Over the past few years, one of my favorite regular events has been the Annual Gala of the Kúkátónón Children’s African Dance Troupe. This amazing organization, founded by the amazing Rolia Manyongai-Jones, blends heritage, social justice, health, and teamwork into a dazzling tapestry of motion and music.
The mission of Kúkátónón is “to inspire confidence, commitment and vitality among the children in the dance troupe; and to broaden awareness of African and African American cultural traditions throughout Oregon.” To these ends, the Troupe teaches children traditional dance and music, engaging them in cultural awareness. An awareness much appreciated by alumni and now present board member Lionel Clegg who reflects upon his time in the troupe: “there were no groups out there that celebrated African culture or taught us about our heritage.”
Currently, all of the troupe members are African, African American or multi-racial; all the dancers and most of the drummers are girls. Approximately 80% of the members are from low-income families. Kúkátónón is dedicated to addressing the needs of black youth in Portland and altering racial disparities through a holistic approach: dance, drumming, culture, art, and identity.
As an exciting, dynamic program, Kúkátónón also meets many needs of its participants. Afterschool programs are essential to keep kids safe, engage children in enriching activities, and give peace of mind to parents during the out-of-school hours. They also help improve students’ academic performance, school attendance, behavior and health, and support working families. More than fifteen years of research points to how youth who participate in after-school – and summer – programs demonstrate increased academic achievement, better school attendance, and have fewer disciplinary actions such as suspension and expulsion. Programs such as Kúkátónón also address improved social and emotional outcomes such as decreased depression and anxiety, reduction in risky behaviors, and improved health and wellness. I must confess, I so appreciate looking at Kúkátónón as a health equity venture. My hope is we will open larger discussions around racial disparities and health inequities and how we as a community can do more to support our youth of color.
Sixty-one percent of African-American parents say they would enroll their children if programs were available compared to 38 %of parents in general; 28% of African-American children have no adult supervision after school and are responsible for taking care of themselves during the afternoon hours. Kúkátónón fulfills a critical social justice mission in our community by helping meet these needs.
The need is especially acute for African-American girls. As noted in the Unlocking Opportunity Report, these girls face significant barriers to educational attainment, including lack of access to quality educational opportunities; pervasive racial and gender stereotypes that affect the decision-making of school leaders and educators; discriminatory discipline practices that disproportionately push them out of school; high rates of exposure to sexual harassment and violence; juvenile justice system involvement; and lack of support for those who are pregnant or parenting while still in school. These systemic educational barriers and challenges produce life-long economic obstacles, such as limited job opportunities, lower earnings, and disproportionate representation among those in poverty. As a result, African American girls are uniquely vulnerable to a “School-to-Poverty Pathway.” By building skills in teamwork and collaboration while building self-esteem and confidence, Kúkátónón gives its students a stronger chance to overcome these obstacles.
The benefits of arts learning are both immediate and long-term. Students are engaged, animated, thinking and working together as they learn about art through art. Young people who are highly engaged in the arts are also more likely to thrive later on, earn higher grades, graduate from high school and college, volunteer, vote, and participate in politics at school and in their community. An investment in Kúkátónón’s arts learning program is an investment in the health and well-being of our children, and a unique cultural resource.
How can we help? I’m so glad you asked. It is really quite easy. Click here to donate and to look at Kúkátónón’s website. While you’re there, don’t forget to buy your tickets now for this year’s Gala on Saturday, February 14.