Unlike some of our other highlights in this magazine, Umoja Writing Workshops is not an individual organization, but instead a program put on by Youth Works, an organization with a mission of helping homeless, runaway, trafficked and struggling youth throughout North Dakota. However, like the other organizations highlighted in this magazine,
Umoja Writing Workshops is making a real impact on our area’s youth. Umoja Writing Workshops is in its first year of a partnership with Fargo Public Schools. Its founders, J’Neil Gibson and Fred Edwards, created the program so that any eligible student can join. Umoja Writing Workshops help students grow in a positive direction by creating a sense of belonging, working on soft skills like vulnerability, empathy and expression, but most of all, developing a sense of unity. In fact, Umoja means unity in Swahili, and each session is opened with the students sharing lunch together.
“After the killing of George Floyd, we had a lot of BIPOC students expressing that they were angry to us at Youthworks,” said Gibson. “They were telling us that they wanted to express themselves in ways that we didn’t think were best or the most productive. So, we put our heads together and tried to find a better way for them to express themselves. We believe that using words, using poetry as a way to express sentiments is a much more productive way. Those are good avenues for expression on distrust, on hurt, on pain. Going out and reacting violently or in the wrong way won’t work out well for our youth. So, we decided to put together a writing workshop for our youth to express themselves that way.”
In addition to the writing portions of the workshop, which runs for two hours weekly at Fargo Davies, Fargo South and Fargo North High Schools and includes writing prompts on everything from daily experiences to creative writing, the program also creates a space where the participating students can express their culture through the way they speak.
“Everyone in that class looks similar to each other,” said Edwards referring to the Umoja group at Davies High school. “In this program, they have teachers that look similar to them. We talk the language that the students speak. We reach them where they are.”
Prior to the workshop portion of the meetings, the kids also have the opportunity to play the music that they like
“If I go to work, I have a job to do and that job might not involve expressing myself,” said Gibson. “This program is an opportunity for kids to express themselves for two hours a day.”
While it takes more than a couple months’ worth of data to get worthwhile qualitative and quantitative results from a program, Gibson is already seeing a positive impact with truancy rates and conflicts among students. “While we aren’t sure yet about the program’s impact on confrontations,
that is one thing that we are definitely tracking,” said Gibson. “There was actually one instance where a white student at the school posted a video of herself saying the N-Word five times. The video went viral. Instead of a fight breaking out, our group held a meeting and decided to bring the student into the fold and teach them about their culture. This also caused two of the students to start a People of Color group to teach others about their culture.”
In fact, as of recently, a low truancy rate is a requirement of staying in the program itself. Participating students also have to maintain certain academic standards to stay involved in the program.
This is all aimed at pursuing positive change in the group’s participating population which they hope will also have increased motivation to get involved in other programs.
“The majority of students in Umoja weren’t participating in any group before joining the program,” said Gibson. “So with them joining the program, we’re already making an impact. But we hope that more of our students will get involved with positive things like sports, other programs or maybe even start their own program like our two students who started the POC program.” To help Umoja continue its mission in 2022 and beyond, visit youthworknd.org to donate.
ABOUT YOUTH WORKS
YouthWorks is an organization whose mission is to help homeless, runaway, trafficked and struggling youth throughout North Dakota. The 501(c) (3) nonprofit agency has locations in fargo and Bismarck which serve the surrounding counties as well. Most of the services are free, and when there is a charge it is based on a family’s ability to pay.