Togun hero

Alumnus Kehinde Togun: Fostering Democracy Abroad and Serving Others at Home

Kehinde Togun (SASN ’06) has a lot on his mind lately. For years the former Political Science and Economics major worked with organizations in Africa and the Middle East promoting democracy and fostering citizen engagement. These days he’d like to see democracy flourish in the United States and watch the country truly come to grips with its racism so he can feel safe here at home.

Togun, 36, penned an op-ed for The Daily News on this very topic in early June, as the protests over the killing of George Floyd were in full swing. In that piece, titled, “The America My Son Deserves,” he discussed his fear of raising his 2-year-old son in America, where so many Black men die at the hands of police. Togun expressed muted optimism that the Black Lives Matter movement could be a turning point in tackling centuries-old racist violence in the U.S., but he added that real optimism would come only when the country steps up and addresses the systemic racism pervading the country’s educational, public health and economic systems.

“My goal has always been to leave the world a better place than I found it, and make sure that my child’s humanity is valued,” said Togun.

Togun, who immigrated to East Orange, NJ, from Nigeria when he was 11, has made it his life’s work to make the world a better place and improve the lives of others. His efforts date back to St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, where as a high school sophomore he began building a youth volunteer organization that paired students with local nonprofits, created mentoring programs for city youth, and worked with a food pantry–soup kitchen run by the school and St. Mary’s Parish. He also wrote for a magazine geared toward fellow teens to help them make safe, healthy choices around sex, alcohol use and other issues.

Change isn’t just about policy but how citizens engage their government.

After arriving at RU-N in 2002 as part of the Honors College, Togun continued his community engagement by co-leading the Student Health Advocate Program, part of the Health Promotion Division of RU-N Student Affairs, which educates and promotes discussion about different wellness and social justice issues affecting students’ lives. He served as a teaching assistant for that division’s Health & Social Justice course, and as a Resident Assistant during his junior and senior years. He also co-founded and led a group called Beyond Campus to continue the Newark-centered volunteer work he’d done at St. Benedict’s: In addition to youth mentoring and the soup kitchen, Beyond Campus worked with RU-N's Abbott Leadership Institute to help Newark parents become better advocates for their children’s education.

Togun also led on- and off-campus protests around racial justice and policing after a racially charged incident between a Newark police officer and an RU-N student.

His senior Honors thesis, which was advised by Political Science Professor Jyl Josephson, examined comprehensive versus abstinence-only sex education, a topic he’d been interested in since high school. He presented the paper at a conference in New Mexico, and his research informed a chapter in one of Josephson’s books. In 2006 Togun was chosen as RU-N student commencement speaker and addressed his peers about having a positive impact on the world.

“My community and academic work were always linked,” said Togun. “I grew up in a family where you do things for people—there's a purpose beyond serving ourselves. And as a child I often asked not only why things exist as they are but how do I make them different.”

After graduating RU-N, Togun began the Master’s in Public Policy program at Georgetown University, where he spent two years studying and working for an array of nonprofits and NGOs focusing on health and HIV/AIDS policy and prevention in various African countries, including Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Kenya and Tanzania.

Post-Georgetown, Togun did a five-year stint with National Democratic Institute (NDI), managing government and accountability programs in Iraq and Syria, developing inclusive-government strategies and citizen-engagement programs in Turkey and Iraq, coordinating leadership-training programs for political party members in Southern and East Africa, and training senior members of the Tanzanian President’s office on citizen-engagement technology, among other duties.

For the next three years (2013–2016), Togun worked for Partners Global as Deputy Director for Sub-Saharan Africa Programs, managing a six-person team implementing a $7 million portfolio of governance, peacebuilding and human-rights programs.

“Change isn’t just about policy but how citizens engage their government,” said Togun of the international work he did while at Georgetown and for nearly a decade thereafter. “My goal in much of this work was to help residents create platforms to engage their government and train them to be better at advocating for themselves so their needs are prioritized.”

In 2016 Togun sensed he wanted to try something different, and so he brought his experience to bear in the private sector, serving as Senior Director for The Arkin Group, where he currently oversees a team of political analysts and advises businesses and individuals on investing overseas.

He continues to volunteer his time by serving on several boards, including the Center for Racial Justice in Education, an organization that trains and empowers educators to dismantle racism in the classroom, and Answer, SexEd Honestly, the group whose magazine he wrote for in high school. He’s also a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a founding trustee of Partners West Africa-Nigeria, and part of the Truman National Security Project. And this year he was selected by New America as one of 20 Black American National Security & Foreign Policy Next Generation Leaders.

He’s also been giving back to RU-N as an adjunct instructor in the Political Science department, teaching a Foreign Policy in Practice seminar that he designed and exposing first-generation students, and students of color, to leading foreign-policy practitioners to help them network in the field. And in his spare time, he’s been serving as a member of the SASN Dean's Cabinet.

“I've considered Newark my home since high school, and I had great professors at RU-N who challenged me to think and write critically,” said Togun. “The relationships run deep. Many of them have remained mentors and friends to this day.”