This local organization gives children a voice

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Unlike some of our other highlights in this magazine, Umoja Writing Workshops is not an individual organization, but rather a program run by Youth Works, an organization whose mission is to help homeless, runaway youth , trafficked and struggling throughout North Dakota. However, like the other organizations featured in this magazine,

Umoja’s writing workshops have a real impact on young people in our region. Umoja Writing Workshops is in its first year of partnering with Fargo Public Schools. Its founders, J’Neil Gibson and Fred Edwards, created the program so that any eligible student could 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 importantly, developing a sense of unity. In fact, Umoja means unity in Swahili, and each session is open with the students sharing lunch together.

“After the murder of George Floyd, we had a lot of BIPOC students telling us they were angry with Youthworks,” Gibson said. “They were telling us that they wanted to express themselves in a way that we didn’t think was the best or the most productive. So we thought together and tried to find a better way for them to express themselves. We think using words, using poetry as a way to express feelings is a much more productive way. These are good ways to express mistrust, hurt, pain. Going out and reacting violently or in the wrong way will not work well for our young people. We have therefore decided to set up a writing workshop so that our young people can express themselves in this way.

In addition to the writing portions of the workshop, which runs two hours a week at Fargo Davies, Fargo South, and Fargo North High Schools and includes writing prompts on everything from everyday experiences to creative writing, the program also creates a space where participating students can express their culture through the way they speak.

“Everyone in this class looks alike,” Edwards said, referring to Davies High School‘s Umoja band. “In this program, they have teachers who look like them. We speak the language that the students speak. We reach them where they are.

Before the workshop part of the meetings, the children also have the opportunity to play the music they like

“If I’m going to work, I have a job to do and that job may not involve speaking out,” Gibson said. “This program is an opportunity for children to express themselves for two hours a day.”

IMPACT

Although it takes more than a few months of data to get meaningful qualitative and quantitative results from a program, Gibson is already seeing a positive impact on truancy rates and student conflict. “Although we are not yet sure of the impact of the program on matchups,

it’s something we’re definitely tracking,” Gibson said. “There was actually an 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 breaking out into a fight, our group held a meeting and decided to bring the student into the fold and teach him about his culture, this also led two of the students to start a people of color group to teach others about their culture.

In fact, recently a low truancy rate has been a requirement for staying in the program itself. Participating students must also maintain certain academic standards to remain involved in the program.

This is all aimed at continuing a positive change in the group’s participating population who, he hopes, will also have increased motivation to get involved in other programs.

“The majority of Umoja students didn’t participate in any groups before joining the program,” Gibson said. “So with their joining the program, we are already having an impact. But we hope that more of our students will get involved in 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 make a donation.

ABOUT YOUTH WORKS

YouthWorks is an organization whose mission is to help homeless, runaway, trafficked, and troubled youth throughout North Dakota. The 501(c)(3) nonprofit agency has offices in Fargo and Bismarck that also serve surrounding counties. Most services are free, and when paid, they are based on the family’s ability to pay.

Fred Edwards throwing candy to children.

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