Amplifying policy issues that impact black lives: Menna Demessie (PhD ’10) at CBCF

April 29, 2016

Photo of Menna Demessie

As vice president of research and analysis for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation (CBCF), Menna Demessie (PhD ’10) sifts through data and information on racial disparities and uses her findings to help educate policymakers and their constituents. But finding the right evidence isn’t everything, she says.

“Being able to persuade, use strategy, and navigate the reality of politics is just as important as being able to analyze data and write reports,” says Demessie. “Those skillsets have to be partnered in order to change policy.”

At the CBCF, Demessie is in an ideal position to pursue those goals. The foundation is a nonprofit think tank that works in cooperation with the Congressional Black Caucus, a membership organization of 46 black Representatives. Both organizations aim to eradicate socio-economic disparities prevalent in black communities.

One of CBCF’s newest focus areas is environmental sustainability, a cause not traditionally prioritized by the black community. Demessie has been working on ways to educate the community on why environmental sustainability is an overlooked racial justice issue.

“We are disproportionately affected by asthma, breast cancer, and other illnesses, but they are not often linked directly to environmental factors,” she says. “So we are trying to uncover more data and educate our communities and policymakers about these issues.”

The CBCF’s work—to amplify policy issues that impact black lives—sometimes requires convening unlike players with united interests.

“Sometimes you need to bring the right messengers to the table in order to change policy.”

Demessie is particularly excited about opportunities to bring underrepresented communities to Washington who are directly affected by what’s on the agenda. In partnership with the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, last year she organized a closed-door meeting between formerly incarcerated youth and representatives from the Departments of Justice, Labor, Education and other institutional members of the Federal Interagency Reentry Council.

“These young people debunk every stereotype about people in prison that you can think of. They intelligently and emotionally talked about how our [current criminal justice] policies don’t work. It got people re-energized,” she says. “Sometimes you need to bring the right messengers to the table.”

At U-M, Demessie pursued a joint-PhD in political science and public policy. Her dissertation focused on the CBC and other racial and ethnic caucuses, and examined how effective they were in achieving their policy goals. Since graduation, Demessie has been thrilled to use her research to help the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation move its agenda forward.

In addition to her role at the CBCF, Demessie serves as an adjunct professor with the University of California’s Washington Center, where she has taught courses on U.S. government, foreign policy, and the politics of race and ethnicity.

Though she describes herself as an academic at heart, Demessie is proud to carry on the legacy of black political scientists who combine activism with academic scholarship.

There is a growing need for trained policy analysts and political scientists to use their skills to make a real impact in society and influence public policy, she says. “Our communities need it now more than ever.”

By Afton Branche (MPP ’17) for State & Hill, the magazine of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy

Photo: Congressional Black Caucus Foundation

Below is a formatted version of this article from State & Hill, the magazine of the Ford School. View the entire Spring 2016 State & Hill here.