“I was raised by a village of women”, says Katéy Assem, executive director of the Chicago State University Foundation. Katéy’s grew up among seven generations of his family in a community where your name made it immediately apparent who your family was and where they lived. Yet, the Ghanaian native says his personal village was made up of women spanning both Africa and America.
His mother, Esther Aku Caesar, was a businesswoman who served as President of Tema’s Market Women’s Association in Ghana and a member of the Tema City Council. Before she passed away in 2013, Assem would speak with her every Saturday recapping his week and using her as a sounding board for the things he was seeking to work through. “She was a very good listener”, he says.
When asked about the things he learned from her, in addition to listening, he cites her ability to love people regardless of the situation. “No matter if there was a disagreement or argument you always knew she loved you no matter what”, he says. Lastly he valued her patience and these three characteristics – listening, loving and patience – Assem has sought to pass on to his three sons. In the tradition of his homeland, his sons carry the names of their forefathers. Djabaku is named for Assem’s father; Ahuma is named for Assem’s younger brother and Dake is named after his maternal great grandfather, who was also the Chief of his town, Ada, on the eastern coast of Ghana.
Assem came to the U.S. on a Fulbright Scholarship and lived with several families as he completed his education. Initially, he was placed with White families in the North Shore but later he asked to live with African American families. He fondly remembers many of his sponsors beginning with Mrs. Cordelia Twitty, a social worker, who he still sees and calls “mom”; Edna Oates, his supervisor at the Abraham Lincoln Center on the south side of Chicago, who bought him his first coat to ward off the Chicago winter; and Gladys Dunston of Durham, North Carolina, who he calls his “Auntie.” He also speaks fondly of Efua T. Sutherland, a Ghanaian writer, who he worked for after he finished his undergraduate degree and began to pursue his graduate degree in Finance. Assem graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Statistics from the University of Ghana and had aspirations of being a banker. But this international ‘village of women’ saw something different in him and recognized that his success lay in working with people. He took their advice and received his Masters’ of Social Work from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
His career has spanned work in human services, juvenile justice and education. He has designed ‘rites of passage’ programs for community centers, churches and juvenile correctional institutions. He has authored or co-authored numerous articles and two books on working with children and families in foster care and adoption. He is currently completing a manuscript on Rites of Passage.
Education became Assem’s calling and his achievements are impressive. Associate Vice President for Development and Campaign Director at Hampton University where he managed the university’s $200 million campaign; Vice Chancellor for Institutional Advancement and Executive Director of the North Carolina Central University Foundation; Vice President for Advancement and Research at Fort Valley State University and Chief Executive Officer of the FVSU Foundation where he completed a $62 million bond program to build a new residential and academic village. Today, he is on his second tour as Executive Director of the CSUF.
Years later Assem was able to pay forward the teachings of his many ‘mothers’ in creating “Essence of An Angel”, a special awards luncheon he conceived that celebrates the achievements of women in their professional and personal lives as single mothers, while acknowledging and supporting the impact single mothers have made on CSU and the Chicago community. Funds raised through the event provide financial support for single mothers attending CSU. Any full-time CSU student, who is a single mother and meets the grade point average and other criteria, may apply. The event is in its fifth year and has 20 powerful women alumni, but most importantly, it has generated cash awards for CSU single mother students that allow them to complete their education.
“It was a natural way to turn back to say ‘thank you’ to all those women, mothers and sister-friends, who nurtured me,” Assem concludes.
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