If you’re able to read this, that means someone taught you the basics of language and literacy.
You learned the alphabet, and probably drew cute little letters (maybe with some parts backwards). You repeated the sounds each letter makes.
You moved into reading comprehension. That’s the ability to understand what letters mean when they make words, and what words mean when they make sentences.
You learned grammar and how to understand stories. You increased your vocabulary.
You probably don’t remember learning all of this. Now, you just read and write without thinking about it. You can easily interact with language as you move through the world. You may even read for fun.
That’s the feeling of empowered literacy.
It’s the feeling the MSU instructors, alumni and students behind Ujima Language and Literacy want to instill in children.
Growing from a poorly attended literacy fair to part of a community
Ujima Language and Literacy was conceived in 2014 by Dr. Shurita Thomas-Tate, MSU associate professor of communication sciences and disorders.
Ujima is a Swahili word that means “collective work and responsibility.” It’s one of the principals of the Kwanzaa holiday.
Ujima Language and Literacy seeks to increase skills in children ages birth to 11.
“It began as an effort to provide my MSU graduate students an opportunity to gain practical experiences, working with students from diverse backgrounds,” she said.
Thomas-Tate came to Springfield in 2011 as an assistant professor who specialized in school-age language and literacy, as well as cultural and linguistic diversity.
“I have always been interested in increasing literacy among the African-American population,” she said. “Children who read well have larger vocabularies, and children with larger vocabularies perform better on standardized tests.”
She was thinking about how to engage her MSU students in this arena.
“I teach school-age language and literacy to speech-language pathology graduate students,” she said. “They need 400 clinical hours for their degrees. They can get those at a clinic on campus, and off-site. But there were not many opportunities for them to engage with diverse populations.”
Those opportunities are important, she said.
“We want to send professionals out into the world who can work with children with many cultural and language backgrounds. We want our graduates to celebrate differences, not see them as disorders.”
In 2015, she, her students and community partners held a literacy fair at the Bartley-Decatur Neighborhood Center. It’s a property with a long history of serving Springfield’s Black community.
“We went door-to-door with fliers, and told people there would be pizza, ice cream and games,” she said. “We only had five kids turn up! But those five got a lot of student attention. And my students loved it.”
Seeing the small turnout, she knew she needed a deeper relationship with the community.
“We had to commit to this neighborhood long-term,” she said.
In 2016, Ujima started a free literacy camp for children.
Next, they started family literacy nights, in which caregivers could eat with children, participate in language activities and take home a new book.
“Ujima means to build and maintain our community together. We make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems, and solve them together. That’s why it’s essential to get the whole family involved,” she said.
For its first two years, Ujima was a half-day event held at the Bartley-Decatur Neighborhood Center.
In the third year, Springfield Public Schools partnered with Ujima to make it a full-day summer program at Weller Elementary.
“We started thinking about becoming an organization, rather than just a program,” Thomas-Tate said.
The free literacy camp moved to north Springfield’s Turning Point Church, a partner to the program. The camp is now held for 15 days in July — three weeks of Monday through Friday.
The literacy programs originally targeted historically under-resourced and underserved students, and primarily low-income African-American students.
“That has now expanded to anyone, and any child,” Thomas-Tate said.
Ujima has an infant program that teaches caregivers how to maximize play time and verbal interactions with babies, including reading to them. Ujima also offers toddler and preschool activities.
In 2019, Ujima officially became a 501(c)(3), a nonprofit organization.
“That opened up new sources of funding, relationships with new stakeholders and more. The growth has been great.”
Alumna with a history of community involvement is now the board chair
With nonprofit status came the chance to have a board of directors. Alumna Monica Horton, ’15, is the board’s chair.
Horton’s family moved to Springfield in 2013 when her husband, Leonard B. Horton III, joined MSU’s department of media, journalism and film.
Five or six years ago, their daughter, Ari’el, attended Ujima’s camp.
“I always wanted her to have a love of reading. She got to choose her own books, with characters that reflected her,” Horton said. “She would dramatize them and read them out loud. It became a focal point of our family time at home.”
Ujima also felt like “an affinity space for families of color,” Horton said.
When Ujima transitioned to a nonprofit, Horton knew she could use her skills to help the group flourish.
She has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Tuskegee University, a master’s degree in music therapy from Florida State University and a Master of Public Administration degree from Missouri State.
She owns her own business, Lenica Consulting Group.
She taught music therapy courses at Drury University for four years, and now teaches Foundations in Equity and Inclusion there.
Her MSU master’s thesis looked at Springfield Public Schools’ leading indicators of student success, as well as achievement gaps.
“Merging higher education with community involvement has always been a focus for me,” Horton said.
“I am interested in telling stories with data. Numbers can show you disparities, risk factors and information about quality of life. How can you help organizations and leaders set priorities? You need baseline data and measurable goals to show where you want to go. The cherry on top of this research is that we are serving the community.”
Phonics, food and fun: What happens at Ujima Summer Experience
Early on a Monday morning, caregivers filled the parking lot of Turning Point Church.
They held the hands of children, many still blinking the sleep out of their eyes.
The children were kissed goodbye in a large basement room full of round tables.
The first order of business: Food. A table held cereal, yogurt, cheese sticks, fruit, milk and juice.
“Everyone at Ujima gets breakfast, lunch and snacks every day,” Thomas-Tate said.
After that, children broke into groups according to age.
The free camp currently has room for 40 students to register, and, on average, 26 children attend each day.
Each group’s activities are led by MSU speech-language pathology graduate clinicians.
The MSU students are supervised by alumna Taylor Shields, ’17. She’s a speech-language pathologist who volunteered at the first Ujima literacy camps while she was earning her master’s degree.
“I loved it. I told Dr. Thomas-Tate I wanted to do my research project here,” Shields said. “After graduate school, I took what I learned at Ujima and applied it to my own practice.”
She works during the school year at Republic Elementary, and in the summer at Ujima.
“I help the MSU students plan their sessions — which books to read, which vocab to work on. During camp, I observe and give them feedback.”
Shields said Ujima is important to future professionals.
“This is the only time some of the MSU students work with children not one-on-one, and so they learn group dynamics here,” she said.
Each age range has different needs.
The youngest children focus on kindergarten readiness. They draw letters, make sounds and identify words.
They also learn skills such as sitting, taking turns, following directions and making friends. They practice breathing to calm down, and using their words if they need a break or want to take a walk around the room.
“Imagine how much more confident they are if they start school with these skills,” Thomas-Tate said.
On the day Missouri State magazine visited, every student drew a “g” on a chalkboard.
“Good job, Alyssa! That looks great,” their graduate clinician said.
One student ran to Thomas-Tate.
“MY STOMACH DOESN’T HURT!” he told her.
That seemed to be good news, so we moved on to the 1st to 3rd grade classroom.
That group was focused on story elements, such as character, plot, setting and conflict resolution.
Graduate clinician Abi Felter was reading to the class. “Where does the story take place?” she asked.
“In the middle of a scorching hot desert!” a student told her.
That was why it was hard to grow crops, they agreed.
The oldest group ranges from some advanced 3rd graders to 5th graders. They were talking about vocabulary and grammar.
The conversation in the room was largely between the students, rather than the class monitors: “That’s a suffix, right?” “It has a prefix AND a suffix!”
After morning learning, it’s lunch time.
Next, members of the Springfield Regional Arts Council come in to do arts and crafts with the children for the rest of the day. Then, it’s time for snacks and pick-up.
“Art is another way of growing their interests and knowledge,” Thomas-Tate said. “It’s camp, and not school — we do everything we can to make it fun!”
What’s next for Ujima? Securing the future and hiring their first staff
Thomas-Tate and the board want to sustain and expand their start-up.
They are applying for grants and other sources of funding that would let them do more long-range planning.
Ujima recently earned a multiyear grant from the Musgrave Foundation’s Change for Children program, which supports charities in southwest Missouri.
They hope to hire an executive director, and then a program director.
The literacy camp will likely stay at Turning Point Church, which has the space to accommodate more children if the camp can offer more slots.
“We see so many opportunities to grow,” Thomas-Tate said. “Literacy is for everybody.”