Glen Gunderson

September 2, 2021

As part of my own personal journey, I am committed to being a strong equity leader. This is the 49th in a series of blogs that will be a part of that effort. I hope you will benefit from the conversation.

I have utilized A Conversation on Race to engage with equity leaders — mentors, teammates and dear friends — from all over the country, and I’ve learned so much about them and me in the process.

As we pass the one-year anniversary of George Floyd's murder, it is my hope that the rallying cries for systemic change and our progress on social justice will only accelerate. We are sustaining our voice for change, but we must continue the work.

My 23rd guest is Dr. Daniel Abebe, who has been an educator and leader in higher education for over 35 years, including 28 years as faculty and administrator at Metropolitan State University. A native of Ethiopia, Dr. Abebe has degrees from multiple universities, including a Ph.D. in adult education from the University of Minnesota. But beyond his credentials, he's been committed for over three decades to advancing and addressing multicultural issues. He's guided hundreds of college students, peers and other U.S. professionals on trips to Kenya, Tanzania, Jamaica, Botswana, Western Samoa, Ghana, Liberia and other destinations. He coordinated the Perspectives Center, co-founded and served as the first co-chair of the Ethnic Studies Department and served in many leadership roles in other committees.

When I first started at the Y, Dr. Abebe was one of the leaders I learned so much from, and I appreciated his wisdom and incredible insight. In 2018, he was recognized by Metropolitan State University with the "Outstanding Contributions to the Advancement of Multicultural Issues Award."

Though he's retired, Dr. Abebe's far too valuable in so many ways, including as a professor at Metropolitan State University. I hope you enjoy Part 1 of my talk with Dr. Daniel Abebe.

Glen: Daniel I remember you as an early mentor of mine at the Y, though you may not know that. But just hearing you in various diversity, equity and inclusions (DEI) discussions and various community engagement discussions was so impactful. I would love you to start by just sharing your personal story and then how you found engagement with the Y.


Daniel: I'm originally from Ethiopia, and I spent a lot of time at the YMCA. Actually, my brother took me down there at the age of nine, and I got much more active in my teen years. In fact, I was one of the few gymnasts that people came to see, and we would put on shows for the city folks. So the YMCA, in many ways, is where I found my roots, and where I was deeply shaped. We had many great mentors come through the YMCA, like Norris Lineweaver (the retired YMCA CEO) and John Eveland.


Glen: Do you remember specific programs that were particularly influential? 


Daniel: I think the clubs that we formed at the YMCA were powerful places, where we learned leadership and engagement, in terms of interaction, and developing a whole lot of lasting friendships because the YMCA has a way of attracting people on a daily basis. And many of us, as kids, went to the YMCA, right after school. That's the place where you participated in after school activities, and a lot of the kids that I grew up with at the Y are still my friends today! And many of them are in high places, and very accomplished in life. We get together every now and then, here in the United States, but also when I travel back to Ethiopia as well.


Glen: Tell me about your experience, going through school, and where you studied?


Daniel: I had a complicated journey through school. I went to elementary and secondary school in Ethiopia. But during the secondary school days, my brother became a school principal, and he took me with him to provincial towns. Those were actually very sad times in my young life because I was not able to stay in the YMCA! One of the schools I went to was 300 kilometers (186 miles) outside of Addis Ababa (the capital of Ethiopia), and there was no Y there.

So every month, I had my brother send me back home, so I could spend a day with my friends at the YMCA. And then in 1967, in my third year in high school, I got a scholarship to come to the United States and study. I spent a year with a family in Lake Forest, Illinois. As a matter of fact, I just had a family reunion on the shores of Lake Superior in Wisconsin, with my American brothers and sisters but after that one year, I returned to Ethiopia. The university that I entered, at the time, was going through some transformation. Schools were being closed due to student protests. Consequently, I was not able to purse my education in the manner I wanted. So I made a decision to come back to the U.S., in 1970, and I have been in the United States ever since! I started at a junior college in Evanston (in Illinois), where I studied economics for a couple of years. Then I earned a scholarship to Hamline University in St. Paul. I finished there, and then I went on to the U of M to do my doctoral degree and finished in 1991. And I have been gainfully employed at Metropolitan State for the past 30 years, both as faculty and also 11 years as dean of the college of individualized studies.


Glen: I consider you one of the more wise and special leaders that I've met through my time at the Y, so you're going to be one of those Norris Lineweavers in my story! I want to just say, I appreciate you so much. Would you share, coming from Ethiopia to the United States and settling here, how race has shown up in your life? And maybe you might share some stories from those early experiences here?


Daniel: The high school I went to, other than me, I think there were two other Black students. And one of my classmates was from Taiwan, and, of course, the rest of the student population was mostly white. Interestingly though, for me, the YMCA (in Ethiopia) exposed me to a lot of the American volunteers, like Norris Lineweaver, John Eveland and, in many ways, I developed a level of comfort in dealing with various races. But there was something that happened in April of 1968 that sort of became a turning point in my understanding of racial issues in America. The incident that brought this turning point was the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. At the time I lived in Lake Forest, which is about 30 miles north of Chicago, and, for the first time, I saw the Black community protesting on television, the density of the population, and the reaction people had to Dr. King's assassination left a profound impression. So I developed a desire to go see the Black community in Chicago, and I remember the challenge that presented to the family. Because it was not an easy thing for my host family to take me down to a predominantly Black community in South Side Chicago, especially a few days after Dr. King's assassination.

But my American father had a friend, who was an African American faculty member at Northwestern University, and he volunteered to take me down to Chicago to visit the Black community for the first time. I saw the consequences of the riots following Dr. King’s assassination in my own eyes.

Dr. Williams (the Northwestern professor) exposed me to things that I would later become much more interested in pursuing, and he gave me books to read. He shared with me a history, a history that I was not even aware of! I'm talking about history from the 1920s and 30s and those periods when Black Americans looked toward Ethiopia as a beacon of hope. You see, Ethiopia was the only country (in Africa) that was never colonized by Europeans, and the African-American community throughout the United States were so much committed to preserve that nation free from Colonialism and also use it as a symbol of hope, as a landmark of aspiration for the freedom that is to come for Black people.

And so at the time, I had no idea that I am a descendant of a nation with such a glorious past, with global influence, and suddenly that visit to the South Side of Chicago and that conversation I had with Dr. Williams opened up my eyes to a point where I think my journey into the future probably would be shaped by this consciousness. And so that trip to the South Side of Chicago and the Black Community was a very powerful moment for me in 1968 and would become a turning point in my own personal involvement in racial justice work.


Glen: Lake Forest isn't the most diverse community, even now, and especially in the late 1960s. What was your experience like there, being a young man from Ethiopia?


Daniel: I reflected on that year a lot ever since, primarily because of my sense of naïveté. But my life in that town was literally transformed by that moment, that the experience I had in Chicago. I remember one time I was in a barbershop in Lake Forest, and my hair was cut, and I left the place. But one thing bothered me: The barber never touched my head. He just ran the clippers the whole time. And when I was getting a haircut back home, the barber would give you a head massage, and flip your head around and all kinds of things.

So when you start to get conscious about race, all these things start to come back to you. For that family barber in Lake Forest, I'm not so sure he could have said no to me. In retrospect, I don't think he was comfortable because he just never touched my head. I remember that very distinctly, and that's just one example. Something else I remember, as a young man, I was never successful in dating, because of those racial differences. In fact, I had to convince a classmate to go to prom with me.

When I go into shops to buy a candy or something like that, people would look at me. But at that age, I was not really aware of those dynamics. I didn't quite understand them, in that sense, because growing up, I just never was exposed to that type of contradiction because I was never conscious of who I was, in the way that the society in this part of the world, would make you think.

Also, we had such a profound relationship with some of the white YMCA volunteers coming to Ethiopia, and we never really saw the development of that colonized mind. If you even look at the rest of Africa, the relationship people had with white people has been shaped by the colonial experience. We didn't have that in Ethiopia, in many ways, and so I never saw myself less than anybody. In fact, I saw myself equal to anyone. So I did not search for meaning in relationship of differences, at the time. It took me a while to realize that differences actually did, in fact, exist in the way that differences are shaped by race. Because that moment of request to go down to the South Side of Chicago was a beginning, was a turning point for me, that not every white person can actually enter into that community. "Is that possible? This is a free society. You can go anywhere you want."

But that pause suggested to me that there are some issues. And you have to understand, I was young. I was 17, and I still had other ambitions, and these questions were not central to my everyday thinking. But I needed that turning point to pause and start to think.


Learn more about Dr. Daniel Abebe by clicking here. Look for Part 2 of “A Conversation on Race" with Dr. Abebe next week.