This piece was written by Cara Valentino, Senior Manager of the Racial Justice and Equity Program and shared with RTI staff. The opinions expressed in this piece are her own.
I remember it like it was yesterday – the first time RTI’s Black Employee Resource Group (the “BERG”) decided to host a Kwanzaa event at RTI. Kwanzaa is an African American and Pan-African holiday celebrated by millions throughout the world African community and brings a cultural message which speaks to the best of what it means to be African and human in the fullest sense.
The BERG leaders and I were all nervous because we weren’t sure how our celebration would be received. We chose to set up a large, colorful, multi-table display in our main cafeteria, and a smaller display in our mini-cafeteria in another building. We were concerned that it would be awkward – how could we encourage our colleagues to visit the tables we planned to set up?
The planning period was a beautiful time of living the Nguzo Saba, or the seven principles of Kwanzaa, which are: Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work & Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity), and Imani (Faith). We were unified and determined in our intention to share ourselves and our culture with our workplace, and we did this collectively. We were purposeful in our planning – some pooling resources to bake cookies and purchase chocolates to entice our colleagues, while others brought their favorite African art and fabrics for decorations. Our intent was to be as creative as possible, creating handouts explaining each of the seven principles, and dressing in colorful African clothing…with full faith that we had something of value to share and that it would be well received. Yet, we were still nervous.
That first year, we offered baked goods and chocolates to our colleagues who were on their way to lunch and included the mini flyers of the seven principles. Most of our table visitors were Black people, many of whom visibly and noticeably lit up at the display – eyes shining brightly, huge smiles on their faces, and obviously happy to see something of the culture brought into work, to feel a space of belonging.
But we still felt an underlying awkwardness about how to connect Kwanzaa to our work here at RTI. How could we articulate the value of Kwanzaa beyond the obvious value of bringing our whole selves to work, for an hour?
I remember exactly when it hit me – it was performance review time, and I was in a hurry to clean up after the event so I could go write my self-assessment. As I worked with my colleagues to put things away, I noticed that all the cookies and chocolates were gone, but an abundance of the mini-flyers of the seven principles remained - abandoned and in disarray. I felt heartbroken that the true offering had been overlooked. But in that moment, as my heart sank, I could also see that each of the seven principles related to the leadership competencies we are expected to develop and grow as part of our performance management process at RTI. The one that had been evidenced in the planning that was most obvious to me was the connection between Umoja (Unity) and Collaboration.