The first Plugged In episode is now live and features Ujima Language and Literacy founder, Dr. Shurita Thomas-Tate and Board Chairperson, Monica M. Horton, MPA. Ujima is a local nonprofit organization with the goal to provide opportunities to increase language and literacy skills for all children, ages birth-11 years old. Keep reading the show notes below to learn about the organization, who they serve and how you can plug into the great work they do.
Dr. Shurita Thomas-Tate has been a professor at Missouri State University for nine years specializing in language and literacy and cultural linguistic diversity for the department of Communication Sciences and Disorders. Dr. Thomas-Tate is also a first year board member for Springfield Public Schools. Monica Horton is the founder and owner of Lenica Consulting Group, LLC, a company in Springfield that takes leaders and work teams through a process of visioning strategy and engagement to achieve maximum results. Horton is also a professor at Drury University in the Music Therapy department. She enjoys working in the community with Black History Summer Academy, the Mayor’s Commission for Children, her board membership with Leadership Springfield and Ujima Language and Literacy.
“Ujima is a nonprofit organization,” describes Monica, “that rallies around early childhood literacy to educate, connect and empower families one diverse children’s book at a time.” Monica’s role with the organization is first and foremost a parent. Five years ago when Monica’s daughter was in kindergarten, she wanted to instill her love for books into her daughter. Now, Monica’s daughter affectionately refers to Ujima as her book club. Monica had only been in Springfield for two years at the time, and she wanted to make sure her daughter found a community with other children of color as well as rally around literacy, specifically a wide selection of children’s books where the protagonist and authors were people of color. This contributed greatly towards her daughter’s racial identity development and self-esteem. “We can foster those conversations through children’s books,” states Monica.
Ujima started in 2015, but the organization officially became a 501(c)(3) last year, retroactive 2017. The mission and vision were developed in 2019 with a goal to create a movement surrounding early childhood literacy, kindergarten readiness and third grade reading proficiency for children of all backgrounds. Children attend family literacy nights as well as the literacy camp occurring for three weeks in July. Early childhood education and reading achievement gap are areas listed as red flags in the most recent Community Focus Report. Ujima helps address these red flags in our community.
Dr. Shurita Thomas-Tate began Ujima as a class project at Missouri State University. “It’s really important to me that my graduate students at Missouri State develop cultural competency in working with diverse populations,” says Dr. Thomas-Tate. Although she teaches this in her class, she realized that her students weren’t getting hands-on experience working with this population and practice those skills. She then decided to create a literacy fair at the Bartley-Decatur Neighborhood Center near Boyd Elementary School. Dr. Thomas-Tate went door-to-door to recruit students in this neighborhood to participate in this one-day literacy fair. Around the same time, the national NAACP was doing a program called NAACP Reads. These events sparked the idea for the inaugural Ujima literacy summer camp for this neighborhood in collaboration with Dr. Shurita Thomas-Tate, the local NAACP chapter and Springfield Public Schools. “I had no idea what Ujima would grow to be,” explains Dr. Thomas-Tate, “but I knew I had a passion for building language and literacy skills in kids as well as helping my graduate students have the opportunity to develop cultural competency skills.”
Ujima provides the opportunity for kids to take books home to build their home libraries. In collaboration with Unite Publication and Drury University’s Kids Corner, Ujima makes diverse book recommendations for the kids in the program to select. These organizations also collaborated to create at-home literacy activities for kids to do during COVID such as word searches and scramblers. Ujima encourages parents to engage with their children with these activities and family literacy nights, because research shows that children perform better academically when their parents read and engage with their children in language and literacy activities. Additionally, the Springfield-Greene County Library has attended family literacy nights to establish library cards for families that didn’t have one as well as wipe out late fees for families. This broke down the barrier for families to have access to the library system, and they have since seen an increase in these families accessing community libraries. Ujima is practicing social capital by building relationships in the community, watching them grow and being able to provide support long-term rather than just one specific academic purpose.
Ujima collaborates with many organizations in the Springfield community. One of Ujima’s fastest growing programs was with their baby groups. Ujima created a partnership with Springfield Public School’s Parents As Teachers program to support this early education experience. This is also a priority for the Springfield Public Schools district. Every Friday in July 2020, Ujima hosted Zoom Meetups. The organization collaborated with Rachel Johnson from the Springfield Regional Arts Council for the Zoom Meetups to engage the kids with music, dance, and art. This doubled their reach. They are now members of the Springfield Regional Arts Council as of December 2020. In February 2021, Ujima is collaborating with the MSU Gospel Choir under the direction of Robert T. Gibson for a Black History Month Concert. They will be weaving in vignettes from The Milly Projects under the direction of Kendra Chappell. This is a fundraiser benefitting Ujima, MSU Gospel Choir and The Milly Project.
Ujima wants to be a welcome wagon for diverse families in the community. Although it was never a goal to be an exclusively black organization, Dr. Thomas-Tate’s intention was to serve students who were marginalized and those who felt like they weren’t a priority within the district and needed additional support. Their goal is to provide resources and access to tools for these families. Families typically find Ujima through Facebook, the Ujima website and referrals from partner organizations.
Curious about how Ujima got their name? Dr. Shurita Thomas-Tate wanted a name that was meaningful to their mission and about working together for a common good. She has always valued the principles of Kwanza, and Ujima is one of these seven principles. According to cbs12.com, ujima is translated as “collective work and responsibility,” and refers to uplifting your community. Monica adds that Kwanza is a Swahili word meaning “first fruits of the harvest.” She says, “It means to build and maintain our community together and to make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems and to solve them together.” Dr. Thomas-Tate goes on to add, “Education is the problem and literacy is the solution.”
You can support Ujima in a variety of ways. Individuals can donate new or very gently used books, inquire about board service, sponsor a child to go through the Ujima summer camp or even donate a meal. Dr. Thomas-Tate recommends Maya’s Book Nook to find a curated list of minority-based books. Reach out to Ujima via email at [email protected], submit a message at www.ujimamo.org or connect on Facebook.
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