Written by Rediate Tekeste
Rediate Tekeste is a first generation Ethiopian-American and founder of Ethiopian Diaspora Fellowship (EDF). Through learning the importance of forming an identity as a diaspora through her own experiences, Rediate started EDF as a build to bridge the young-professional diaspora and partner companies in Ethiopia. She’s also the Co-Founder of Integrate Africa, a strategic communications consulting firm focused on social-impact businesses and African-centric media projects. Rediate has worked for social action organizations including the Clinton Initiative, America Reads Program leading education efforts through community partnerships in low-income areas. She spent time in Ethiopia working as a journalist for World Vision Ethiopia and then building a communication department at Selam Children’s Village. Rediate discovered her passion for storytelling while working as an international Field Producer for the documentary about girls’ education, Girl Rising. She currently combines her interest in storytelling and culture as the Director of Strategy at Redbird Group, an L.A based human-centered marketing agency. She received her B.A in Interpersonal and Intercultural Communications at Arizona State University and her Master of Communication Management degree at University of Southern California.
Growing up Ethiopian in an all-white small town in Iowa, I never deeply thought about my identity. I knew I was Ethiopian, but as far as I knew that meant my family had different food we would eat, we could secretly talk about things in another language, there were a lot of us, we had big weddings, my mom would yell into the phone when she talked to people from “back home,” we would receive letters telling stories of family I never knew getting married, having kids, people dying… all in one letter. It was like binge watching a TV show while she read the letter. I imagined this family in this other place for a few minutes, and then I went back to my own world.
I Navigated between being and not being black, not being white and being part of white culture. but truly never navigating Ethiopian’ess.
“Ethiopian,” wasn’t a concept I knew. I didn’t have an accent. I didn’t cook Ethiopian food. I hated the smell of onions on my clothes.
I just wanted to fit into my Iowan surroundings, I did fit in.
It wasn’t a question.
It was a must.
I was just me, Rediate. My identity was tied to my friends, my grades, my humor, my sister, my leadership qualities, my ability to stay calm under pressure, but not my cultural identity. I’m sure I had moments of confusion or awareness, but I remember being content in that space.
I went to college and through some awkward moments, I realized I was black. Yes, it took Freshmen year of college to shock me into reality. But that’s another story.
Then Sophomore year of college my mom wanted to take us to Ethiopia.
But, first, we had to finish our citizenship process.
The whole citizenship process felt like a weird dream. I knew I was American – this was just a silly process that would make it easier to fill out forms – I won’t have to remember my alien registration number anymore, I can participate in any contest, just a formality.
I came home from my citizenship ceremony to a “Welcome To America!” house party my roommates threw me. We wore red, white, and blue and drank American drinks and ate American hot dogs. We laughed at the absurdity that I had to even take a test, get interviewed, and go to a ceremony to be American. I was more heartland American than some of them.
Enter: My first trip back to Ethiopia.
As our plane was landing in Ethiopia my heart started pounding and my hands were sweating. I plugged in my earphones and wrote in my journal, “my heart is beating way fast because we are getting really close to Ethiopia – I have knots in my stomach and butterflies and my hands are shaking ha I am so nervous. I might have an anxiety attack. Seriously. Whoa. I need to stop thinking about it or I might throw up – it’s such a big BIG deal. I mean I haven’t seen these people in 16 years. What do you say? What are they expecting? What do I do? Am I what they expect?”
Three months in Ethiopia: I journaled almost every day on my first trip and reading through those pages is like a roller coaster of an identity crisis. First, realizing I had an Ethiopian identity and then the up and down of figuring out what that meant. I visited my mom’s village (like, literally, village) my dad’s village (again, village), met hundreds of friends and family members, saw Ethiopia from the East to the West, the North and the South. My mom took us everywhere in 3 months. She wanted us to see everything from the Sheraton in Addis, to my aunt’s metal house in a rural area with no electricity or running water.
And this, changed my life.
My first trip to Ethiopia created a deep desire to understand how one, my identity was complex and layered and two, I was only going to understand myself by investing in understanding myself.
Over the next few years I started that investment in everything I did, I graduated college, worked, lived in Ethiopia, traveled back and forth, went to graduate school, and through all of those experiences my Ethiopian-Iowan identity grew, conflicted, challenged, and supported me in various ways.
I majored in intercultural communications, I spent my summers in Iowa, I worked as producer and translated culture and language for Americans in Ethiopia, I joined everything diaspora related, I made friends with other third culture kids.
I started realizing it was a superpower to be from both an individualist and collectivist culture, to code-shift from language and actions emphasizing community to language and actions empowering yourself, to understand the immigrant experience and understand the “American” lifestyle. being from more than one culture increases your empathy for others, understanding of cultures, and of course, provides plenty of good stories.
I wanted every person that felt not quite this enough or that enough or even good enough to know that they were more than enough.
They were even better.
I wanted them to use that superpower to lead others.
I wanted people to use the same energy they did trying to fit in, into figuring out how their experience was exactly what they needed and what their community needed to stick out and lead others.
I wanted all of those things and here I was, I was born in a place some people would consider deprived of opportunities, with access and opportunity my grandma could never even dream of. I could go to school for as long as I wanted, study anything, move freely from country-to-country, and at a touch of a few buttons I could talk to my family anywhere in the world and learn anything in the world. It was as close to royalty as anyone else in my family had ever been.
So, what? One of my favorite verses says,
“For if you remain silent at this time, peace…will arise from another place…and who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” Esther 4:14
Basically, if you don’t do something, someone else can, but who knows that you aren’t in this exact position for this exact reason.
Ethiopian Diaspora Fellowship and the community around it, is an answer to that question. Who knows if I’ve come to this position for such a time as this? The point of struggling with an identity, growing up without half my extended family, living as refugees in the middle of America – was so I could use those experiences and build something that added value to my community.
I worked with a team of people to create an organization i wish existed. a community of young, Ethiopian-American, service-oriented, creative, community-centered, leaders.
In the last 4 years we’ve learned a lot. We’ve learned there are way more of us out there than we ever knew. We’ve learned we have so many shared experiences with people from all different cultures. We’ve learned some people just need one open door or connection and they will blow you away with their success. Mainly, we’ve learned nothing great can happen without collaboration.
We’ve struggled, we’ve succeeded, we’ve almost quit, and we’ve powered through when we didn’t think we could. we’re growing, learning and developing. but most importantly, we’re evolving.
And, that’s what it really is.
Culture. it’s not stagnant. it evolves in the same way our identity does.
I am not the same girl that I was growing up in Iowa, but I am not the complete opposite.
I have just evolved.
I am more Ethiopian, but it doesn’t mean I am less American. In the same way I can speak more Amharic now, but it’s not like I forgot English (most of the time).
It’s a process, a journey, and I don’t think identity ever has a final destination.
You win when you’re willing to question who you are, who you want to be, and how you’ll get there.
We all win when we’re willing to let our experiences evolve us in a way where we find value in our culture and our identity.