Photo depicting a Black-presenting youth reaching for the black Kwanzaa candle.

First Annual Kwanzaa Awards Recognizes Black Organizations and Individuals

by Mark Van Streefkerk

The first-ever Kwanzaa Awards took place on Jan. 8 as an online ceremony that celebrated individuals and organizations, nominated by the community, for embodying Kwanzaa principles. The pandemic prevented an in-person gathering, but the spirit of Kwanzaa shone through in prerecorded candle lighting and libation ceremonies and a candid mother-daughter conversation about Kwanzaa. 

Kwanzaa is a Pan-African cultural holiday celebrated by millions of people around the world from Dec. 26 through Jan. 1. Each day of the seven-day holiday focuses on a principle of African heritage: Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity), and Imani (Faith). 

This year, the first annual Kwanza Awards was hosted by Seattle-based organizations Kinara Park Kids — which provides educational resources for kids based on Kwanzaa principles — and Black 4 Charities. Out of 60 nominees, eight individuals and eight organizations were chosen as awardees who most embodied the seven principles of Kwanzaa (the eighth award recognized Nguzo Saba — Encompassing All Principles). The award winners were announced on Jan. 8 at the online ceremony. 

When the awardees were announced, viewers from throughout the U.S. and several other countries celebrated the winners. “There was laughter and there were tears,” said Noni Ervin, founder of Kinara Park Kids.

While the holiday and awards ceremony has come and gone, the awardees will be celebrated throughout the year via articles and interviews on the Kinara Park Kids website. 

The online awards ceremony included some segments prerecorded at Langston, along with a celebration of the awardees. “They’re so busy doing the work and keeping their head down with whatever it is they are doing, whether it be education or writing or mentoring … they rarely look up, and certainly not for celebration. Many of them were surprised.”

Individual artists and writers were awarded, like sci-fi author Helen J. Collier and teaching and performing artist Afua Kouyate. Long-standing Seattle-area activist Rev. Harriett Walden, founder of Mothers for Police Accountability, was recognized, as well as Africatown Community Land Trust, an organization that acquires and develops land to combat gentrification and empower the Black diaspora in Seattle. 

National awardees include Taese Snowden’s Atlanta-based Liberated Minds Institute, a hub for Black homeschool education, and Minnesota-based Planting People Growing Justice, an organization that promotes education, literacy, and diversity in children’s books. 

Dr. Maxine Mimms, founder of the Evergreen State College’s Tacoma Campus and Maxine Mimms Academies — an organization dedicated to breaking down educational and economic barriers — delivered an Elder Blessing. Dr. Maulana Karenga, founder of the Kwanzaa holiday, which was first celebrated in 1966, delivered a keynote speech and was honored with a lifetime achievement award. 

Ervin estimated about 125 people attended the online ceremony, including viewers throughout the U.S. and from other countries, like Kenya and the Netherlands. Each awardee received $500 and an engraved plaque from Black-owned Precious Memories Customized Plaques. 

Photo depicting Noni Ervin and Afua Kouyate wearing face masks and posing for a selfie. Kouyate holds her Kwanzaa Award.
Noni Ervin, founder of Kinara Park Kids, (left) and Afua Kouyate, winner of the Kuumba Award (right). (Photo: Noni Ervin)

The award winners are:


Umoja (Unity): Dede Gartrell
Kujichagulia (Self-Determination): Helen J. Collier
Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility): Ashley McGirt
Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics): Taese Snowden
Nia (Purpose): Reverend Harriett Walden
Kuumba (Creativity): Afua Kouyate
Imani (Faith): Delbert Richardson
Nguzo Saba (Encompassing All Principles): Dr. Maxine Mimms


Umoja: Africatown Community Land Trust
Kujichagulia: Black Star Rising
Ujima: The Breakfast Group
Ujamaa: QueenCare
Nia: Life Enrichment Group
Kuumba: Nu Black Arts West
Imani: Planting People Growing Justice
Nguzo Saba: Faith, Hope and Charity

Ervin said this year’s inaugural Kwanzaa Awards were an important way to spread awareness of the cultural holiday and inspire a connection to Kwanzaa principles. Last fall, Ervin partnered with Converge Media to spread the word about nominations. “We partnered with them to let the community know what we’re looking for. Kwanzaa is not known to all African Americans. It’s just not an automatic,” Ervin said. “So we’re telling them when we’re talking about Umoja … they could see the organizations or individuals, and the principles, and I feel like getting that information out really helped folks to get their nominations submitted.”

Ervin noted that the awards also forged more ties between the awardees and Black communities. “The more people know about the work that each other is doing, and the more people can connect and work together, the stronger we are.” 

Ervin hopes the not-for-profit Kwanzaa Awards will grow even more in the years to come, with an increasing number of nominees and, provided pandemic restrictions ease, an in-person awards ceremony. 

For Ervin, one of the Kwanzaa Awards highlights was recognizing the tireless efforts of individuals and organizations that often do the work without recognition. “We see you and are grateful for you,” she said. “And please continue this work. We want to support you. We want to let other people know what you are doing.”

Mark Van Streefkerk is a South Seattle-based journalist, freelance writer, and the Emerald’s Arts, Culture, & Community editor. He often writes about restaurants, LGBTQ+ topics, and more. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter at @VanStreefkerk.

📸 Featured Image: Photo by Abstract Media/Anthony Tackett.

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