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Students

Routes of Return

ISAAC CUDJOE, MA COEX'19, SECOND FROM LEFT, IN GHANA WITH PARTICIPANTS IN THE YOUNG AFRICAN LEADERS INITIATIVE.

By Karen Shih

For 12-year-old Isaac Cudjoe, who immigrated to the United States at age 3, it was easier to avoid being outwardly African. Soccer? He chose to play football and watch basketball. Traditional Ghanaian stews? He wanted to just grab a sloppy Joe in the lunch line like everyone else. Kente cloth? He’d rather pull on jeans and a t-shirt. He felt peer pressure to fit in—or be left behind.

But today, that once assimilation-focused kid is launching an ambitious, multi-part project about the reintegration of diaspora—the vast population of people and their descendants who have left their home countries and settled elsewhere—throughout the world.

“What does it mean to go back—or not? What does it mean to make an impact?” says Cudjoe, MA COEX’19. “There’s lots of conversation about migration, but there’s not enough cross-cultural conversation. Nobody’s asking Vietnamese Americans why their experiences are so different from Ghanaian Americans.”

That’s why he brought together people from all over the world for his documentary, “(Re)turn,” and is working with fellow student Violet Nguyen, MA SID’19, to launch a social movement by the same name.

“This movement is about your rootedness, wherever that is,” he says.

Their goals: to develop a network of diaspora representatives and a self-assessment framework for members of the diaspora to think critically about development projects they seek to bring back to their home countries. Ultimately, they want to revolutionize the way remittances are sent to developing countries. Rather than the traditional model of sending money directly to family or friends for personal use, they want to put the funds toward impact investment in schools or hospitals that could benefit a community more broadly.

While Cudjoe has contemplated the idea of diaspora for years, a recent trip to Ghana gave him new fuel and insight for his work. He went to Accra in March as part of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), where he was the lone American-raised representative among a diverse contingent of regional leaders, from doctors to government officials, pastors to entrepreneurs. He gained an increased appreciation for the fine line that people scattered around the world must walk as they seek to contribute to their homelands.

“People in the diaspora need to unlearn stereotypes they’ve been taught about their countries, relearn the truth and make purposeful decisions to serve their communities,” he says. But it can’t be one sided. “Governments around the world need to understand that there’s this renewed interest, so they need to create proper channels for people who can do things like impact investment, especially in developing countries.”

Read the rest of the article here.

Date: May 29, 2018