Rockefeller Foundation Artist Residency in Bellagio, Italy 2017

This August I was selected to continue working on my album for two weeks at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center in Italy, alongside 14 other leaders who were also selected from around the world. I am here shutting out the noise, focusing on the inner folds of my creativity, and the simple act of removing things from the day that take up mental energy and focus (social, tour managing replying to emails, meeting new friends and fans along the way, writing, preparing for shows and speeches and all the work that goes with it) has already allowed for so many new ideas, melodies lyrics and concepts to come into my mind space that I generally have not had time for this year. It’s been such a blessing. The other thing that has been so profound for my work which was part of main attraction to coming here, was to be around international energy. There are residents from places like Zimbabwe, Amsterdam, Bahrain and Guyana. The level of conversation is so healing for me – the main take already has been a lot about how colonization has dominated mainstream narratives of the history of many of these places, instead of the local narrative, the experiences of the oppressed, the enslaved or the illiterate. How if the mainstream narratives had indeed been stories of those who have and still do inhabit the countries, how the world might be a different place. How if mainstream narratives also included those of a larger segment of the local population, young people might have a better of their own power to make change, and see that there are more opportunities available to them than they think. I think about this all the time when it comes to young girls – how if the narratives of mainstream media included us as the subject of our own lives instead of the object of someone else’s, we might grow up with a different understanding of our own power and potential. It’s enormously powerful. I have been having so many ideas for music videos I want to create here but always get a little scared or intimidated bc it’s very difficult to translate an idea in one’s mind into the real world.

It has been amazing for me to be around people farther along in their career who are committed to determining ways to empower younger people to be agents of change. Moreover, I have been really moved with how emotionally vulnerable both the women and the men have been with the group in only a matter of days. There is something very femme and powerful when people are able to dial into their emotions like that and trust a group to be sensitive and receptive – I have been so inspired by the level and the desire to share what has worked and what still causes pain in each person’s life so as to use the time here to reach new spiritual levels, both personally and professionally. I thought I’d be spending a lot of alone time, but I’ve found myself enjoying the moments of discussion with other members of the group so far the most joyful. As my friend Lara always says – I’m out here learning and loving. And sometimes that’s the best thing we can do.

Speaking on a panel about women’s leadership alongside the former Presidents of Kosovo and Malawi, led by Pat Mitchell, the former head of PBS.

“The Rockefeller Foundation is pleased to announce a special youth themed residency at The Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center in Bellagio, Italy. To be held July 24 to August 9, the Thematic Residency on “Youth as Agents of Transformative Change” will include leading academics, artists, policymakers, and practitioners advancing work around youth engagement and leadership.

Around the world, young people are raising their voices to push for systemic and social transformation. They are actively addressing some of the most complex issues worldwide, while often simultaneously finding themselves disproportionally affected by them. This special Bellagio Center Thematic Residency aims to support dialogue, thought leadership, and action to empower, inspire, and leverage youth as leaders of positive change.

The Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center Residency Program provides time and space for focused work while also allowing for a rich cross-cultural and interdisciplinary experience with a diverse and stimulating community of peers. Thematic Residencies at the Center are held annually and bring together a group of residents around a common topic and shared interest and include both formal and informal opportunities for residents to connect with one another. The first Thematic Residency at the Bellagio Center was held in 2016, and focused on the theme of Human Behavior.

Photos below by Aya Chebbi


The individuals selected for the Thematic Residency, “Youth as Agents of Transformative Change,” include academics in education, literature, and linguistics; young artists exploring feminism and multiculturalism through music, composition, and fiction; and practitioners and activists interested in youth employment, leadership, and activism. While at the Bellagio Center, residents will work on a range of projects from the the design of new youth apprenticeship models, to the financial sustainability of youth led movements, to the relationship between vernacular dialect and prejudice, and the balance of multiculturalism and assimilation.

“The Bellagio Center Residency Program brings together a range of expertise and perspectives, and it is exciting to be supporting such an exceptional cohort of residents around this important topic,”said Claudia Juech, associate vice president and managing director at The Rockefeller Foundation. “The Foundation is looking forward to learning from these residents as they share their work and ideas with one another over the course of their time together at the Bellagio Center—discussing the opportunities where youth has a critical role to play.”

To design the Thematic Residency the Foundation worked with Dalberg, a strategic advisory dedicated to global development. “The so-called youth bulge is actually a boon. Youth are a huge, often untapped asset. Activating them will catalyze the kind of systemic changes that capital alone cannot,” said Yana Kakar, Global Managing Partner at Dalberg. “We are excited to work with The Foundation on this effort to further explore different ideas on this topic.”

The resident fellows selected for this Thematic Residency include:

  • Monisha Bajaj, University of San Franciso, Academic Writing Resident
  • Aya Chebbi, Africa Youth Movement, Policy Fellow Resident
  • Henry De Sio, Ashoka, Practitioner Resident
  • Kiran Gandhi, Madame Gandhi, Arts & Literary Arts Resident
  • Maryana Iskander, Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator, Policy Fellow Resident
  • Ananya Jahanara Kabir, King’s College, Academic Writing Resident
  • Laurentien van Oranje-Nassau, Missing Chapter Foundation, Policy Fellow Resident
  • Khary Lazarre-White, The Brotherhood/Sister Sol, Practitioner Resident
  • Joshua Marquez, Composer, Arts & Literary Arts Resident
  • Mark McCord, Young African Leaders Network, Policy Fellow Resident
  • Anna Penido, Inspirare Institute, Practitioner Resident
  • John R. Rickford, Stanford Unviersity, Academic Writing Resident
  • Esra’a al Shafei,, Practitioner Resident
  • Novuyo Tshuma, University of Houston, Arts & Literary Arts Resident

About The Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center
The Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center, through a combination of conferences and residency programs, supports the work of scholars, artists, thought leaders, policymakers, and practitioners who share in the Foundation’s pioneering mission to promote the well-being of humanity. Convening prominent experts, influencers, and other key stakeholders to advance knowledge, and form new partnerships, financial commitments, and initiatives that support these goals, enables the Bellagio Center to advance the mission of the Foundation as a complement to its grantmaking efforts.



With Joyce Banda, Former President of Malawi




“My Sisters”

Written by Hafsat Abiola July 2017 in Bellagio, Italy

Read aloud to my audience in Boston, August 18th, 2017 at ONCE Somerville

For all that you have faced

The dangers, the lack of support, the rejection,

You have remained unbowed

I bow to you.

For the path that you have chosen

To care enough to work for much-needed change

In spite of the lonely road, the bleak prospects

You have remained committed

I commend you.

For the way that you move in this flawed world

Always looking out for others

Whether or not you had someone look out for you

You have remained your sister’s keeper

I salute you.

At last a new world beckons

You, me, all of us together are called to usher it in

You may stumble. I may fall.

But if we stand side by side, we will rise to this task as one.

I count on you.

Read whichever you want.