Glen Gunderson

September 16, 2021

As part of my own personal journey, I am committed to being a strong equity leader. This is the 51st 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 at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul for over 35 years, including 28 as a faculty member. 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 3 of my talk with Dr. Daniel Abebe. (You can read part 1 here and part 2 here)

Glen: Where are our young people now, as it relates to, really leading in a new way around social justice, around racial justice? Are you seeing hope from Generation Z, or the younger end of the Millennials? How would you contrast that from when you first began teaching?


Daniel: Oh, it's a huge difference that we see. I was connected to an institution that catered toward adult students, so in many ways, I think my experience was not as unique as others, when it comes to the younger population. But what we are seeing in general, in higher education today, the younger population is coming with a sense of responsibility. “The future of this country depends on how we participate, in how we shape it.” They are seeing incredibly significant amounts of opportunities for them to make a contribution to the future, and I have experienced that through my own daughter, who went through college. My son, who also finished college, and both of them have often echoed the importance of fighting for racial justice in America, for women's rights, all the things that we have paid lip service in years past, in higher education and other places.

You can almost tell students by the kinds of choices that they make for their own education. And I know in our university, over the course of my time there, it went from one person running the diversity activities to creating an ethnic studies department that has a complete scholarship, addressing issues of race and ethnicity in American life, to now asking students to do a required course that looks at comparative relationships among ethnic and racial communities, and the relationship that has to the development of the American society and culture. And this transformation did not come without a fight, and I have served on those committees for many years, and there is always a time where things are being interrupted.

But I think when the students coming to the institution begin to show interest and put pressure on the institution, we start making changes. So young people are actually not going to let us rest because they are beginning to see that we have not been, for example, good guardians of the environment. They have to speak up, so we could save the planet. We are not addressing justice in this country because there's still violence against people of color from law enforcement and other institutions. They see this, and they want to make a difference. They want to make some changes so they're literally demanding for us to do something about matters of great relevance to their future.

And that's why you see the streets were filled with young people after George Floyd (was killed). So there's a huge contradiction in my mind. Sometimes I feel the future is in danger, but at the same time I feel like there is hope from young people that the future might actually be saved by their energy, enthusiasm and commitment. I think much of what needs to be done requires a very clear articulation of 20, 30, 40 years of hard work. The environment, as you can see, the West is burning because of the warming of this Earth. And that issue is directly linked to racism, and directly connected to equity. All the power lines running through the American Indian territories, and all the big interstate highways running through Black communities is not by accident.

Race is at the center of every aspect of American life. And I think now we are beginning to understand the complexity of racial issues, how they are interconnected, how they are intertwined, and the young people are at the center of that because their future depends on what we do today.


Glen: What brings you hope?


Daniel: Human nature.

I think human nature is a very complicated phenomena. But I trust people. If we can convince folks to be patient, and allow themselves to reflect on their thoughts and actions, I think they will do the right thing. And the solution is in our hands; I don't want to just place the responsibility on young people. But we have to transform our way of doing things, to a point where we can actually start to trust one another. And so the hope I have is, what we started at the Y, and what is happening in many different places and at educational institutions, what is happening in the community, including the social justice struggles that happened in the streets. All those things, at some point, are going to help us turn things around. I'm seeing changes. People are eating better. They are wasting less energy. And they are fighting racism and fighting for equity. All those things are actually happening more today than ever before. There's not a day that you open the newspaper and not read about these issues. So people are becoming conscious and engaged.

The key issue is how do we get this moving in the direction that it should? And the YMCA is doing that, in its own capacity, to the population that it is serving and working with. I hope every institution is engaged in this manner. 

Perhaps the question that we should ask is, "Can the YMCA become a leader in getting other organizations and institutions to engage in this type of work?"

Because I think we're doing a great job internally, we can we start reaching out to others to get involved.

In other words, how do we let the fire keep burning to the end of the Earth, so everybody's engaged.


Glen: I'm aligned with you. I really appreciate your articulation of how all of this ties together. And the Y is on a path to become a convener and an educator, and Hedy's done a phenomenal job of starting to bring organizations in of all kinds, whether we're going out to a city, whether we're working with a school district, a corporation, and non-for-profits, government entities. And so there's growth there.

It is interesting now. Some in the community are starting to look to the Y as the convener and a sage guide, to try to lead them to a better place. But I think we've been spending more and more time reading about, and thinking about the environmental challenges, and ESG, and the movement around social governance and the environment. And I appreciate your instincts around how those things are inter-related and, in particular, how we treat one another, and how we move beyond these race divisions.


Daniel: This work is much larger than any one institution, so the longer reach we have, the better, because I think peace and justice and all those things are too complicated. We're learning that from the vaccine issue now, about who gets vaccinated, who doesn't and why COVID is persisting?


Learn more about Dr. Daniel Abebe by clicking here. Look for a new “A Conversation on Race" next week.