In July 2019, the Chester Made team welcomed a group of 25 young leaders from Sub Saharan Africa visiting the US under the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders. Although past exchanges involved groups from Chicago, IL, Gary, IN and Detroit, MI, this was the first peer exchange that I was a part of where our visiting participants were from outside of the US, though you would never have guessed after seeing the immediate connection between everyone in attendance.
The Mandela Washington Fellowship provides outstanding persons from Sub Saharan Africa a trip to US higher education institutions with the goal of honing their skills in one of three fields: Business, Civic Engagement, or Public Management.
Chester, PA was chosen as a site visit for the 2019 Mandela Fellows because of the city’s history and assets, Chester Made’s deep rooted community engagement projects, and the thriving business and arts district. Chester is a city that has seen decline, and residents, artists and activists are taking remarkable steps to rebuild its reputation through civic engagement and art, two things the Mandela Fellows are also responsible for in their work. To me, this demonstrates why exchanges are so important for Chester Made and other projects, businesses and organizations.
The exchange kicked off with a delicious, thoughtfully planned lunch at Brothers Restaurant which is owned by Chester Made Artistic Director, Devon Walls. This meal was the talk of the exchange! We enjoyed jasmine rice, tikka marsala chicken, pepper steak, and maple candied carrots that were to die for! Created by Executive Chef Aaliyah Alamin, she spoke about her passion for making deep-rooted connections through the culinary arts. The meal and words of wisdom fueled our conversations about the ways we communicate about our love for the work we do, the leadership positions we hold in our community, and the legacy we want to leave behind.
Chester representatives who live, work, study and play in Chester were also invited to the restaurant to come share about their role in the revitalization of the city. It was exciting to see this group of energized civic leaders talk about their work with pride and relate to each others journeys through struggle, determination and growing success.
A panel discussion--complete with an impromptu “switch-up” of panelists--was facilitated by Chester Made Project Manager Ulysses ‘Butch’ Slaughter. African and American panelists alike learned that they faced similar challenges working in communities where many are struggling with poverty, health and safety issues. When asked how this exchange will influence their work going forward, Fellows agreed that leadership, legacy, and love are indispensable factors no matter where or who you are working with.
“I’ve been really emotional since I’ve been here because I’m in a house of art. And when I’m somewhere where I have paintings on the walls, musical instruments, and artists talking with their hearts, I feel kind of emotional. I do believe that art is the best way to educate people, to develop our creativity and different ways of thinking. I do believe that education is the way to change people--to help them find the best version of themselves...And I do believe that when someone changes to the best version [of themselves], they are able to change the world.” --Janice Soraia Fortes da Graca of Cabo Verde
The one thing that rang true throughout the day was that together, anything is possible.
“The African American experience here and the Africa experience back home is like the bridge that we need to connect with. I want to learn from this experience, I want to build that bridge because I’ve been connected to this experience since my early days. I understand the challenges that people face in Africa and the challenges that people face here that are almost similar, and what we have to do is learn from our experiences--take the positive experiences from here and replicate them back home. This is something that Africa can do.” --Desta Mekonen Abreha of Ethiopia
We left Brothers Restaurant to participate in a group painting activity organized by Chester Made Artistic Director Devon Walls, Kenny Hunt, and Damien Parson. Everyone headed to the Chester Made Makerspace, getting a tour of the Avenue of the States and its lively businesses along the way. Once filled, the Makerspace resonated with groovy tunes like Drogba (Joanna) by Afro B, dancing painters, and singing voices. We worked together to create three beautiful murals of African stilt-walkers, chosen to compliment a stilt-making and walking workshop we had scheduled the following month. It was an energetic afternoon that uplifted the Avenue of the States in Chester as a truly international city.
To wrap up the Mandela Washington Fellows visit, everyone sat in a circle in MJ Freed Theater, surrounded by vibrant local art. The visiting leaders asked questions about Chester’s history, development, and vision for the future. We responded with hopes of more exchanges like this one, in addition to a sustained connection to this group of humanitarians. The atmosphere was that of a friendly and open community made more rich by the diverse backgrounds of everyone present.
Opinions were shared on socioeconomic growth and local business, embellished with moving personal stories. The Fellows learned about the core values of Chester Made: how arts and culture drives economic and community development. We learned our visitors shared similar values. The event not only felt educational, but thoroughly enjoyable, like the bus dropped off a group of close friends.
In a thank you letter to Chester Made partners after the exchange, Trisha Alexy, Administrative Director, Mandela Washington Fellowship, Lehigh University Business Institute, wrote, “While their experience over the six weeks is filled with seminars, business trips and cultural experiences, the lessons they will take with them because of people like you are amazing life lessons. And, the opportunity the Fellows have to interact with someone with your experience is, by far, the most valuable aspect of the program.”
By the end of this experience everyone who was involved--from Chester artist to African entrepreneurs--were speaking the same language through art.
View more photos from the exchange here.