Bunmi Emenanjo is not only changing the narratives of Nigerians in the U.S, this attorney and author has noticed the lack of representation in books, which can be detrimental to underrepresented children. With the diversity in America, there is a dearth of picture books featuring diverse characters.
Children’s picture books are key tools used to elicit and analyze narratives, and children from differing backgrounds are given these books to test their narrative abilities. It is important to consider the content included in the books, especially related to who children are seeing depicted on the pages because our children begin to make conclusions about others based on their race. In addition to being able to categorize and draw conclusions based on race, children can also begin showing in-group preference and out-group race related prejudice, as well as explicit and implicit biases, although the race of the child can influence the types of prejudiced or biased attitudes they hold.
City People interviewed Bunmi recently about not only how she manages to represent Nigeria in a positive way in diaspora but also how she is using books an important tool to support the development of children in multiple ways.
Tell us about how you got into your current profession?
I currently work as an ethics attorney in the wildlife conservation space within the federal government. I also recently launched a children’s book subscription box company (Atlas Book Club) focused on increasing access to internationally diverse children’s books. We do this by sending out a box every month with a book that features a different country and materials to immerse the child in the culture of the featured country/region. Our goal is expose kids to the diversity in the world by showcasing not only diversity in race and culture but also diversity of stories within races and cultures. You can learn more about what we do at www.atlasbookclub.com.
In regards to my professional background, I actually graduated with an undergraduate degree in Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics with the plan of pursing a career as a medical doctor. But I took a turn towards law after working in the biotechnology industry and learning more about opportunities for scientists in the legal field. Post law school, I worked in regulatory policy for a couple of years, then obtained my MS in Bioscience Regulatory Affairs which eventually led me to a career at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It was there I stumbled into governmental ethics space; I have worked as ethics counsel the past four years.
Tell us about your break through career wise in the U.S.
Phew! It was really tough. I graduated in the top 15% of my law school class – I had the grades, the summer law firm and government experience, judicial internship and clerkship, and the letters of recommendation but unfortunate timing! I came into the job market in 2007 during the Great Recession when law firms were laying off associates and nobody was hiring. It was incredibly frustrating and confusing, actually. I felt I checked all the boxes but I just was not catching a break. After three years of on and off temporary contract gigs with various law firms, with two kids and another on the way, I decided to go back to school to obtain my Masters degree in Bioscience Regulatory Affairs from Johns Hopkins University. I felt it was necessary to separate myself from the million and one other attorneys in the Washington, DC area. That was the breakthrough I needed. I leaned on the Hopkins name, alumni network and resources, and secured an internship with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars working on policy issues in emerging technology. Then I networked, networked and networked some more. My eventual job at the FDA was based on a referral by someone I met at a networking event.
When you mentor young Nigerians who look up to you on how they can make it in life, what advice do you give them?
I actually just gave this advice to someone today – Never underestimate the power of a strong work ethic combined with vision. That combined with consistency and authenticity is a force. But you have to do the work – internally and externally.
In order to show up as your most authentic self, you have to do the internal work to get to know who you truly are and so that you can always present your best self no matter where you are or who you are interacting with. This is super important because people hire someone they like and who they connect with. Nobody wants to work with an asshole.[feel free to replace with “jerk”] Adopt a practice that allows you to do that – journaling, meditation, or time for self reflection. Get a therapist.
You also have to put in the actual work – network, continue to practice and improve your skills, have a curious mind, study, and continue to learn and grow in your chosen profession or craft. Stretch yourself. You can do hard things.
Tell us about your schooling. You were born here in Nigeria. Why did you relocate to the US?
I was actually born in the US; my parents were part of a wave of young West Africans who migrated to the US in the 70s for a college education. My family moved to Nigeria when I was a mere 2 months old! My older brother and I eventually moved back to the US after I graduated high school in Nigeria when I was 16 years old.
This was in the mid-90s when the university system in Nigeria was in such turmoil. There were constant strikes and the entire system was very unstable. My parents had always planned for use to pursue some portion of our higher education in America; the state of the country at the time only made the decision to send us to the US come sooner than they had originally planned.
What were the major challenges you encountered along the way?
The major challenge of moving to the US at such a young age was moving here without our parents. We lived with my mom’s cousin and his family, who I love dearly and were wonderful, for about a year. But it was tough figuring out life in this unfamiliar land, navigating the adult world of paying bills and the higher education system on our own at that age. However, I was fortunate to link with a group of similarly situated, young Nigerian kids at my first job as a cashier at McDonald’s. We formed this incredible bond while flipping burgers and taking drive-thru orders and they remain my closest friends. I think having that chosen family made all the difference – we pushed each other, supported one another, and held each other accountable. Ours is definitely a case of – “show me your friends and I will tell you who you are.” That we would find one another is further evidence of God orchestrating our lives. With them, life never felt as tough as it actually was.
How do you see the current negative image Nigeria is suffering from?
It is disappointing, frustrating and unfortunate. This is why I think it is important to amplify positive stories about Nigeria and Nigerians any opportunity we have to do so. There are Nigerians all over the world contributing positively to society and their local communities in significant ways. I do see some change in the horizon – with increase in global travel, increased exposure, and global and cultural awareness, people are more aware that you cannot brush groups of people with the same brush. Or this may just be naiveté on my part. But my hope is that the good so many Nigerians are doing out in the world will drown out the negative actions of a few.
Why have you remained proud of being a Nigerian?
Although I have lived in the US longer than I lived in Nigeria, being Nigerian is so woven into my DNA, I can’t help but be proud. The older I get, I find that I have a deeper appreciation of our culture, traditions and our language. For example, I find myself listening to and pondering on old Sunny Ade songs, replaying tracks over and over again, catching new meanings with every play. The way we were raised, our pursuit of excellence, our work ethic, our hustle and nonacceptance of mediocrity – these are mainstays of growing up Nigerian. Growing up in Nigeria is the foundation of my being and my pride in this heritage is inevitable. My desire to ensure my kids felt the same way is one of the reasons I started Atlas Book Club in my home three years ago.