On a recent morning at Jordan Park School in North Minneapolis, about two dozen very squirrelly eighth graders are working out a dance routine for the upcoming Kwanzaa celebration.
The students, who are all African American, participate in an educational program sponsored by the We Win Institute. The institute is a non-profit organization that uses African-centered programs to help primarily, but not exclusively, African American students succeed in school and in their young lives.
"What Kwanzaa will help to show is that all of our children can shine," says Titilayo Bediako, director of the We Win Insititute.
The institute has been promoting Kwanzaa by producing celebrations with school children for the last 15 years. Kwanzaa was created 40 years ago by an African American college professor Ron Karenga, who designed it not as an alternative to Christmas, but as an opportunity for black Americans to gather with their families and reaffirm and commit to values formed by their African ancestors.
Kwanzaa celebrations focus on seven principles: unity, self determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.
Bediako says the students at Jordan Park are learning an important lesson about Ujima - the Swahili name for collective work and responsibility.
"They get graded in terms of their support and help in terms of other students in the class -- because if everyone in the class is not successful, the class has failed," says Bediako. "So, what our children are buying into is the notion that they are their brother's keeper."
Some of the kids are members of a girls group at the school called Sisters of the Ankh - a rites of passage program for girls.
"We been learning about the Swahili words and we've been learning about being a strong, black, powerful woman," says Keondra Mason, a pixie-like eighth grader.
Keondra says she enjoys learning about African and African American history and about Kwanzaa. She says her family started celebrating Kwanzaa years before she entered the program. She says on the first day of Kwanzaa, Dec. 26th, they focus on Umoja, or unity.
"You celebrate unity...and the stuff of that day about unity," says Mason. "And you light the candle and you drink and you do Kwanzaa stuff...You talk about the stories that honor our ancestors and everything and then it's the second day which is Kujichagulia, self determination and then you talk about that."
Titilayo Bediako says six of the eight schools participating in this year's Kwanzaa celebration are located in North Minneapolis. She says media coverage of crime in this part of the city casts a shadow over children who are already fighting negative stereotypes about African American youth. Bediako says she wants the display of talent on stage at the Pantages theater to send a message.
"...Not only to the city of Minneapolis, that we want you to be a part of the success of our children. But also the Minneapolis Public Schools, to say that we really need to put energy and resources into north Minneapolis schools and north Minneapolis children. So that our children shine."