Kumbaya My People

Kumbaya My People

skastrul's picture

In a recent post I shared that i.c.stars was working on an effort to improve cultural competency within organizations. We recently held what we are calling “Cultural Competency 101,” with an organization’s leadership team.

Most folks within larger organizations have attended “diversity and sensitivity” trainings, And most people have some feelings about what the training is going to be like and it’s not usually one of excitement. As you can imagine the group may not have been thrilled to allocate more time to the subject. We knew this could be a challenge and we had come prepared.

My opening slide simply said, Kumbaya with an image of people sitting and holding hands. Larman, one the co facilitators and i.c.stars resident unpacked his guitar and I promptly asked everyone to stand up and hold hands so we could sing Kumbaya. The group obediently obliged me in this part of the workshop.

I wasn’t at all surprised that holding hands and singing Kumbaya was perhaps the last thing that this group of smart and talented professionals wanted to do. When you think of Kumbaya, what probably comes to mind is campfires and marshmallows, however it’s actually an African Spiritual sung by former slaves living on the Sea Islands.

The word “Kumbaya means, Come By Here.” When slaves were running away they would sing this song because they knew the odds of death were great. So they would pray and beg for God to come by here, to protect them.

In the 50’s there was a movement to take all the folks songs and put them in a book. Lynn Rohrbough, the owner of Cooperative Recreation is credited with getting Kumbaya and over 50 folk songs into music books for campers. It was described only as an “African Song” and later it was found in most camp songs books. It is said that camp counselors of the 50’s and 60’s would choose Kumbaya because it only had three chords to play.

In the 60’s popular folk singers began to sing it. So everyone over 40 remembers Kumbaya as a campfire song that children would sing. While this perception was was still sort of a come together in marshmallow and campries sort of way, it’s certainly not reflective of it’s true meaning, a call to God to protect, and to come by here.

What is an even greater truth, just as we saw in the attitudes of the workshop participants Kumbaya has become something you don’t want to do. It is associated with weakness. We’ve all heard folks who say, “Oh what are gonna do just hold hands and sing Kumbaya?” The sentiment is one of insult, of cynicism or of fluffy pseudo resolution complete with marshmallows. .

When I shared this with the group, and said that we would NOT in fact be singing Kumbaya, the vibe of resistance faded and in it’s place was laughter and then revelation and clarity. It’s fascinating, the story of how things get appropriated by the majority culture and then redefined into something that suits our purpose.

In a time when we are all being challenged by change, respect must be in focus. As we go out and connect with the communities in which we work and serve are we demanding to be respected while refusing to respect the position of others? Or are we offering respect to create an opening for clarity and revelation? Is it possible that now more than ever, we need to Kumbaya?

About Sandee

Sandee Kastrul's photo
I believe that the definition of leadership is making opportunities for others. I am a leadership geek and find that the richest opportunities for all of our futures lie in education. I am a believer in reciprocity in education and that as educators we are both teacher and student. I believe that the world can be a classroom if we open ourselves to the notion that application, concatenation and liberation start with listening. Schedule Sandee to Speak

About i.c.stars

i.c.stars is a non-profit organization in Chicago for adults with a high school diploma or GED. Using project-based learning and full immersion teaching, i.c.stars provides an opportunity for change-driven, future leaders to develop skills in business and technology. To learn more go to www.icstars.org

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