“And now, it is my honor to present the 2023–2024 MASC executive board,” begins Paul Branagan, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Student Councils (MASC). “When your name is called, please join me on stage.”

My eyes trace the corners of the ceiling, going from edge to edge back and forth. I exhale, releasing a labored breath filled with every ounce of anxiety my body has harbored for the last three days.

Abyssinia Haile is the state president of the Massachusetts Association of Student Councils. PHOTO COURTESY OF ABYSSINIA HAILE

“Please God,” I whisper, “let it be me.”

“Your state delegates, from North Andover High School, Mackenna Dube.”

“From Middleboro High School, Cristina Chane.”

Cheers and claps break the silence as both candidates are ushered down the aisle toward the stage. My face flushes with fear, translated into my tight grip around my friend Jayla’s palm.

“Your state secretary, from Westborough High School, Talia Bedar.”

As if on cue, Jayla and I turn toward each other. Our jaws drop as we realize the moment that’s about to come. With the announcement of the positions for secretary and delegate, my hopes are about to be fulfilled.

“Don’t cry, don’t cry!” The words leave Jayla’s mouth, attempting to suppress the tears waiting to fall down the apples of her cheeks.

“Finally, it is a true honor to present to you the 2023–2024 state president, from Minnechaug Regional High School, Aby Haile.”

Before he can finish his words, the room erupts. I can’t believe it.

That was the scene last March at the closing ceremony of the MASC conference in Hyannis, MA. The conference’s theme, “Lights, Camera, MASC!” captured how student leaders throughout our commonwealth “lead in the spotlight,” uplifting the pillar values of service, good character, and citizenship within our school communities. Almost 1,200 delegates and advisers from over 80 member schools gathered to celebrate a tremendous year with the state’s flagship student council organization in Cape Cod. We heard from enlightening speakers, attended workshops, had meaningful conversations with other delegates from the four regions of MASC—southeast, northeast, central, and western Massachusetts—and made memories of a lifetime.

It was one of the best three days of my life. But how was I lucky enough to win the votes and earn the trust of over 1,200 student delegates? To answer that question, we need to take a trip out east—6,843 miles, to be exact.

A Love for Tizita

When my family first moved from Ethiopia to the United States, we did not have much. We brought the necessities—clothes, a second-hand Nokia phone, and our life savings, equating to almost two thousand U.S. dollars. And yet, smuggled between the clothes in a suitcase we had brought was my father’s beloved music bag, encasing hundreds of vintage tizita CDs that I would soon listen to on repeat for the first several years of my life.

For those who aren’t familiar with Ethiopian music, tizita is a music genre similar to American Blues. It translates to “nostalgia,” as its rhythms and gentleness are meant to evoke feelings of homesickness in the listener. It almost makes you crave an innocent summer day, playfully suffocated by the smell of wet ferns and burnt coffee beans as you play a game of soccer on a dirt-ridden street.

The presidency enables me to fulfill my ultimate purpose for leadership—to ensure that every voice in the room is heard, appreciated, and acknowledged, regardless of its source.

—Abyssinia Haile

What is most riveting about tizita is not the melodies it makes, but the story of its birth. Amid the 1970s Ethiopian revolution, the government succeeding Emperor Haile Selassie heavily censored lyrics and forced artists to write songs that praised the current regime. They enforced strict curfews that essentially killed the clubbing scene in Addis Ababa, the capital. And they hurt the livelihoods of many performers and musicians who profited from the entertainment business.

But these musicians were not deterred. Though physically silenced, they did not stop. They simply responded by rejecting lyrical composition, pivoting to the art of instrumentals instead. They hosted secret events in underground speakeasies, and their music continued to vibrate and venture into the night, like a firefly in a crisp midnight sky.

The story of tizita is a testament to the fact that there’s always something we can do. It tells us that we have the responsibility to denounce injustice, for ourselves and one another. It reminds us of how change happens—through action and by shifting when faced with adversity. And lastly, it shows us the essence of leadership brought to life—the importance of giving voice to marginalized people in our communities.

Making a Difference Post-MASC

For the last 17 years, tizita has followed me everywhere. It has followed me up the steps of our commonwealth’s statehouse, as I testified before the legislature and spoke on behalf of 800,000 students voicing the importance of equitable access to education in Massachusetts. It has traced the steps I have taken to Los Angeles, as I stood before hundreds of the nation’s best journalists at the Asian American Journalist Association’s National Convention speaking on the importance of news investigation among our youth. Tizita has acted as my personal helping hand, giving me the courage to speak to MassLive, Western Mass News, The Reminder, and other media publications about the importance of affirmative action in college admissions and the experience of being a first-generation student applying to college this fall.

Tizita is the ode to reform that has fed my hunger to do more, give more, and be more for my community beyond the four walls of my school and MASC. Serving as state president is more than just a title or position. The presidency enables me to fulfill my ultimate purpose for leadership—to ensure that every voice in the room is heard, appreciated, and acknowledged, regardless of its source because representation matters for all.

As I embark on my last year of high school student council, I can hardly believe that I am state president today. There are some days where I feel undeserving of the position, or that I am letting our commonwealth’s student councils down through my seemingly “inadequate” leadership. When such bad days roll around, I look back to tizita. It is my comfort and beacon of security. In particular, there is a quote from Mahmoud Ahmed, an Ethiopian singer and one of the founders of tizita, that soothes my worries when times get tough:

Tizita lenen, tizita lanchi
Tizita for me, tizita for you

Ahmed’s words seldom fail to remind me of the promise I made in March to the 1,200 delegates at the MASC State Conference to honor the value and creed of good citizenship, just as tizita does, and continue the efforts MASC had already made to uphold the pillar of service to our community, now and for generations to come.

So, regardless of the limits you may feel your leadership encounters, I encourage you to remember that the pure passion for making a difference is boundless—as long as you free your mind from the perceived shackles of what it can accomplish. 

Abyssinia Haile is a senior at Minnechaug Regional High School in Wilbraham, MA, and the state president of the Massachusetts Association of Student Councils.