Two decades ago, a small group of Belleville West students had a dream of creating a group that would celebrate and share African-American culture and history.
What started with five students seeking permission to organize a club on a trial basis has turned into a phenomenon. The organization, which came to be called Harambee, Swahili for “let’s all pull together,” now includes more than 200 students who, indeed, pull together every year to put on a spectacular show of dance, song, and drama in February for Black History Month.
“Students noticed that there wasn’t a lot of African-American culture being taught on campus,” Carnetta Chalmers, who works as co-faculty sponsor of Harambee with Ken Jones, remembered the early days. “So, they learned how to teach themselves. Students did the research and turned the results into a program with the intention of spreading peace and harmony.”
While Harambee members meet throughout the year, they start to bring together the elements of their big, annual show right before Christmas. They work several nights a week planning the big performance.
Details about the 2017 show are being kept under wraps, Chalmers said. Students want the audience to be surprised when the lights go down and the curtain goes up. But previous shows have featured the music of Motown, the poetry of Maya Angelou and original compositions by Harambee members.
“The dedication of these students is amazing,” said Chalmers. “They volunteer dozens of hours to write, choreograph and rehearse our shows. What is really remarkable is that, even after they’ve graduated, students come back to mentor and encourage the students that follow behind them.”
Jennifer Hodges, a 2000 graduate of Belleville West, said she’s impressed that the organization has doubled in size since she was in high school.
“When I was here, we had about 100 students involved,” Hodges remembered. “It feels good to know that it’s still appreciated. I think it’s lasted because it’s very authentic and because there is a place for everyone in Harambee.”
While being a part of the signature Black History Month show is a great source of pride for students, Harambee has grown to include many other events throughout the year. Soul food days were added to the menu at Belleville West and movie nights were added, too. Members give tours to Belleville West feeder schools to bring smaller productions to middle school and junior high students. Members also participate in community outreach events including a Christmas toy drive and they take an annual trip at the end of the school year. Previous destinations include Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit, Kansas City, New Orleans and New York City.
“We always end up doing some sort of performance on our trips,” Chalmers said. “We’ve done flash mobs. In New York, some of our students ended up performing at the legendary Apollo Theater.”
Numerous fundraisers are also held throughout the year to pay for the group’s activities.
Harambee isn’t all fun and games, though. Chalmers said the organization’s members must adhere to a strict code of conduct that includes staying out of any sort of trouble outside of the classroom and maintaining good grades inside of it. No exceptions. Even one slip up can mean dismissal from the group.
Retired counselor Audrey Smith said hearts have been broken in the past when students have made one mistake outside of the classroom or got one bad grade that prevented them from participating in Harambee.
“The rules are very strict,” Smith said. “But we’re trying to teach life-long skills. Character building, team building. Everyone is accountable. They have to have good grades every period and they have to display good character all the time.”
Students who lose their eligibility are inspired to work doubly hard to get back in, Smith said.
Jones said he is amazed at how the students grow as people through their Harambee experience.
“It can be life-changing for some of them,” Jones said. “Some of them sort of stay in the background when they’re in their first year with the program. But as they see what the older students are doing and become inspired by them, they start to step up. And, eventually, they become the leaders.”
Belleville West Harambee will present its centerpiece show at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 8, in the school auditorium.