Kwanzaa, a Swahili-based word that means "first" and signifies the first fruits of the harvest, is a week-long celebration that honors African heritage and values in African-American culture and is observed from December 26 to January 1. While some think of Kwanzaa as a celebration that only takes place during the December holidays, many in the Black community are committed to living and carrying the principles of Kwanzaa throughout the year. As a celebration of family, community and culture, Kwanzaa uplifts the ongoing struggle for freedom and the reclamation of African culture and values. My late mother, Harlem educator extraordinaire Vernita Crawford, was vigilant about celebrating Kwanzaa and teaching her children, family and students the seven Kwanzaa principles (called the Nguzo Saba). I stand on her shoulders in this regard and look forward to celebrating Kwanzaa with my family, friends and community each year. I incorporate the Nguzo Saba into my life and work throughout the year, and I’ve been thinking about new ways to continue to invest in my community in this year.
One of the ways that I have been investing in my community over the last several years is through my work at Cal Wellness. Through our HIV/STI Initiative, we are funding a public awareness campaign, Upspoken, which provides a safe, culturally-tailored internet and social media space for Black women to build power and strength from each other in the spirit of the Kwanzaa principles Umoja (unity) and Kujichagulia (self-determination). Since the holiday season can be a challenging time for many women, I felt it was important for me to spend significant time during the holiday break promoting our HIV/STI initiative public awareness campaign. As a result of Upspoken’s social media activity, women were inspired, informed, engaged and encouraged by reading the posts and comments. We reached hundreds of new followers over the holiday season and in early 2019. More than 1,000 new women joined our digital communities via Facebook, bringing our follower total to 4,700 strong. In addition to Facebook, Upspoken’s presence on Instagram and Twitter continues to grow, as we reach new women on those platforms. Upspoken’s next steps for 2019 will involve the launch of a toolkit that will support women in accessing and sharing important information about women’s empowerment, including relationships, love and sexual health. It was a privilege to help grow the Upspoken campaign in this past year and I look forward to seeing the campaign build even more momentum in 2019.
In the spirit of Kuumba (creativity) as well as the legacy of the intersection between the arts and activism in the Black community, over the holidays I also celebrated the 60th Anniversary of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater by attending several Ailey performances in New York City. Both the Director of Production and Rehearsal Director of the Ailey Company were born and raised in South Los Angeles and have a passion for their home city/state as well as for important issues like HIV/STI prevention. In light of the major impact of HIV/AIDS on the dance community, there is a powerful synergy between the Ailey Company, Upspoken and the HIV/STI Initiative.
The power of the arts to promote important messages and to serve as a conduit of social change is undeniable. During this 60th Anniversary performance, Ailey premiered the company's first two-act ballet in Ailey history. Titled “Lazarus,” it is powerfully rooted and grounded in social justice, advocacy and equity. When I saw the ballet over the holiday break, it literally left me speechless and I am still thinking about it continually. I have never experienced via dance such a brilliant and profound exploration of the pursuit of racial justice. Lazarus causes us all to examine where we are in our belief in and pursuit of racial equity. The piece challenges us to take our commitment and efforts to the next level. The choreographer, Rennie Harris, who founded the first and longest running hip-hop touring company, was a Guggenheim Fellowship recipient and also a winner of three Bessie Awards. He is an artistic genius. When the Ailey Company performs in California this spring, I urge you to see them perform this ballet.
In the spirit of the Kwanzaa principle Ujima (which means collective work and responsibility), this labor of love helped advance the work of the HIV/STI initiative. We must continue to work collectively with allies across the nation to effectively move forward the gender equity, health and social justice work to which we are committed.