A mom, advocating for her son, grows African American arts program

Harambee, now a Longfellow School staple, boosts belonging

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By Cassandra West

Hasani Cannon was about to start first grade when his mother wanted to know whether Oak Park's Longfellow School offered an African American history program. 

When Donna Callender heard the answer—no—she decided to put on a program herself.  Working with Longfellow's Parents of African American Children (PAAC), she launched Night at the Museum, an annual Black History Month program that flourished for several years at the school, 715 Highland Ave. 

Eventually, Callender rebranded the cultural arts program as Harambee, Swahili for "let's pull together."

"I wanted people to understand that we're all in this together as one community of people," Callender says in explaining the name change. "The only way of getting all of our children to being successful and getting the same advantages despite their racial background is we all can do it as one body."

A West African dance teacher and performer, Callender also started Kuumba Kids, a dance troupe that became a popular extracurricular program within Harambee. 

"I teach through the premise of arts through education," which teaches students how to marry arts with their academics, Callender says of the afterschool program that starts in October and culminates with Longfellow's Black History Month Harambee production. 

This year, the three-hour production required an overflow room at the school. Hasani, 17, now an Oak Park and River Forest High School senior, grew up immersed in Harambee, playing drums for Kuumba (Swahili for creativity) Kids. Callender, 43, is the artistic director of the dance troupe.

Hasani, who plans on a career in the fine arts, says being involved with Kuumba Kids boosted his confidence as a performer and influenced his desire to continue studying African music. Twelve years ago, his mother simply was looking for a way for her young son to connect to his heritage and take pride in expressing it. 

"He's the reason I even wanted to do anything," Callender says. "At the time, there was nothing for him to relate to" culturally. Hasani has gone through the program from elementary through high school.

Back in 2006, PAAC was looking at ideas to help bridge the cultural gap that often leaves children of color not feeling a part of the total school experience.

Studies on social emotional development consistently show that extracurricular activities are crucial to educational attainment and even earnings later in life. Such activities also engender a sense of belonging, which Success of All Youth (SAY) sees as the cornerstone of efforts to empower young people to reach their full potential. 

Within Kuumba Kids, which is open to all students, Callender sees students blossom. Initially introverted students have ended up getting involved with a variety of extracurricular activities such as CAST, the theater arts program at Percy Julian Middle School. "One mother thanked me, saying that Kuumba Kids gave her daughter confidence to try out," Callender says.

"Parents embrace it because it's definitely a one-of-a-kind program in Oak Park, a town where we are a minority. It offers those children of color something they can be proud of and look forward to."

SAY Connect is sponsored by the Good Heart Work Smart Foundation in partnership with Success for All Youth (SAY).

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