Since 2007, the Urban Leadership Foundation of Colorado (ULFC) has been in existence with the simple goal of bolstering Black professionals’ lived and professional experiences. The work has been rewarding and effective, boasting over 450 alumni who are engaged and impacting every major industry in Colorado, from nursing and veteran services to politics and entrepreneurship.
Over the last few years, like many organizations, ULFC has been reflective and has conducted many organizational assessments, taking a critical look at who we are as an organization and how we need to show up for the community.Completing this work resulted in a new strategic plan, additional programs, and a stronger focus which now includes a deeper focus on service, executive leadership presence and cultural identity.
The cultural identity aspect is essential for us; after all, how can a Black leader truly lead if they don’t understand who they are? How can children be complete without actual rites of passage programs? Can we heal as a people if daily forces actively work to silence, block, or erase our access to our historical roots and culture? What does it mean for our mental health to have vital information gaps about who we are? These are only a few questions that led to creating the ULFC international cultural emergence experience in Africa.
This immersive experience helps not only answer these questions but provides a connection and understanding that we believe will support mending and bridging the gaps between Black Americans and our brothers and sisters living in America from Africa. The International Leadership Experience (ILE) is not designed to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but rather a journey home, a healing opportunity, a connection with cultural identity, and an opportunity to see leadership, service, and an authentic village mentality from the perspective of the family we have been disconnected from for far too long.
This 9-day intentionally curated experience: •Brings fellows face-to-face with the origin story and impact of enslavement on Africans and African/Black Americans. •Provides an international perspective on business, leadership, local history, politics, and development. •Provides an opportunity to connect with a tribe through a formal invitation to join and receive an African name through a traditional ceremony. •Gives a deeper understanding of political challenges and opportunities in Africa •Dispels dramatized narratives commonly shared in the United States about African countries through physical experiences. •Promotes psychological safety and healing.
The 2023 Experience
It is often said that the road home is always a journey and something one earns. This thought rang true and was the experience of the 13 individuals who embarked on the 2023 ULFC ILE. Despite two years of planning, flawless leadership execution, relationship-building across the ocean, and childlike eagerness to begin, fate decided that some hazing had to happen.
A singular mechanical issue on an American Airlines jet thrust this year’s group into a cycle of unfortunate events that only grace, patience, leadership, and understanding of the authorizing environment could deliver them from. A trip scheduled to take 20 hours and one transfer took nearly four days, two states, and an unexpected visit to Qatar.
Managing groups is a task alone, but doing it over the holiday weekend with a less-than responsive travel agency, an airline providing alternative facts, and travel destinations abroad could have been a nightmare if working with underevolved leaders, but that wasn’t the case. There was yelling, cursing, and people trying to flex power all over the place. The 2023 group in all our Black Excellence, role-modeled diplomacy spread laughter and leaned into an authorizing environment. We stood out like a sore thumb for all the best reasons, and individuals noticed we were calm during the storm.
Our approach led to new friends and individual attention, and unlike many other impacted travelers, our journey continued. Travel challenges forged a deep connection throughout this cohort; our travel woes and experiences in the country led to a group of people that will lead, serve, and grow together for years to come.
After an unexpected passport stamp and a fantastic experience in Doha, Qatar (simply amazing), we made it to the Motherland: Accra, Ghana. From the moment we set foot in Accra, the group was greeted by the warm and welcoming nature of the Korleman Community. Ghanaians are known for their hospitality, and the group quickly discovered their eagerness to share their rich cultural heritage with visitors. We were met by prayer, celebration, pouring of libations by Chief Nii Mantse Beetei, and a delegation of the GA tribe.
Although our time had been condensed, the impact was undeniable. Going home to Africa, even in the first two hours of being there, changed the lives of our fellows. The love, amazement, joy, and sense of “this is incredible” in their eyes is a sight no one will forget.
Our leaders were excited but hadn’t seen anything yet. The naming ceremony, which is considered a crucial rite of passage in Ghanaian culture, was like a scene from the movie Ali, where village members chant as Will Smith (who portrays Ali) walks and is received by the people. Our bus took us about an hour outside of Accra to Korleman, the village of the GA tribe. As the bus turned, we heard thunderous yelling and drums. When we pulled up, men, women, and children were everywhere! We unloaded the bus and were embraced, cheered for, and welcomed. We walked behind drummers, dozens of people, and the chief village warrior, who donned a ceremonial helmet.
Everyone was dancing, recording, taking selfies, and shouting welcoming expressions. “I have never felt so loved, welcomed, wanted, or seen in my life!” expressed Dr. Ryan Ross, ULFC President and CEO. Our walk led us to the chief’s palace, where the king and queen mother greeted us. The king poured libations, prayed over us and the community, and prayed for good and just to overcome evil and wrongdoing. Although we couldn’t understand every word because he prayed in the native languages of Twi and GA, we felt every word through his passion, commitment, and intention. It was like we knew every word when he translated after he finished.
The naming ceremony began with us receiving and subsequently being changed into our ceremonial clothing; beautiful head wraps, stunning handmade sandals, traditional skirts, and robes. We were then brought into the main room of the village palace, where we were once again met by the king and queen mother and asked to sit on beautiful stools with prominent Adinkra symbols carved into them. It was time to begin, the emcee yelled in Twi, “It’s time to receive the chief.” Everyone immediately got quiet and then entered Chief Nii Beetei with a chief of a neighboring tribe. While this wasn’t the entrance that many of us have grown accustomed to from watching “Coming to America,” it was full of pride, respect, admiration and love.
Within the Korleman community is a sense of collaboration. This communal gathering signified the group’s integration into the larger social fabric, emphasizing the importance of community support and collective responsibility. With this, the tribe leaders installed Ross as Chief of Development for a brighter future. By forging international alliances, ULFC enhances its capacity to drive sustainable change and leverages collective resources to address systemic challenges. These partnerships also offer fellows invaluable networking opportunities, connecting them to explore and connect with the roots of our heritage.
“To be clear, I knew we would be receiving African names, but I had no idea the celebration would include student presentations through song, reciting history, and attendance of members of the royal court and village elders. Nothing about my previous conversations informed me that the event would be a standing room only on the inside and practically a block party on the outside,” exclaimed Ross.
“I speak for every fellow when I say we were humbled, believed we were in the middle of a miracle-filled moment, and were utterly speechless. We walked in as Dr. Ryan Ross, Wafa Saeed, Ahmad Lowe, Danielle Johnson, Betty Hart, Brandon Bruce, Hanifah Chiku, Jeffrey Kass, Towanna Henderson, Antoinette Kyle, Ikra Mohammed, Nicole Jones, and Brittany Winkfield of the United States by way of Colorado. We left with Ghanaian names and official status as members of the GA tribe in Ghana who live in Colorado. I am so thrilled about this relationship and excited to see all that comes because of it.”
The heavenly experience of community, joy and connection quickly became a state of complexity, anxiety, deep sadness, and honestly, anger the next day as our delegation toured the Elmina and Cape Coast enslavement castles. One would think after years of hearing about slavery, sometimes learning about it in schools, and fighting for equity, our group would be ready to come face-toface with the atrocities of our ancestors – we were not.
Silent tears rolled down our faces, and shared glances spoke volumes. The dungeons were indeed dungeons; perhaps worse than you can imagine. The floors were not smooth floors that felt good beneath your feet. They were fossilized layers of blood, sweat, tears, bones and vomit from our ancestors. The air was thick with death, psychosis, crime and hypocrisy.
We walked the rooms where coercive power was used to rape women, kidnap humans and brainwash children against their own people. We sat in the dark and cold dungeons where the light was not welcome, and food was a suggestion; in other words, we sat in a room designed for murder. We walked through chapels where the gospels were preached, and prayers were sent to God; but underneath the pulpit, our ancestors were tortured, starved, stripped of identity and held against their will.
Captured Africans were terrorized for at least 90 days until they were barely alive. Then, they marched through the Door of No Return to the slave ships, where they were laid side by side like animals in horrific conditions and shipped to the new world, never to see Africa again.
It was a tough day, but we took strength in realizing that we are the descendants of resilient people who refused to die. Their refusal to die meant we all could come home through the Door of Return (renamed for those returning home). The next leg of our journey took us East to the cradle of civilization, better known as Egypt.
Famous for its ancient civilization, Egypt is home to one of the wonders of the world, and the monuments of the majestic pharaohs; most famous are the Great Pyramids of Giza, the Great Sphinx, the Egyptian Museum and the newly constructed Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM).
Riding camels, tipping for any service, and enjoying a dinner cruise down the Nile were amazing experiences, but seeing what is considered to be the origin story for so many was astonishing. The text, images and hieroglyphs on papyrus paper looked as if they were written yesterday. The engineering and ingenuity it took to build the pyramids and create these giant structures is unbelievable. The attention to detail, the excellent condition of artifacts, and the enormous amount of gold used truly showed the abundance of resources available in this area at one point in our existence.
Academicians and researchers have argued about the authentic ethnicity of Egyptians for years, however, it was as clear as a sky without clouds for us: Blacks, Africans, African Americans, and people of color were present in the beginning. We saw ourselves in every exhibit, statue, mummified remains, picture and display case. Whether it was facial features, hips, and thighs, or simply the swag, no one can tell the 13 leader-adventurers from Colorado that Black folks aren’t critical to the cradle of civilization. There’s no argument for us. We, too, are a part of this history, and we can’t let colonizers or those seeking to control the narrative discount or erase our existence or claim that we weren’t there. After all, isn’t it Africa?
From the Perspective of Our Fellows
There was so much to see, feel, and experience. One account doesn’t give this experience the justice it deserves. The following are some highlights and key takeaways from ILE Fellows:
“For me, this was a manifestation of a longtime goal of placing my footprint on the soil of my ancestors. It affirmed how necessary it is for those of us, the descendants of ‘the stolen ones,’ to make this journey. The emotions felt from being in Ghana and seeing the slave dungeons where our ancestral journeys began were powerful. I’m thankful to have shared with this group.”– Hanifah Chiku
“I will always remember the warm welcome that we received in Ghana! Starting from our arrival at the airport with Chief Nii Mantse Beetei and the elders of the Korleman community. We were immediately immersed in the Ghanaian culture with drumming, dancing, and prayer and it continued with the community ritual for our naming ceremony. Seeing all of the people greeting us with so much joy made me feel like a valued member of the community and that I was home. This experience motivates me to learn about my roots, and I am honored to be able to support the Korleman community by building a library for the children.”-Towanna Hendersonv
A phenomenal experience that mere words can’t honestly describe. We encourage you to see for yourself; it is time to return home.