Members of Mandela Washington Fellowship experience Grand County life

The Fellows visited Fraser Town Hall where they learned the importance of getting involved in local government. "What I like about politics in a small town is that if you see something you want to make work, you can make it work if you get involved," said former board member Andy Miller.
Meg Soyars/Sky-Hi News

On June 21, a bus of Mandela Washington Fellows traveling from Denver to Grand County crested over Berthoud Pass. For the first time in their lives, 23 young African professionals got to see snow while they admired Rocky Mountain vistas at the top of the pass.

Two weeks before, the group had traveled from their homes in Africa to participate in the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders. The fellowship is a six-week leadership program, where participants from sub-Saharan Africa can further their careers and make international connections. These fellows are studying at the University of Colorado Denver, where they participate in public management coursework, academic training, mentoring, professional networking and community engagement

Dr. Jane Hansberry, a CU Denver professor at the school of public affairs, led the Fellows to Grand County so they could see a slice of mountain life, plus meet with local professionals and government leaders.

“It’s been so awesome. They’re from all different countries, so they have different ideas and styles. They’re from Ghana, Mozambique, Sudan, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, everywhere,” Hansberry said, adding that the fellowship allows professionals to brainstorm together.

“They say, ‘we’ve done this, or we’ve been able to innovate this. That’s how we learn, we share,’” Hansberry said.

The professionals participating in CU Denver’s program, who are 25 to 35 years old, are already very accomplished in their countries. The Fellows include doctors, lawyers, physical therapists, non-governmental organization leaders, renewable energy engineers and more.

“One thing a lot of fellows are looking at is the rural-urban divide,” Hansberry said. “What do you have in the urban areas, and what do you have in rural areas? Who’s helping who, and where are services going in the rural areas?”

Since their program is based in downtown Denver, a natural excursion to rural Colorado was right over the Continental Divide. As a proud former Fraser resident, Hansberry chose Grand County. When living in Fraser, Hansberry helped start the Fraser Valley Women’s Resource Center (now Mountain Family Center). She was excited to show the Fellows what mountain town life is like.

One Fellow, Merko Nigatu, is a public prosecutor for the Ministry of Justice in Ethiopia. He advocates for vulnerable groups including children, women and people with disabilities.

“This is my first time coming to the U.S., and my first time here in the mountains,” said Nigatu. He explained that he and the other Fellows didn’t know each other before arriving in Colorado. “We come from 19 countries from all across Africa: east, west, north and central.”

Nigatu explained that many people apply for the Fellowship, but the selection process is competitive. Some 2,600 people from Ethiopia applied and 35 were chosen.

“They go to all different states, like California, Indiana, Texas,” he said. Altogether, there are over 700 Fellows currently studying around the U.S.

The fellowship determines which state each fellow travels to. Nigatu has enjoyed exploring Denver’s cultural offerings. He said Grand County’s temperate weather and mountainous landscape is similar to Ethiopia’s. Nigatu’s home, like Grand County, is about 7,000 feet in elevation. Ethiopia is also home to many of Africa’s peaks above 14,000 feet, as Colorado is home to the most 14ers in the mainland U.S.

Nigatu enjoys writing literature in his spare time, a skill he can also use to advocate for marginalized peoples. After he returns home, he plans to continue to fight for social change and democratization, using what’s he’s learned from his time as a Mandela Fellow.

The fellows’ first stop in Grand was Winter Park Resort’s National Sports Center for the Disabled, where Hansberry once competed. Erik Petersen, the Alpine Ski coach for the U.S. Disabled Ski Team, gave the Fellows a tour of the center. Skiing is rare in Africa, so this was a novel experience for the fellows.

After their resort tour, the fellows headed to Old Schoolhouse Park beside Fraser Town Hall for a catered lunch by Rudi’s Deli. Michael Brack, Fraser’s deputy town manager, and Andy Miller, president of the Upper Colorado River Watershed Group, met with the fellows to discuss a variety of topics.

Many of the fellows work in environmental and water protection fields, so it was fitting they came to Fraser, home to the headwaters of the Colorado River. Andy Miller discussed Grand County’s essential role in water stewardship.

“The Colorado River serves over 40 million people downstream, from Los Angeles to Phoenix to San Diego. All the cities of the southwest are fed by the snowmelt of this valley,” Miller said, adding that overallocation and drought due to climate change threatens the river.

“It’s a changing planet,” Miller said. “It’s wonderful to see so many young people involved with politics and decision-making to help modify the planet. … So we can hopefully continue to live peacefully here.”

Michael Brack discussed how Fraser is working to conserve the precious Colorado River through the Upper Fraser Valley Wastewater Treatment Plant.

“Every time someone flushes a toilet, it goes to the giant facility we have here, we treat it, then we put it back into the river,” Brack said. “It’s actually better water quality than what we pull from the ground.”

“It’s a very innovative idea,” said Omar V. Al Sherif of the treatment plant. Sherif, who leads Liberia’s Rural and Renewable Energy Agency, added that solar panels can keep the plant’s energy costs down.

After Miller and Brack’s educational talks, the fellows had a chance to ask questions as diverse as the their careers and ranging from how the town could get more young people involved in political decisions, to why the cost of living was so high in Grand County, to what health care options were available for residents. Then it was time for a hike at Snow Mountain Ranch YMCA. 

Although their time in Grand was short, there is still much in store for the Mandela Fellows. At the culmination of their program on July 17, they’ll participate in the Mandela Washington Fellowship Summit, where they will join networking and panel discussions with each other and U.S. leaders from the public, private and nonprofit sectors. Following the Summit, up to 100 Fellows will be selected to participate in another four weeks of professional development in the U.S.

“You are young, and also seasoned. You already have a track record and so many ideas,” Hansberry told the Fellows before they departed Fraser. “We just feel really lucky to be in the company of all you, for us to learn too.”

There is a chance that next year, another group of Mandela Fellows will make the trip down to Grand County, to learn from local leaders and take a bit of the Rocky Mountains back home with them to Africa.

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