giving him a front row view of the changing face of the D.C. area’s immigrant communities. “I’ve seen it [Silver Spring] go from being mainly blacks and Jews when I was a kid to becoming a huge hub for the Ethiopian community (and others),” said Reed.
An avid analyst of the Census and American Community Surveys, Reed used open data to map the D.C. area’s Ethiopian Diaspora hubs. On whether Ethiopians are being pushed out of D.C. by development and the associated gentrification, Reed offers an interesting perspective. He finds the common gentrification narrative somewhat limiting in that it denies people’s agency. “The question really isn’t about gentrification,” said Reed. He argues that “there’s arguably a very strong pull from the Ethiopian enclaves that exist in this region?—?Alexandria and downtown Silver Spring. I think the pull of those places is much stronger than any push out of the District.” Reed points out that both those areas are very similar to D.C., in that they are dense and very urban in nature. They offer some of the same characteristics as Adams Morgan and Shaw, the original Ethiopian hubs.
It’s possible then that as the community has gotten bigger, it is finding new spaces that can accommodate its growing numbers and yet feel familiar or like an extension of the D.C. communities they have always lived in.
The Community Organizer
That strong sense of community is a common thread in each of these stories, including Hanna Tadesse’s. “Ethiopians are mainly concerned about other Ethiopians, whether they are in their immediate community or not,” Tadesse, 29, observes. “It sometimes feels like you’re still back home (both a good and bad thing),” she adds.
An annual gathering for Artists for Charity that attracts a diverse crowd.
Hanna moved to the D.C. area in 2005. As the lead fundraiser for the non-profit Artists for Charity, Tadesse has helped organize many events over the years to support an orphanage in Addis Ababa. She has seen first hand the Ethiopian Diaspora’s commitment to giving back to those in Ethiopia.
The need to support each other that helped Rebecca Gebreyes’ generation of immigrants to the U.S. find refuge in an unwelcoming host country, keeps a new generation of Ethiopians connected to each other and their parents’ culture.
A New Generation
Yodit Gebreyes, 29, is a regular supporter of Artists for Charity and their work to help orphans in Addis Ababa get a chance at a better life. She is a member of the new generation born in the U.S. yet passionate about and connected to the Ethiopian community.
Unlike her mother Rebeccca’s experience, Yodit has grown up immersed in and confident of her place in both cultures. “As parents we did everything to teach them their culture but to also adapt to being American,” said Rebecca. Her parents’ effort is evident in Yodit’s confidence in straddling both worlds. After graduating from Georgetown University with a Master’s in PR and Corporate Communications, she worked at an architectural firm. When plans for a food truck with her mother collapsed, she spotted an opportunity to launch her event company, Favored By Yodit.
“I started my business because of the high demand for modern Ethiopian weddings,” said Yodit. Although her clients are diverse, planning weddings for ‘fusion’ couples (where one is Ethiopian and their partner is another race) continues to offer a niche market that her dual culture uniquely positions her to fill. After years of asking, Yodit finally visited Ethiopia for the first time at age 21, with her mother. It was Rebecca’s first trip back since she left in 1970.
A full house at Ethiopians Give Back
When she sees the life her newly-wed daughter is building, Rebecca is in awe of the opportunities that this new generation has. She is also proud of the ease with which they embrace their dual heritage. “The new generation balances these two cultures [American and Ethiopian] so well. They are full of confidence in who they are. It’s priceless to see the impact,” Rebecca said.
So, has the Ethiopian Community Fled the District for the Suburbs?
Not so, according to Winta Teferi, herself an Ethiopian and the Language Access Director at the D.C. Office of Human Rights. “D.C. is still popular with new arrivals to the U.S. for a number of reasons, such as public transport, a diverse population and the presence of immigrant community hubs,” said Teferi.
She also highlighted the District’s Language Access Act, which became law in 2004, as another factor that makes D.C. a good option for new immigrants.
The Act was partly the result of an over 10-year lobbying effort by the DC Language Access Coalition, comprised of African, Asian, Latino and other community activists. The Act aims to ensure that immigrants get the language support they need to access information and social services.
In the two years that she has been in this role and for the previous two years when she worked in the Mayor’s Office of African Affairs, Teferi said the number of Africans living in the District has remained stable. She points out that Ethiopians are still the largest group within D.C.’s African community and Amharic, along with Spanish, remains at the fore of key languages. Although the Ethiopian Diaspora has grown in neighboring suburbs, Teferi thinks it has not been at the expense of the hubs in D.C.