UJAMAA Place: Transforming lives


Ujamaa (pr. oo-jah-Ma-ah), Swahili for familyhood, is a word that encompasses within itself bonds like brotherhood, kinship and extended family. At Iris Place, 1885 University Ave in St Paul, the Ujamaa Place is a program initiated by Executive Director Roy Barker—who appeared on the April 18 broadcast of “Conversations with Al McFarlane” on KFAI 90.3FM. 

The goal of Ujamaa Place is to transform the lives of African American men between the ages of 17 and 28, who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.  This eight-month long program offers educational skills and training to help turn their lives around; guiding these men towards becoming productive members of their families and communities.  The program runs Monday through Thursday from 9:30 am–3:30 pm.

Program participants are required to engage in and complete 16 hours of community service before graduating from the program.  These community engagements include activities like serving food at a homeless shelter and more rigorous work like removing invasive plants and planting trees.
“These young men are often called the ‘lost’ generation,” Barker said.  “They are the last to get hired, the first to go to jail … ,” he said. “These young men have been marginalized by society for so long they no longer feel the desire to fit in.  They become resigned to the fact that they will either die young on the streets or grow old in prison.”

Barker himself was once a part of the marginalized and lost generation.  His personal experience is what motivated him to establish and direct Ujamaa Place.  A native of the south side of Chicago and the oldest of 11 children, Barker learned early on the harsh realities of survival. 

“I lived in projects called Altgeld Gardens; not a very nice area to grow up in,” Barker said.  “The fact I did well in school often made me a target for other children.  Neither learning nor education were admired there,” he said. 

Because his mother and grandmother did not finish high school, they persistently encouraged education.  “By the time I was four, they taught me how to read,” Barker said.  Despite coming from a stable family with both parents, and being encouraged to become educated, both parents worked two jobs, leaving him and his siblings to survive by any means. 

“As men, we seek dignity, authority and autonomy.  The way we do that is when we find ourselves in an invalidating environment with no legal force or authority, we look to illegal ways in creating that force and authority,” Barker said.

“It is not just a question of isolated failures, it’s a pandemic in our community,” said broadcast moderator Al McFarlane.  “It is not a question of failure, though it is part of the equation.  It is a question of the arrangement in the culture, arrangement in society that herds large numbers of our people in the arena of non-productivity”.  

Black males who have experienced similar experiences of violence, neglect and lower socio-economic backgrounds, go to Ujamaa Place to turn their life around. Ujamaa Place provides assistance with GED prep classes, job search assistance, life skills, empowerment training, personal coaching, and building strong community leaders by developing a positive male identity.  It provides an environment where men can progress from dysfunctional to healthy behaviors.  The program identifies family members, significant others, anybody that is in that person’s support group.

In addition to Barker, there are many prominent community leaders involved in Ujamaa Place including: State Sen. John Harrington as CEO; Billy Collins, who is executive director of YWCA St. Paul, who serves on the steering committee; and city Councilman Melvin Carter III and his parents Melvin Carter Jr. and Commissioner Toni Carter.
To find out more information about Ujamaa Place visit http://ujamaaplace.org/, or contact Roy Barker via phone at 651 528-8006 or via e-mail at roybarker@ujamaaplace.org.