Kuumba Kids is the Arts Council's signature arts program for urban kids. Kuumba is pronounced "koo - oomba" and means "creativity" in Swahili.
A key goal of the community's Cultural Development Plan, announced in 1995, became "to build collaborations between the arts and community development." Inherent in this goal was the need to convince community leaders about the role that the arts could play in impacting issues such as youth development that traditionally were met only by social service agencies.
The Arts Council developed a grant application to the National Endowment for the Arts. Conceived as "Artists in the Neighborhood," the program received a $40,000 start-up grant from the Endowment in early 1995. The Arts Council chose to work with the Southwest Area Neighborhood Association (SWAN), which had a strong record in initiating programs for young people. SWAN's area of service comprised census tracts 64 and 66, which have the following demographics: $14,000 median household income; 94 percent African-American residents; 26 percent of households headed by single mothers with children under 18 years. Over 97 percent of the children who live in the area live below the federal poverty level.
The Arts Council issued a request for proposals from local professional artists to design and implement a comprehensive curriculum using the arts to reach at-risk youth. A neighborhood team interviewed five groups of artists. The strongest proposal was submitted by a group headed by a theater artist, Delores Jackson Radney, and a dancer and choreographer, Clyde Morgan.
Radney and Morgan are accomplished African-American artists who proposed to base a performing arts curriculum around the principles of Kwanzaa. Their focus was kuumba, or creativity.
The program was
formally launched in the fall of 1995 as an after-school opportunity for
40 children between the ages of seven and 15. The venue was a neighborhood
school in southwest Rochester.
SWAN, the neighborhood
association, provides direct links to the young people and their families.
SWAN is responsible for recruitment of kids and community volunteers and
site identification. It also provides referrals to an array of community
resources for those children who need assistance with family or school
All activities are tuition-free and open to all children. Most children have been in the seven to 11 year old age bracket. Although the majority (95 percent) are African-American, low-income children from Hispanic, Native American and Caucasian families also participate. Families and neighbors accompany the young people on field trips, help with costumes and refreshments at public performances, and participate in program evaluation.
The after-school program includes a transition time for snacks, homework, and visual art activity. The summer camp includes instruction in visual arts, including ceramics, mask-making and collage; snacks and lunch (virtually all of the participants qualify for free lunches).
The after-school program was based at public school #4 until the spring of 1999, when it transferred to a new southwest community center, managed by SWAN, at a new middle school several blocks away. The move has enabled us to more effectively target the 12 to15 year old age group.
The Kuumba Kids learn West African and Afro-Brazilian dance, as well as African drumming. In drama, the curriculum includes voice and diction, character development, improvisation, theater games, and play readings.
The Kuumba Kids experience a holistic embracing of African-American culture. The dance, music, storytelling, crafts, literature and visual arts reflect the African Diaspora. The children integrate the language and culture into their families, neighborhoods and peer groups. One summer, a group of teen Kuumba Kids named their summer camp group Watoto Imani, "children of faith" in the Swahili language.
Each Kuumba Kids session culminates with an original performance of dance and drama, created by the kids in collaboration with the artists, with themes that build pride in African-American culture. Many are transformation stories. Productions directed by Radney and choreographed by Morgan have included:
The ABC Black History
Rap, originally conceived by an artist in Buffalo, is the Kuumba Kids'
During the first
three years, the Arts Council consulted with an evaluator from Rochester's
Primary Mental Health Project to create appropriate evaluation tools.
Participants and their parents completed pre and post self-administered
surveys and interviews.
For the last two years, the Arts Council has worked closely with a team of evaluators headed by Dr. Michael Mason of the University of Rochester. The evaluation methodology includes self-reported measures, parental reports, teacher reports, and direct observation by the evaluating team. Comparative statistics on Kuumba Kids and non-Kuumba Kids from the same environment are compiled.
The Kuumba Kids demonstrate increases in self-esteem, interpersonal relations, adaptability, and leadership competencies over comparison groups. (Adaptability assesses the ability to adjust to changes in routine and new teachers, to shift from one task to another, and to share toys or possessions with other children. Leadership assesses behaviors associated with school and community.) The increase in the self-esteem of girls is statistically significant. Parents or guardians participating in the evaluation observed a reduction in attention problems of their children, and an increase in perceived adaptability, social skills, and leadership. Third grade teachers observed that the Kuumba Kids had lower social withdrawal, lower attention problems, higher adaptability, higher social skills and higher leadership scores as contrasted with the comparison children.
These findings support earlier data for the program. The noted behavioral changes are all markers of success for these at-risk children as they move through school.