AFDA alumna Chipo Zhou was among 100 other change-makers from across the world who recently met with former United States President Barack Obama under the latter’s leadership development programme in Athens, Greece.
The five-day meeting brought together change-makers from the 2023 Obama Foundation Leaders programme — a leadership development initiative founded on and inspired by the values and legacy of Obama and his wife, Michelle. Chipo was excited to share her experience with us.
Here is what Chipo has to say about her conversation with President Barack Obama: “As any of my close friends will attest, I’m never at a loss for words. I may not post them online (very bad at this and p.s working on it), but I always have a response, a comment, a feeling, a thought, a something or other in prose form. I had no words this time—a result of what I can only describe as full-on amnesia. I’m not a doctor, but if I had to get checked out, they’d attribute this to my living on pure adrenaline for an entire week.
Exactly a week ago, I was in Athens, Greece, for the distinguished Obama Leaders Convening 2023, where I graduated with 104 other leaders from across the globe. It has taken me this long to sober up from the high that was the magic of that experience and its pinnacle, the hour-long conversation with former US President Barack Obama. Yes, this happened! To a Mberengwa-born girl, no less (a place I’m sure you’ve never heard of)! And suddenly, where no words existed, a burst of creativity was born. Over the next few weeks, I will be reflecting on some of the most impactful moments in what has been a big part of my life over the last five months. I hope this journey inspires someone to take the first step towards owning their power and making a difference.
When asked what he was looking forward to from our cohort, President Obama responded, “I am looking forward to watching all of you keep changing the world; in addition to what you’re already doing individually, you are going to form connections that last throughout your careers, across borders, across continents, across issues because all the issues we’re working on are interconnected, and to have this widening circle of people with a spirit for justice, truth, and kindness, I think that’s going to be a powerful thing.” I can’t imagine a better way to kick off what would be a life-changing conversation for me.
We spoke about the power of imagination and how, as leaders, the ability to see what the world could be is one of our most incredible superpowers, and it drives us to keep putting in the work to make the world a more inclusive and equitable place. This spoke to my core, as I spent most of my career in the creative space advocating for Africans to own our narratives and reimage the continent through our lens.
Three words stand out as I reflect on the leadership program journey and, more so, the conversation that led to this reflection. “Community“, the 104 not-so strangers anymore, now in my direct orbit, ready to lend a hand. Each taking meaningful steps toward what they imagine the world could look like. “Interconnectedness”, for me, in the context of our conversation, looks like this; the work that a leader in climate change is doing is impacting the de-escalation of cancer in society, lessening the burden on the health sector, improving livelihoods, and giving birth to entrepreneurs and hope for the future. The idea that every ripple that is made in aid of the creation of a better tomorrow by one leader makes the lives of the others working in different sectors easier in some way was eye-opening for me and, to be honest, made the load feel that much lighter and the light at the end of the tunnel that much closer. “Powerful” is the impact a connected/networked community can achieve when working together. The power that comes with getting up and doing something. The ability to influence and persuade would-be enemies into allyship for the greater good.
Being a part of this community was a humbling and transformative experience. And the honour of representing the African cohort, conversing with one of the most powerful men on the planet, is far beyond anything I could have imagined. And I say this as someone with a big imagination, a prerequisite to being a creative practitioner. I am grateful to the Obama Foundation for curating this program and selecting me to participate. I am thankful for all the friends I’ve made, for a community of powerful changemakers I can call family, and for the journey that has empowered and energised me for the days ahead.”
Chipo also wanted to reflect about her experience at AFDA. “I would really like to add that the way the AFDA curriculum is structured really added value to my leadership journey. The way the 1st years are attached to 3rd years and 4th to 2nd years as a way to transfer skills, learn about mentorship and building networks before you’ve even left the institution. A lot of other universities don’t have that, and that edge, the developing a community that helps propel you forward is a lesson I’ve kept with me. I think it has also helped a lot of alumni.”
Chipo is currently a Communication Strategist, Project Manager, Film Curator, Obama Leader and Mandela Washington Fellow.