Being an Upstander – Ep.10

Thanksgiving, the Perfect Occasion for Inclusion – Ep.9
November 25, 2020
Holding History – Ep.11
December 9, 2020

American University professor, Dr. Omekonga Dinga shares what motivated him to get involved with diversity, equity, and inclusion and how he uses his talents to contribute toward the cause, explains the difference between being an ally and a partner and defines the word “Upstander” while explaining why its meaning inspired his company.

Melyssa Barrett:  Welcome to the Jali podcast. I’m your host, Melyssa Barrett. This podcast is for those who are interested in the conversation around diversity, inclusion, and equity. Each week, I’ll be interviewing a guest who has something special to share, or is actively part of building solutions in this space. Let’s get started.

Dr. Omekonga Dinga is the UPstander. His life’s mission is to inspire all across the globe to take a stand when they witness an injustice, no matter how small or large. He is an international speaker, trilingual poet, TV talk show host, rapper, and professor of cross-cultural communication at American University.

He has spoken before the United Nations partners with the state department to conduct leadership trainings overseas, and speaks to corporate, government, and educational organizations across the country on issues centered on leadership, diversity, and inclusion.

Omekonga has studied at Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Georgetown, Morehouse, and the Fletcher School where he earned his MA in law and diplomacy. He earned his PhD in international education policy at the University of Maryland where his dissertation centered on the global hip hop phenomenon and Jay-Z.

I just want to thank you for joining me, Dr. Dinga, because you are an amazing individual. And I’m so glad we had the opportunity to meet and connect with each other to talk about the amazing things that you’re doing in the space of diversity, inclusion, equity. And I have lots of questions and things that I would love to just dive in and talk to you about.

But I’m hoping you can maybe start by just giving us a flavor for your background. Starting with your name, because I know it’s a long one, and then going into how you got in the space. Because in reading your bio, you have both whether it’s Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Georgetown, Morehouse, and the Fletcher School, is there any additional schools that you could incorporate? Your background is just amazing, so I’d love for you to start there and talk about your own story.

Dr. Omekonga Dinga:  Sure, absolutely. And thanks again for having me. I really do appreciate it. And I did miss a couple universities there in West Africa, and Southern Africa, and stuff, but we got the gist of it. But I like to say as you can tell from my name, I was born in a far away place called Boston, Massachusetts. And being born in Boston with an African name set the whole trajectory for my life, to be quite honest. My parents both were Congolese, and they settled in Boston after leaving the Congo where they are professors, former Zaire, Congo.

And they settled in Boston where they taught at Boston College, and Harvard, and my father helped start the Dubois Institute. And so, they are very heavy into education, and three PhDs between them. And so, they stressed education, but I was living in a society where people were not educated about Africans.

And so, as you can tell from my accent, I don’t have a stereotypical African accent. But just hearing my name meant people automatically thought Tarzan and monkeys, and so they acted accordingly. And teachers and students, they would call us names, beat us up, throw rocks at us. My oldest brother was shot in the eye with one of those metal BB guns by some bullies because people just hated anything African.

And so for me, my full name is Omékongo [foreign language 00:03:56]. I can’t fit all of that on Twitter or anything, but I was named after a warrior who saved my grandfather’s life as a child. But because I was bullied so much, I was ashamed of it. So, I just let all of that disappear, and just said, “Just call me O.” Because I didn’t realize at a young age that I was meant to stand out, so I just tried to blend in with everybody else. And so, I was just going with the motions.

But the more I tried to fit in with everybody else, the more poorly I performed in school. And my father was traveling in Zambia once, and they tried to assassinate him. And so during my seventh grade year, he was in a coma. And when he came back, it motivated me, all of the sacrifices he and my mom made, it motivated me to no longer embarrass them. Because I was just acting like a fool in school. Just running around, being an idiot.

And I started just turning my life around. And I started to realize that I wanted to use my story and my history as a way to bridge the divide. First between Africans and African-Americans, but then I realized I could take this knowledge to help bridge bridges between so many different cultures.

And that’s what really led to my work in diversity, equity, and inclusion. I first started out as a poet, going to different places, performing. Then, I started doing work with kids. Then, I started doing work with teachers. Then, I started doing work with government groups, and now corporate groups. Because at the end of the day, the need for understanding and respect, it’s the same everywhere we go. And that’s how I got here today.

Melyssa Barrett:  What an awesome story. I’m so glad that we met. Because you have this unique way of integrating the fact that you’re a poet and a rapper, you can really reach generations back. But as we, maybe the older generation I’ll call myself, you also have the ability to connect dots. So, truly a bridge as you think about your focus in the space.

And I know you are currently teaching at the university. And if I remember correctly, you have a specific class or something that you do specific with Jay-Z, if I recall.

Dr. Omekonga Dinga:   Yes, indeed. Yes, indeed. I teach at American University, and in the School of International Service where I teach intercultural communication. But I also teach a special class called Jay-Z and historical biography. I think I’m the only person in the world with a PhD on Jay-Z, and so I was writing a book about him.

And I’m teaching a course on how to write my dissertation as an historical biography of him, so I’m teaching the students how to write historical biography using Jay-Z as a point of departure, and then they pick their own figures throughout time. But really the study of Jay-Z is a study of black youth in the post Civil Rights era, up until the election of Barack Obama. And I’m just using Jay-Z and hip hop as my point of departure. And it’s one of the most popular courses on campus, I must say.

Melyssa Barrett:  Well, I can imagine. I can imagine. You can’t go wrong with Jay-Z or Beyonce, right?

Dr. Omekonga Dinga:   That’s right. That’s right.

Melyssa Barrett:  That’s awesome. I do want to ask you though, with respect to one of the conversations that I was listening to, you had an introduction or a segmentation of information versus affirmation. And you talked a lot about you can’t lead if you don’t read. And the practice of forgiveness, and all of that.

I’m wondering, can you talk a little bit, as a leader, I think there’s a lot of information around. And people will bring that information, but you talk a little bit about how you learn. So, maybe you can go into a little bit more about that.

Dr. Omekonga Dinga:   Oh, absolutely, absolutely. When I talk about lead, I say lead, L-E-A-D, it just stands for learn everything and do, right? If you learn everything and don’t, you’re not a leader.

And so, when I talked about information versus affirmation, we have so much information available to us, but we all are in so many of our own silos. And so, we go on television, or on the internet, or read our own newspaper that we like looking for people to validate what we think. And that’s not how we grow. That’s not looking for people to inform you. You just want people to reinforce what you think.

And that’s part of the reason why we have such a divide because if people will only take it if Rush Limbaugh says it, or only if Wolf Blitzer says it, or Stephen Colbert, or Oprah, or whoever. And if we want to be true leaders, we have to learn to L in lead is that listen, we got to really hear. We got two ears and one mouth. We’re supposed to use them in proportion.

Then, we got to eat. We got to educate ourselves. Go and talk to different people, read different sources, watch different news sources. Then once we know, we go to A, that’s advocate. You know, and now you can speak up for other groups. Maybe marginalized communities, or people who are not represented well in the company that you run.

And then D, you got to decide. You got to decide that every single day you’re going to commit to this. You’re not just going to commit to saying, “I’m not racist,” but you’re going to be anti-racist. You’re going to decide every single day that you’re going to speak up because silence is compliance. That’s how we become leaders, but it all starts by listening, and seeing what other people have to say outside of your bubble. Taking that all into consideration.

But Les Brown trained me as a motivational speaker, and one of the things he told me was that the average American reads one book a year after they finish their academic studies. And back then, that was about a decade ago. It’s probably worse now. And so, we have to as leaders make sure that we’re consuming information at a different level for the people who are in our charge.

Melyssa Barrett:  Yeah, no doubt. I think that is probably one of the things that it’s so sad when you think about leaders today. It’s so easy for people to create a tweet or some social media post without having the information. And you also talked a little bit about what was the word? Agno …

Dr. Omekonga Dinga: Agnotology.

Melyssa Barrett:  Yes.

Dr. Omekonga Dinga:   Yeah.

Melyssa Barrett:  Which I found really fascinating, especially in light of all of the fake news that’s out there. And so, I don’t know if you want to talk a little bit about that, but I just found it. It was a word I think I was not familiar with. So, you definitely taught me something in terms of just being able to understand that culturally induced ignorance I think it was related to the creation of doubt.

Dr. Omekonga Dinga: Yes, yes. And that’s what agnotology is, right? The study about how doubt is produced. And the easiest example I give is the smoking industry. When research started coming out talking about how terrible smoking was for people, the tobacco industry realized they couldn’t dispute that, so they just created doubt. More celebrities and advertisements so people can say, now I’m just making up names, “If Jimmy Dean is smoking, it must be cool,” or, “If Elvis is smoking, it must be cool.” And then automatically, you just produce doubt.

And when people can automatically just introduce doubt, the equivalent of that today is alternative facts and fake news, they don’t have to engage in conversation. They don’t have to learn. All they have to do is just introduce that small segment of doubt, and they can destroy your entire argument for a group of people who may need to learn what you have to say.

And that’s where we are today with this misinformation and disinformation society that we live in. Somebody said we’re suffering from truth decay, and I thought that that was a very powerful statement.

Melyssa Barrett:  Yeah. No doubt. No doubt. And I think it fuels a lot of the questions also around you mentioned being anti-racist now today, and I think now when people talk about allies, they are pushing allies to be anti-racist, not just non-racist. And I know you specifically have a problem with the word ally.

Dr. Omekonga Dinga: I do.

Melyssa Barrett:  And you knew I was going to ask this question, I’m sure.

But I found it interesting, because I think in some ways we’re looking for allies because we can’t solve all the problems ourselves. We need really everybody to be involved when we think about diversity and inclusion. Truly the business case for inclusion is having everyone involved. So, talk a little bit about your thought process in terms of allies.

Dr. Omekonga Dinga:   And again, there’s nothing wrong with being an ally, but that’s the starting point. But the challenge I’ve had with the word allies, I feel like a certain level of arrogance has developed around it. People say, “I’ll be an ally to you.” And I look at allies as fans at a sporting event. You go to the game and you cheer on your team, but then when it’s all over, you go home. So, the ally may come to the rally and cheer, but then go home and not do much to make a difference.

But rather than allies, we have to be partners. People working on the same team for the same goal. And yeah, we may have different talents, but if you go back to the Chicago Bulls, Michael Jordan was the star, but Steve Kerr made some winning shots. So did John Paxson. Different talents all fighting for that championship ring.

And so, once people realize that as Dr. Maya Angelou said, “I’m a human being. Nothing should be foreign to me.” We stop thinking about allies, and we start thinking about being partners. I’m not gay. If I see something happening, somebody experiences gay bashing, or they’re attacked because of their sexuality, I don’t descend on the gay community and say, “I’m here as your ally,” I condemn it and I fight it because that’s my human brother or sister. Or however the person chooses to define themselves. They’re human. And so, I’m partnering with them to fight ignorance and hate wherever it’s found.

And to me, that’s partnership. I think allies can just be a little paternalistic nowadays. And so, let’s work together. Because we have to understand that none of us are free until all of us are free. So, forget this mentality of, “I’m free. I’m going to fight to free you.” No. If someone else is enslaved, then I’m enslaved. Because a whole society has to be free. That’s how I see it.

Melyssa Barrett:  Yes. I love it. I actually it makes me rethink my own judgments and thought processes. So, I love when people challenge different words, because it does give you the time to actually listen and then think about that makes a whole lot of sense. Even when you use the word, if you’re using it, you have a different sense for what that means and the sensitivity to those words. And words make a big difference-

Dr. Omekonga Dinga:   That’s right.

Melyssa Barrett:  … so I appreciate that. Thank you.

I’m going to flip back because I know you also did some work with the Southern Poverty Law Center, and I found that interesting. Your background is just so incredible to me because of all the things that you’ve accomplished across multiple continents. Working with so many different agencies, corporations.

So, can you talk a little bit about the Southern Poverty Law Center, and some of the things you did there? Because you really are doing things that are very different in the one sense, and then I’m going to ask you about your partnering with Intel to do something with them, too. And I’m like, “Wow.” You’re just doing all sorts of things, so I’m interested.

Dr. Omekonga Dinga:   Yeah. My philosophy has just always been you have to reach people where they’re at. And if you can apply your talents to what other people are doing, that’s how we grow.

So, with the Southern Poverty Law Center, we were working with the TDSI, the Teaching Diverse Students Initiative. And what we were looking at is we were coming up with ways to basically, and the language that people were using back at that time was about cultural competence, and cultural relevancy, and how to introduce that into the classroom so that you can reach students who don’t look like you.

As those who are educators know, when we teach in the classroom, we tend to teach in a T formation, which means that we speak to the students who are right in front of us, and then the students who are directly here and here, like a T. But there’s all these students on the margins who know that they can isolate themselves if they position themselves in a certain way.

So, when you’re learning how to be culturally relevant, you’re learning how to do what we call equitable classroom practices. Maybe using numbering sticks to call on people, instead of calling on the same people all of the time. Maybe calling on people by the length of hair somebody has. Just mixing it up. And we also looked at bringing different things into the classroom. Are we only looking at poetry from a dead white male poet’s perspective, or are we bringing in people? Maybe poetry from Jay-Z or Tupac to reach students of diverse backgrounds.

That’s what we were doing in that program. And I’ve continued that after working with them in a lot of the work that I do with some of our sessions on creating culturally competent schools, and elevating the black male. Just looking how to create communities in school where everybody feels like they can be celebrated and not tolerated.

Melyssa Barrett:  That is fabulous. I love that work, and hope that it will continue and spread because it’s so needed. When we talk about elevating the black man, there’s just so much work to be done there. So, I’m so glad to hear that there’s such great work going on.

Dr. Omekonga DingaNo doubt.

Melyssa Barrett:  And I know you have a, being a rapper and a poet yourself, you have this ability to connect with people and students certainly. When you’re in the classroom, I’m assuming you’re breaking it down, and throwing in a poem or a rap here and there to keep their attention.

Dr. Omekonga DingaOh, absolutely. Absolutely. And a lot of times when I speak to young kids, or just students in general, they’re like, “Okay. Here’s another guy, yeah, doctor this or whatever.” But then I get on the stage, and I’ll say something like, “When I was young, they used to call me a monster, African, bushman, monkey. I was wild. Used to pick all my clothes. I didn’t have Nikes. I didn’t have nice bikes, other fancy things. I didn’t have much loot, no safety, no trust fund, so walking out my house every day was not fun. Had no heat in the winter, no AC in the hot sun. Next to my bed was rats. Leftovers, they got some. Used to wonder why me, while seeing on TV [inaudible 00:00:18:53], Mercedes …” I’ll finish that for you a little bit later, if you want to hear how that ends. I just had to preview that.

But it’s like that immediately gets their attention because I’m talking about my experience. I’m speaking in a language that they speak, and I might be identifying with what they’re dealing with in the communities that they come from. We got to find other ways to reach our kids.

Melyssa Barrett:  Yeah. That connection is so important, too. Because I think part of what we don’t have, you talk about listening, which I do as well, but it’s we have to have a sense of curiosity about somebody else. And I think sometimes we forget that as a child, you were very curious about something. It may not have always been a nice curiosity, but you were at least curious about somebody else. And I think sometimes today we forget that, especially if we’re in a group where maybe we don’t have a lot of mixed or diverse friendships, or something like that.

Dr. Omekonga DingaSomebody once said before that people say walk a mile in my shoes. But in order to walk in someone else’s shoes, you got to take your shoes off first. Right? And we’ve lost the ability to do that today.

Melyssa Barrett:  Yeah. I love that analogy. So now tell me, you also worked for Michael Eric Dyson as a teaching assistant. I imagine that he had some influence on shaping your thought process and perspectives in some form or fashion. I don’t know. I’m assuming he probably provided some mentorship in that process.

Dr. Omekonga Dinga: Yes, absolutely. And he still does. As a professor, he reminded me a lot of my father. But Michael Eric Dyson is such the hip hop scholar, the father hip hop pedagogy, so he had that connection as well. And so, just seeing him all of these years, and then I met him at an event, and I met his wife at an event. And I was starting to do my dissertation on Jay-Z, and he was teaching a course on Jay-Z at Georgetown.

And so, I just said, “Hey, I would love to just sit in the class. But if you need help, I’m there.” He got in the class on the first day and had 175 students, and no teaching assistant. He said, “You’re the guy who said you could help, right? He needs help.” And so-

Melyssa Barrett:  I love it.

Dr. Omekonga Dinga: Yeah, yeah. And so, I came in, and I’ve been working with him for four years I was an assistant on that course. And he brought me to different places, taught me a lot of things. I learned so much just being around him. And again, he’s the type of person who can reach out to young people, meet people where they are, and it’s extremely important. And like I said, I’m still learning from him today as the professor. He’s taught me a whole lot.

Melyssa Barrett:  Yeah. Well, you’re amazing. You’re teaching lots of people, so I’m privileged that you continue to pass on and lift as you climb. Because you are just passing on lots of knowledge. I know you also have seven books that you’ve written, seven fusion music and motivational CDs, and one independent DVD as well. And I think one of your books is specifically about I think it’s Grow Towards Your Greatness: 10 Steps to Your Best Life. Right? And grow in that context stood for give, release, overcome, and win?

Dr. Omekonga Dinga: You got it. That’s right.

Melyssa Barrett:  Testing my knowledge now. And then, you also did an UPstander’s Guide to an Outstanding Life.

Dr. Omekonga DingaThat’s right.

Melyssa Barrett:  Which is a life balance look for students, which I find really interesting because I think, again, you’re bridging this gap between young and old, and so many different bridges that you’re bringing. So can you talk a little bit about your books? And then, I know you also spend a lot of time with specifically on self care, which I think is an important element of how you’re able to do all that you do, I assume.

Dr. Omekonga Dinga: Absolutely. Well, the book grow towards your greatness, that was my motivational book and Les Brown was kind enough to write the forward to that. And I use the GROW model, and I use it not just in motivational talks, but even in some of our conversations about race and DEI work as well.

But the G stands for give, and give is about service. What are you giving back to the community? They say service is a rent that we pay for the space we occupy on earth. And Dr. King said, “Everybody can be great because everybody can serve.” So, rather than talking about what the world owes to you, let’s focus on what you owe to the world. And that’s the first part, because what you give is what you get.

The second part is about releasing. Letting go so that you can grow. Practicing the concept of forgiving. Understanding that forgiving is made up of two words, for and giving, and it means forgiving yourself permission to move forward. And he just can’t move forward. He used to say in that movie, The Secret, “If you drive forward looking backwards in your rear view mirror, you’re going to crash. That’s why your rear view mirror is small and your windshield is big.” We’re supposed to go forward.

But the R also stands for releasing people who don’t represent where you want to go. Will Smith said, “You’re a direct reflection of your five closest friends.” If you want to make some moves, you maybe got to move your friends, and find some new people to help get you where you want to go.

The O stands for overcoming. Overcoming fear, which [Ziglar 00:24:35] said, “FEAR is just false evidence appearing real. Not forget everything and run.” So, you have to confront your fears. And that’s when I often speak about no matter where I am speaking, if you go back 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years, someone in that room was not allowed to be there. But people who were fearless or maybe had fear but have more courage than they did fear fought to make that change for us to enjoy it today.

And then, that W means win. We just have to have a winning mentality. Believing that we will win if we don’t give in. And so, those four principles, I believe when I study successful people, they applied that model in their own way. And I feel like if we start to use our model like that, we can do that, right?

And The UPstander’s Guide to an Outstanding Life, that came out of a sad situation. I was speaking at Stetson University, and I will never forget this. And I quoted Mark Twain who said, “The two most important days in your life are the day you were born, and the day you realize why you were born.” And this student came up to me in tears, and she said, “I haven’t realized why I was born.” And I said, “What are you studying?” She said, “I’m studying physics or something.” I said, “Well, what do you love to do?” She said, “I love to dance.” “Then, when was the last time you danced?” She said, “Two semesters ago.”

And it just made me realize how much our students today, like many of us when we were younger, are being pulled away from our dreams because our parents and society are telling us we have to do things a certain way. And it’s pulling us away from the things we love to do. So, we got kids who want to be dancers, but their parents are telling them, “You have to be a doctor.” And I’m like you got to live your dream. You got to do what you were meant to do.

It also accompanies the Ted Talk I did called Accidental Ambassador where it’s like you don’t walk around with your report card with you in your pocket for the rest of your life. Unless you got something going on in your head, that’s just weird. But you walk around with your mental health. And so, it’s a motivational book for students to really seize control of their destiny. Because that self care, which you talked about before, is really important. Which is why my wife and I opened up yoga studios to help people recover their health, and we’re even bringing that to some of the companies that we’re working with as well. It’s really important.

Melyssa Barrett:  Yeah. And I think from a mental health perspective, and I know specifically in the black community, mental health is also in some cases very taboo. People don’t want to talk about mental health. But when you start talking about self care and connecting to your purpose, it’s like your energy is so different when you connect those things together.

And so, I look at your biography, and I’m like, “Oh my gosh, look at all this stuff that you have accomplished,” but yet I feel like you’re just getting started. I am just amazed to connect with you. So, I’m looking forward to following you, and seeing where you go, and what you’re doing next.

I want to ask you about upstander, because I know when we talk about the word upstander, you’re always saying, “Be an upstander, not a bystander.” How did you come to that, and what is the company really focused on?

Dr. Omekonga DingaYeah. And the word upstander, I started learning about it when I was studying the Holocaust, and people from the Jewish community who had that mentality of never again. And that was when I first started learning about the word upstander. And then, I started seeing it in my student work and anti-bullying circles. And I said, “Well, the goal of an upstander is to just stand up whenever they witness an injustice.”

And so, I made the name of my company UPstander International because I want to be part of creating an international community of upstanders. People who will see something and not stay silent. And that takes many forms, whether we’re talking in the corporate spaces and representation in terms of numbers, or courageous conversations about race. Whether I’m working in places like West Africa and places like Niger, helping young people not become child soldiers, whether I’m working in prisons in South Africa, whether I’m working with teachers in schools here in the United States, whatever it is, all of us need to use our talents to help people who don’t have the ability to stand up for themselves.

And even with my music, I make it a point to not just rap about stuff I live every day, but to rap about child soldiers, to rap about people who are sweating over the clothes that we’re making, to talk about the Congo and how our resources and our materials are coming from war. Or even lighter conversations like fast food or technology, and things like that.

If you have a voice and you don’t use that voice to speak up for somebody or some group of people, I believe that you’re committing a criminal act. Because your voice could either speak life into them or save their lives by encouraging other people to take action.

And so, that’s what UPstander International is all about, and that’s what we’re always going to be about. Because that’s how I got here. People stood up for me, and now I have a voice. I need to use it to help others stand up for themselves.

Melyssa Barrett:  I love it. I love it. You are continuing to use your voice. I just think it’s phenomenal some of the things you’re doing.

I forgot to go back and ask you about some things you’re doing with Intel.

Dr. Omekonga DingaYes.

Melyssa Barrett:  And computer processors, which I find really interesting. I know your family coming from the Congo has specific point and place in it as well.

Dr. Omekonga Dinga: Yes, yes. Part of this work of UPstander is I’ve been part of a movement called the Conflict Free Mineral Campus Movement. But even conflict free cities. Where what we’ve learned was that a lot of the materials in our electronics products, we call them the three T’s, tin, tantalum, and tungsten, as well as colton and copper, that are in all of our electronic equipment.

All of us, basically anything with an on switch, computers, iPhones, primarily come from wars that have been taking place in the Congo where kids have been turned into child soldiers. The level of rape and sexual violence. Oprah called Congo the worst place in the world to be a woman. And so, I’ve been part of the campaign to pressure companies like Apple and Microsoft.

And so, we brought this information to Intel, which is the largest manufacturer of computer chip processors. And so, they realized what was going on, and they, I forgot the date, it might be 2022 or something like that, they said that by this year, “We’re going to make sure that all of our computer chip processors do not come from conflict areas,” like what was going on in the Congo. And that happened just in two or three years of our work.

And so, I partnered with them. I did a commercial for them to speak about that, and their work in the mines there in Congo. And it was cool because I got to do it in Swahili, which is my language my parents speak from home. And so, that was some of the work we did with Intel. But it just goes to show that once you reach out, as Maya Angelou said, “When you know better, you do better.” And we get to work with these companies to help them do better by everybody.

Melyssa Barrett:  That’s fantastic. I love it. And it also brings in some of the technology aspects when we start talking about diversity, and inclusion, and representation. We’re not there, right? These are important conversations because in some cases, people just don’t know. And being able to amplify that voice, actually you can see change occurring.

Which I’m really optimistic right now at this 2020 time in my life. It’s been a crazy year, but I am just so excited about all the work that is being done in the space. Because for me, diversity and inclusion is everywhere. It’s everywhere you look, everything you do. It’s everything about you and your identity. So, it’s phenomenal. I love some of the stuff you’re doing.

Talk a little bit more about, because I know you got your start in teaching, and working with students specifically, and the diversity of those students, and really kind of reaching out, making sure you’re pulling them into the conversation. Are there specific techniques, tools, things that you would recommend that you think are working in the space to help other people expand their thought process as they’re reaching out to those students?

Dr. Omekonga Dinga: Absolutely. The first thing you have to do is you have to really talk to them. Get to know them. I encourage teachers and principals, first thing they should do as students at the beginning of the year is create a survey. We actually ask them about who they are. Not just going by a report card, or going by what the teacher said the year before about incoming students. Because sometimes your opinion can get soiled.

Asking them questions about who’s in the home. Asking them questions about things that they like to do. How they like to learn. Because if you just come in there with just wrote activities, people are going to forget what they wrote. Learning how kids learn is also extremely important. And give kids buy-in to make them feel like the class is theirs, and allow them to apply their talents.

One of the things I learned in the book I’m writing on Jay-Z is he said his sixth grade teacher was his biggest influence in school. So, me being the guy that I am, I found his sixth grade teacher, and I asked her, “What did you all do that was so successful?” She said, “I gave them opportunities to learn how they wanted to learn.” And she saw that they were producing what she thought was beautiful poetry, but she didn’t realize it was just rap. It was an English class.

And so, once you do that, and then you have to bring in things, readers, speakers, articles by people who look like them. Not entirely, but what we see entirely is the opposite. As Malcolm said, if people think they never did anything, they can never do anything. But if you’re like, “Oh wow. May Jamison went to space? Oh, as a young black girl, maybe I can do that, too?” Or you start reading these stories about soldiers and presidents and the like, then you start to see these kids start to emerge, and show you what they can do because you showed them what they can be. Kids will always rise up to the expectations that are set for them. But if you don’t have any expectations for them, they’re going to meet those, too.

Melyssa Barrett:  Yeah. That’s so awesome. I think my husband was a storyteller, professional storyteller. He focused on the diaspora in his storytelling. Mostly because from an African perspective, African-American, there were not a lot of storytellers that highlighted those specific stories.

But one of the things that I remember him telling me was he had such a love for reading, and he got the love of reading because he ended up going to the library and seeing one book that actually had a picture of a black boy on the front of it. And he imagined himself being that boy, and he continued to read an amazing amount of content. To this day, it’s like you can see a little bit of a library behind me, but that doesn’t even begin to tap into the number of books that he was into. But it’s so amazing when you talk about leadership, and the connection of all these things as we go. Because it’s just it’s amazing.

So Dr. Omékongo Dibinga, I want to thank you so much for your participation in this week’s podcast. And I look forward to maybe setting up another session with you at some point in the future.

Dr. Omekonga Dinga: I would love that.

Melyssa Barrett:  Do you want to go out with a rap, or …

Dr. Omekonga DingaOh, well-

Melyssa Barrett: Totally up to you.

Dr. Omekonga Dinga: Since you asked, I would like to share a motivational poem, which is entitled Greatness. Yeah. And if anyone wants any of this work, they can always go to, or follow me @omekongo, and they can find more there. So, let’s do that.

They say that greatness is a choice, but what have you chosen? You’ve been frozen in time and broken in mind. For too long, the same song playing in your head. Living in breath, but better off dead.

But who said that you didn’t have the power? Who said this is not your hour? You’ve been showered with a steady stream of words that kill your dreams. But since you’re still breathing, that someone has lied to you. Tried to deny you of your own potential inside you. If you just decide to let no one deride you. Don’t even let them get beside you as you unearth the new you. Stop listening to naysayers and decide to do you. No more pity party, sob stories, and boohoos.

If no one told you that you’re great, then let me be the first to. If you developed a thirst to drink from faith’s fountain, you’ll develop the might to move mountains. You see he removes tons of dirt to find one ounce of gold, so we’ll ask you to remove tons of hurt and just uncover one ounce of your soul. You’ll set yourself on a true path of excellence. Getting out of your passenger seat and driving your own car. Reaching for the moon, but maybe only landing among the stars.

You see, you have greatness inside you, but you must choose to be great. Blaze a path of excellence, leaving fear in your wake. All you need is already inside you, you just must believe in yourself. Grow towards your greatness, and discover your true wealth.

Melyssa Barrett:  Thanks for joining me on The Jali podcast. Please subscribe so you won’t miss an episode. See you next week.