Dr. Menna Demessie ’98 returns to WRA as Waring Prize Speaker and second luminary in the Bicentennial Speaker Series

Dr. Demessie, Senior Vice President and Executive Director of the Universal Music Group’s global Task Force for Meaningful Change, spoke to the Reserve community about the incredible coalescence of artistry, culture and impact.

On Friday, April 19, Western Reserve Academy welcomed back alumna Dr. Menna Demessie ’98, the 2023 recipient of the Waring Prize and the second in our Bicentennial Speaker Series. The Waring Prize is bestowed to an alumni member who, by their way of life and achievements, whether at the beginning, middle or end of their career, represents the human and individual values that WRA strives to foster. WRA alumni members can nominate classmates for this recognition, and past recipients include poets, entrepreneurs, educators, scientists, clergy members.

Dr. Demessie’s nomination was a highly anticipated entry. Just a brief review of her life reveals an extraordinary journey — graduating from Oberlin College and the University of Michigan with a degree in economics and law & society, and a joint PhD in public policy and political science, respectively. She joined the Center for Policy Analysis and Research for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and led the non-profit for nine years. In 2021, she was appointed Senior Vice President and Executive Director of Universal Music Group’s global Task Force for Meaningful Change. Their mission? In their words, “to amplify and expand UMG’s current programs, devise new initiatives and support marginalized communities in the ongoing fight for equality, justice and inclusion.”

Dr. Demessie has also found opportunity to teach throughout her career at the UC Washington Center and currently serves as adjunct faculty for the University of Michigan, where she teaches courses in race and ethnic politics, American government, political advocacy, and Black Lives Matter, and mentors several college students and policy interns.

Whether it was this familiarity of working among students or an enviable affinity for public speaking — Dr. Demessie addressed the pews of Pioneers with ease. This wasn’t, as she explained, her first time at the Chapel podium, having returned to WRA years prior as our 2014 Commencement Speaker, the Knight Fellow and 2018 Keir Vivienne Marticke Speaker. And in reviewing all Dr. Demessie's Chapel talks, a pattern emerges. There is always poetry and rhythm (and for someone who doesn’t consider herself an artist, her musicality is undeniable). Moreover, the enormity of her subject and the depth to which she inspires her audience is as loud and clear as the standing ovation she always receives at the finale.

On this particular occasion, she talked about the power of artistry, culture and impact. At the start, she asked her audience to recognize Alan Doe, former Chair of the Fine & Performing Arts Department, who retired in 2020.

“Teachers like him teach us to keep an open mind, to stand in our creative spirit,” said Dr. Demessie. “He is symbolic of all of the teachers in this Chapel today.”

She expressed gratitude to Reserve as an experience, as a whole. To the students, she reminded them to take advantage of the incredible community that they are a part of. You will do great things, she said with utmost confidence, and her hope is that what lies ahead is partnered with a desire to be bridge builders, change agents and to do great work for our culture, community and country.

“I know you all want to do amazing things, but what I hope I can do today is motivate you to take on your justice journey in whatever it is that you do as you enter college and ultimately go on to change the world,” she said. Dr. Demessie’s own justice journey began and continues to thrive in research. Her life’s quest is to meet as many people as she can, to learn from them and collaborate with as many people as possible to make democracy work for all.

“Artistry, Culture and Impact,” she shared. “Today I want to talk to you about these three words and how we can come together to understand the power of working together, why these words are the basis of social change, social movements and provide us with a way to constantly reimagine what justice and democracy should look like.”

She introduced numerous moments and cultural magnates as powerful exemplifiers of this truth, such as the U.S. Constitution, revised 27 times by those brave and bold enough to have the creative energy and insight, to weather the cost and sacrifice to forward such drastic changes.

“It took guts, strength, foresight,” said Dr. Demessie, describing the effort made to move the monumental 13th, 14th and 15th amendments forward. “But it started with an idea, a dream, the pursuit of a radical imagination of humanity that included all people.”

She detailed contemporary icons such as former professional athlete and current civil rights activist Colin Kaepernick, musical titans like Bob Marley, even a nod to her own brother, all of whom are either currently doing or have done incredible things in the name of justice and equity. She shared Kaepernick’s efforts with his Autopsy Initiative, conducted through his Know Your Rights Camp organization, offering secondary autopsies at no cost to family members who lost a loved one in a police-related death. When an autopsy can cost up to or more than $10,000, this initiative removes that financial burden and can help provide clarity, closure, and restore a sense of justice.

“The creative interplay of these artists and athletes who use their platforms this way has profound effects on invisible and often marginalized groups,” said Dr. Demessie, citing others such as Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.

Dr. Demessie referenced her brother Nebyat Aklilu Demessie ’01 and his six-year grassroots movement to build a statue of the late Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, in front of the African Union in Ethiopia — a successful effort and the statue was built in February of 2019. She walked through an interesting thread between the imperial majesty and Jamaican reggae artist Bob Marley. His song, War, featured on the 1976 Rastaman Vibration album, pulls almost directly from a famous speech given by Emperor Haile Selassie when he appeared before the League of Nations (now known as the United Nations) in 1963, asking for liberation for Africa against colonization and racial discrimination and international morality and world peace. Many recall the speech from which Marley’s lyrics came:

 “Until the philosophy that sustains a superior and inferior race is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned.; until there are no first and second class citizens of any nation.

Until the color of a man's skin is no more important than the color of his eyes. Until basic Human Rights are equally guaranteed to all regardless of race. That until that day, the dream of lasting peace and world citizenship and the rule of international morality, will remain a fleeting illusion, hunted but never reached.”   

 -1963 Speech by Emperor Haile Selassie to the United Nations

Nebyat is now working in earnest to erect another statue honoring Emperor Haile Selassie, this time in Jamaica.

“I’m the older sibling, but I definitely look up to my brother,” said Dr. Demessie.

By the end, the Chapel was brimming with powerful examples of incredible actions and efforts made possible by those who partner creativity and agency to become changemakers.

“I encourage all of you to tap into your third eye — those natural artistic abilities, those passions and desires that we entertain in our head to try something different,” she expressed. “Use that to creatively imagine or reimagine a world in which you take a risk to do something different, to try something new, even if the costs are just too high, the burden too heavy, the isolation too visceral, the haters too scary or the congratulations unreliable.”

What was experienced in the Chapel today was not a lecture, but a transformative experience — a kind of experience that leaves an indelible mark on students and faculty alike. Exiting the Chapel, a palpable energy thrummed through the air as hearts and minds stirred. Today and tomorrow, we will think about all that was shared, about activism, change and brighter futures ahead. Thank you, Dr. Demessie, for your time today. It was a gift.