Gene Gelgelu, executive director of AEDS, said the African Leadership Conference is an outgrowth of work the organization has been doing to create a space for African immigrants to network and get to know each other. Credit: Photo courtesy of Gene Gelgelu.

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Although he works in public health in Southern California, Dr. Gemechu Abraham Kurfessa hopes to connect with other African immigrants this week through the 2020 National African Leadership Conference, organized by the St. Paul-based organization African Economic Development Solutions.

Reached in Los Angeles, Dr. Gemechu said AEDS caught his attention because it was trying to create a platform for African immigrant leaders, entrepreneurs, workers and professionals. “They are not limited by boundaries and borders and national origin,” Dr. Gemechu said. “It’s more about African identities and cultures and heritages that contribute to our new home here in the United States.”

This week’s virtual conference will feature speakers including Arikana Chihombori Quao, the former African Union Representative to the U.S., and Alfa Demmelash, CEO of New Jersey-based Rising Tide Capital. Also featuring local leaders and entrepreneurs, the 17 sessions will tackle topics including leadership and movement-building, economic empowerment, and community resilience. Sessions will include discussions on empowering African women to lead, growing African-led enterprises in the COVID-19 era, and advancing human rights in Minnesota and globally. (DISCLOSURE: Sahan Journal is a media sponsor of the event.)

Dr. Gemechu, an Oromo American originally from Ethiopia, said immigrants have learned through the challenges they’ve faced, and they can help others. “Networking, sharing experiences, and knowledge is very important so that we can pass on the successes we’ve had,” he said.

As a healthcare provider, Dr. Gemechu said he’s most interested in sessions focusing on community resilience, and health and wellness in the workforce during the pandemic. “I just want to know how people are surviving with COVID, and how they plan to get through it,” he said.

Gemechu is also interested in how African immigrants can preserve identity.

Gene Gelgelu, executive director of AEDS, said the African Leadership Conference is an outgrowth of work the organization has been doing to create a space for African immigrants to network and get to know each other. “We want to create a space to talk about the issues in our communities,” Gene said.

The conference was originally intended as an in-person affair, but was changed because of the pandemic.

AEDS launched in 2008 to bring African immigrant groups together to search for solutions to common issues. The organization was instrumental in creating the vibrant “Little Africa” cultural district near University Avenue in Saint Paul.

Part of its mission is to help build wealth within African immigrant communities through economic development.

Teshite Tako, chief financial officer for the Neighborhood Development Center, is one of the founding board members for AEDS and will take part in a panel about preserving African identity in the diaspora.

Prior to becoming a board member for AEDS, Teshite worked in economic development. “We saw the gap in serving African immigrants and new Americans in the Twin Cities in terms of training, lending and in access to capital,” Teshite said.

Teshite hopes to start a conversation about what kind of future the community can envision. “We have so much in common, particularly the new African immigrant leaders. How can we harness that? How can we make that stronger and support each other at the same time, and be a voice for African immigrant communities here in the United States?”

The 2020 National African Immigrant Leadership Conference runs December 10-11 with 17 sessions taking place across two days. General admission costs $210 with other ticket options available. Sign up here

Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis-based freelance journalist. You can find her dance writing at the Star Tribune, and other writing at places like City Pages, Minnesota Monthly, the Southwest Journal, and...