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Ethiopian School, Washington DC. 1982. Elena Bradunas. 35 mm black and white film. Ethnic Heritage and Language Schools in America Project collection, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

CCDI Awardee DC Public Library uses Library collections to preserve stories of DC’s Ethiopian communities

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DC Public Library (DCPL) is one of CCDI’s 2024 Libraries, Archives, and Museums awardees. The team began their project in December 2023 and will be presenting about their work at CCDI’s upcoming Summer Fuse 2024 event in Washington, D.C.  

DCPL is receiving $68,154.48 for their project, “Documenting the Ethiopian Communities of DC”. Through their project they will collaborate with artist Tsedaye Makonnen to highlight the stories of DC’s Ethiopian residents across generations and identities, and investigate the ways that the local Ethiopian community and the District of Columbia have influenced each other. Isabel Brador, a Program Specialist for the Connecting Communities Digital Initiative, interviewed the DCPL team to learn more about their project. 

Congratulations on receiving a CCDI Libraries, Archives and Museums award! Can you tell us about your project? 

The District of Columbia Public Library was recently awarded a Library of Congress Connecting Communities Digital Initiative Grant to chronicle and preserve the stories of one of Washington’s most vibrant immigrant and diasporic communities. The grant will fund “Documenting the Ethiopian Communities of DC,” a project led by the DC Public Library’s People’s Archive in collaboration with Ethiopian-American artist Tsedaye Makonnen and journalist Hannah Giorgis Yohannes. Taking an expansive view of the East African country and the many populations with historical ties to it, the project aims to build relationships within DC’s thriving diasporic communities by collecting new oral histories, developing a pop-up art installation, and hosting cultural events. These activations will celebrate the profound influences of the diaspora on the nation’s capital over the past century—and bring members of the community directly into contact with the archive they’ve helped to create.

Widely considered the home to the second-largest population of Ethiopian people in the world (after Ethiopia itself), the District of Columbia has undeniably been shaped by its Ethiopian residents, just as it has shaped them. Collaborating with Makonnen and Yohannes, the DC Public Library (DCPL) endeavors to illuminate the stories of DC’s Ethiopian community, exploring the symbiotic relationship between the District of Columbia and its residents with geographic ties to the East African country. The project will highlight the experiences of DC residents whose relationships to the city, and to Ethiopia, span multiple generations and identities.

“Documenting the Ethiopian Communities of DC” aims to foreground diasporic cultures that have been a vital component of the cultural tapestry here in the nation’s capital, fostering a deeper understanding of the role that these Washingtonians have played in cultivating DC as we now know it. To do that, the project will first look toward the past: Drawing from Elena Bradunas’ 1980s photographs and recordings of DC’s Ethiopian population, housed within the Library of Congress’ Ethnic Heritage and Language Schools in America Project collection, this project will engage community members in connecting with the People’s Archive at the DC Public Library. These archival materials will serve as prompts for individuals to share their own experiences, sparking new conversations about what it means to be Ethiopian in Washington, DC—including for those who may not neatly identify with the national label.


The Star of Ethiopia. “The ‘Star of Ethiopia’ is the name of a pageant which will be give in Washinton the week of October tenth.” W.E.B DuBois. Washington DC. 1915. Library of Congress.


As part of its project, “Documenting the Ethiopian Communities of DC,” DCPL is collaborating with a team of people including: artist Tsedaye Makonnen, journalist Hannah Giorgis Yohannes, project manager Aisha White, and project assistant, Gelila Kassa to highlight the stories of DC’s Ethiopian residents. Can you share more about how these collaborations came to be?

Initial interest in the CCDI grant was driven by the desire to highlight stories that DCPL’s People’s Archive had not yet preserved. Materials in the Library of Congress’ collections began to illuminate the history of DC’s Ethiopian Community, a history and culture that remains largely underrepresented in the People’s Archive, despite it being so impactful to our city. However, the majority of these materials conveyed an outsider perspective that emphasized ethnographic observations. This was a perspective that I didn’t want to perpetuate. I immediately thought of the artist Tsedaye Makonnen as an ideal partner with whom to embark on this project. Tsedaye is a past “Maker-in-Residence” partner of the library. As an Ethiopian American with roots in DC, Tsedaye is deeply connected to DC’s Ethiopian community and heritage, and the Ethiopian Diaspora is a major focus of her artistic practice. I am excited about the innovation that an artist like Tsedaye will bring to an archival-based project. Tsedaye’s edited volume, Black Women in/as the Living Archive, brings a unique perspective to archives and memory work, and I’m excited about the archival work that we will do with the CCDI grant.

We are also very lucky to have Hannah join the project. Hannah has roots in DC and regularly visits family in the area. Hannah is a long-time thought partner of Tsedaye, and has previously written articles about the Ethiopian diaspora for The Atlantic and Buzzfeed News. Having Tsedaye and Hannah work together on this project comes from their desire to expand previously explored ideas.

Aisha is Tsedaye’s project manager and often works with Black, brown, queer and immigrant communities in the DC area. The trauma-informed approach she brings to her work will be helpful in navigating potentially delicate conversations.  Gelila, Tsedaye’s project assistant, is Ethiopian American, and grew up in the DC metropolitan area.    

The project uses Elena Bradunas’ 1980s photographs and recordings of DC’s Ethiopian community, which are part of the Library’s “Ethnic Heritage and Language Schools in America Project” collection. What surprising or exciting things have you found in the collections? 

Bradunas’ collection consists of over 300 images and several recordings of DC’s Ethiopian community. The very existence of this archive was astounding to me. It was very exciting to see this second wave of Ethiopian immigration documented and provided a starting point for this project. In this collection, cultural and historical landmarks Howard University and All Souls Church depicted as important places in the Ethiopian story of DC. But we are also motivated by what isn’t included. The collection shows just a small portion of the story of the history of DC’s Ethiopian community. We’re eager to expand upon the stories that Bradunas began to collect, to include more community voices and more stories.

Ethiopian School, Washington, DC. 1982. 35 mm black and white film negatives. Ethnic Heritage and Language Schools in America Project collection, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.


The project is partially inspired by the centrality of community gatherings in Ethiopia, and part of the project outcomes is to host a series of community convenings. What will those convenings look like and what could an attendee expect to experience at one of these events?   

It is our hope that these gatherings will be intergenerational, family events that will create excitement about the project. Though the DC Public Library is an institution we are emphasizing the importance of community involvement. We see this project as just the beginning, and want the community to take ownership of the project, both as Ethiopians and Americans.  

The project also includes a series of oral history pop-ups. Why are storytelling and oral histories so important for this project? 

This project prioritizes allowing the community to tell their own stories, for several reasons. Since there is so little documentation of the community, it is important to allow them to speak for themselves. Our narrators may also speak English, Amharic, Oromo and/or Tigrinya. Speaking to Tsedaye and Hannah, both individually and in group conversations, will help create a safe-space to share their stories, weaving in and out of the languages that best allow them to express their sentiments . This will also help create a sense of ownership of the archive that results from this project.  

Summer Fuse 2024 

Interested in learning more about DCPL’s work or hearing from other CCDI awardees? Register now for CCDI’s upcoming Summer Fuse event on June 24! This virtual event will feature presentations from our 2024 CCDI Award Recipients, a Community-Engaged AI Panel, and our CCDI Junior Fellows and an AHHA intern.    

CCDI is part of the Library’s Of the People: Widening the Path program with support from the Mellon Foundation. This four-year program provides financial and technical support to individuals, institutions and organizations to create imaginative projects using the Library’s digital collections and centering one or more of the following groups: Black, Indigenous, Hispanic/Latinx, Asian American and Pacific Islander, and other communities of color from any of the 50 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and its territories and commonwealths (Puerto Rico, Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, American Samoa, U.S. Virgin Islands). Learn more about CCDI here. 

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