Tuning the rhythm of life to the key of progress
Rhythm. That is a word that employment coach Stevenson Morgan uses frequently to describe the work of Ujamaa Place. Ujamaa evolves “with the rhythm of the young men that [it serves], the rhythm of the community.” Ujamaa was formed in 2013 in recognition of an urgent need for services for young Black men with a history of contact with the Minnesota criminal justice system. The organization’s work initially focused on education, supporting young Black men in obtaining GEDs. But Ujamaa’s mission has evolved over time–“with the rhythm” of the Ujamaa men themselves.
The core of Ujamaa’s work is what the organization terms the Individual Transformation Plan and high-contact coaching. When young men come to Ujamaa, they are often suffering from housing insecurity, lack of employment, and recent experiences with arrest or incarceration. They are also dealing with the reverberations of centuries of racial discrimination embedded in the nation’s social, economic, political, and educational systems. In consultation with a coach, Ujamaa men lay out the steps they want to achieve in their personal transformations. They are then encouraged and mentored as they advance along an individualized plan at their own pace. Ujamaa’s high-contact coaching model ensures that every man has the support he needs during every step along that journey. It is also what allows the coaches to stay in tune with the “rhythm” of the community, responsive to the individual desires and needs of each Ujamaa man.
Since its inception, Ujamaa Place has taken on a more holistic character. Instead of one pillar of work, there are now four: education has been joined by employment, housing, and wellness. Even within education, Ujamaa has substantially broadened the scope of its services. The organization now offers tutoring and preparation the GED, college courses, and even the state driver’s license exam. Under the pillar of employment, staff perform career readiness assessments, offer a robust catalog of courses, and connect men to job opportunities. In terms of housing, Ujamaa operates a number of houses where participants can live safely and comfortably as they move through their personal transformations. Wellness entails coaching around mental health, trauma, and personal care, with connections to psychiatrists when appropriate. Says Morgan, “People identified what they needed,” and Ujamaa Place answered.
Many of Ujamaa’s most innovative programs and remarkable successes have emerged out of that responsiveness. Ujamaa’s driver’s license course was developed in response to a clearly expressed need. Morgan also runs a stipend program that incentivizes employers to hire Ujamaa men by subsidizing on-the-job training. A few years ago, Ujamaa started a film club with the individual who owns Twin Cities Media. Last year, staff formed the Ujamaa music group for men who expressed an interest in or talent for music. Since then, the group has performed all over the Twin Cities, including at Paisley Park and the Minnesota State Fair. Driving, music, training, film: all interests expressed by the Ujamaa men, now opportunities to cultivate artistry and expertise.
Such programs are also part of a flourishing and multifaceted entrepreneurship program under the education pillar. Ujamaa Place has formed a fruitful partnership with NDC and Thrive, hosting the Ujamaanomics 2021 Hackathon, which awarded a cash prize and business development to the “most innovative concept which serves to transform the lives” of young Black men. Another enterprise that emerged from the entrepreneurship program, a restaurant, has been going strong for two years. Developed in response to unmet needs and unrealized ambitions, such successful and innovative programs encourage creativity, dedication,and joy among Ujamaa participants. Above all, they encourage hope.
The work can sometimes be heavy, but Ujamaa’s focus on the men’s “transformation” evokes a fundamental optimism. “Through all of our pillars,” Morgan says, “is that independence, courage, and confidence.” The culture of community built at Ujamaa Place is a big part of nurturing that courage and confidence. As Morgan puts it: “We provide that brotherhood, that sense of family. You feel the love when you walk through the door.”