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'I am somebody'

Janet Haynes hands the microphone to Davario Witherspoon. (Photo courtesy of Tori Billings)1 / 6
Dymond Record and Stephan Witherspoon light the Kwanzaa candles. (Photo courtesy of Tori Billings)2 / 6
Nina Trok, age 4, dances with her father, Benjamin Trok. (Photo by Naomi Yaeger)3 / 6
Sharon Witherspoon says grace before the meal. (Photo by Naomi Yaeger)4 / 6
Duluth Police Officer Tom Sewell serves dessert. (Photo by Naomi Yaeger)5 / 6
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The smell of southern cooking and the sound of popular Christmas songs filled the air in the cafeteria at Lincoln Park Middle School Dec. 29. About 70 people gathered to celebrate Kwanzaa, a holiday celebrated by the African community throughout the world Dec. 26-Jan. 1.

Elementary children skipped around and chattered. Teenagers visited with each other. The young people waited for the adults to set up the sound system and make other preparations. But as soon as longtime community activist Sharon Witherspoon said grace, everyone sat quietly around the tables, enjoying the meal.

"This is just something we thought the community needed," Christina Trok told the Budgeteer.

Tori Billings said that she and others around her age thought it was time her generation started planning the event.

"It's time we step up our game," she said. "Usually our elders organize this."

The women are all 1993 graduates of Duluth Central High School. So are Trina Taylor and Stephan Witherspoon. These four, along with Jessica Schiff of Neighborhood Youth Services, were the main organizers of the event.

Duluth community police officers Sgt. Gayle Holton and Tom Sewell mingled with the youth. "Anytime we have officers go to community events, it creates a positive interaction," Holton said.

"The thing that stood out most to me tonight was watching Dr. Janet Haynes and Officer Tom Sewell get the young people to come to the microphone and express their innermost concerns about law enforcement in a safe and supportive environment," Trok said. "It was a true healing moment and it was done through the eyes of children."

This year was the second annual local Kwanzaa event, Trok said. The University of Minnesota Duluth also held a Kwanzaa celebration, but she said this one was more for younger children and the wider community. "Our theme was centered around 'Kujichagulia,' which means self-determination," she said.

Trok said their event had three goals: "Explain the importance of defining ourselves, explain how to create for ourselves and teach the children how to speak for themselves."

Claudie Washington, president of the Duluth NAACP, led the children in chanting, "I am somebody."

Haynes created a giant circle and encouraged the children to speak candidly to Officer Tom Sewell, who answered every question asked.

"What the children asked created some shock for me," Haynes said. "Some of the kids asked how many people he had killed."

Haynes is an international scholar specializing in issues of race relations and diversity.

Haynes said, "The kids have certain experiences. They are developing a negative perception. Many do not see the police officers as our friends. I found that to be very disturbing."

She said she talked to the children about stereotypes.

"The officer was fantastic. He told them about where he was raised," Haynes said. "It really connected with the kids."

"Everything is not all roses," she told the Budgeteer. "I use Kwanzaa as an opportunity to educate. Once the children are able to express themselves, it gives us an idea what where we need to start."

Seven principles of Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa recognizes seven principles, listed here in Swahili and English:

Umoja, unity

Kujichagulia, self-determination

Ujima, collective work and responsibility

Ujamaa, cooperative economics

Nia, purpose

Kuuma, creativity

Imani, faith

Naomi Yaeger

Naomi Yaeger is a freelance writer and the former editor of the Budgeteer. See her blog at