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It Takes a Village

We often hear the African proverb, it takes a village to raise a child, but what does that really mean? And is childrearing the only thing that requires the entire village?

One of our guiding principles at Maggie’s Village is represented by the Adinkra symbol, Akoma Ntoaso, which literally translates to “linked hearts” and represents the interconnectedness, unity, and harmony within communities. It is also the Kwanzaa symbol for the principle of Collective Work and Responsibility. In other words… it takes a village.

Tema Okun identifies individualism as a characteristic of white supremacy culture in her paper of the same title. She describes it as the belief and cultural assumption that “we make it on our own (or should), without help, while pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps.” She adds that “our cultural attachment to individualism leads to a toxic denial of our essential interdependence and the reality that we are all in this, literally, together.” Individualism harms communities. It is the ammunition used by those whose goal is to divide and conquer and it feeds the notion that excellence or genius is a rarity, rather than being a quality that we all possess in different forms. Because white supremacy culture is so pervasive, its characteristics can manifest in anyone, regardless of race or ethnicity. When individualism is embedded in the definition of success, it places value on competition over collaboration, it says there is one winner and many losers, and it fosters a scarcity mindset. While in reality, most accomplishments have been achieved by bringing together the knowledge and skills of many…even when credit is not shared with all who contributed.

Artwork entitled Ujima Steps by Marcus Kwame.

You can purchase this and his other artwork at his Etsy store.

Embracing “it takes a village” is acknowledging the value of our interconnectedness and rejecting the external influence to separate ourselves from our roots and our community. It is accepting that we are an extension of our legacy and rejecting the idea that we are starting from scratch. It is embracing the value of our collective gifts and resisting the notion that doing things alone is required for success. It kills comparison and ignites cooperation. Living out the village mindset is like attending a potluck – everyone brings something to the table, and everyone eats. Whether your offering is the main dish, side dish, or plates, it is essential to the full benefit that the meal provides. There is no hierarchy of the value of the individual offerings. Instead, there is acknowledgement and appreciation of the fact that the collective offerings have much more value than any individual offering alone.

"I Am Because We Are"

This is not to say that who we are as individuals disappears within the community. Instead, our interdependence values the differences of individuals as part of what makes the community whole. We need each other. No one person has all the gifts, skills, or knowledge, but collectively we have everything we need in the village. Similarly, we don’t turn a blind eye to the suffering of others in the village. We realize that one person’s problem affects everyone, and one person’s success is linked to our collective success. We accept the responsibility of cultivating our individual talents and using them towards the overall wellbeing of the community. We also own our role in shared accountability and benefit from collective support. The concept of “it takes a village” is the embodiment of the African philosophy of Ubuntu, which comes from the Zulu phrase umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu (translated as “a person is a person through other people”). Another way of phrasing it is “I am because we are”.

"Without community, there is no liberation."

Audre Lorde

The village is also needed because liberation is not an individual pursuit; it requires community. As civil rights leader, Fannie Lou Hamer said, “nobody’s free until everybody’s free”. Individualism tries to convince us that we can work alone to escape the oppressive systems that weaken communities, while collective work and responsibility shows us that only unified action can dismantle harmful systems that keep people oppressed. The freedom that comes from full access to social and economic opportunities requires both an increase in shared resources within the village as well as a unified defense against external attempts at destruction. The freedom to exist in this world unapologetically, as our full authentic self without consequence, requires a collective resistance against the boxes that others try to put us in, and an acceptance and appreciation of the ways others’ authenticity shows up differently than our own. There is individual work for us all to do, but with a collective purpose.

This work is not just that of the people in the village, but also the organizations that are embedded within the community. When organizations whose mission it is to serve do so in silos, they miss opportunities to provide holistic support alongside other organizations. When there is competition over resources rather than sharing of resources, they create shortage rather than abundance. When they demonstrate the same power structure that is embedded in white supremacy culture, but masked as charity, they cause harm. Working together amplifies impact. Additionally, any work done in the community, must include the community as leaders and thought partners, not just recipients of service. Lilla Watson said it best; “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

"If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together"

Lilla Watson

“It takes a village” is not just a saying, it is a call to action. It is a reminder to reconnect to what makes us whole. Yes, it takes a village to raise a child. The village provides wisdom, love and support to the children AND the parents, but it doesn’t end with children. It takes a village to nurture healthy families. It takes a village to provide high-quality affirming and culturally relevant education. It takes a village to build strong local economies. It takes a village to defend against oppressive forces that attempt to dismantle the village. It takes a village to sustain the movement towards liberation for all.

In closing, let’s reflect on this sculpture that sits in the lobby of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, TN called Movement to Overcome. The sculpture depicts a steep mountain with many people climbing it. People are at different levels of the mountain, but they all are connected to someone else – some are holding others to keep them from falling, others are reaching out for help, some are carrying the young on their backs, while others are pointing the way forward. Many are standing on the shoulders of others. Our individual journeys are part of a collective movement. Not only with those who are walking beside us, but also with those who’ve come before us and those who will come after us. This work takes a village. We are the village.

National Civil Rights Museum Lobby, Memphis, TN.

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