Interview: Kinshasha Kambui, a ‘Natural Woman’ with a mission


Whatever the area—politics, social activism, media, arts—when Kinshasha Kambui is involved, everyone from grassroots folk to people in business suits perk up their ears and pay close attention.

As Minneapolis Mayor R. T. Rybak’s community liaison, Kinshasha afforded City Hall unassailable credibility. Consulting at North Minneapolis-based We Win Institute, she helps students rise from “at-risk” status to realize their inherent potential. Over Minneapolis and St. Paul airwaves, she is producer-host of KFAI Radio’s Health Notes From the Heart of a Natural Woman. Each year, she produces We Win Institute’s lauded Kwanzaa celebration, which, this time around, honors historian/scholar/African-American-community-griot Mahmoud El-Kati, Gospel maestro Robert Robinson, KMSP’s Robyne Robinson, and American Idol’s Paris Bennett.

We Win Institute’s 14th Annual Kwanzaa Celebration is December 29, 7:00 PM at the Pantages Theater, 710
Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis’s Broadway Theatre District. Tickets are $15 at the Historic State Theater box office, the Cookie Cart (1119 West Broadway in North Minneapolis), the Electric Fetus (2000 4th Ave. in South Minneapolis) and

Basically living on rollerskates, Kinshasha Kambui made time for an interview.

What do you do for a living these days?
I’m community organizer for African American Mobilization for Education. This is a group of community people, educators, parents, and activists that have been looking at the policies and practices of the Minneapolis Public Schools that are detrimental to African American children. One of the first polices that AAME realized was most detrimental was the suspension rates. In fall of 2005, 78% of all suspensions [were] African American children. [And] at the November 27, 2007 school board meeting, a document showed the suspension rates of students in the MPS from September through November 15, 2007. Of 2,263 suspensions, 1,650 were African-American—with 1,107 being African-American males. In special education enrollment there is a total of 5,780—including 2,017 African-American males. 999 are African-American females.

Point being?
The current system is harmful to African-American children. Four schools were closed in North Minneapolis last spring despite the fact that Jordan Park and Lincoln students were doing well academically. The African-American community attempted to negotiate that two schools stay open or that the schools move intact in the way that the [school] district did for the Hmong Academy that was housed in Jordan Park. The school board did not care about the community’s concerns
and just closed the schools. African-American Mobilization for Education is [working to effect] a covenant with the Minneapolis Public Schools. The African-American community has said, enough! [We hope that the system] will not fail another generation of our children.

So, for you, We Win Institute’s Kwanzaa extravaganza is about a bit more than sleigh bells and whistles.
Kwanzaa started at a time in my development when I was struggling to learn about who I am, learning about my culture and
history. Since I was a child, I never felt [right about] the commercialism of Christmas: Santa Claus leaving toys, buy buy buy, and [only] somewhere in the background the story of Jesus. The seven principles—Nguzo Saba—of Kwanzaa are the foundation of my belief system. They are principles that I work daily to live by. I am committed to my culture, my community, creativity and spiritual principles.

First and foremost the event is about the kids, yes?
First and last.

On the best of days, retired Macalester College professor Mahmoud El-Kati has to be dragged kicking and screaming into the public light. And, as you told me, took a world of convincing for him get up on the Pantages stage. Why bother?
It is an honor to honor Mahmoud El-Kati. His commitment to culture, history and the uplift of African peoples has fed me my
entire adult life. His incredible wisdom has always been amazing. I do not know anyone who loves black people as much. He is a humble servant of our community whom I hope that our young people will emulate.

How did you come to have actor Kevin D. West, who’s done incredible work at Penumbra Theatre, directing last year’s program and this year’s?
Jayne Khalifah is a good friend and recommended Kevin last year—and it has been a good match. Kevin is very talented and has the ability to bring out the best in our children. He works with them in such a way that they really want to do their best, to shine.

How is it working with WWI executive director Titilayo Bediako on the event? Do you two just naturally fall in sync with each other, benefiting from that kind of telepathy that twins are known to have?
Working with Titi is easy because we trust each other. We can depend on each other to follow through on the things that need to happen. The telepathy part comes in when it comes to taking care of the details. I believe things get done more easily because we both think in a similar manner and so we usually cover all of the bases.

What guests are coming up at Health Notes From the Heart of a Natural Woman?
In 2008, I will be interviewing Montel Williams, who just released a new book on living well. He talks about his battle with
MS, about diet, exercise, meditation, attitude—all of the things that transformed his life. We will have programs on colonics—colon cleansing—for health, the newest science on happiness, and a man named Dr. T who talks about the incredible health benefits of various herbal teas.

Sounds like the event and your radio show are about what you do all year ’round—making a concerted investment in community and personal well-being.

Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He regularly contributes to the TC Daily Planet.