Sky-high unemployment, disproportional incarceration rates, too much involvement in the criminal justice system and the resulting inability to find gainful employment; a poverty rate of more than 25 percent-these are just some of the economic realities that stare African Americans starkly in the face.
As the Christmas holiday season continues and those who celebrate Kwanzaa prepare their activities, there is probably no better time for Black people to take at look at their collective economic situation. The picture is not pretty.
But there are solutions–not-get-it-done yesterday-answers but help none-the-less, and one of the first places people might want consider looking to is the seven principles of Kwanzaa called the Nguzo Saba.

And one of the most appropriate principles that could potentially be applied is Ujamaa (cooperative economics).

“The world Ujamaa comes from . . . Swahili and means familyhood. The idea behind it when Dr. (Maulana) Karenga organized the principles was the communal concept that societal wealth belongs to the people. It means that we should treat each other as family, and approach each other like we would someone in our family,” explained Chimbuko Tembo, assistant director of the African American Cultural Center.

The center is also home to the founder of Kwanzaa.

Tembo explained that if African Americans treat one another like family that means working together, sharing the wealth and joining forces to help the most vulnerable in the community.

“From there you go to the idea of maintaining our own stores, shops and other businesses and profiting from them together,” said Tembo, adding that this also requires paying a fair wage, not exploiting others and having standards by which you operate.

Akile of Kwanzaa People of Color, the group which hosts the parade and festival each year, believes that African Americans must think in terms of developing networks similar to those developed as the Underground Railroad during slavery.

“We need to have a strong underpinning within the community. Not that we want to be a hermit, but we need to be as self-sufficient as we can be,” said Akile, who calls himself a cultural technician. “We need to be seriously in the business of creating a medium of educating our children, educating our adults. And not just for scholastics but for survival.”

Think of in terms of what happens, if there were an earthquake, advises Akile. Are we going to be standing in long lines in need or are we going to be able take care of ourselves?

Akile believes that developing that self-sufficiency starts, in part, with people building a foundation on improving themselves.

Like Tembo, he stresses creation of our own institutions within the community.

In fact, Akile is a master gardener, and through collaborations with other organizations is teaching people to grow their own food.

“We (also) have a handyman service, and we teach people who want to learn how to do plumbing, electrical work, carpentry, and whatever it takes to build a building. We have an association of handymen and skilled crafts people to do everything from putting in a foundation to putting on a roof,” Akile pointed out.

There are numerous other entities within the Black community that have begun to re-practice cooperative economics-something that we had historically done.

Several of these organizations are based in Leimert Park. For example, Lucy Florence Cultural Center could, in many senses, be considered a business incubator. In addition to serving food, hosting theatrical events and art shows. The center is also currently home to four entrepreneurial businesses that range from a facial salon to a home interiors retailer.

Across from Lucy Florence on the southwest side of the street, Aminah Muhammad and six other women joined forces to open a retail space called the Sister’s Marketplace.

Muhammad, who for the years operated Queen Aminah’s Clothing-first in Inglewood, then in the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza and now in Leimert Park-has taken the collective cooperative economics concept she learned as one of the vendors in the now-closed African Marketplace Export Import Center and created The Sisters Marketplace.

Seven different women combined forces in 2009 to offer products and services in one location. “We came together in unity so expenses would be lower, and we could use more money for marketing and advertising,” explained Muhammad.

Ujamaa is a simple concept, but Tembo said it must begin with changing mindsets where people think as a caring, familial collective designed with the best intentions for everybody.

So, as you celebrate Christmas and Kwanzaa this year, take a moment to really think about how you can apply the Nguzo Saba, particularly Ujamaa to your life to make it better.