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From social justice to storytelling, Emory College class orator speaks out for others

By Senta Scarborough | Emory Report | May 5, 2020

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Emory College class orator Adama Kamara is a first generation American who has seen how facing fears can help build legacies — for herself and others. After graduation she will combine those lessons with storytelling traditions to speak on behalf of marginalized groups.

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When Adama Kamara delivers her Emory College graduation speech, she will face fears – and fulfill a mother’s dream.

Kamara, an anthropology and international studies double major who grew up in Lexington, Virginia, is a first generation American whose parents immigrated from Sierra Leone.

She was chosen as Emory College’s featured speaker by faculty, students and administrators after a competitive selection process, including interviews and auditions. She will speak at the Emory College online graduation celebration to be virtually broadcast on May 11.

Facing fear

The theme of tackling fears seems prescient, with Kamara settling on the idea before the COVID-19 pandemic struck (in fact, about half of Kamara’s speech came from a fall journal entry). Her speech details personal fear – her own and others – in hopes of delivering a relatable message for her classmates. 

“She’s adaptable, good at living in the moment and making peace with your feelings,” says Naomi Tesema, a fellow 2020 graduate and STEM Pathways mentor.

“I am terrified of putting myself out there and being vulnerable. The sheer fact that I’m presenting is a huge milestone for me,” says Kamara, who is even more nervous because the speech will be online. “It invites people to be more critical and that’s a little scary.”

Her courage to face fear comes from her parents, who fled war-torn Sierra Leone. Before they immigrated, her mother hoped to study at Emory’s highly regarded Rollins School of Public Health. The challenges of starting a new life in the United States upended those dreams. She didn’t tell her daughter the story until Kamara was considering Emory for herself.

Kamara’s graduation from college is especially poignant for her family and parents “who left a war and gave up a lot,” Kamara says. “This moment gets to come full circle with my graduation. For my mother especially, I am fulfilling many of the dreams that got disrupted for her.”

Kamara will use her platform to praise those who face fears for a higher purpose. She will highlight former Emory visiting professor, Isabella Alexander-Nathani 16P, a human rights activist who risked her life to share sub-Saharan migrant stories in “The Burning,” a film Kamara collaborated on. 

She also will honor Boris Niyonzima 20C who wrote about his mental health struggles last semester in The Emory Wheel. 

“We are facing a collective fear of the unknown,” Kamara says. “Fear is inevitable, especially embarking on post-grad life. The message is that we shouldn’t be shying away from it or letting it consume us, but rather lean into it and let it teach us things about ourselves and be a source of introspection.”

Social justice to storytelling

When Kamara started at Emory, her focus was public health and human rights. She always loved reading and writing but rarely found that her high school’s books represented her experience as a black woman until she was assigned Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”

In an Emory literature class, she learned Hurston’s writing was informed by her cultural anthropology work. That inspired Kamara’s anthropology major. Her next step was getting immersed and involved. 

Impressed by her work as an administrative assistant, former Emory professor Kali-Ashet Amen 14PhD recruited Kamara as a research and curatorial assistant for the James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference. There, Kamara developed digital interactive media for the “Black Cosmopolitan” exhibition at the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library.

“Her work ethic, her willingness to expand and learn whatever she needs to get the job done is integral to her character,” says Amen, now an assistant research professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University. 

Kamara’s gift of fostering relationships with sensitivity to cultural differences made her a natural fit for her next role as program assistant for the John Lewis Fellowship, a Humanity in Action educational program where international fellows explore social justice issues and Atlanta’s civil rights history, Amen says.

“She is industrious, super communicative, always kind and fiercely stands up for her values and fellow human beings,” says Humanity In Action U.S. National Director Yael Herskovits. 

Those same communication skills were integral to the role that later became Kamala’s legacy at Emory: editor-in-chief of BLACKSTAR*, the university’s only black student publication. Although fear led her to initially turn down the role, after one year in the position Kamara built a strong online community featuring black art and a hub that brought organizations and resources together. She more than tripled BLACKSTAR*'s contributors and increased engagement by 400 percent.

Kamara currently is working part-time as a digital media strategist with ISE-DA, an online black visual arts platform founded by Adefolakunmi “Fola” Adenugba 17B. After graduation, she will begin a full-time fellowship with Venture for America which will match her with a business startup. In both roles, Kamara hopes to use her storytelling skills to amplify marginalized voices and promote social advocacy in the corporate and tech worlds.

“(My parents) left a civil war. They lost so much and had nothing,” Kamara says. “From them, I’ve learned that the way we make something out of nothing, the way we preserve memories and continue the spirit of those who have passed, is through storytelling. Whatever I end up doing with my career, I want to continue this tradition by elevating black voices using the power of storytelling — it’s the most beautiful way to make connections between communities and across experiences.”