If there is anything millennials are collectively passionate about, it is social impact. Tsion Gurmu’s career is centered around social impact. She was recently recognized by Forbes 30 under 30 for for her work at the African Services Committee. She created a program which provides pro- bono legal help and social support for black LGBT refugees fleeing anti – homosexuality legislation in their home countries. She is our woman crush for so many reasons. She shared her career journey and her mission to change the world with us!
How did you know you wanted to pursue a career in social justice after Law School?
My decision to pursue a career in social justice arose in part from my family’s journey as asylum seekers in the US, as well as my own journey resisting the homophobia and transphobia that is so toxic and pervasive in African Diaspora communities. Even after escaping extraordinary forms of repression and violence based on their sexuality, most Queer Black immigrants are faced with all new anti-immigrant, racist, homophobic, and transphobic sentiments here in the US. Many find themselves trapped between a new American world that presents unique legal, language, and cultural barriers that seem insurmountable, and a painfully homophobic African Diaspora community that seeks to continue to silence and stifle their voices. Fortunately, the relationships I fostered while working on immigrant rights before and during law school helped release the patriarchal controls on my own voice and gave me the strength to put forward a proposal to provide pro bono legal representation and social support for LGBTQIA+ Black immigrants. Doing this work changed my perspective on what I am capable of accomplishing as a young attorney committed to addressing structural injustices at the intersection of anti-black racism, gay rights, and immigrant rights movements.
“Be strong. Be resilient. Working in the non-profit sector is not an easy task for several reasons, but I have found that resisting tokenism in non-profit spaces is a major issue that isn’t discussed nearly as often as it should be”
A lot of Millennials want to work for Non profits but are often deterred from that path to pursue careers in the private sector. What advice do you have for young black women be innovative and add value to their current workplace?
Be strong. Be resilient. Working in the nonprofit sector is not an easy task for several reasons, but I have found that resisting tokenism in non-profit spaces is a major issue that isn’t discussed nearly as often as it should be. After committing myself to a career in social justice, I found myself playing the role of the token black girl in predominantly white liberal spaces. While I knew the non-profit sector is led, operated, and maintained by white folks, I did not expect to battle tokenism while working with African-focused service providers and I certainly did not anticipate that white folks would feel so comfortable attempting to use me as a racialized prop. The most important advice I can give young black women interested in pursuing careers in the public sector or non-profit organizations is to consistently resist being silenced by organizational structures that promote white dominance. It is easy to become part of a system led by wealthy white folks that simultaneously serves and silences black voices, and we must constantly combat this by challenging organizational cultures, seeking out leadership opportunities, and not being afraid to push the envelope in terms of diversity of thought.
You launched a whole new initiative at the African Services Committee, that takes a lot of hard work and support from leadership. How can young black women be innovative and add value to their current workplace?
As young black women in the professional world, we must remind ourselves that we don’t have to simply conform to the codified rules of established games. We must have the confidence to invent our own rules and our own games–this is how we can tap into our true potential and produce new insights.
What does diversity in the workplace mean to you?
Diversity in the workplace can mean and look like a lot of different things, but I have always searched for and thrived in spaces that cultivate respect for diversity of thought. I enjoy working with disagreeable folks who confront and challenge me, and consequently improve my ability to speak up and defend original ideas.
Do you have a lot of mentors in your career field, particularly black female mentors?
I am blessed to be able to rely on a large community of women of color who have supported me throughout my career. These women played a significant role in teaching me how to be confident and assertive without fear that I will be judged as “aggressive.” Women, especially women of color, often fear paying a price for being vocal. This is why I owe so much to the women who taught me me the politics behind tempered radicalism as it applies to women of color, and how to strike a balance between resonating with the existing repertoire and challenging the status quo.
What advice do you have for young black women starting out their careers in the public sector? How can they find mentors they can relate to?
Put yourself out there. If you come across someone who is doing the work that you would like to do, send a message and ask to meet over coffee. You must be confident and straightforward.
In line with our mission, what does being an executive woman mean to you?
Being an executive woman means being a bold woman who champions diversity of thought and resists group thinking.