Enriching Community Through Art: A Q&A with Africano Waltham Founder Juliet Najjumba

Every February, the United States takes the month to reflect on Black History and to recognize the people who shape our communities.  

This year, the national theme for Black History month was “African Americans and the Arts,” a theme which “explores the creativity, resilience and innovation from a culture that has uplifted spirits and soothed souls in countless ways across centuries” according to the Association for the study of African American Life and History. 

Here in MetroWest, there are people and organizations enriching our community today and every day through the arts.  

For over a decade, Africano Waltham has served African American immigrant and refugee youth and families “through provision of a safe space, educational and mental health support, visual and performing arts, and cultural connections.” 

For many a unique program like Africano Waltham can be life changing. One high school senior who participated in the Youth Development program says, “Africano Waltham changed my life.”  

The student continued, “I came to Africano Waltham when I was twelve years old, and from the moment I stepped foot, my life changed in a vigorous way. Africano Waltham allowed me to embrace my culture and to love every part of me that the world does not. Africano Waltham not only taught me dance, it taught me to love my gorgeous hair, curves, complexion, and allowed me to embrace and express my creativity.”  

We recently sat down with the founder of Africano Waltham, Juliet Najjumba to learn about why she started the organization and the impact she has seen on her community and MetroWest as a whole. 

When you started Africano Waltham a decade ago, what was the need that you saw in MetroWest and how have you been working to fill that need?   

I started Africano Waltham because I observed that immigrant youth often do not have the same opportunities as youth from more affluent families. In our community, families are struggling to make ends meet and keep the roof over their heads. Parents often work several jobs and kids were left alone for long stretches of time with no friends, no afterschool activities, and they were lonely. I wanted the children to have a fun, little or no-cost place to go after school to make friends and be part of a supportive community that understands what these youth and families are going through. We started with outings to places around town such as the library, the playground, events at the Waltham Common and even field trips into Boston. We provided academic and social support for children and youth so they could be caught up with school work. Over time our programs have grown to look at the family holistically once we realized how much their needs are often interconnected. For example, it is hard to provide academic help to a child who is always hungry, or whose family is in danger of being evicted, or who is acting as caretaker to a relative with a serious health issue or taking care of their younger siblings. That has led to us expanding programs and hiring social workers and therapists who can provide the care that our youth and families need. 

How have you incorporated the arts into you work?  

The arts have the effect of pulling people in. Music, dance and drumming are all offered at our center. The arts are often the first point of contact with our center. Children come for instrument or dance instruction then they learn about everything we offer. The chance to be a part of our dance team, the AfroDiamonds, motivates them to practice and leads to improved self-esteem, confidence, belonging and more. Performing in public is often the first time they feel appreciated or even seen by the wider community. I can still remember when the dance team received a standing ovation the first time they performed at Brandeis University in 2018. Then at Havard University, Wellesley college and more. It was and still continues to be a thrill for all our students to be recognized and appreciated. It is also exciting to get onto the campus of the local universities and help our students see themselves as students there and realize they have the potential to attend college. So we emphasize the arts as an entry point to life success and self-esteem, as well as a celebration of our cultural roots.   

Your mission is “to lift African immigrant youth and their families to succeed in life through provision of a safe space, educational and mental health support, visual and performing arts, and cultural connections.” How have you combined the arts with healing/support?  

We often use the arts as an entry point to deeper discussions. For example, in one of our programs we have a therapist who leads youth on an exercise to draw pictures illustrating certain situations. This results in a discussion of issues that may be going on in their lives. It is a way to offer mental health support without calling it “mental health support.” It is important to interact with people in a way that is not threatening and validates their views and experiences. This is how we can provide healing. Another way we promote healing is that the arts promote joy and are great stress-relievers. 

How have you seen social change and community healing through art? 

The youth who participate in our organization often describe it as “life changing.” People often comment that the youth who have been involved in our center can hold their heads up high, they speak with confidence and they are viewed as leaders by their peers. The sense of identity that the youth experience, the connection to their culture, their parents, and grandparents, creates a sense of belonging and pride. This serves them well in later life as we have an excellent record of success with youth graduating from high school and enrolling in college. 

You offer Cultural Immersion in the Classroom which introduces school children to the vibrancy of African culture. Why is a program like this so important to not only the community you serve, but for MetroWest overall?   

It is so important to teach students about the many different cultures that make up our community in MetroWest. There are many stereotypes about Africa—first of all that Africa is a country when actually it is a tapestry of many different countries and cultures—that it is poor, disease-ridden, etc. So when the African youth see a positive representation of their culture they are so excited and proud. For the MetroWest community as a whole, it is important to expand our world view, to deepen our understanding of diverse viewpoints and experiences, and reflect on the ways we all, as members of the human race, are different but also very similar. For example everyone wants peace, prosperity, a safe place to live, educational opportunities for their children, and so on. We love to teach about African village life, with its focus on sharing and caring for every member of the village. We have a saying which is “I am because we are.” In a world that seems increasingly fragmented, confusing, and competitive, Africano Waltham is a calm voice and safe haven. 

How can people get involved with your organization?  

The best way to get involved with our organization is to support us financially or with donations of goods for example toiletries and diapers, or winter clothing and gift card drives, etc. We would love to create a scholarship program to help students starting college buy essential items, school supplies and college tuition support. We also welcome board members, advisory board members, and consulting support if you have a professional service to share. For more information, please reach out to us at [email protected]

Group of students pose for a photo


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