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Amid fun and food, African fellows’ visit to Boys Totem Town erases misconceptions, creates bonds

MinnPost photo by Beth Hawkins
Ketty Ruhara, left, and Kemi Omabanjo declaring themselves rounder champions of 2014.

On Saturday, while the Netherlands was crushing Brazil for third place in the World Cup, an improbably joyous contest was underway in the gym at Boys Totem Town, one of Ramsey County’s juvenile detention facilities.

Two oversized doors propped open to admit the breeze revealed lush grounds with the exact feel of an old-time summer camp. Inside, there was giggling and squealing as a clutch of beefy young men sprinted to keep up with two slight women who were giving better than they got.

Kemi Omabanjo and Ketty Ruhtara, from Nigeria and Burundi respectively, were leading a game of rounder, which approximates a cross between baseball and dodge ball. Players try to round a rectangle of bases while opponents lob a ball at them. Ducking is good, but leaping in a way that allows the ball to fly under your legs is better.

Once the insanely complicated scoring system had been communicated, one of the youths turned the table on the visitors by introducing a distinctly American wrinkle, leading off base like an MLB player. The laughing that ensued made everyone pant all the harder.

The lesson and the two miniature silver soccer balls whizzing through the air are courtesy of a group of young African professionals spending six weeks at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. The 25 visitors, who represent 18 countries, are participants in a U.S. State Department leadership program. Many work either in their countries’ ministries of education or with youths.

The fellows arranged the visit themselves after hearing about the high rate at which African-American youths are incarcerated. More bemused than insulted by Americans’ ignorance about Africa, they wanted to expose the teens to their cultures. But mostly they wanted to have some fun.

“The majority of the teens in here are African-American,” said Diran Adegoke, who works in human resources in Nigeria’s Joint Admissions and Matriculations Board, which oversees that country’s highly selective university admissions process. “We share that with them, and we can share some other things with them.”

Strength in play

In addition to the balls for rounder, the African fellows arrived with full-size soccer balls, American-style footballs, board games, decks of cards and bottomless energy. At the end of it all would be a feast prepared by a chef on the correctional staff who is from Nigeria.

One of the fellows who planned the weekend outing, Adegoke was surprised by the boys’ towering physical statures, but not their ignorance of their ancestors’ roots: “They have the same general conception most Americans have of Africa — that it’s jungle animals running through the streets.”

Diran Adegoke
MinnPost photo by Beth Hawkins
Diran Adegoke

With so many misconceptions in the ether, why spend the day playing and eating? “When I was a teenager I thought I knew it all,” said Adegoke. “You come and you just talk … . It’s just one more counseling session.”

Better, in his opinion, “to leave a good memory. There’s the American game and the African game. We play some games with our strengths so they can see what we consider fun.”

The misconceptions got dispelled as the players compared backgrounds.

“Do you have to watch out for animals?” one resident asked.

“You don’t meet the animals every day,” a tall visitor answered. There are African countries that have no wildlife. We have cities just like you. We have game reserves and zoos. Though sometimes cheetahs get out of the reserves.”

Community immersion

Civil rights have been the topic of frequent discussion during their stay here, which began a month ago. The fellows have also been working in the community, job-shadowing local officials and arranging for visits to various parts of the Twin Cities.

There are groups of fellows at 20 universities around the country. It’s the program’s first year at the Humphrey School. One of the things that makes the Minnesota version distinctive is how much time the fellows are spending out in the community.

“We essentially developed the six-week curriculum from scratch and tried to create a balance of public management theory with real world application,” said Humphrey Associate Dean Laura Bloomberg. “Every day of the past four weeks has been gratifying as we’ve seen these young professionals rise to the challenge, co-create the learning environment with us and strive to make this a valuable experience for them — and for the people they meet.”

The fellows had been here two weeks when they heard from representatives of Amicus, a Volunteers of America program that provides reentry services to the incarcerated. The team in charge of last weekend’s outing started trying to find a youth detention center that would allow a visit.

Boys Totem Town responded quickly and enthusiastically. The facility serves a fluctuating population, but is licensed to have 36 residents on campus at any time plus another 20 youths in its day treatment program and school.

The program is in the middle of an ambitious effort to become more open, explains Assistant Superintendent Keith Lattimore. As a part of that, Totem Town converted a building that used to be its secure facility into a school and moved all of its residents into its woodsy-looking dorms.

A captive audience

Kids found delinquent, but whose offenses don’t rise to the level of confinement, attend the school, operated by St. Paul Public Schools, along with residents and teens transitioning back into the community. Right now summer school is in session, complete with two meals a day.

Partly because the students are literally a captive audience and partly because all of the teachers are special ed certified, GPAs have a way of going up in the facility’s school, says Lattimore. If kids slip when they go back to the regular school, they can come back for a “tune up.”

The openness initiative has to do with creating enough positive connections that the progress isn’t lost when the teens are released. African-American firefighters have visited recently, as has state Supreme Court Justice Alan Page.

Parents are encouraged to be involved, and there is support for families whose home environment has contributed to the child’s delinquency. Three-fourths of residents’ parents attended a recent parents skills training workshop, for example.

And even though the residents are technically in the custody of state, parents were asked to sign permission slips for Saturday’s visit from the fellows.

Opening up

Even with visitors now more common at Totem Town, neither the corrections officers – who here dress in slacks and polo shirts – nor the visitors expected the teens to open up as quickly as they did. After the athletics, everyone trouped inside to play cards and board games.

Helawi Sewnet is a professor of architecture and urban design at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia and one of the fellows who arranged the visit. His reaction to the day would surprise the average American.

He doesn’t know very much about the corresponding facilities in Ethiopia, except the detention center is light-years nicer than what one might find in his country. It’s more akin to a hospital or a school.

“There are 21 youth for such a big facility, and such a big staff taking care of these youth,” he said. “They are really well taken care of, and especially today they’re very interactive.”

“How your government in your country is investing in these facilities shows me that your system values these things and these institutions,” said Sewnet. “Maybe it is because you are well off enough.”

A beaming chef

After the games are put away the fellows insist that the residents line up for lunch first. The food is unfamiliar, but so much physical activity makes the smells irresistible and the kids fill their plates to groaning.

The fellows have had one good meal after another, says Adegoke, but this is going to be a treat.

Ramsey County Corrections Officer and chef Abiola Runsewe
MinnPost photo by Beth Hawkins
Ramsey County Corrections Officer and chef Abiola Runsewe serving his big Nigerian meal to rave reviews.

There are platters of fruit in carved melon shells, baked chicken with garlic and lemon, fried plantains and a kind of peppery pilaf called jollof rice. There’s a spicy gravy for the meat and a soup of spinach, shrimp and chicken gizzards in a rich red chili broth.

There are brownies and chocolate chip cookies — and not the ones made from food service mixes or batters, either. No, the entire spread was prepared by corrections chef Abiola Runsewe, who beamed as the Nigerians in the group praised the menu.

Keep the magic

In Ethiopia, Sewnet said, a place like this would be packed with street kids and orphans. When he gets home, Sewnet plans to visit youth detention centers to find out whether he can help.

“I don’t want to leave,” he said. “This is so open, the interface.”

Humphrey’s Bloomberg, as besotted with the fellows as she is with Totem Town’s residents and the corrections officers who worked hard to make the visit feel special for everyone, is energized to create an alumni network to keep the magic going.  

“I’m pretty sure you witnessed their deep concern for people and their commitment to human rights,” she said. “I know it sounds a bit sappy, but getting to know these 25 fellows give me incredible hope for the future of Africa.”

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