UMOJA Network for Young Men: Emerging as Leaders Conference ☆

Written by Iesha Jackson and Wanda Watson.

On March 15th and 16th eight young men of color from the UMOJA Network for Young Men (UMOJA) gathered in Grace Dodge Hall for a two day emerging leaders conference. The mission of UMOJA, which began at Satellite Academy High School in New York City, is to holistically support and nurture young men while increasing their accountability to themselves and one another. Now in its sixth year, UMOJA has provided a range of opportunities for over 75 young men including Historically Black College and University tours. The ‘Emerging as Leaders Conference’ was the first of its kind for UMOJA; however, the event left such a strong and lasting impression on all involved that organizers were encouraged to think about making this an annual event.

The focus of the conference was on “embracing voice, being heard” and “empowering ourselves & our communities.” Each day commenced with encouraging opening remarks by Erik Nolan, founder of UMOJA Network for Young Men followed by a piece of inspiration shared by Dr. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz, Co-Founder of the UMOJA Readers & Writers and Assistant Professor, English Education, Teachers College, Columbia University. The young men wrote responses to inspirational quotes and reflected on questions posed to them throughout the day and closed each day with a sharing of their reflections. Participants were moved by the clear brilliance, talent, creativity, and power possessed by these young men of color – they indeed had voices that needed to be heard. Presenters engaged them directly, sought their opinions, and encouraged them to tap into their vision and manifest the talents that God had given them.

Presenters included a range of people from various fields who shared this desire to encourage UMOJA’s young men to speak out and empower themselves and their communities. Dr. Thurman Bridges III, a postdoctoral fellow at Teachers College, engaged the young men in a rousing presentation in which he encouraged them to contemplate why members of society view them in stereotypical ways and to not be held back by these ideologies, but instead to utilize their creative capacities in order to make change. Teacher and performing artist Lottie Porch guided the young men through several engaging activities to help them recognize the transformative power of voicing themselves through poetry. Motivational speaker and entertainment manager Mr. Clive Salmon asked each young man to share a passion and articulate how the expression of that passion is a way of speaking to the world. Additional presenters included: Leroy Baylor, entrepreneur, marketing and media specialist; Noah Asher Gordon, literacy educator and researcher; and Dr. Darrell Hucks, assistant professor at Keane State. Collectively, all of the conference presenters and participants engaged in a space where the young men of UMOJA were inspired to express themselves, find various outlets for sharing their multiple voices, and manifest their full potential for the sake of themselves and their communities.

UMOJA Network members.

As a result of the purposeful, motivational, and dynamic engagement, no one needed to force the young men to be quiet, end their side conversations, speak in front of the group, or stop distracting each other like one often witnesses in traditionally culturally unresponsive classrooms. Instead, the interactions were rooted in the true meaning of UMOJA–unity. The young men did not compete for attention or presence during the conference, yet each was valued and validated as an individual as the spirit of unity bonded them to one another and the presenters.

By the end of the second day, several students struggled to find words that could completely capture all that they had experienced. At one point, when asked how they felt about their capacity for greatness, one young man remarked that he felt chills. This sentiment was shared by many of the participants at the conference, presenters included. Another young man simply said, “This changed my whole life.” Mr. Nolan reminded the young men that what took place over the two days was just a beginning.

As participant-observers at the conference, what we witnessed was truly a beginning, an awakening, and a call to demand more than the status quo in the education of children of color. We witnessed teaching that went beyond the often misappropriated concept of culturally relevant teaching which tends to ignore the spiritual needs and communal affinities inherent in students; we saw students’ senses of purpose ensuing, and we came to better understand transformative teaching and learning. This conference served as a powerful starting place for us to begin our work with the young men, emerging leaders of UMOJA. As scholars, our work with UMOJA will allow us to remain connected to the youth whom we are dedicated to serving while theorizing, challenging, and furthering pedagogies dedicated to improving outcomes for students of color.

UMOJA Network for Young Men

To fnd out how to become an intern with UMOJA Readers and Writers, click here.