African-American teens build leadership skills at Kujenga
by Jennifer Brinker, St. Louis Review
For many teens, leadership skills come easily. For others, it takes extra work.
But for all who attended the Kujenga VIII Catholic Youth Leadership Conference last month, everyone had a chance to put those skills to the test.
Sponsored by the St. Charles Lwanga Center, Kujenga is a three-day event primarily for African-American high-schoolers and recent graduates. The Lwanga Center is an archdiocesan agency that provides spiritual and leadership development for the local Catholic African-American community and beyond.
The theme of this year’s conference, held Sept. 25-27 at the Sheraton Westport Plaza Hotel, was “The Fire is Within Us.” About 130 teens from the Archdiocese of St. Louis and Diocese of Belleville, Ill., attended.
The weekend included prayer, a faith-sharing session, the Sacrament of Reconciliation and Mass celebrated by Dominican Father Art Cavitt. Healing Hands, a local group of musicians and poets, interacted with the teens throughout the weekend. Participants also split into small “families,” and chose Swahili family names that reflected positive leadership traits.
Leadership sessions focused on themes of what it takes to be a leader, how to go forth in in demonstrating leadership skills within family, church and school communities, the five Ps of leadership (person, purpose, process, push back(s) and payoff) and separate sessions for young men and women on issues applicable to their gender.
Jason Thompson, a member of St. Alphonsus “Rock” Parish in North St. Louis who has attended nearly every Kujenga conference as a youth since the mid-1990s, served as this year’s facilitator. As a young adult, Thompson said he witnesses a personal growth in teens who attend Kujenga.
“In the workshops, we really lean on the kids to step up and speak out,” he said. “On Friday, we have a lot of introverted kids. They’re very quiet and have maybe come to the conference for the wrong reasons. But by Sunday, these same kids are speaking up and asking questions. They are excited about sharing things that they know about being leaders.”
Elysha Kellin has attended Kujenga since she was an eighth-grader. Now a junior at Clyde C. Miller Career Academy, the member of Sts. Teresa and Bridget Parish in North St. Louis said she especially enjoys learning how to put leadership skills to use in real life situations.
“Sometimes I have a problem with patience in different situations,” she said. “Now if there’s something (stressful), I find some kind of solution instead of blowing up at the situation.”
“I enjoyed a weekend where I can get away from everybody,” Elysha said of the conference. “It’s a cleansing for me. And I like learning more about my religion. It’s a great experience — everybody should go.”
Ryan Johnson, a junior at Missouri State University in Springfield, Mo., served as a family leader during the weekend. Being grouped into smaller families made the conference a more “personal” experience and allowed more time for bonding with other participants.
“Since I was in the family leader role, I gave them an opportunity to show their leadership skills and share their talents,” said the member of Sts. Teresa and Bridget Parish.
During the workshop on the five Ps of leadership, Johnson said he learned how to apply the skill of preparation, or process, to his activities in life. “A lot of being a leader is preparation,” he said. “I had to think ahead and keep my family organized” during the weekend.
Candace White, a junior at St. Elizabeth Academy in South St. Louis, also was a family leader. She said the conference did a good job of tying together elements of leadership “with a spiritual side.” The member of Sts. Teresa and Bridget Parish said she learned “to lead people in the right direction, with the help of God.”
“I enjoyed the faith sharing,” Candace added. “You got to open up to the people around you. With the world the way it is right now, it’s hard to get people to open up. It helped me understand why people act the way they do.”