Monday, November 9, 2015

Unity + Agency: The Fall 2015 UMOJA Conference

UMOJA, a Kiswahili word for unity, is a statewide community of educators and learners in California devoted to increasing the transfer rate of African American community college students to four-year colleges and universities. 

On my campus, the UMOJA program consists of linked set of classes, one counseling class and the English class I teach. We call our program The Experiential Learning Academy, or TELA-UMOJA. UMOJA held their statewide conferencein Oakland last weekend, and our campus sent me, my teaching partner, and a team of eight students to represent our college.

This is our first year as an official UMOJA affiliate and the first time we participated in a statewide event, even though we’ve had our TELA learning community for several years. My goal for the conference was to see what we need to do to be more closely aligned with UMOJA's mission and educational philosophy. 

I’ve yet to attend the UMOJA Summer Learning Institute to be formally trained in UMOJA practices; I know I have a lot to learn. But every activity I attended, from the opening ritual to the closing ceremony, from the keynote to each and every workshop, affirmed that our TELA-UMOJA program is definitely on the right track. We've got work to do, but I left knowing that TELA-UMOJA is truly part of a larger community.

Mychal Wynn gave the keynote address. He is a respected author, educator, and minister who leads a successful community and faith based organization, The Foundation for Ensuring Access and Equity. His foundation is dedicated to closing the college knowledge gap for students from underserved and marginalized communities. 

Wynn's keynote theme coincided with a lesson TELA-UMOJA scholars began studying the first week of this semester: agency, i.e., the capacity to act in a goal oriented manner as opposed to passively or unconsciously accepting the status quo or prevailing social condition. 

Wynn was all about folks taking personal responsibility. He wasn’t about blaming anyone for being subjected to poverty, racism, or any of the host of barriers that get in the way of doing well in school. He wasn’t indicting anyone for being born into systems that seek to hold them down. He wasn't blaming the victim. 

But he was about exercising agency, urging people to engage in purposeful, intentional action when those inevitable obstacles appear. Wynn challenged the audience to make decisions when facing obstacles: “If you have an opportunity, that means you have a choice”.

Wynn used his own life to illustrate his point. Being born into generational poverty didn’t absolve him of his ability to make choices. Just because Wynn didn’t attend a college prep high school didn’t keep him out of university. In fact, Northeastern University admitted Wynn on the condition that he pass physics and calculus, courses his school didn’t offer. Instead of giving up, Wynn enrolled in the local community college to get where he wanted to be. Faced with an opportunity, he chose to act in ways to reach his goal.

When Wynn went to Northeastern, he found himself one of few Black folks in his classes. This social isolation, a result of Jim Crow segregation, could have been Wynn’s excuse for quitting. Instead, he embraced his journey, making strategic choices to increase his opportunity to succeed. Wynn reached out to other Black students, and he found a cultural space, albeit small and off campus, that served as his home base.  He took action, mustering the courage to create a kinship circle, a community of mutual support (UMOJA in action!).

Wynn’s story demonstrates how he succeeded despite the social forces lined up against him. He acted on his own behalf, in his best interest to reach his goals. Moreover, his agency led him to find support in community and to eventually be of service to that community, too. His story perfectly exemplifies the values we hope to nurture in our TELA-UMOJA students.