SIOUX CITY -- Semehar Ghebrekidan grew up in Sioux Falls in a household that spoke multiple languages and ate Ethiopian and Eritrean food. Every wedding she attended until she was 19 was two days long.
Ghebrekidan's parents were among the first Ethiopians to live in Sioux Falls. Because of her background, Ghebrekidan said she always felt "a need to learn and accept."
"All I want is for folks to see that I reached this from being someone who was an ESL (student) from a preschooler through fourth grade, not knowing English because my parents didn't speak it and having to learn it in the school system," said Ghebrekidan, who recently began working as Sioux City's first ever community inclusion liaison. "I just want to sort of be an inspiration, but also a mentor, an alley, an adviser, a navigator."
In her position, Ghebrekidan works with the newly formed Inclusive Sioux City Advisory Committee to ensure that underrepresented groups have the opportunity to be engaged and included in decisions that impact the community as a whole.
Last fall, the Sioux City Council approved a resolution to establish the advisory committee, which provides guidance to the council on matters relating to diversity, inclusion and equity. The goal of the committee is to represent the interests of and enhance the quality of life for all who live in the city.
The idea for the committee came out of meetings between city staff and Sioux City NAACP leadership in the wake of protests that erupted last May following the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died while in the custody of Minneapolis police. The talks were designed to explore how the city could begin moving forward.
"I've just always had this kind of feeling of wanting to make people feel included," Ghebrekidan said. "I've seen people go through bad things that have happened in their life, especially when it's discrimination or something that you cannot control. I have always felt this kind of calling to do this kind of work."
Finding her calling
Ghebrekidan, who is 26, said she has been passionate about diversity and inclusion work for a long time.
"I've been involved since I was 16, basically. Whether it was professional or I was getting paid or not, it didn't matter to me. I like doing this kind of stuff," she said as she sat at her desk in City Hall. Postcards from a host of countries and family photos decorated the walls of her cubicle. "I have learned over the years how to talk to people about these kind of things and to appeal to all audiences. I hope that that brings folks together."
Ghebrekidan was part of the international club at O'Gorman High School, a Catholic high school in Sioux Falls. She said some of her best friends hailed from countries such as South Korea and Germany.
That interest in other cultures continued when Ghebrekidan reached college. She earned a bachelor of arts degree in global studies from South Dakota State University, where she also minored in Spanish, leadership and nonprofit management. During her time in Brookings, Ghebrekidan was also very involved in diversity organizations. She served as the president of the Black Student Alliance and founded the Ladies of BSA Step Team.
With her undergraduate degree in hand, Ghebrekidan furthered her education with a master of science degree in sociology. Her first job was as an international student adviser to students from over 80 countries. She regularly hosted dinners for the students at her home, cooking up whatever international dish they happened to pull out of a hat.
"If it was Pakistani food, I'd make chickpea potato curry. One night, I was making tikka masala. I had a lot of fun learning about different cuisines and making them," she said.
Ghebrekidan said she feels she created a comfortable environment for the students, who were thousands of miles away from their families.
"I really, I think, changed the shape of my office, in the sense of the welcoming piece," she said.
In the summer of 2019, Ghebrekidan moved to Sioux City to take a position as an HIV caseworker at Siouxland Community Health Center. She said talking about health equity and making sure that people who are HIV positive were connected to resources was "exciting." Ghebrekidan said the health center is an example of where Sioux City shines when it comes to diversity.
"The fact that they serve folks who are lower income, don't speak English, might not have access to medication or medical services if they didn't have that program -- it's so wonderful. I have lots of love for that place," she said. "They take the time to talk to their patients and really explain what's happening."
Ghebrekidan said her experiences guided her to become Sioux City's community inclusion liaison.
"I went through my own issues going into school and things of that nature. And, I was in positions where I was able to help folks. That's why this position is very important to me," she said. "You can come to me and talk to me and be comfortable."
Although the Inclusive Sioux City Advisory Committee meets monthly, Ghebrekidan said she is frequently in contact with its members. At a recent meeting, she said the committee was working on revising its mission and vision statement.
Ghebrekidan said she is also meeting with city department heads to get a better understanding of what each department does and what gaps exist that she can help fill. She said she spent an entire day with Police Chief Rex Mueller discussing what's going well and where improvements can be made.
"I'm here to really learn. I'm here to listen. I'm here to reflect and then give feedback," she said. "Ask the honest and hard questions. I think that's something that everyone has appreciated so far, that I've met with. I'm asking honest questions just from my point of view. They're appreciating that, and, they're taking some of my thoughts seriously and implementing change right now, which is nice," she said.
When it comes to diversity in Sioux City, Ghebrekidan said it goes beyond race. She pointed to diversity in income, religion and language.
"That's something I'd like to talk about more within this position -- folks being able to have access to everything here in their home language or native language," she said. "It's hard to run around in an area where you do not speak the language and you don't have a navigator that's assigned to you."
Ghebrekidan said fostering an inclusive environment will not only bring more diverse populations to Sioux City, but she said it will also lead them to stay in the community long-term.
"I truly believe in the mission of this position, which is to increase inclusivity, which therefore then can create or increase diversity in the area," she said. "If I'm a Jewish person, is there a synagogue or a place of worship that I have here that I can go to? Is there a place I can get kosher food at? These are all things that support someone's decision in staying here for the long term."