Interconnecting the Diaspora

Interconnecting the Diaspora was a projected birthed from an intentional meet-up organized by the women you see before you. It then turned into a Storytelling Initiative that showcases, challenges and struggles these women have overcame as well as their unique stories of perseverance. The goal of this is to begin listening to one another in order to gain perspective about one other to establish how much we truly have in common. Although we came from different backgrounds and countries, we are sisters, and showcasing the comfortability that we feel around one another was paramount.

A shot of genuine happiness, with Stephaine Villalobos + Casteline Titus

Often with members of the diaspora, there is a feeling of the inability to connect with each other or a line drawn in the sand revealing how “different” we are, and at time the color of our skin seems to be the only bonding agent –however, we wanted to push passed those manufactured boundaries and show the world the love we have cultivated. I wanted to showcase that country of origin should never get in the way of bonding and making connections with someone. Never allow preconceived notions or skin color to disallow you to connect.

Christina Lee leads some selfies with the women

Through these photos my hope is to showcase the vibrance and genuine joy and happiness we’ve all allowed ourselves to feel share by introducing the world to the vibrancy of our cultures, but also how together, we have created a culture of our own, without fear and without limitation. Here are our stories inTheirVoice:

Elizabeth “Liz” Njeri Watiri

“It has been such a coincidence that all my mentors, bosses and supervisors have been women.” –Elizabeth Njeri Watiri, IPD ‘18 (far-right)

#inTheirVoice: “Never Walk the Journey Alone.”

“My name is Elizabeth Njeri Watiri; born and raised in Kenya. I am currently an MA, International Policy+Development (IPD) 4th semester student  specializing in Monitoring, Evaluation and Design. While still in college, I got myself involved in policy advocacy for reproductive health and rights of the adolescents and youth in Kenya. Because my focus is policy advocacy, I was inspired to apply for a Fulbright Scholarship soon after college and that’s how I found MIIS; a renowned policy school. Throughout my journey, it has been such a coincidence that all my mentors, bosses and supervisors have been women.They held my hand and showed me where to go and I have nothing but respect for them.

Being herself. Having fun.

I feel indebted to them in a way and I feel that the best way to repay them is to mentor young other African women back home. In her book; “Unbowed,” Professor Wangari Maathai says that she never walked alone in her journey and she urges that ‘just as trees have roots deep to the ground yet they reach the sky, we also need other people to walk together with and we need not forget where we came from (our roots)” Realizing that I have not come this far by myself, I do value and appreciate the strength we have when we work together. After all, as the saying goes,no man is an island!”

Francesca Akaton

“ I am strong because I was raised to be, I am strong because I am a fighter, I am strong because I have sickle cell anemia. And this is what this story is about.” –Francesca Akaton –MPA ’18 (Francesca in the blue sweater, being held up by her sisters)

#inTheirVoice: “I Am A Fighter!.”

Is structural violence the case where, when you have no control over the condition you were born with, the system forces you to have to cope with such condition alone by not allowing you access to or providing the appropriate services to the proper care? If so, I do not want to admit I am a victim of structural violence and I won’t. I won’t because this is not a story of how I am a victim of structural violence.

Being born with sickle cell anemia isn’t something I asked for but luckily, I have always lived in places where the system understood that and worked with me to alleviate the consequences of that disease. Consequences I am subject to by nature. Moving to the States, I was denied some of the treatments that helped me live a comfortable life and so the frequency of crises I would get increased. It became a struggle to live healthily. This struggle has, despite myself, made me discover what it really means to have sickle cell anemia, but it has also made me realize that my parents have raised me to take on the battles this disease confronts me with. My mother used to say, when you have a daughter with sickle cell, praise the Lord if she makes it to her 15th birthday.


Francesca with her shades on sticking pose with Christina Lee, Liz, Thabo, & Chara Bel

She strengthened me mentally by sharing stories of her sisters who are still alive despite the lack of proper structure in my country, even though until they were teens their mother and my grandmother, had no idea why they would fall ill when they would. They would because they had been born with sickle cell and she did not know. My mother explained to me that I was privileged to have lived a fairly ‘crisis-less’ life and therefore should be grateful for it and accept the challenges that came my way with sickle cell as my aunts did because I was born to be sick. My father strengthened me. He taught me that in Taekwondo, which is ultimately the control of the mind over the body. No pain is too much pain if my mind decides so he would say which takes a great deal of mental strength. I am strong because I was raised to be, I am strong because I am a fighter, I am strong because I have sickle cell anemia. And this is what this story is about.”

Shinae Meylor

#inTheirVoice: “Challenges Will Come. Keep Going.”

“Being a woman of color seemed to produce a different set of hurdles for me; however, I decided to move forward because those hurdles only showed me how to run in strides.” –Shinae Meylor, IPD ‘19

“I was skeptical of what the semester held, but also looking forward to the new experience. My journey at MIIS began during the summer of 2017; during SILP. While living in Monterey for less than three months, I had been homeless twice due to the housing shortage on the Peninsula. Although, this was a rough beginning to a new start, I was optimistic and knew things would get better; however, life tends to find ways of making us angry first and strengthening us second. I faced offensive remarks under two different circumstances, both of which weighed heavily on my mind. Before this, I was a returning Peace Corps Volunteer, after being stationed in Rwanda for 2-yrs. And while serving in the Peace Corps is never easy; being a woman of color seemed to produce a different set of hurdles for me. Therefore, being faced with these new sets of challenges was difficult because I was in the process of reintegration.


With mixed emotions from PC and my first semester, I contemplated whether I could find the strength to carry-on or even if graduate school was the right decision. Could I figure out how to function within a new community? Or this new town? How do I embark on a new journey when I’m feeling a lack of support and limited understanding? At first, these thoughts discouraged me and unsurety set in. However, after rethinking my goals, allowing time to pass and anxieties to dissipate; I realized that I want to be able to elevate my knowledge and being at MIIS  has opened new possibilities and offered me the security of knowing that it can take me to the next level! I decided to move forward because those hurdles only showed me how to run in strides. Because I’ve learned that the moment I hesitate; I will fall flat.”

Tangut Zenebe Degfay

#inTheirVoice: “About Girls Unapologetically Outspoken.”

“ Where I am from, a girl outspoken, is a girl looked down upon.” –Tangut Zenebe Degfay, IDP ’18

My name is Tangut and I am from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. An aspect of my social life I absolutely admire is the opportunity to tell and learn from honest stories. I love conversations. I love listening to others’ stories. I love telling stories because I feel empowered by the fact that people learn about me through my own choice of words, my intonations, and my own hyper-excited expressive ways.

Where I am from, a girl outspoken, is a girl looked down upon. We have many phrases in the language used to belittle a girl strong and outspoken, a girl who stands up for herself and for what she believes. Leflafi. Mutti. Woregna. That belittling comes not only from strangers but from people very close. Because you see, culturally and socially, a girl is – and has been for centuries – expected to be dependent on her male counterparts not only economically and socially, but emotionally and mentally. A girl ought to listen but not speak. A girl ought to follow orders and never object or question why. A girl’s intelligence is looked down upon, a girl’s opinions are often dismissed from decision making in her home and in her society.

Enjoying the sun and enjoying the company. Stephanie V, Tangut, Eunice, Castelline, & Thabo (from left-to-right)

I love my culture and everything it has to offer. But growing up, it was very difficult for me to live by the rules especially when it comes to expressing my opinion. In school, I had fingers pointed at me because I had a lot to say about things and I said them. During informal conversations, I find myself being interrupted mostly by my male peers or reminded that I’ve spoken too much. The thing is, I don’t particularly like to dwell on gender disparities and societies fear of a girl with voice, but there is something about the dismissiveness of people that gets me. It is Okay for boys to say whatever they want and whenever they wanted. They can freely and nonchalantly insert their opinions even when a girl is speaking without the need to wait for her to finish her thoughts yet a girl cannot even speak her mind?

It is the same in my country. It is the same in your country. It is the same in Japan. It is the same in India. It is the same in the United States…….. It feels as though society has for centuries marched against a girl strong and outspoken. What is it really about a girl’s voice that bothers society?

Tangut taking a selfie with Chara

This year, I found myself surrounded by some of the most outstanding, strong, and unapologetically outspoken girls through school activities and projects or just pure friendship. Elea, Ashley, Celina, Ianthe, Tran. And the perks of being surrounded by unapologetically outspoken and strong girls is that you feed off of their energy and find yourself growing mentally and intellectually. But most importantly, it helps validate that being a girl strong and outspoken is something to be absolutely proud of because change never comes from those who live by the rule but from those who challenge the rule.

Society may never be ready for girls with voice but I have always known myself to be, and will continue to be outspoken and stand for what I believe.”

Stephanie Villalobos

#inTheirVoice: “About Girls Unapologetically Outspoken.”

“When I look back at those days and compare my challenges today to what they were, I know I have all that I need to be successful today and for the rest of my days.” –Stephanie Villalobos, IPD ‘18

“My story began in Mexico when my mother got pregnant with me at 23 years of age. She knew her life would be in danger if she stayed behind; if her family discovered the pregnancy, so she fled to the United States when she began showing to meet with my father on the San Diego, California border. I was born in Santa Ana, California; a city that is known for being a Mexican immigrant city. From a very young age, my parents insisted that I pursue opportunities that were never granted to them in their youth. That meant higher education, travel, sports, and taking risks on our dreams.

When I was 14 years old, my father was imprisoned and eventually deported, so my family and I lived under the poverty line for many years. It was an experience that made my mother, siblings, and I take on additional responsibilities. We watched each other grow in grace. We did not let those challenges get in the way of our goals. If anything, it lit a fire within us to not let the hardships get in the way of our goals. We became extremely resourceful, humble, hard working, and most importantly UNITED as a family. When I look back at those days and compare my challenges today to what they were, I know I have all that I need to be successful today and for the rest of my days.

Liz and Stephanie checking out their photos

I lived in Hawaii for 6 years prior to arriving at MIIS. I got my bachelor’s degree on the island and decided to stay after my time in school to surf and live the “tropical lifestyle”. I hit a glass ceiling in my growth, so I realized that graduate school would be the best choice for me at that point. Going to the Middlebury Institute was a natural step in my professional and personal progression in life because it encouraged me to embrace and become more of who I am.

I wanted to learn how to eventually make better money with the platform I was born with and MIIS had all the tools I needed to get to that next level. I am on the tail end of my program as an International Policy and Development master and am now working on the capstone of my degree at the Department of Defense as a research and translation intern.

Power to the People, Stephanie V

Leaving MIIS for my practicum felt like I was 18 years old moving away from home all over again. I am feeling extremely homesick for my MIIS community, my family, California, and the more relaxed worldviews on life. Despite my struggles, I know that sticking it out in Washington DC for my practicum will give me invaluable skills that will be applicable in several aspects of my personal and professional life 💛

Taylor Hadnot

#inTheirVoice: “I Understood My Skin Made Me Different.”

Still, it was the first time that I understood my skin made me different, and that this skin carried with it a lot of baggage.” –Taylor Hadnot, IPD ’18

“I will always call New Orleans my first home. I was a child and my parents were exceptionally adept at keeping my brother and me in a world of their own creation where there was only love and happiness and nothing else mattered. Perhaps it was this “bubble” being popped that opened my eyes up to the existence of racism once we moved to California. It was never too blatant – a monkey reference here, the n-word there – and perhaps wasn’t as much racism as it was ignorance. Still, it was the first time that I understood my skin made me different, and that this skin carried with it a lot of baggage.  

My mother would eventually tell me that I was reading a concerning amount of books about slavery, and that we were more than that. This advice was coupled with the poem my mother wrote for me, which she would make me recite any time that I was feeling self-conscious, belittled, or unworthy: “I am bold, beautiful and brown. I am as good as any, and better than many…” Her support buoyed me to my adolescent years. It is what kept me strong when I began to travel abroad and realized that America is not the only place where my blackness was viewed negatively. Still, the self-worth and self-confidence that my parents planted in me began to bloom unprompted when I started to acknowledge my achievements in whatever I was putting my time and effort into.  

Taylor embracing Shinae

My time at MIIS has been an interesting type of challenge. On one hand, not since my time in New Orleans have I met such a supportive, vibrant and proud community of black women and men endeavoring to emulate and embody the very best of our culture and people.  On the other hand, my blackness was made even more apparent by the realization that there are not many of “us” in the space of international development or social change on an international level. During my classes, the archetype of the “white savior” seemed to be prevalent in the space to me, but would be seemingly unnoticeable to everyone else in the class who was not a PoC. This is not a critique of MIIS. If nothing else, my studies, written deliverables, and overall education have led to the defining of my new goal as I come to the end of my final semester.  

Taylor + her team of strong, outspoken women

I intend to carry on the legacy of being an innovator and breaking down barriers and standing steadfast in the face of adversity, but I want to apply that to the international development sphere. There aren’t many women or people of color in international development and global governance? Then I will seek to be one more in that group of few. The optics in this space can veer towards a pattern of white savior-ism? Then I will be there to disrupt that pattern. I know that there are problems here in the US related to systemic oppression, adherence to rule of law, and human rights violations. However, I want to use what power and privilege I have to assist people in conditions and circumstances worse than mine. The ultimate goal will be to open and operate my own consulting firm based around project management, process and operational consulting, and academic rigor to foster good governance and the rule of law as basic qualities of successful societies and market economies. Instead of pure research for research’s sake, I want to develop actionable and realistic policy recommendations based on ground realities.






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *