South Mpls nonprofit champions Black excellence

Titilayo Bediako Stephenetta Harmon/MSR News

While many parents prepare their children for a healthy and safe adulthood, most Black children — particularly Black boys — are getting a different kind of talk. Not about life and sexuality, but about life and survival. Almost every day, news media show how recurring clips of “hands up,” “hoodies,” and “can’t breathe” can mean death and violence toward Black males.

In the midst of these messages, it is reassuring to know there are resources that show youth how important it is to understand how and why Black lives do matter. Equally important, our young people need to realize how self-respect and social responsibility begin with them.

For the last 20 years, WE WIN Institute founder Titilayo Bediako has been helping youth do just that by taking pride in their cultural heritage and learning to be emotionally and intellectually equipped for responsible adulthood.

From the moment a child enters her South Minneapolis nonprofit, they are introduced to a whole new assemblage of people of African descent: leaders, scientists, artists, inventors, and entrepreneurs.

So far, the program has reached over 5,000 students from kindergarten to 12th grade in the past 20 years. Most students are of African descent though, Bediako shares, all children are welcome.

The need for culturally appropriate lessons

Early in her career – prior to launching WE WIN – Bediako taught at Lyndale Elementary where many of the students were from around Lake Harriet, Lake Calhoun and Lake of the Isles. She was one of only two Black women teachers. She believed that introducing students to the Kwanzaa celebration could contribute to a better appreciation of society’s cultural diversity.

“It started out as a classroom project, but the children loved it so much it turned into a school-wide celebration,” said Bediako. The Kwanzaa classroom lesson went on to expand throughout Minneapolis Public Schools. “We had as many as eight different Minneapolis schools being a part of it,” she recalled.

Although her fellow Lyndale teachers appeared to embrace the cultural celebration, Bediako found they were working hard to undermine its success, claiming Kwanzaa was a religious celebration.

“It absolutely was not,” she said. “Even though they were celebrating Christmas, they kept trying to stop Kwanzaa from happening.” Faculty assumed that using red, black, and green streamers would show Black parents how the school appreciated Kwanzaa and satisfy Black parents.

But it wasn’t about displaying decorations, said Bediako. “It had everything to do with the children and their own enthusiasm.”

Bediako also encountered other challenges in cultural approach in the school.

In one instance, Bediako witnessed what she deemed “unacceptable” discipline by a teacher toward a group of African American boys.

“There were three Black boys from my class, and one of the teachers was yelling at them, the teacher said to ‘stop acting like wild animals.’ I just stood there and didn’t say anything.”

When that teacher complained that Bediako failed to support her in disciplining the students, Bediako said that she, indeed, had supported the teacher.

“I didn’t say anything to her in terms of the way that she was talking to those children,” she stated.

Bediako said she went on to explain how the teacher’s actions showed a lack of understanding of African American history. “It was a whole history of how we have [been] narrowly compared to animals and treated like animals.”

How it got started

Bediako first began the experiential, culturally centered academic lessons in 1999 at Sanford Middle School with 25 African American teen boys. Later, three more classes were added.

“It was never [about] academics, which it should have been,” admitted Bediako.

“[It was] not that we were so great, [the school] just wanted a place to put our boys. We gladly took the challenge because we wanted to show what was possible academically and socially, [if our children] had the support they needed.”

Students would learn firsthand about the Transatlantic African slave trade. In one activity students lined up closely, then bent down for five minutes. Students became uncomfortable, asking if she was trying to kill them.“I told them that was just for five minutes. Could you imagine doing that for three months?”

Another activity helped students to gain a better understanding of the intolerable conditions by making slave ships from cardboard boxes. Students then fit themselves into those ships.

She proudly noted the results: 57 percent reduction in student detentions, an increased rate of attendance, and reduction in tardiness.

But, “the teachers hated it,” said Bediako. “They didn’t have control of the narrative.”

Bediako took a leave of absence to continue the program in her spare time at home. Eventually, it took more and more of her time and that was when she knew it was time to create the organization.

Building a legacy

Today, WE WIN offers a well-rounded teaching approach with field trips, a children’s community garden to grow and sell their own produce, and professionals who visit the program to share their skills using African dances and drumming.

Academic and behavioral skills are reinforced with the “Rites of Passage” program to learn discipline, leadership, and positive values; and the “Men and Women of Distinction” program, where mentors help students to learn social values and to encourage a commitment to academic achievement.

The program’s success is evidenced by a reduction in tardiness, unexcused absences, and the reduction in truancies. It also helps reconnect students with their cultural heritage.

“Even though a lot of us call ourselves African American, we don’t want to have an association with Africa,” observed Bediako. “Even some of the staff we work with don’t see themselves as African when they start out, but they do when they leave.”

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