Episode 3: Solomé Lemma

In this month’s Leading From The Inside Out podcast, CEO Darlene Nipper and Executive Director of Thousand Currents Solomé Lemma discuss transformational leadership, US perceptions of Ethiopia and the continent of Africa, the changing role of philanthropy, and much more.

The song in this episode is "Los Angeles" by Quincas Moreira.

Episode Transcript

Darlene Nipper: Hello, I’m Darlene Nipper, CEO of Rockwood Leadership Institute and your host for today’s episode of the Leading From the Inside Out podcast. My guest today is Solome Lemma, Executive Director of Thousand Currents and of course a Rockwood alum. Solome, welcome.

Solome Lemma: Thank you. It’s such an honor to be here. Thank you for having me.

Darlene Nipper: So we’re going to get into more about your work in a minute, but tell me a little bit about your story, like how you got from where you started in life to where you are now.

Solome Lemma: I was born in Ethiopia in East Africa and I lived there until I was about 11. Then I was in London. I came to the United States and we moved to Marietta, Georgia. And in Marietta, Georgia I encountered a community that was very different from what I grew up in. The kinds of questions that I faced from my peers shocked me because I didn’t expect it.

Solome Lemma: And of course now that I know that was a shared experience by most African immigrants, right? But I didn’t know that as an 11 year old. So when kids say to me, “Oh, what did you eat?” Or, “Were you starving during that famine?” Or, “Where did you live? Did you have a home?” I didn’t understand because even though I don’t come from a family that was wealthy or even middle class, I came from a place that was abundant in love and I never felt like I lacked anything.

Solome Lemma: So my sense of identity was not rooted in lack or deficit. It was actually rooted in pride and I actually thought I would come to America and tell people about how awesome Ethiopia is and how I can’t wait to go back.

Solome Lemma: So the fact that I came to a place where in some ways my story was already told for me before I even had a chance to articulate it myself, helped inform my educational pursuits as well as my career proceeded around really focusing on shifting narratives about Africa in general, about social justice and about Africans and the agency and self determination of Africans. That became the driving force behind that pursuit. Which led me here.

Darlene Nipper: Amazing. Amazing.

Darlene Nipper: There’s so much in what you’re saying that I have to take my first detour of the interview now and just say, you know, this conversation and say, what would you say about the history of Ethiopia?

Darlene Nipper: I know just a little bit. That actually might be useful for people to understand in terms of your knowledge and understanding about social justice and equity and colonization and those kinds of issues. What would be important for people to know?

Solome Lemma: Right, right. That’s a great question. You know, it’s complicated. It’s a great question and a really complicated question and depending on what Ethiopian you have sitting in this chair, they would answer it different. And I think that’s the one thing people need to know. The story that people know about Africa in the States when I came, was that there was a big, about Ethiopia in particular, it was that there was a famine. And it’s this idea that we helped you. We saved you.

Solome Lemma: We sang a song for you and raised a lot of money. Right? That’s the story people know. That you’re poor, you’re hungry, you’re despondent. That wasn’t my experience. There was certainly inequity in Ethiopia. There was certainly challenges there.

Solome Lemma: There was a famine. And famine that was worsened by political choices and decisions. Not because we didn’t have the resources. But depending on where you lived, you experienced that differently. And I grew up in Addis Ababa. I was a kid, so I don’t even remember it. I didn’t even know there was a famine in the country. Right?

Solome Lemma: Where it’s for Americans, Ethiopia was hungry as a whole. So that’s one part of it. The other side of Ethiopia that I think people know is, that it’s the only country that defeated and won against European colonization and imperialism, because Italy attempted to colonize Ethiopia. And there’s this idea that Ethiopians in the Battle of Adwa defeated Italy. And remained an uncolonized country.

Solome Lemma: And to a large extent that is true. The current state formation of Ethiopia, was not colonized by Europeans or Italy in that way. But we have a complicated history in which, in terms of how the state of Ethiopia itself was formed, that Ethiopia, what we call present Ethiopia, is comprised of different ethnic groups.

Solome Lemma: Some were switched, joined to the union or the state of Ethiopia by force. Then that consent. And that there are issues and tensions around that.

Solome Lemma: There are political differences. So, when I came to America I realized the narrative of Ethiopia was either you are hungry or you’re the black star. Like you’re the nation, you’re Ethiopian. There’s a bit of truth in both, and there’s a huge middle, that’s actually really complicated. That there are some Ethiopians, many Ethiopians, that feel like they were colonized within the state of Ethiopia under Ethiopian leadership, including the ethnic group that I come from.

Solome Lemma: So I think the one thing that I want people to know is that, to understand the history of a nation like Ethiopia, let alone a continent like Africa, which is often described as a country. It’s nuanced and complicated and you have to dig deeper than what the news media is feeding you.

Darlene Nipper: Your story, it crosses continents, it crosses. It’s bulk spread, it’s Pan-Africanist and then beyond that it’s like, you came to the States, you just before we got on, you just said, you’re an East coast person in the United States. Who are your people?

Solome Lemma: My people are everywhere. Everyone. Everywhere and everyone. I am an Oromon and African from Ethiopia, right? And those are my people. Oromo’s are my people. Africans are my people. Ethiopians are my people.

Solome Lemma: But beyond that, my people are people that reject the status quo. People that really understand the importance and necessity of sovereignty and autonomy and self determination and people that work to preserve and protect that. And people that for whom, justice inequities are ways of life and not just ideas to be debated or floated around.

Solome Lemma: So my people are people who are working not just to resist current systems of extraction and exploitation that you see in the world, but people that are giving us glimpses into the new futures that we want to run into with the creators, with the innovators, with the experimenters. Those are my people too.

Solome Lemma: And to be honest, I often think about my people, where I come from and also for my people, what is home to me in that respect. And who is home. And my people and home to me are where my loved ones are. So in many ways, home to me right now is Atlanta, Georgia, because I still have family there. It’s Ethiopia of course, then Africa in general because I still have folks there. It’s California. It’s wherever I have loved ones.

Darlene Nipper: Beautiful, beautiful. I know that you founded or co-founded Africans in the Diaspora. Tell us about that work and what was important to you and just whatever you want to talk about about that work and what it … Make sure you tell us what it is, so that folks can understand it.

Solome Lemma: Absolutely. Africans in the Diaspora is an organization that I co-founded that works to harness and mobilize African diaspora philanthropy. To connect the resources, financial, intellectual of Africans in the diaspora, with the work of organizations in Africa that were working to build new and transformative futures across the continents.

Solome Lemma: That’s what Africans in the Diaspora was. How I got to Africans in the Diaspora. If I can tell it kind of briefly is, the summer between my first year and second year of graduate school, I ended up going to Liberia in West Africa. And there I found myself entering a country that I had never been to, that was coming out of a long conflict, where refugees were being repatriated back to their homes. So returning home. And that’s who I was working with. And I saw how in many ways they had some really clear ideas and brilliant ideas about how they wanted to rebuild their lives and rebuild their communities once they returned.

Solome Lemma: But then our organization’s budget were dictated by donors. So we couldn’t necessarily fund their ideas. So I left that a little bit disenchanted. But also with a clear awareness. If I was going to stay in this field of social justice, from an international perspective, I needed to tap into what I thought was a personal identity as a bridge.

Solome Lemma: I ended up in philanthropy in that way. And after a year or two in philanthropy, then I saw another problem. When it comes to Africa, philanthropy still had a deterministic lens and view. We were still doing things for Africa. Our idea of where resources come from are the global North, are American. And then we send it to Africa. We don’t think of Africans having resources. Africans being solutions and agents of change.

Solome Lemma: We see Africans as recipients and needs beneficiaries. Meanwhile Africans in the Diaspora were sending 40, 50 eventually $60 billion a year to our families in the form of remittances. Which is all bilateral and multilateral aid to Africa and larger than a foundation giving to Africa.

Darlene Nipper: Wow.

Solome Lemma: So I thought, well clearly there’s a gap. Because if we have Africans with resources here, what would it look like, to actually tap in to African resources and connect them directly in a way that is not vertical top down. But that’s horizontal.

Solome Lemma: Because Africans in the Diaspora also seek connection and belonging to and with the continent. And how can you facilitate those relationships, where resources that are financial are definitely transferred, but also eventually relationships are built that are kind of that crossed the boundaries of geography and borderless for Africans around the world.

Solome Lemma: So that’s kind of what gave birth to Africans in the Diaspora, because I was frankly tired of the way development and philanthropy continued to approach the continent. And I still believe it’s imperative that Africans build institutions of their own. To help not only open up space at the table, where these decisions are being made, but to also model what alternative solutions look like and how we can do this work differently.

Darlene Nipper: Wow. And what were … First of all, that’s remarkable. And the data that you just spoke of is staggering. But what were some of the challenges in doing that? How was this incredible idea received?

Solome Lemma: I heard a lot of, wow, this is such a great idea. We would love to support it. Because initially the case I was making was, essentially this is an organization that will be self funded by diaspora communities. To get it off the ground, we will need support from allies and friends of Africa.

Darlene Nipper: Makes sense.

Solome Lemma: So there’s a lot of, yes, yes, we want to support it, but nobody really came through because I don’t think people really bought into the idea and really understood at the political and tactical implications of the work that we wanted to do. And then there were others who loved the idea and copied it, but didn’t support us. So that was a challenge.

Darlene Nipper: Wow. Yes.

Solome Lemma: From Africans. My gosh, the response was incredible. From diaspora, it was incredibly positive. We set out to do our work in the U.S. initially. Because we thought, start small and just organize U.S. Diaspora and then we’ll move globally.

Darlene Nipper: Sure.

Solome Lemma: We were getting responses from all over. From all parts of Europe. Even parts of Africa with people saying, “This is what we needed, this is the type of organization that I’ve been waiting for.” And I think we spoke to people’s frustration with how Africa is perceived and also presented by development and philanthropy organizations. And also spoke to the aspirations around what it would look like to have self-determined Africans owning their own change. Right?

Solome Lemma: So we got so many beautiful letters that I think for me, sustained me throughout the initial year of challenges that come with something like this.

Solome Lemma: And of course those were mostly personal challenges around, to start Africans in the Diaspora, I knew I couldn’t stay at my job, which was highly demanding and I left it. And when you leave your job, then you’re not just worried about about the future and success of that which you’re trying to give birth to, but also your own wellbeing and livelihood.

Solome Lemma: And asking yourself, you know, I walked away from a significant promotion, and significant opportunities, and et cetera. And was it worth it or so on? I never questioned the values and principles behind that choice, but there’s realities of a choice like that. Right?

Solome Lemma: So that part of it was hard. And then also it was really instructive for me in realizing, engaging diaspora communities, it’s very different from engaging other other funders or donors. Engaging diaspora to translate individual giving into institutional giving requires a different strategy that’s really centrist relationships and not transactions.

Solome Lemma: And that really focuses on connection and not just the work. And it takes time. It takes a long time. Africans give generously and abundantly. So to make a case for something like this, the strategy orientation needs to be different.

Darlene Nipper: And that takes me to your next journey. Because now after all of this fantastic work as a leader, you’re leading Thousand Currents. And there are two aspects of it that I’m deeply curious about. One is your transition, obviously, like from what you were doing before and your time at Thousand Currents before you became the Executive Director, into the role that you’re in now.

Darlene Nipper: And two is just like, what do we need to know about what’s happening in the world of the work that you’re doing, so that we can be better partners with you as well.

Solome Lemma: Yeah. Yeah. Thousand Currents is an organization that has been around for 34 years now. We used to be called IDEX, we changed our name to Thousand Currents about two years ago. And from the very beginning we were committed to supporting communities at the front lines of change. I think maybe it was in the second year of Africans in the Diaspora, the previous ED of Thousand Currents, [inaudible] reached out to me, to ask me how things are going. And we started having conversations and I realized the extent to which Thousand Currents was so valued in the mind with Africans in the Diaspora.

Solome Lemma: The deep rooted commitment to transforming not just the wave, this sector of philanthropy works as a whole, but also really transforming what building organizations that are healthy and resilient looks like. That was inspiring to me. So when she said there was a possibility for partnership in that IDEX at that time, could fiscally sponsor and incubate Africans in the Diaspora, I was thrilled. And that’s how we started our transition relationship.

Solome Lemma: Africans in the Diaspora was incubated at IDEX then. And we worked in intubation for two years knowing that if the partnership worked we would make Africans in the Diaspora a program within IDEX. And if we felt like it needs to go in two different directions we would do that.

Solome Lemma: And it worked really well and now Thousand Currents has a diaspora partnerships program. The first of which is Africans in the Diaspora. [inaudible] The Africa Program and Thousand Currents.

Solome Lemma: Today, Thousand Currents not only supports grassroots organizations and movements that are working on issues like food sovereignty, alternative economies and climate justice, but we also have a robust program that focused on transforming inequity. Focused on making it more just and equitable. That through initiatives like the Thousand Currents Academy, which is a training for people involved in philanthropy. Or through experiments like the [inaudible] fund. Which is a different form of impact investments. Or a CLIMA fund, which is the collaborative fund for climate justice.

Solome Lemma: So Thousand Currents has multiple programs running across its veins right now. It’s organizational veins. But I would say the core and heart of our work is the supports to grassroots groups and social movements, mostly primarily in Africa, Asia and Latin America, right now.

Darlene Nipper: I heard you talk about transformative leadership. I want to ask you what has mostly shaped the way that you lead? Because it sounds like, this shared collaborative leadership style works for you, and that the work that you’re doing is really about transformative leadership.

Solome Lemma: Yes.

Darlene Nipper: So what’s shaped that for you the most, the way you are now around these ideas?

Solome Lemma: I mean my leadership has been informed by the way that women in my family show up and lead. In the personal space, that I actually often draw upon in the professional spaces that I hold. And it’s been shaped by board leadership experiences, or bad leadership experiences of note. That reminded me or taught me what I don’t want to do. As well as really great leadership models and leaders that inspired me to be better.

Solome Lemma: But if I had to kind of give you one example right now, I would give you my very first example. When I went back to Ethiopia to work, when I was young and 22 and thought I can do anything and everything. And I ended up getting a job at a big international organization. And my boss, her role was that of national economist for that organization. And I was really surprised by how much responsibility she handed to me immediately.

Darlene Nipper: Wow.

Solome Lemma: For an organization for whom status is really big, and an organization that has bureaucratic lines around who talks to who and who has access to who. She literally tore down all those barriers for me. So she had me interacting with the [inaudible] secretariat general back in New York. She had me interacting with ambassadors in the country. She opened doors that I really didn’t deserve that time, but what that taught me was that, she was really invested in or committed to investing in young, emerging women leaders.

Solome Lemma: And that was an intentional practice of hers. And also this idea of leadership as a starting point for leadership, of being trusted.

Darlene Nipper: Uh-huh (affirmative).

Solome Lemma: She trusted me immediately. And gave me space to make mistakes and to learn from them. And also she never told me what to do.

Solome Lemma: She asked me questions. She had me write the country’s development cooperation report or begin the process for that, which was a big responsibility for someone my age at that time. She gave me guidance. She held the container for me. She asked questions about the direction and created a space for me to ask her questions. But she didn’t really dictate or tell me what to do. And I think those are leadership attributes that I hold dear to this day.

Solome Lemma: I think my leadership practice is inquiry based. I ask a lot of questions to help people get to answers that they’re seeking. And where I need to help give those answers, I’m willing to. Because my starting point is inquiry. And also I strongly believe that leadership exists at odd levels and layers of organization.

Darlene Nipper: Yes.

Solome Lemma: The leader of an organization is not just the ED, right? We know that.

Darlene Nipper: Right.

Solome Lemma: We should be at every level. Everybody exercises leadership. And I think she was my first practical model of how you support leadership at all levels.

Darlene Nipper: What is your purpose these days? It’s like what are you sitting with as a … We understand a lot about how your vision, some of your visions have come to fruition and a lot about your work, but how would you describe your purpose in this moment?

Solome Lemma: In this moment. My immediate answer is, I think my purpose is holding fiercely and loving to the visions of a just equitable world, that are different from the one that we have, and to maintaining a space for unburdened imagination to flourish.

Solome Lemma: I think we have so many challenges that are being thrown our way that are aiming to help us believe that there isn’t another way that another world is not possible. That the only world we have is this. That the only political structures that we can build are the ones that we have. The only economic structures we can build is the one that we have.

Solome Lemma: And I think it’s my purpose now is to really hold tightly to that vision and that imagination that other possibilities are viable. That they’re right here and it’s our job to nurture, cultivate them, and to resist and reject the dogma of the current systems and structures.

Darlene Nipper: Ah, so incredibly beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing that. So just a couple of more questions for you. So if you were gonna say something to the next generation, you know, you talked just briefly about our younger people. But you’re going to say something to the next generation or leave something for future generations. If you could meet with them, say they were here right now, imagine that these future generations are actually listening to us right now, what message do you have for those folks?

Solome Lemma: Such a good question. I think my message is, first of all, thank you. Thank you for carrying the work. Thank you for building these [inaudible] new futures where people, land and climate are implanted like driving.

Solome Lemma: I’m sorry, we burdened you with a lot of the hard work. That you have, everything that you need to do what you need to do. And that your ancestors in the past has accompanied you on this journey that you’re on.

Darlene Nipper: Thank you. Powerful.

Darlene Nipper: And finally, if we had a movement mixed tape, you know, I’m going to go for it, because this is the Rockwood way. What song is on your movement mixed tape, right now that you can share?

Solome Lemma: Right now?

Darlene Nipper: Yeah. What’s a song on that mixed tape?

Solome Lemma: A Luta Continua. Miriam Makeba.

Darlene Nipper: Oh. One of my favorites. Yes. Solome.

Darlene Nipper: What a joy it is to spend, you know, this kind of time with you. Really.

Solome Lemma: Thank you.

Darlene Nipper: Thank you so much. Folks, this is Darlene Nipper with Rockwood Leadership Institute. We’ve been talking to Solome Lemma, Executive Director of Thousand Currents. An amazing journey and a wonderful leader in our midst. Thank you so much Solome for talking to us.

Solome Lemma: Thank you. Thank you for this inspiring conversation for me. Thank you for having me.

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