Seminal Readings at ALA: Building Leadership Through Critical Analysis

It’s a Friday afternoon on the ALA campus, and a small group of Year One students are sitting in a semi-circle, engaged in an intense, emotional debate. “I’ve worked for the African Union in Kenya,” says one student. “I observed that most funding for projects came from EU countries like the Kingdom of Denmark. If you ask why AU funding doesn’t come from Africa, you’ll hear that AU countries do not want to fund each other.” 

The group has been reading the Speech from the founding conference of the Organization of African Unity by Kwame Nkrumah, a text that over the years have formed part of one of ALA’s most anticipated events: Seminal Readings. Three times a year, ALA takes a week to pause and critically engage with these texts which we consider crucial to the leadership development of our students. The Year Ones, coming from as diverse countries as Tanzania, Egypt, South Africa, and Burundi, took different views on the idea of African unity. One student pointed out that there are competing interests on the African continent, and this unity would only benefit some. He said: “We are all Africans, but we are divided. There are countries that will benefit and countries that will not.” 

However, a third student expressed full confidence in African unity, pointing to the fact that the European Union was created as recently as 1993 from disparate European nations: “So many blessings flow from our unity. So many disasters follow our strife. There are two sides to any decision, and that includes unity and disunity too. But the disadvantages of unity can be temporary, and the advantages can last long-term.” 

Seminal Readings tie the ALA community together in a special way: students build not only their critical skills as leaders, but ultimately the whole community by getting to understand differing perspectives in this challenging but upbuilding way. 

This method of discussing ideas together requires each participant to be thoughtful of each other’s ideas, especially in disagreement. The process is managed at arm’s length by the facilitators, and it is the students who drive the discussion.  

We are starting to see the impact beyond ALA. Our alumni have taken the idea with them as they’ve moved on in their careers. Three alumni, Goodman Lepota ‘11, Tom Mbega ‘10 and Alheri Egor-Egbe ‘11, who all work at Google’s EMEA headquarters in Ireland, have introduced the concept to their new workplace earlier this year. 

Seminal Readings are structured around group discussions with reading and debate sessions following each other. The Year Ones read and engaged with the following texts: Understanding Patriarchy by bell hooks; The Transformation of Language and Silence into Action by Audrey Lorde; The Perils of Obedience by Stanley Milgram; Speech from the founding conference of the Organization of African Unity by Kwame Nkrumah; and Letter from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr.  

The Year Twos kicked off their week with a visit to South Africa’s famed Constitution Hill, once an apartheid-era prison, now site of the Constitutional Court and a museum dedicated to the struggle for freedom. They also read: Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Adichie; The African Woman Today by Ama Ata Adoo; and Animal Farm by George Orwell.