After completing his collegiate studies amid a whirlwind of achievements and controversy, Amman Asfaw began a list of his proudest accomplishments at Cal Poly.
The first item he wrote was, “I stayed happy.” And his final one, #17, was, “I got in good trouble!”
“Good trouble,” a phrase popularized by the late civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis, is something Asfaw got into when he decided he could no longer remain apolitical in the face of systemic racism in the United States. But even as his newfound activism resulted in court dates and legal briefs, Asfaw continued to lead, promoting diversity for the city of San Luis Obispo and heading the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) on campus, which was elevated to new heights during his tenure as president.
“Since May (of 2020), there has been a shift of the world’s mass conscience and moral compass, initiated by America: more civic duty and less idle stagnation; more mutual aid and less selfish greed; more justice and less corruption,” Asfaw said after joining the City of San Luis Obispo’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Task Force om the fall of 2020. “And I acknowledge I am a part of that mass conscience shift, which encouraged me to embrace applying to SLO’s DE&I task force.”
Asfaw’s collegiate studies ended with a master’s degree in electrical engineering and an Outstanding Service Award for Contributions to the Community, presented during the College of Engineering’s College-wide meeting. But his moral compass came years earlier as a youth in Thousand Oaks, CA.
“The biggest impact my parents have had on me is helping me better understand right from wrong,” he said. “My dad would always tell me, ‘If you do nice things for people, they will do nice things for you.’”
As a teen, he volunteered at the Thousand Oaks Teen Center, where he first learned that younger people look up to him.
“I enjoy working with the next generation – whoever’s up next,” he said. “There’s just something about me that enjoyed that.”
At Cal Poly, he quickly became involved in leadership at NSBE, culminating with his serving as president. During that time, he helped arrange a live, streaming interview from space with NASA astronaut and Cal Poly alumnus Victor Glover. During his leadership, Cal Poly’s NSBE also won Small Chapter of the Year Award – the first time in the club’s 47-year history.
“We want to ignite the flame in future culturally responsible engineers,” Asfaw said at the time. “And then once that flame is ignited, we want to make sure they can light other people’s flames and pass on the torch.”
As he led NSBE, he also led the city of San Luis Obispo’s task force as its chairperson – and only student representative. After meeting weekly during the fall of 2020, the task force submitted a 23-page report to the city council, citing programs, policies and initiatives to welcome a diverse community and reduce barriers of systemic racism and discrimination.
The council adopted all of the recommendations – a testament to Asfaw’s leadership.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he ultimately ended up as a business and thought leader in Silicon Valley,” Cal Poly Electrical Engineering Professor Andrew Danowitz told the San Luis Obispo Tribune, which published a profile of Asfaw this spring. “He could also be a great engineering educator, inspiring new generations of students to find solutions to society’s problems. I also imagine he could go into politics and work directly to serve his fellow citizens.”
Danowitz, who spoke on his own behalf and not the university’s, had worked with Asfaw on research that questioned the use of technical terms “slave” and “master” as well as “female-male” and “blacklist-whitelist.” The research was published and presented at the American Society for Engineering Education’s annual conference. (Asfaw has also written columns titled, Gen Z(eal), for the American Society of Engineering Educations’ Prism Magazine.)
Now that he has graduated, Asfaw is beginning his career as an engineer for a startup in the Bay Area.
“It’s quite an R&D lab, but I feel Cal Poly Engineering labs prepared me well,” he said.
Meanwhile, he is planning to self publish a book/autoethnography about his college experiences that he hopes will inspire others.
But his time in San Luis Obispo isn’t over just yet.
After the murder of George Floyd and other police-related killings of Black people Asfaw was one of many who took to the streets of San Luis Obispo to protest on July 21, 2020. After protesters marched through downtown and blocked Highway 101, he was eventually charged with a single misdemeanor false imprisonment for sitting in front of a sedan on Monterey Street, whose driver told marchers he just wanted to go home.
While his court case serves as a reminder that not all activism will be universally praised, Asfaw has no plans to quit.
“Of course, I plan to stay active on social justice issues,” he said.
He hopes his book will represent another contribution to society. He is invested in the movement to stop the genocide and famine in Tigray, a state in Ethiopia, where his family and ancestors are from. And, he said, he plans to be vindicated in his court case.
While he prefers not to talk much about his case while its pending, the lessons of his parents – knowing how to distinguish right from wrong – influenced #2, #3 and #4 on his list of accomplishments:
I have no regrets
I made my parents proud
I apparently inspired others
“Despite being dragged into the courts, exercising my first amendment right to peaceably assemble was necessary because it aimed to set at liberty those who are oppressed,” he said before quoting Attallah Shabazz, artist, public speaker and daughter of Malcom X and Betty Shabazz. “Who is to blame when our ‘inherent idealism yearns to bridge ignorance with insight and despondency with hope?’”