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Mandela Washington Fellowship provides young Africans tools to lead, serve their fellow citizens

Each year, ASU hosts emerging leaders who learn public, nonprofit management

Group of people seated and clapping at an event.

Mandela Washington Fellows applaud at a ceremony at the end of their six-week session at ASU in summer 2022. ASU photo by Mark J. Scarp

September 02, 2022

Years before he first set foot on campus this summer, Jesse Mendes was quite familiar with the acronym "ASU."

Not the ASU that Sun Devils know. One he created.

Mendes, 26, didn’t start his own university. He founded the Angola Skateboarding Union, known in his country as ASU. Mendes and the union built that country’s first skateboard park to inspire and empower hundreds of Angolan youth.

Mendes is one of 24 dedicated, idealistic, creative young African leaders who traveled to Phoenix this summer for an international training program named for legendary South African President Nelson Mandela, the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders.

Another young African leader, Mariama Coneh, also was at Arizona State University this summer for the fellowship. She is a passionate Gambian human rights advocate who helps female crime victims, at-risk children and other marginalized groups find empowerment and justice.

Mendes, Coneh and the other Mandela Washington Fellows each came to Phoenix with talent, a history of achievement and an earnest desire to better serve their communities, said Hector Zelaya, director of executive education at ASU’s Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.

During their six weeks in Phoenix, the fellows learned about American public management and how government and nonprofits serve constituencies. Upon return to their home countries, they can apply what they learned in a variety of leadership roles.

Since 2014Note: The program was not held in 2020., the Watts College-based fellowship has annually hosted accomplished young professionals to study public management. The program is designed for leaders from sub-Saharan Africa, ages 25–34, who serve the public through governmental and nongovernmental organizations, community-based nonprofits or volunteerism.

The Mandela Washington Fellowship is the flagship of the Young African Leaders Initiative, a program of the U.S. State Department Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and its implementing partner, IREX, that empowers young people through academic coursework, leadership training and networking.

Zelaya said the fellows learn about “the ongoing American experience, the strengths and the flaws.” He said what makes the fellows’ time in the Valley so information- and idea-rich are the contributions of more than 75 ASU and community members who volunteered their time and knowledge.

“It takes a village,” Zelaya said of this year’s volunteers. “They served as coaches, presenters and facilitators. The fellows also learned about various levels of public management and met with representatives of the office of U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly, the state Legislature, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the Arizona Department of Administration, the Arizona Department of Economic Security, the Arizona Department of Health Services, the Maricopa Association of Governments and the Phoenix city manager.”

Fulfilling a need through skateboarding

Mendes is a native Angolan raised for many years in South Africa, where he said as a boy of 7 he met Nelson Mandela while visiting a hospital where the South African leader was receiving medical treatment.

Mendes moved back to his native country with his family, where opportunities for young people were far fewer than in South Africa. Imbued with a strong motivation to help youth feel empowered to better themselves and their surroundings, he relied on his love of skateboarding to demonstrate to them that they can stand out at what they set their minds to accomplish.

Three men, one of whom holds a certificate, smile for a photo.

Jesse Mendes (center) displays his certificate at a ceremony for the 2022 Mandela Washington Fellows this summer. Joining him are Hector Zelaya (left), Watts College director of executive education, and Aaron Peterson, curriculum facilitator. ASU photo by Mark J. Scarp

“Angola is very limited in resources in sports,” Mendes said. “There is nothing for local kids, youth. Just seeing everyone I grew up with skateboarding helped me stay connected. Growing up, people always had my back when we were skateboarding.”

So years later, back in Angola, Mendes had the idea of doing something with skateboarding to help young people build confidence and gain direction in their lives.

Skateboarding is popular in Angola, but there were no places to safely enjoy the sport. Youths would skateboard in the streets, while local government offered no assistance, Mendes said.

The skateboarding union united enthusiasts under one umbrella.

“There were no facilities. There was no voice. Skateboarders were discriminated against,” he said. “I took on all those odds and found solutions to fight those odds to create a skateboarding union. Through it, more young people could learn there is a way to be included in society and make something out of yourself.”

It was hard work, which included fundraising from donors, requiring Mendes to write a 62-page proposal. Relying in part on social media, Mendes reached beyond his nation’s borders to other countries, including in Europe and North America, soliciting and receiving contributions.

The skate park was built in 28 days. Through the union, skateboarding competitions continue to grow in Angola.

Once in Arizona, Mendes did not take a hiatus from his efforts. He took time to travel to Scottsdale to meet with skateboarders there, swapping stories and getting information.

“You have a skateboard, you are a friend,” he said.

Also, through a stroke of luck, while Mendes was eating at a Phoenix restaurant, a producer from a local television station overheard him telling about his work, which led to a news feature that was broadcast in July.

Mendes said it is a joy to work with his country’s young people.

“The talent they have, the hunger, the interest, the skill level; it shocks me, the engagement they have in skateboarding. The way they look at me to motivate them, it makes me feel good, too,” Mendes said. “I work with kids in foster homes, kids with no fathers, mothers, left on streets. (Skateboarding) takes them off the streets.”

Equipped with many lessons and examples learned from the six weeks he spent in Arizona, Mendes says he plans to expand the skateboarding union throughout Angola, employing more young people as board members, teachers and coaches. He hopes to build four more skate parks in Angola and one day create the biggest skate park in Africa.

“I went to America chasing a dream, and people accepted me for chasing a dream. I went to America doing what I love and people accepted me doing what I love,” he said of the fellowship. “If you want to chase your dream, you can do it, too.”

Advocating for human rights on ‘international platform’

Coneh, 25, whose bachelor's degree is in political science, advocates for marginalized groups in her country, The Gambia, including victims of human rights violations and people with disabilities. She has spent more than two years working as a human rights advocate, currently serving as program associate at the Women's Association for Victims' Empowerment.

Through her work in the organization, Coneh has engaged with international and local civil society organizations to advocate for victims and to ensure that perpetrators are held accountable.

Woman speaking behind a lectern.

Mariama Coneh, a 2022 Mandela Washington Fellow, addresses her cohort at a closing ceremony at ASU this summer. ASU photo by Mark J. Scarp

She said the fellowship attracted her because she and other fellows could discuss ideas on an international platform.

“They are agents of change in their local communities. Being a young female, it’s hard to have sponsors for various projects. I was at entry level; I had just completed my bachelor’s degree,” she said.

The fellowship has helped her better prepare for what she wants to do in public management and civic engagement, she said, “somewhere I could enhance my skills and become someone good at public speaking and network with other young people from other African countries.”

Coneh said during her time in Phoenix she received coaching in human rights work, and had the chance to visit organizations in Arizona that perform similar functions to those with which she is involved at home.

“That alone is very important. I am able to prepare better and understand I am someone who can create an organization, but make an impact. You want to change the lives of people you engage with,” she said.

Coneh said she also appreciated the fellowship’s offering opportunities to visit government entities on many levels, from local to national.

She said watching Gov. Doug Ducey sign a water management bill at the Arizona State Capitol showed her state officials here are thinking about the long-term future.

“Why have solutions that are temporary?” she said. “It made me start to wonder that we start to work on solutions that are permanent and not short-term.”

Coneh said she plans to apply what she has learned to her advocacy work and to transfer her new skills to young people in her community.

She said one of her mentors told her she saw fire in her eyes about her work, and to never let that fire die. It’s something she said she will never forget. The more she concentrates on making an impact, she said, the more her experience in Arizona will help her become the leader she wants to be.

“One thing I will keep and tell my children: Do not let the fire in your eyes die,” she said.

The other fellows were “amazing young people,” she said, who inspired her to want to learn and do more and to expand her outlook.

“Anytime we had events or discussions about things, everyone had a different perspective. I have learned so much from them. I have been able to learn about stuff in policy analysis that has already changed my perspective on how I want to approach what I do. I am not the same person I came here as.”

On the last day of the session, Coneh was one of a few fellows invited to give a short presentation to the entire group. Speaking on the topic “Leave No Child Behind,” she described many problems African society faces and what prevents more solutions.

“In Africa,” she said, “it’s not a lack of potential but a lack of opportunity.”

The Mandela Washington Fellowship is a program of the U.S. Department of State with funding provided by the U.S. government and administered by IREX. Arizona State University is a sub-grantee of IREX and has implemented leadership institutes as a part of the fellowship since 2014. For more information about the Mandela Washington Fellowship, visit the fellowship’s website at

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