When Hannah Gebresilassie went on air a couple of months ago wearing a traditional hairstyle worn by Ethiopian and Eritrean women, little did she know she would attract so much attention. Teakisi had the pleasure of interviewing Hannah. “I want to honour my heritage, I want to help diversify television screens and I want to show young girls of all backgrounds that they are beautiful as they are”, she tells us.
Teakisi: Please tell our readers a bit about yourself.
Hannah: Hello! I was born in California and raised in Atlanta, GA. I earned my bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Georgia Tech. I earned my master’s in Journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.
Teakisi: When did you decide that working in television was for you?
Hannah: After working in sports marketing and entertainment, I developed a passion to tell stories so I switched gears and went to grad school to pursue journalism. After graduating, I was torn between the documentary route and the television route. I pursued a 6-month news trainee position at FOX 5 Atlanta and knew I wanted to keep it going in broadcast television. Fast forward to now and I’m a television reporter at WSIL-TV in southern Illinois.
Teakisi: Not so long ago, you went on air with a traditional hairstyle worn by Ethiopian and Eritrean women. I believe the braiding style is called Shuruba/Kuno. Why was there so much negativity towards you wearing your hair like that?
Hannah: To put things in perspective, I had an overwhelming amount of support. I’d say for every negative person, there are 100 positive ones.
There was negativity coming from different angles. I had southern Illinois viewers who didn’t like it and expressed it via emails, calls and one woman even came up to me to tell me in person. I got everything from someone saying it looked like it came from “outer space” to folks calling it “horrible” and “unprofessional.” I understand it’s different and I don’t expect everyone to like it, but I believe they should respect it. We live in a world that is so diverse and each of us has so many layers. We should embrace those layers and see how we’re all connected in some way. Fortunately, my station supports me as they understand my hairstyle does not affect the quality of my work and they support an inclusive environment. So, I get the same exact hair style done every two weeks and keep it consistent on-air. As far as how long I will wear this style? My Eritrean sister Miela Fetaw told me best, “Don’t let them get to you. Keep the hair as long as you can (minus you potentially losing your edges lol).”
Then, there was some criticism from a handful of Ethiopians and Eritreans. The “albaso” style I’m wearing is commonly worn in parts of northern Ethiopia and Eritrea, which is where my mother is from. Women around the world also wear similar styles during holidays, weddings, christenings, graduations, etc. I want to make something clear. In no way am I wearing this hairstyle to make a political statement or to show one ethnic group more support over another. I actually come from a blended family and strive to embrace various cultures. I wear this style because I love it, I’m comfortable being me in it, it doesn’t change who I am as a reporter or person, I want to honor my heritage, I want to help diversify television screens and I want to show young girls of all backgrounds that they are beautiful as they are.
Teakisi: Representation is important to you. Why is that?
Hannah: Representation is important to me because it’s a part of who we are as people and I believe the world needs to do a better job of embracing that. When my parents came to the United States as refugees in the 80s, they had no money and couldn’t speak English, but they had hope and they had their identity. Yet, people around them tried to rob them of that. When they first moved to the suburbs of Chicago, IL, they were bullied in schools and made fun because they were from Africa. Students compared them to the “skinny starving African children from the commercials.” Today, we’re here to show the world a different face of Africa. Unfortunately, there is still poverty and other challenges across The Motherland which need attention, but there’s also so much beauty in every country. I want to help expose the beauty in various communities and connect the dots globally. Representation is also important to me because often times when we see someone that looks like us break barriers, we believe we can do it too.
Teakisi: Growing up as an immigrant in the United States today is not easy. Do you see things changing for the better anytime soon?
Hannah: You’re right, it’s not easy. I’ve done many stories where I interviewed ‘Dreamers’ and immigrants who stress that they are here to achieve their dreams and contribute to society. I don’t have an exact answer but I can tell you that those passionate students I interviewed are a handful of thousands across the country using their voice and platform to fight for change and support their fellow immigrants. Those students, along with passionate lawmakers and activists, are making noise which oftentimes leads to change.
Teakisi: What advice would you give to any african girl or women out there who wants to make it in the mainstream media?
Hannah: The first thing I would say is that YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL AS YOU ARE! Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise so always be yourself. It’s important to understand that the journey is full of highs and lows so try not to get caught up in either extreme. You will face rejection but from my experiences, I can tell you that every time a door closed, a bigger one opened. With every story you touch, be honest, have integrity and verify the facts. Remember, you are not perfect and you will make mistakes. Own up to them, learn from them and keep moving forward. And finally, treat people the way you want to be treated. As Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Teakisi: How do you plan to “leave your mark” as you said, in journalism?
Hannah: I plan to leave my mark through journalism by using it as a tool to share inspiring stories of people overcoming long odds and thriving in the face of adversity. By doing so, I hope to help create more doors to impact change. I also plan to leave my mark by helping change the narrative, especially throughout Africa. Yes, there are struggles that need to be addressed, but there is also so much beauty and rich culture that shouldn’t be hidden in the shadows. Everyone in this world has a story and I want to shed light on those journeys to inspire people across the globe.
Teakisi: Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
Hannah: In the next 5 years, I see myself expanding my platform and having my own talk show. While I’m embracing my journey in local news, I plan to tell more stories of folks around the globe positively impacting society, while still highlighting powerful stories in local communities. My goal is to get to a point where I can connect resources to people through my show, similar to how Oprah did on her show. She is a huge inspiration for where I see my path taking me.
Teakisi: Name five african women who inspire you.
1. Mulu Haileab, my selfless Ethiopian-Eritrean-American supermom who sacrificed it all for her kids. She selflessly pours her heart into her community and those around her.
2. Feven Getaneh, my best friend. She saved me when I was getting bullied and going through tough times in middle school. I will forever appreciate her for that. She came to the U.S. as an immigrant in 1997 and is now a doctor doing her residency at Yale. She’s so humble, incredible and truly makes this world a better place.
3. Issa Rae, actress, writer, director, producer and more who is authentic and fearlessly killing it. I appreciate her transparency and work so much. Her shows are super relatable and I really connect with them. She’s shining bright right now.
4. Lupita Nyong’o, an inspiring Oscar winning actress and trailblazer boldly breaking barriers. I really love her roles in Queen of Katwe and Black Panther. She’s killing it.
5. Haben Girma, a fierce advocate fighting for equal opportunities for people living with people with disabilities. She’s the first deaf-blind person to graduate from Harvard Law School. She is incredible and her message is powerful.
*Interview conducted by Salha Kaitesi – Twitter: @SalhaKaitesi