“Find the biggest platform you can,” said Grace Jerry when asked for her advice on bringing about change, “and add your voice.” Jerry, a Nigerian gospel singer, has a big voice. And when introducing former President Obama at a gathering of 500 young African leaders, she took full advantage of it. The journey that brought Jerry to Washington began with personal tragedy 13 years ago, when she lost the use of her legs in an auto accident and learned how people with disabilities can be marginalized. She had sung in her church choir before the accident, but for a time afterward, she was depressed and lost interest in singing. As she recovered, she got serious about singing again and decided to use her voice to advocate for others with disabilities. “I want to shift the perception of people with disabilities from being viewed as those who need help to being viewed as human beings with rights,” Jerry said.
In 2015, she applied and was chosen for the Young African Leaders Initiative’s Mandela Washington Fellowship, which brings 500 people from sub-Saharan Africa to the U.S. to meet others working for change. “I connected with the fellow from Ethiopia who happened to be a polio survivor, and he’s very active in research and data on challenges facing people with disabilities in Ethiopia,” Jerry said. “I met a guy from Sierra Leone with a disability who’s a human rights lawyer.” The three now work together to “create a more inclusive Africa.” Jerry’s singing attracts attention to any issue she trumpets. Her tribute to YALI called “E Go Happen” received 100,000 views in its first 24 hours online. Likely as not, it reached the ears of someone at the White House who chose her to introduce Obama when he spoke to the Mandela fellows.
When introducing the president, Jerry said that during her visit to America, thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act she had experienced “what inclusion and access should be. And I am going back to Africa to make sure that that dream becomes a reality.” When the president came to the podium, he said, “Following Grace is a little bit like following Michelle,” referring to his wife. “You’re thinking, ‘I’m not going to be that good.’”