Youth Justice


The New Year is marked with many kinds of celebrations, but for Black families and communities who celebrate Kwanzaa from December 26-January 1, every New Year’s Day marks a renewed dedication to community. Kwanzaa is a unique celebration because it is not a religious or a national holiday but a cultural one, and it doesn’t celebrate a person or an event but a set of ideas. As Dr. Maulana Karenga, Kwanzaa’s founder, explains, “There is no way to understand and appreciate the meaning and message of Kwanzaa without understanding and appreciating its profound and pervasive concern with values. In fact, Kwanzaa’s reason for existence, its length of seven days, its core focus and its foundation are all rooted in its concern with values.” And the values Kwanzaa celebrates and asks people to live up to aren’t about individual private behavior, but the values a community needs to be strong and thrive.

The Nguzo Saba, or seven principles, are the framework of a Kwanzaa celebration. In fact, Dr. Karenga explains, they are the key building blocks of community in general. Each day during Kwanzaa focuses on one of these principles and reminds celebrants to recommit to that value: “Umoja (unity), to strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race. Kujichagulia (self-determination), to define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves. Ujima (collective work and responsibility), to build and maintain our community together and make our brother’s and sister’s problems our problems and to solve them together. Ujamaa (cooperative economics), to build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit from them together. Nia(purpose), to make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness. Kuumba (creativity), to do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it. And imani (faith), to believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.”

Not everyone celebrates Kwanzaa, but these values contain some universal principles for building strong communities. The Kwanzaa celebration ends on January 1 with the Day of Meditation. Many people already spend New Year’s Day making resolutions for improving themselves during the next year. But imagine if this year we all resolved to improve our communities instead. Imagine if every child in this nation were being raised in a community resolved to seeing any member’s problems as everyone’s problems and solving them together, or to making sure that all community members lived together harmoniously and supported each other in their common goals, or that every community decision would leave the community healthier and more beautiful tomorrow than it is today. What kinds of places would these communities be for our children—and, by extension, for all of us?

During a traditional Kwanzaa celebration muhindi, ears of corn, are also laid on a mkeke, a straw mat. The mat symbolizes African peoples’ history and traditions, and the corn symbolizes children and the future. Families place one ear of corn on the mkeke for each child in the household, but they’re instructed to put at least two ears down even if they don’t have children, because in African tradition every adult is considered a parent to every child in the community. Many people talk about this belief, but imagine if every one of us were really putting it into action—and then imagine if our local, national, and global communities all committed to making it our most important community value.

During that final Day of Meditation in Kwanzaa, people are supposed to ask themselves three questions: “Who am I? Am I really who I say I am? And am I all I ought to be?” Everyone answers these questions as an individual, but their answers should reflect how well they are playing their part in making their community function as a whole. A person’s success is deeply connected to how much value they are giving to others. At a time when our children desperately need adults to reweave the fabric of community for them, many of us need to ask ourselves the same questions. Think about how you might answer these questions—and how your own community might answer them, or how our nation would.

Are we all that we ought to be?