“As a child that’s one thing that my parents really instilled in us as children is to know who you are and identify with what is most connected to you…We are Black people. We are of African descent. That is the culture. That’s how I was raised. That’s what I know. That’s who I am. There’s no steering away from that….”
– Ms. Ayana Abdul-Raheem, Timbuk2 Academy
This blog is the second of a series of case studies based upon the work of the Equitable Futures Innovation Network. The network brings together scholars and practitioners to identify cutting-edge practices for promoting racial equity within youth career development programs. Career development historically can get reduced into dialogues of how to increase access to certain careers for underrepresented youth without acknowledging why or how access was an issue in the first place. With this in mind, Dr. Janiece Mackey highlights work with Timbuk2 Academy, particularly from the lens of the founder, as being work that moves beyond representation as a form of racial equity. Timbuk2 provides an ethos for youth to embrace themselves and each other with an approach that centers dignity, care, spirituality, and legacy. Timbuk2 Academy invites youth to be their authentic selves to increase academic and career efficacy.1
The Equitable Futures Innovation Network (EFIN) is a project of the Connected Learning Lab at UC Irvine, focused on fostering career equity in asset-based and identity-affirming ways. This post is the second in a series of reflective case studies of partnerships between EFIN researchers and organizational leaders.
Timbuk2 – Anchored in a Historical Legacy of Care and Spirituality
“I come from a very spiritual based family and my parents made that a priority for us in connecting all that you do with something bigger or greater than you outside your body; something higher than you. Having that foundation supports my work because that’s how I approach my work and that’s how I approach my business” (–Ms. Ayana Abdul-Raheem, 2023 interview).
Ms. Ayana Abdul-Raheem, CEO and Founder of Timbuk2 Academy, recently earned the New Jersey Social Innovation Award in the award category Community Voice Impact, and has been featured on PBS. Within Ms. Ayana’s leadership, she brings the ability to anchor and honor spirit in a long legacy of Black female ways of being and ethic of care.2; 3; 4 Ms. Ayana comes from a lineage of entrepreneurial parents who rooted her spiritually, culturally, and in who she is as a Black woman. Her parent’s legacy and the legacy she continues to manifest grounded her as she earned her bachelor degree in sociology and her master degree in early childhood education.
Through centering care, spirituality, and legacy, Ms. Ayana and the work of Timbuk2 Academy is providing an imagination around how to champion the multiple dimensions of each student. This essence is integrated into each program, vision, and Timbuk2 experience. This ethos carries into their leadership, internship, research, and rite of passage programming.
Community care has a long been a tradition of the purpose of Black knowledge production. Noddings (2010) reminds us “[care] is a way of encountering others” (p.80), which is also reflective of the historical context of Timbuk2. Timbuk2 with the number 2 on the end is the 2nd iteration of the vision birthed by Ms. Ayana’s parents. “The downstairs portion is where my parents had a childcare center which leads to Timbuktu Academy” (PB2 2023). Timbuktu Academy was an independent Black school created in Trenton, New Jersey in the 1980s by Ayana’s parents, with the purpose of ensuring that Black youth received an education through an African centered lens. “They built a school from their bare hands…it was an independent school with an African centered curriculum which was tailored to the children they were teaching” (Founder, 2021). As she reflected on the journey of her parents’ innovation of centering identity in schooling and childhood development of Black youth, Ms. Ayana said folks would say to her parents, “Yal doing that Black stuff in there? It was weird that we were learning the stuff that we were, so it was ahead of its time, so that’s how I teach our children here” (2023 interview).
Ms. Ayana and her parents’ legacy reflect an intentional ethic of care and spirituality within the context of academic and career development. The continued legacy of Timbuk2 Academy is a reminder that spirituality and care must be centered in the design and framing of career development and career equity programming.
Lived Experience and Life Lessons
“When you hear law enforcement and you hear juvenile you think…these are really bad kids, but when I got in there I realized that these were the same kids that I worked with in the classroom. These were the same kids I taught arts and crafts to; these the same kids” (PBS, 2023).
Ms. Ayana’s nuanced career background spanning education and law enforcement, her personal experiences in school, and the perspective from her parents shaped how she envisioned the creation of Timbuk2 Academy. She states, “I came into [law enforcement] with a background in child development, special education, early childhood, and secondary education [and] that experience changed the way I developed curriculum and it shifted the way I viewed education…especially how our children were being taught” (Founder interview, 2021). Ms. Ayana’s disposition to Black youth in Trenton, New Jersey embraces holism and brings a lens of dignity that she believes is missing from youth’s schooling experiences. Ms. Ayana being in law enforcement shaped her lens on education, but not in ways that led to an undermining of the dignity of the youth she would encounter. Instead, her experiences in law enforcement positioned her to reflect on the spirituality and care she was raised to bring to youth spaces.
Ms. Ayana’s approach comes to life in the ways the Black girls in her program grow and cultivate a sense of belonging and identity affirming practices via her curriculum, which ensures Black girls see themselves within leadership, research, and issues that they desire to further investigate. As Dr. Mackey worked alongside Ms. Ayana, she continued to see that Ms. Ayana met the girls where they were at in terms of their sociopolitical context and development. As a part of the EFIN project the Timbuk2 girls desired to better understand violence in the community in ways that honored themselves, their agency, and their own ways of being. Recognizing Ms. Ayana’s commitment to honor the girl’s agency and lived experiences, Dr. Mackey began collaborating with the girls on how they simply exist and move within the community, rather than jumping straight to conversations about career identity development.
Image 2 demonstrates the artistic wisdom of the Timbuk2 youth after being prompted to illustrate what happens prior to experiencing violence in the community. The youth illustrated care for themselves through their lived experiences and life lessons. The girls indicated from the image below that they were “minding their own business, reading a book, drinking a slurpee, and just thinking.” This was a vital moment in the collaboration of EFIN and Timbuk2 Academy because it demonstrated an opportunity to shift away from a focus on violence, exacerbating racial battle fatigue5 in research with Black girls. Ms. Ayana witnessed from this moment as well that partnerships with researchers can be rooted in spirituality and care to humanize the lived experiences of Black youth. Rooting research practice partnerships in spirituality can allow for relationships to move from transactional to transformational.6
Ms. Ayana reflected on this moment by stating, “When you asked them what are you doing when the violence is happening…that helped them see certain things beyond what the question was…it even shifted where the research ended up going…it went there because they had to put themselves in it” (2023 interview). Showing up in partnership and collaboration with spirituality and care in mind can provide the foundation necessary to ensure dignity is centered in unearthing lived experiences and life lessons. Honoring lived experience and life lessons in humanizing and dignifying ways must be a part of career development.
“People come to you because you are of value…I feel like the partnership and working just kind of confirmed you are on the right track because this is what they need…they need to be seen, they’re born Worthy. This is the work right here” (2023 interview).
The born WORTHY project was proposed to create sacred spaces for Black girls to simply be and to bask in their natural right to know their worth. The born WORTHY project is not simply branding, but is reflective of the ethos and spirit of care undergirding Timbuk2 Academy youth. In an era of racism and colorism that directly and indirectly devalues Black lives, Ms. Ayana created born WORTHY to inspire, validate, affirm, and empower Black girls and women. This is one of the ways she encourages the young women and the community to engage in freedom dreaming.7 Freedom dreaming is about the constant unveiling of possibilities. It would be convenient and easy to fall into a deficit lens and cycle of hopelessness in Trenton, New Jersey. But, instead, Ms. Ayana and her parents gave their souls and life’s work toward honoring the possibilities of Black futures. Ms. Ayana understands and knows the power Black girls have and walks alongside them to unveil their power. Youth being positioned as experts and leaders within Timbuk2 is of value to Ms. Ayana. “Let them lead the direction of where things need to go and just build your stuff around it. You always have to have a plan, true, but I am not in the program. I am..the adult on the outside” (2023 interview).
At Timbuk2 Academy, Ms. Ayana leverages her ancestral wisdom and her parents’ vision in nexus with her own to incubate spaces where freedom dreaming is normalized. “When I asked them why do you come here? What is it about being here? They said, I want to learn who I am to learn how to be a Black woman….I want to be like Ms. Ayana” (2023 interview and youth session 2022). Image 3 depicts the building of occupational identity for Black girls to aspire to become their mentor who has created a sacred space for them to learn about navigating their racialized and gendered experiences in and out of school time setting. Spaces rooted in freedom dreaming are critical for fostering career development with Black girls.
A Call to Action
“They have to understand who they truly are and if you aren’t doing that then what are you doing…are we really lifting Black children (2023 interview)?
To learn more about Timbuk2 Academy visit: www.timbuk2academy.org
To learn more about bornWORTHY.visit us: www.iambornworthy.com
- Rollins, V. B., & Valdez, J. N. 2006. Perceived racism and career self-efficacy in African American adolescents. Journal of Black Psychology, 32(2), 176-198.
- Collins, P. H. 1989. The social construction of black feminist thought. Signs: Journal of women in culture and society, 14(4), 745-773.
- Lorde, Audre. 2007. Age, race, class and sex: Women redefining difference. In Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider (pp. 114–123). Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press. Originally published 1983.
- Noddings, N. 2010. The maternal factor: Two paths to morality. Univ of California Press.
- Smith, W. A. (2014). Racial battle fatigue in higher education: Exposing the myth of post-racial America. Rowman & Littlefield.
- Ginwright, S. A. 2022. The four pivots: Reimagining justice, reimagining ourselves. North Atlantic Books.
- Kelley, R. D. 2022. Freedom dreams: The black radical imagination. Beacon Press.
Post by Dr. Janiece Mackey
Dr. Janiece Mackey grew up in Aurora, Colorado where she still resides as a wife and mother of 4 children. Dr. Mackey is a Black race scholar activist who has built her career of servant leadership from her narrative. She knew Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPoc) either weren’t interested in activism at a young age or they didn’t have a conduit to civically engage. Due to being one of a few Black folks within academic, civic, and professional spaces, she created an organization entitled Young Aspiring Americans for Social and Political Activism (YAASPA). YAASPA endeavors to build the self-efficacy of youth to reclaim academic, civic and career spaces through race conscious leadership and transformative organizing. Due to her converging interests in education and policy, she earned her PhD in Higher Education with a Public Policy and Curriculum and Instruction emphasis at the University of Denver. She has been an Equitable Futures Postdoctoral Research Fellow and is now a research scientist while running her organization. She co-edited a book entitled Black Girl Civics, has been an Ethnic Studies and Political Science Adjunct Faculty and published many chapter and articles in the realm of youth participatory action research (YPAR), race-grounded approaches to public administration and education and beyond. She desires to deepen, further develop, and expand “healing praxis” (hooks, 1994) for more BIPoC young adults and professionals within the public sector. She believes that those who commit to transformational justice and racial equity must validate and innovate academic, career, and civic experiences that sustain, retain, and rejuvenate minoritized youth and young professionals.