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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Messay Derebe’s Quest for a Creative and Inclusive Economy

In 1996, when Messay Derebe arrived in Irving, Texas from her native Ethiopia at the age of 11, it was music that ignited a spark of creativity in her soul.

“One of the best outcomes of that journey is that I got to play violin in middle school,” Derebe said. “I didn’t even know what a violin was because I barely spoke English at that point. It’s been the single most important occurrence of my life.”

Only later would she realize that teasing out those first few musical notes would set her on a path to becoming the current General Director of the Anacostia Arts Center, located at 1231 Marion Barry Ave. SE, DC.

A New Life
The career of this soft-spoken, self-proclaimed introvert with a passion for art and entrepreneurship makes sense when viewed in the context of her childhood. Hailing from Addis Ababa, Derebe’s family had to carve out a new life for themselves in the US. “It’s the typical immigrant story.” she explains. “My parents had to work minimal wage jobs to make our lives possible.”

Derebe’s father was a banker and economist in Ethiopia. He ended up working at a gas station to support his family and to earn enough money to send his daughters to good schools. “My parents are the ultimate feminists. It was important to them that we get an education and had our own free path as women. I think it’s a family value.”

Derebe’s flirtation with music was brief. She laughs as she remembers her family’s reaction to her new interest. “I come from pragmatic immigrant parents who were flabbergasted that I thought I was going to be a violinist!” Despite finally surrendering her instrument and picking up Accounting and English Lit at Texas’ Southern Methodist University, she never forgot the twin powers of opportunity and access signified by her violin, and how they transformed her life.

After graduation, Derebe did a stint at Ernst & Young, but couldn’t shake a lingering sense of restlessness. “It was a really valuable experience, but the biggest takeaway from that role was that I needed to be working in the community,” she said. “I needed to be working in a place where I can say that I’m spending my days making someone’s life better. That’s when I started looking at the arts and social impact work.”

Derebe’s accounting degree, she says, provided her with an entry to the art world. “Once I started working at arts organizations, I knew that was the type of work I wanted to do. I like being able to provide access to something that isn’t accessible equitably to everyone.”

The next few years saw her constantly being drawn in by the inexorable pull of the arts. She moved to the East Coast to complete a master’s degree in arts administration at Carnegie Mellon University, then took up a position at the Morris & Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation in DC, assisting with programs supporting community investment in the arts, health and education.

A conversation with her partner about creating a platform for local artists to have their work rented or purchased for home or office spaces resulted in her first business venture called goARTful. “I missed being directly involved in the arts. My partner works in tech and social impact, and we started talking about the idea for goARTful. He’s brilliant and super encouraging. He said ‘Let’s just do it!’”

Enabling Change through Entrepreneurship
Just like when Derebe learned to play the violin as a young girl, dipping her toes into entrepreneurship for the first time was transformative. “It’s something I never thought I could do.” she recalls. “And after I did it, it made me realize I can actually do all these other things.”

Co-founding goARTful gave her first-hand experience of starting a small business as a woman of color. “After I went through that, I wanted to make that accessible to other people, and support others to go even further than we did.”

It was at that precise moment, she remembers, that the Washington Area Community Investment Fund (known colloquially by its acronym Wacif) advertised a post for someone to start a center focused on enabling women of color in business. For Derebe, it was like the stars had aligned. “It was sort of a dream scenario where everything coalesced for me,” she recalls. “It was exactly what I cared about!”

Derebe speaking at a graduation ceremony for Wacif’s Enterprising Women of Color Center. Photos: Courtesy Messay Derebe

As Wacif’s Program Director for the Enterprising Women of Color (EWoC) DMV Business Center, Derebe could put her whole skillset to work. “Access to the arts and entrepreneurship is hugely transformative. It’s a disservice to society when we don’t present that as an opportunity for everyone,” she said. “I know that because I lived it. I know how different my life would have been if I didn’t encounter both of those things.”

EWoC was so successful that the US Department of Commerce lured Derebe away for a year to help them disburse $125 million in grant funding to projects in underserved communities through the Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA).

But Wacif always felt like home, so she soon returned to assume the position of General Director at the Anacostia Arts Center in November last year after Wacif acquired it at the end of 2021.

This historic business and creative hub has played a generative role in Anacostia for years by incubating entrepreneurs and contributing to equitable economic development in Anacostia, which is why Wacif’s decision to align with it made perfect sense.

“The Anacostia Arts Center has so much history and so much significance for the community,” Derebe said. “It’s such a tremendous and beautiful and heavy responsibility taking that on and honoring the role that the Center has played in the community.” It’s clear that Derebe is aware of this formidable legacy and takes her new job seriously.

Looking to the Future
The Anacostia Arts Center’s colorful front gallery exhibition space is where you might bump into Derebe sitting at one of the many café-style tables working on her laptop while greeting visitors and tenants and watching the daily life of Anacostia unfold around her.

“I try to spend as much time as possible there. I get to work in a gallery and be surrounded by cool local art! Sitting there is seeing the tapestry of what the Center means to the community in microbursts,” she says.

The Center’s top level is home to a myriad of Black-owned retail spaces and a theater, while its lower level contains The HIVE; a business incubator space. Derebe works with a team that includes Jeffery Herrell, Jessica Randolph and Michael Johns Jr., the Director for The HIVE, the Center’s Associate Creative Director and the Project Manager for Real Estate Strategies, respectively. Collectively, they make magic happen.

In December last year, the Anacostia Arts Center hosted an exhibition of more than 20 local artists. On the same day, the Umoja Market filled the Center’s rooms and hallways with locally made products and music, dancing and lively chatter. The energy was exhilarating, and Derebe moved from group to group engaging with the people she serves each day in the city that she loves.

“Since I left Ethiopia, DC is the first place I’ve truly felt is my home. It’s a place that I feel like the longer I’m here, the more passionate I’ve become about doing everything in my power to make it better,” Derebe said “And a lot of that has to do with the people here. How welcoming of outsiders DC is.”

Derebe working at the goARTful booth at Art All Night, 2018.

Last summer, Wacif announced redevelopment plans for the Anacostia Arts Center to build on the work that it already does so well. Spend any amount of time in the community and you’ll hear excited whispers about what’s in store for the Center and Anacostia generally, as the nearby 11th Street Bridge Park Project is projected to break ground soon.

Amid all this change, how does Derebe envision the future of the Center?

“The vision is to create the largest and most inclusive hub for entrepreneurship. The Center is really a place for possibilities,” she said. “The dream is to make it a haven for historically underserved entrepreneurs seeking comprehensive support—from training, to community to capital —to pursue their dreams, while preserving the importance of the space as a cultural and community hub.”

“It’s a big goal, but one that’s worth spending any amount of energy on.”

For more information, go to www.wacif.org  and www.anacostiaartscenter.com.

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