Up-and-coming media personality
Hannah Gebresilassie is an emerging and one of the very few journalists representing the Horn of Africa working in mainstream media in the United States. She is known to showcase her cultures of home proudly to a large audience and advocates for a slew of issues, including on the role of immigrants in the United States. She reflects with The Reporter's Samuel Getachew on her career, on journalism, gives advice to those who may want to emulate her career while she struggles to answer who her favorite Ethiopian artist is, The Weeknd or Teddy Afro. Excerpts:
The Reporter: Hannah, you are an emerging journalist based in Southern Illinois/Chicago and we have seen you embrace your ancestry on television. It is rare to see that on mainstream TV. Tell us about yourself?
Hannah Gebresilassie: I was born in California and moved to Georgia as a toddler. I grew up in the wonderful city of Atlanta and surrounding suburbs. I completed my bachelors in business administration at Georgia Tech, after transferring from Georgia State. I went on to study journalism and completed graduate school at Northwestern University in Evanston/Chicago, Illinois. I have a strong background working in sports, with teams like Georgia Tech Women's Basketball, the Atlanta Falcons and the Chicago Bears. I currently work as a television reporter at WSIL-TV, a local ABC station based in southern Illinois.
I really, really, really love injera and coffee. I have a passion for people and especially love working with the youth. I also love dancing, whether it is hip-hop, jazz, eskista or guragigna. I was a member of the official dance team at both Georgia State University and Georgia Tech. I was raised in a strong Habesha community in Atlanta and was very involved with my home church; Debre Haile Kidus Gabriel Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. The church community, along with my mom and dad, raised me to be fearless and reach for the stars, so that’s what I’m doing now.
You have highlighted your culture proudly to a large audience in an American society that knows little about Africa. What has been the reaction like?
The reaction has been amazing. I am very fortunate to work with WSIL-TV news director Mike Snuffer at a station that encourages me to share my culture with the world. It just so happened that Ethiopian Christmas fell on a day I got to fill in as the morning anchor. The night before, I called my news director and told him about Orthodox Christmas and how I wanted to wear a Habesha traditional dress for the holiday. He not only encouraged me to wear one, he also asked me to explain the holiday and where the cultural dress comes from so our viewers can get a better understanding. So, I anchored an entire newscast wearing a Habesha dress for the first time on-air at my station on January 7, 2018. It was pretty magical. Prior to that, I did an Enkutatash (Ethiopian New Year) story and folks really loved it. Recently, I did a story on Tiffany Haddish and how she paid tribute to her father and Eritrea at the Oscars.
It’s really exciting to fearlessly promote Ethiopian and Eritrean culture in southern Illinois and really whatever city I’m in. It’s even more exciting to see how receptive the community is. I get a lot of curious viewers ask me questions about the culture, the calendar, the background, etc. Every week, viewers and families come up to me to say hello and many of them tell me how they practice saying my last name at home with their children. They practice saying “Gebresilassie” at home when they see me on TV. It certainly gives me chills sometimes to think about, but it really should be the case with all cultures across all continents. I’m thankful for the huge dose of support on my journey.
What inspired you to get into the field of journalism?
I worked in sports for several years before getting into journalism. From traveling across the world with the Georgia Tech Women’s Basketball team to working on the sidelines for the Atlanta Falcons, I became interested in learning more about who the athletes were off the field. I wanted to tell their stories of overcoming long odds and using their platforms to make a difference in the world. During grad school at Northwestern University, things took a turn. On a trip to Johannesburg, South Africa, I worked on a documentary with my colleagues and took an stronger interest in telling stories surrounding culture and social issues. It was in Johannesburg that I did my first story on an Ethiopian immigrant and his journey to success. So after that trip, I realized I not only wanted to cover stories of athletes overcoming long odds, but also anyone and everyone overcoming long odds. We all have a story. I want to expose those stories and feed them to the world as jewels of inspiration.
You graduated from Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and you spoke at your graduation. Share with me the highlight of your speech?
I was super honored to speak on behalf of such a talented group of individuals. I would say the overall theme of the speech was “Product of Immigrants." I talked about how my parents were refugees who came to Chicago in the 80s, with no money and no English. At that time, they never could have imagined their future daughter would speak on a Northwestern graduation stage. The moral of that story is to “NEVER SAY NEVER.” I also shared a message about our roles as journalists and the importance of painting a full picture. Here is a piece of the speech: "By embracing the role we play in this struggling world, we have the power to help it through our work. We carry the brush that can paint an entire mosaic to positively impact society. So let’s continue to paint and expose stories of marginalized communities, unjust police brutality, booming small businesses, athletes overcoming long odds, political eruption and other important topics. Let’s never forget, everyone and everything has a story. One word. The difference one word can have in your message. The difference between victim and survivor. Every word, every edit and every clip becomes so intentional. So be intentional and make every story worth it."
If you could offer advice to the next generation of Ethiopian American journalists, what would that be?
My advice to the next generation of journalists, or really anyone, is to go after what you want and don’t be afraid of failing. We all fall down but it’s in those moments that we realize our potential to get back up and conquer the obstacles. Some folks will decline your interview requests and tell you to get out their face, others will welcome you with open arms. That’s life. I would encourage journalists to pursue the path they are most passionate about, whether it’s sports, politics, entertainment or anything else. Be mindful that you don’t make a lot of money starting off, so make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. And don’t be ashamed to pick up a side gig if you need to. I’m 27 and I’ve already worked over 27 jobs in my life to get both experience and income. As a TV reporter, there are many long days and sometimes you shoot and edit multiple stories a day, on your own and on deadline. But, I can honestly say it’s worth it and some days don’t even feel like work. So let your light shine in everything you do because you will interact with so many people in this field. Everyone has a story and in this position, you have the ability to paint a picture of their stories. You will hold lawmakers and elected officials accountable. You will be a voice for the voiceless. You will uncover hidden truths and share endless stories of inspiration. Be just, be fair, be compassionate and most importantly be you.
You have described yourself as a proud daughter of immigrants. From afar, we see how the American society is slowly changing its liberal policies towards immigrants, in a nation of immigrants. Why is it important for the United States to have a welcoming policy towards immigrants?
I am a product of Ethiopian and Eritrean immigrants. If this country did not welcome my parents with open arms, I would not be here today. They came here as refugees to give future generations the opportunities they didn’t have AND to contribute to society. They accomplished both. They serve their communities and provide services that impact people every single day. Without them, I wouldn’t be who I am. That applies to thousands of others, just like me. We are proud products of immigrants and will continue to shine to make this world a better place.
Last question; The Weeknd or Teddy Afro?
This is a tough one! I’m going to have to remain neutral on this one and say both. They have completely different styles of music and I love them both. I remember jamming to Teddy Afro’s album during Atlanta summers while driving through the streets with my girls. On those same days, I remember blasting The Weeknd’s mix tape before he got super huge. I enjoy their new music as well and I salute both artists!