Meet Léa Tienou-Gustafson, the Fund’s New Senior Director
On January 17, the WES Mariam Assefa Fund welcomed our new Senior Director, Léa Tienou-Gustafson. Léa comes to us from the Chicago non-profit Heartland Alliance, where she served as director of refugee and immigrant community services, supporting over a thousand refugees and immigrants annually. Léa has more than 15 years of experience working with and on behalf of immigrants and refugees. She is passionate about shifting power to immigrant and refugee communities and building systems that center racial equity and justice.
Monica Munn passes the baton to Léa after serving as the Fund’s inaugural leader since the Fund’s inception in 2019. Monica is now leading WES’ wider programmatic, policy, philanthropic, and partnership efforts as Chief Social Impact Officer, and will continue working closely with Léa, the Fund team, and its partners.
We’re thrilled for Léa to be joining the Fund and for her to meet and work with our partners. Below, she shares a bit about her background and what drew her to the role personally and professionally.
Tell us about your path that brought you to lead the WES Mariam Assefa Fund.
I am a child of immigrants — which has shaped me and the way I view the world in many ways. Growing up, I had the privilege of living in a number of places both in the U.S. and abroad. This made me interested in migration, human movement, and how people fit into different communities.
After I finished my undergraduate degree, I served with the Peace Corps in Chad. Working in communities there inspired my desire to work in communities in the U.S. I found myself drawn to refugee resettlement and immigrant integration. I started out working closely with African refugees and immigrants, and then got connected with the broader resettlement field in Chicago. Working on behalf of and with immigrant and refugee communities is deeply meaningful to me, and I loved the opportunity to do direct service work. I also had the chance to work with philanthropic partners. I felt strongly that having direct service experience was hugely valuable to understanding the needs of communities as a funder. I’m excited to now bring that experience of working with communities to drive impact for the Fund and its partners.
I’m passionate about supporting the Fund team, to live out its values of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion, and to find ways to shift power and ensure funding practices that are more immigrant- and refugee-centered.
What inspires you most about the WES Mariam Assefa Fund, and what do you hope to achieve in your first year?
I’m inspired by the Fund’s commitment to creating more inclusive economies and communities, and the ways in which the Fund carries out that work. Something that has been evident to me is the team’s strong focus on trust-based philanthropy. In my interactions with grantee partners thus far, and through feedback, it’s been clear that building relationships grounded in equity and shared learning is key, which is really beautiful. I’m looking forward to meeting many more of our partners and growing those relationships.
There is great curiosity within the Fund team to examine what works and what doesn’t for specific communities. I am inspired by everyone’s deep passion for this work. Coming into this role in the fourth year of the Fund, my main goal is not to change, but to build – to build on the Fund’s very strong foundation and everything that the team has learned. There is a Ghanaian term, “Sankofa,” which essentially means “looking back to move forward.” To do anything effectively in the future, we must understand the past.
At the top of my mind is reviewing the work since the Fund’s inception, and asking, what have we done, tried, and learned? Based on that, how can we deepen our impact and our commitment to equity moving forward?
How do you enjoy spending time outside of work?
Outside of work, I love spending time with my family. I’ve lived in Chicago for nearly 20 years, and I love living in a city that is diverse and exploring all it has to offer. We like going to Lake Michigan in the summer. I enjoy baking and experimenting with new recipes. Given my childhood and that I’ve lived in and traveled to many places, I love traveling. Anytime I can visit and explore a new place, I really find joy in doing that.