Menna Demessie is the Vice President of Policy Analysis and Research at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. She also serves on the advisory board of APSA’s Congressional Fellowship Program. She talks to Political Science Now about how a Political Science PhD prepared her for her new role
By Political Science Now
What kind of work do you do at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation? What energizes you about your career?
My work at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation involves conducting research and analysis on critical issues like voting, economic opportunity, criminal justice reform, census turn out, and small business to identify policy solutions that help advance more equitable opportunities for African Americans and the global black community.
My personal passion to fight racial injustice and institutional discrimination, so working for a nonprofit committed to informing policy and educating the public guides my work in my professional career running the Center for Policy Analysis and Research as its Vice President. I also work very closely with several members of the Congressional Black Caucus and I’ve never been more blessed and inspired to work hard every day in cooperation with them to ensure our democracy is representative of all interests.My personal passion to fight racial injustice and institutional discrimination, so working for a nonprofit committed to informing policy and educating the public guides my work in my professional career running the Center for Policy Analysis and Research as its Vice President.
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What did you study in graduate school? Can you say a little bit about your research?
At the University of Michigan, I received my joint Ph.D. in public policy and political science and conducted the first and only empirical and qualitative study analyzing the efficacy of congressional caucuses in the U.S. House of Representatives and its influence on U.S.-Africa foreign policy. The goal was to understand the ways in which caucuses provide avenues for group interest and representation and to what extent racial descriptive representation matters for the advancement of U.S.-Africa foreign policy.
My research centers on the formation of the first racial minority group in Congress deemed the “conscience of Congress,” the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). We see other racial and ethnic minority legislative groups in Congress take on the same model when addressing racial group interests. As the racial and ethnic demography of America becomes more visible, the U.S. is confronted with the realities of the salience of black ethnicity in America. This, in turn, has resulted in the advancement of what I call “race and ethnic based caucuses,” targeting the interests and issues of specific black immigrant communities. I argue that the same notion of linked fate that Michael Dawson articulates with respect to African Americans is also present in an international context. That is, African American legislators have played an instrumental role in the shaping of U.S.-Africa policy around issues of civil rights and black liberation; the race of the legislator plays an important role in the efficacy and influence of the relevant caucus on policy when representing racial or ethnic minority interests. Furthermore, my work also builds on the importance of nonblack legislators building alliances and coalitions with CBC members influence on U.S.-Africa foreign policy matters.
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Why and when did you choose to pursue a career in a nonprofit?
Upon receiving the American Political Science Association Congressional Fellowship, I moved to Washington D.C. after completing my joint Ph.D. and worked for Congresswoman Barbara Lee. My main issue areas were in federal unemployment benefit legislation, antipoverty, and foreign policy. However, while I knew I would have some presence in the practical world of policy because of my upbringing and involvement in community organizations like the Society of Ethiopians Established in the Diaspora (SEED) where I served as a board member for 20 years, I did not have a clear cut path of when and if I would work for a nonprofit.
The truth is also that my interest in pursuing a joint PhD in public policy and political science was because I wanted to have a career in both teaching and in affecting change through policy itself in the practical world. I envisioned my career taking me to D.C. and wasn’t surprised that it kept me there. My first job after the fellowship was as a senior policy analyst with the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and it was a natural fit considering my work in black politics focused on the CBC. I think it’s extremely important that you are honest with yourself about what drives your passion and pursuits in your career choices. I was clear that I’m an academic at heart, but my passion was in leveraging my expertise to be part of the team of experts, think tanks, and legislative staff making and influencing public policy on Capitol Hill. My advice is that if you want to explore a career in the nonprofit sector, make sure you are also skilled in communications and technology to the extent you can be – you will not be successful spewing out esoteric formulas and data in trying to make a compelling case for whatever you might be pushing in the policy world.
In what ways did your doctoral training help you in your career?
Quantitative and qualitative analyses and sound methodological training are key to reliable data, analysis, and research. My doctoral training helped me meet big questions with pragmatic solutions and leverage expertise supported by sound theory and analysis. The University of Michigan also reaffirmed the importance of intersectional analysis and innovative thinking. Also, the discipline and mental focus required to complete a dissertation is a skill that takes you far in life and there is a demand for doctoral level expertise in helping translate and inform public policy.
Do you have any advice for PhD students considering a career in the nonprofit sector?
There is a high demand for doctoral level expertise in the nonprofit world! Additionally, Congress and elected officials are constantly trying to easily source data and analyses in translatable ways to their colleagues and constituencies. My advice is that if you want to explore a career in the nonprofit sector, make sure you are also skilled in communications and technology to the extent you can be – you will not be successful spewing out esoteric formulas and data in trying to make a compelling case for whatever you might be pushing in the policy world. You MUST be able to talk in clear, concise ways that are persuadable and understandable and take notes from Skip Lupia’s book Uninformed. Moreover, you need to be likeable, social, and know how to build beneficial social networks. Politics and policy is about People with a capital “P.” You must be able to distill and translate your own work in expeditious and inspiring ways that elevate the level of intentionality you wish to emit in advancing the mission of said nonprofit. Clear communication around complex problem solving in public policy is golden!
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