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By practicing Ujamaa, we can prosper together

Bert JohnsonBy Sen. Bert Johnson, D-Detroit

On Dec. 29, 2012, I had the honor of giving a speech on Ujamaa, one of Kwanzaa’s seven principles. Considering the economic woes facing the city of Detroit and particularly its citizens, Ujamaa is one of the most important principles we could recognize.

Ujamaa stands for cooperative economics and is based upon the policies of Julius Nyerere in Tanzania following their independence from Great Britain in 1961.

The basic tenets of the Ujamaa policy were outlined in the 1967 Arusha Declaration, which called for an African model of development. The word itself comes from the Swahili word for extended family or familyhood and is based on the idea that we each become a person through our community.

Tanzanian Ujamaa as a political and economic model led to the creation of a central democracy, which abolished discrimination, nationalized the economy’s key sectors, collectivized local production, fostered Tanzanian self-reliance without depending on European powers and implemented free and mandatory education.

Tanzania saw remarkable improvements as a nation under Ujamaa. From 1965 to 1985, the infant mortality rate was reduced from 138 per 1,000 to 110 per 1,000. From 1960 to 1984, life expectancy rose from 37 to 52. From ’60 to ’85, enrollment in primary school was raised from 25 percent of the age group — and only 16 percent of females — to 72 percent and 85 percent of females. And over a similar time period, adult literacy rates went from 17 to 63 percent.

Though external factors, including the 1970s oil crisis, decrease of Tanzanian export values, massive droughts and the impending war with Uganda, led to the eventual downfall of Ujamaa as a model in Tanzania, there is much we as a community today can learn from and implement into our everyday lives to improve conditions here at home.

In the context of Kwanzaa, Ujamaa calls for us to build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit from them together.

This is a rational, pragmatic course of action that allows our money to stay in our community, building wealth together in an environment where other outside money is certainly not flowing in our direction. This, however, is sorely lacking in our community today.

First, it must be said, there is no reason not to do this. Every minority in America, including Latinos, Jews, Chaldeans, Indians and so on, acts in this manner.

Efforts toward this end exist — there is the Black Chamber of Commerce and the Black Bar Owners Association, for example. Lacking, however, is a firm commitment to contribute to our own community’s success. We must all reaffirm ourselves to promoting this concept among all our brothers and sisters, no matter how politically disengaged some may be.

Of course, this doesn’t mean don’t shop at stores that aren’t Black-owned. It simply means make a true, concerted effort to shop at stores that are Black-owned. Why? Every dollar invested locally multiplies. It contributes to salaries and wages that hopefully would be invested locally again, and so on. Generating wealth by these means is one of the best — and easiest — ways to support one another.

Strategies to achieve this form of self-help range from simple everyday decisions — for example, what company to call when something in our home needs repair — to all-out efforts to achieve business contracts within our cities for minority-owned firms.

We also must take a good, hard look at our elected leaders.

Recently, the City Council approved the Hantz Farms urban farm deal for the city’s lower east side. This one vote alone signifies a serious and dangerous lack of understanding of the principle of Ujamaa. Why our own leaders are handing over vast expanses of our city to private, corporate interests is beyond me, particularly when local, Black Detroiters are already here, already doing the work and contributing positively to our own betterment.

The good folks at the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, the Detroit Food Policy Council and others have been deeply committed to the goals of social justice, equality and economic empowerment through urban agriculture.

They have also reached out to city leaders, as well as the Hantz organization itself, in an effort to form a mutually beneficial partnership. These overtures have fallen on deaf ears, unfortunately. The real injustice is not even the Hantz deal itself — it’s that our city leaders don’t take, with equal seriousness and consideration, offers and initiatives from their own citizens.

In other news, Dan Gilbert just purchased his 15th property along Woodward Avenue. Are we to believe there are no Detroiters with the resources and desire to purchase property in the city? Again, my qualm is not with a businessman making business decisions — this is, of course, America — but rather with our elected representatives who cater to outside corporate interests above and beyond the citizens who elected them. For every major building purchase that gets fast-tracked through the city, I can show you a dozen citizens who have toiled for months downtown on a quest for a simple permit.

Organizing and working together has a rich history in our community and has led to some of our greatest successes. In 1925, the first labor organization led by Blacks to receive a charter in the American Federation of Labor was the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, otherwise known as Pullman porters. The achievements made by the leadership of the porters, including A. Phillip Randolph, helped create the Black middle class and, as the labor movement and union organizing typically does, played a role in advancing the cause of civil rights in America.

The more of us who understand the way finance drives America, the better off we will be. The majority of the decisions you witness in the public arena — from emergency managers, to public land giveaways, to the selling of assets and more — are not instigated purely by racial motives. They are instigated by financial motives.

We must not fear the racist who hates based upon the color of one’s skin: he is who he is and makes his ignorance and intolerance abundantly clear. We must distrust those who, under the guise of benevolence and assistance, seek to control our dollars and, by extension, our lives and livelihoods. And we must reject those who purport to be leaders in our community who, whether blindly or knowingly, approve and allow these things to happen. If we do not control our money, we do not control our destiny.

Of course, life is not all about money and Ujamaa is but one of Kwanzaa’s seven principles. As important as it is, we also recognize how important the others are — Umoja, Kujichagulia, Ujima, Nia, Kuumba and Imani — and how when taken as a whole, they provide the guidelines for a more politically, financially and spiritually empowered community. The result is a more just and fair society for all Americans.

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