Entering the lobby of the Summerfield Suites in Atlanta, Friday evening, October 10th, one did not have to ask where the EAST Sisterhood Reunion was being held. The hum of spirited conversation led to the meeting room gradually filling as 40 women arrived from Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania and South Carolina carrying photo albums and other memorabilia.
Oseye Mchawi says, “As each sister arrived you could feel the genuine excitement in the warm greeting. It was electrifying. Muslimah Mashariki was affected the same way. “When we arrived on Friday night the energy in the room was overwhelming. It gave me goose pimples to see so many sisters and to feel the love and warmth from each sister.”
The Reunion’s Genesis
In the fall of 2002, Abimbola Wali and Martha Bright, on staff at Fort Valley University, were asked to do a presentation on the EAST Sisterhood for a Council of Black Independent Institutions conference. A flurry of shared experiences and memories ensued via the Internet, initiating the idea for a reunion. A reunion committee composed of members in Brooklyn, Florida and Georgia met the challenge.
Some of these women had not seen each other for 20 or more years, some had not known each other at all. Shukuru Copeland, describing the bonding, said, “We all have a shared history.” And indeed they do. They were a part of a historical venture and adventure that emanated from 10 Claver Place, Brooklyn.
The EAST: A Mighty Tree
Rooted in Education
A nationalist/Pan -African organization, the EAST evolved from the national activism of the civil rights Era and locally by Brooklyn’s Ocean Hill-Brownsville struggle for community control of its schools. In 1964, a group of teachers, headed by Al Vann and Jitu Weusi, formed ATA (African-American Teachers Association). It was complemented by the establishing, three years later, of ASA (African-American Students Association). 1968 was the year that ushered the EAST into existence. Several things happened that pointed to the need for an independent educational and cultural institution. When ASA, in conjunction with ATA, held their first Malcolm X memorials, Weusi, a teacher at Brooklyn’s JHS 35, took a class to Harlem and was charged with insubordination and transferred to the OceanHill-Brownsville district.
The United Federation of Teachers (UFT) called two strikes protesting the OceanHill-Brownsville Demonstration District, where parents had been given autonomy and could hire staff. Student organizers were suspended from school when ASA organized a student strike to protest the Board of Education’s settling with the UFT.
Emboldened by their own spirit of self-determination and encouraged by community support, the activists finalized the plans for the EAST and found and renovated a vacant building to serve as its home. On New Year’s Eve of 1969, the EAST opened to the public with a jazz concert featuring vocalist Leon Thomas.
The first order of business after the opening was the educating of students suspended from school because of their activism. In February of 1970 ATA members taught evening GED prep classes and in April Uhuru Sasa (Freedom Now) School opens with six students. The Afro-centric curriculum attracted local parents and by the fall term the school grew to three student levels: preschool, elementary and high school.
Because its members were early disciples of Kawaida and Dr. Maulana Karenga, the EAST is credited as being one of the first organizations to bring Kwanzaa to the east coast. In the spirit of Kujichagulia (self-determination) and Ujamaa (cooperative economics), a number of institutions were brought into existence. These included a newspaper, Black News, Pyramid Printing Press, Imani Day Care, East Caterers, SweeTeast Restaurant, Akiba Mkuu Bookstore, Uhuru Food Coop, Mavasi, a clothing store, and a cultural center hosting weekend performances by jazz artists coupled with poetry, dance and lectures. The International Afrikan Arts Festival, now in its 31st year, began as a fund-raiser for Uhuru Sasa.
From 1969 – 1985 the women gathered in Atlanta had played a major role in each of the operations. They had borne their babies (nation-building) together. Imani Day Care was initially an answer to the needs of these women who needed child care so they could perform their jobs at the EAST. Then as in the case of Uhuru Sasa, it grew to serve the community at large.
To Educate a Woman
is to Teach a Nation
The women who came to the EAST did so for many reasons: Some were attracted by the political activism, some the African cultural practices, others by the jazz in an intimate all-Black setting, still others by the handsome brothers swarming to The EAST. Mothers said they came looking for a school to instill and reinforce African pride in their children.
Isoke Nia Kierstedt held on to a copy of Black News until her oldest daughter was three, when she enrolled her in Uhuru Sasa. Isoke said she was immediately recruited to attend the teacher training and spent the next ten years teaching at Uhuru Sasa. She is now director of research and development for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project and the founder of All Write Literacy Consultants.
Many of the women returned to public education after leaving the EAST. Ngina Blackshear is now a professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Working within the New York City public school system are Afiya Dawson, Akilah Raysor, Roberta Raysor, Mama Wambui and Amaka Conner.
Some formed other independent schools, two of which are still functioning. Fela Barclift opened Little Sun People Early Childhood Development and Little Sun People Too!, both in Brooklyn. Ayanna Johnson is the founder of Weusi Shule in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, now known as Johnson Preparatory School.
From 1970-1985, Brooklyn was home to Mapanduzi, Robert Conner Memorial School and Zidi Kuwa founded by Rashida Kierstedt Jacobs. In 1980, Mafori Moore and her sister Edinau Gibson took the Pan- Africanist school movement to Harlem, opening Mwamko Wa Siasa.
The EAST’s Second Generation
A recent EAST Family newsletter, published by the EAST Family Kwanzaa Reunion Committee, listed 52 of these young people as college graduates, ten enrolled in graduate school and nine in undergraduate studies.
These young adults are found in a wide range of careers: social work, accountants, film, dance, photography, music, fashion design, management, law, health and education. Kemba McHawi and Opio Mashariki are on staff at colleges. Kafi M. Carrasco is principal of Harambee Prep in Pasadena, CA. At least eight are employed in New York City schools in administrative, guidance and teaching roles. A few are community activists.
Mwamko Wa Siasa’s motto was “Vijana wetu watajenga taifa letu “Swahili for “Our youth will build our nation.” The sisters say that Uhuru Sasa and the other independent schools that taught African pride prepared children for that role.
When asked what impact the EAST experience had on her life, Isoke, answered, “It made me a teacher. It also gave me the African cultural identity that I needed to make it in America. You just do better in the world when you know who you are.”
For a detailed account of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville era, read The Strike that Changed New York by Jerald E. Podair