“Umoja” is the Swahili word for unity. It’s also the name of a Minnesota program for transracial adoptive families — parents who have adopted children of a different race.
Billing itself as a camp, Umoja MN is a weekend retreat program primarily aimed at white parents of black children, educators and others seeking to help families learn how to talk about race and their children’s experience as people of color.
The local version of the camp was launched four years ago when Alisa Matheson, now Umoja MN’s associate programs manager, attended a retreat for Umoja Inc., the Wisconsin program, as an adoptive parent. Matheson, who works for Evolve Adoption and Family Services, which sponsors the camp, came out of that retreat determined to do something similar in Minnesota.
“We had a camp every year since then for adoptive and foster and kinship families who come out and just learn what they need to know about parenting black kids,” Matheson said.
Originally, the retreats were held only once a year, but through the help of a grant from the Department of Human Services last summer, families now can attend three times a year.
“It’s a camp for the entire family. So parents come out with their kids, have a great weekend with their family, but also learn about culture and what they need to know to raise their kids well,” Matheson said. “The kids break off into their own programming to learn more about what it means to be African-American and how they can know that there are a lot of other families who look just like theirs.”
The camp (umojamn.org) has included speakers, poets, comedians and business vendors. Many of them are also transracial adoptees or African-American.
“The main focus is empowering parents raising black children to know what they need to parent well,” Matheson said. “To be able to have conversations about race, able to handle hair and skin care, to be able to just know what they need to know to parent black kids well.”
These are some of the things Joseph Carlson-Oknich and his husband, John, both of whom are white, learned after attending Umoja twice with their five black adopted children. Carlson-Oknich said he learned a lot and that his children were able to meet other families and kids like them.
“The kids are now opening up a lot more,” Carlson-Oknich said. “They loved it.”
Besides the connections his children made, Carlson-Oknich said he was able to connect with other families and learn from them, too.
“And I don’t feel stupid because we’re all there for the same thing and it’s to learn more to try and help these kids out that we’ve adopted,” Carlson-Oknich said.
He said that attending the camp has helped one of his sons realize that there are other families like his.
“The other great thing about it is our kids get to see that they’re not the only kids that have different families,” Carlson-Oknich said.
Providing an opportunity for children to see families like theirs was a motivation for Wendy Wolff and her husband, both of whom are white, to attend with their two black children. It was also a chance to build a better support network and provide their children with role models who are people of color.
“A lot of our kids have a lot of trauma and a lot of challenging behaviors, and it can be really stressful,” Wolff said. “And so if we can start building organic relationships with other adoptive families that understand our kids’ challenges, it’ll make for a much healthier adoption community.”
Alexis Oberdorfer, executive director of adoption for Children’s Home Society and Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota and a transracial adoptee, said her organization includes transracial and transcultural education in its work.
“I think culture and race can impact a child. And I think it’s one of multiple layers that needs to be considered in meeting a child’s needs and well-being,” Oberdorfer said.
She said that she thinks that cultural components should be addressed in every adoption because children move into new environments. Providing transracial and transcultural adoption education can get families thinking about their children’s experience in the home and community.
“We live in a racialized society, right?” Oberdorfer said. “And how can you, as a parent, be connected and be cognizant that your child might be having a different experience in the world than you have?”
Adoptive families can struggle to find resources and support, which can also lead to a similarly isolating experience for transracial adoptees. Michelle Johnson, a transracial adoptee who runs a support group for other black adoptees, said some adoption resources are lacking.
“There’s still a void of some of the things that I think really are necessary that I would have liked [growing up],” Johnson said.
Johnson said transracial adoption can be isolating when children don’t know anyone else who looks like them. She said white parents need to think about how they are raising their children of color, whether that means moving to more diverse areas or having difficult conversations with unsupportive family members.
“Our children are watching. It’s not just what you say. It’s how your behavior then translates into this value of this new family, this value of these children,” Johnson said. “That’s the hard work.”
She said it’s also important for programs to include transracial adoptees in the organization process, but that programs like Umoja MN are only the start of the work that adoptive families will have.
“So yeah, take your kids to the camp. That’s the beginning of the work — that is not the end of the work,” Johnson said.
Oberdorfer recommends that transracial adoptive families continue to be on the lookout for more opportunities to support their children.
“Continue to seek resources and be vigilant to what your child might be experiencing,” Oberdorfer said. “And I think you need to be connected to other people in your life that represent your culture and racial identity of your child or where your child came from.”
Imani Cruzen is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.