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Learning From the Past, A Rites of Passage Journey


Image of 2019 Rites of Passage graduates standing on stage
2019 Rites of Passage Graduates (Corey Byrd, third from left)

What is Rites of Passage?

Rites of Passage is a program designed to develop youth and young adults to become leaders in the Black community. To look to the future, participants need to understand the past. Therefore, the 11-week curriculum is centered on research into African people, traditions and rituals since ancient times.


The Rites of Passage was developed by the Cultural Wellness Center, an organization that uses culture to improve public health and develop culturally based solutions to systemic barriers created by racism and poverty. “In order for Black men to move ahead and become leaders—to become the backbone of their community—they need to recover the culturally grounded manhood that was lost during enslavement,” said Elder Atum Azzahir, executive director of the Cultural Wellness Center. “Black male culture has become reactionary to life experiences under the dominant system, instead of one grounded in our cultural practices.”


Throughout the past five years, many Change Inc. leaders have gone through the Rites of Passage program. Through Change Inc.’s partnership with the Cultural Wellness Center, our Director of Community Solutions, Corey Byrd, has completed a train-the-trainer session of the program under Minkara Tezet from the Cultural Wellness Center and can now co-facilitate the Rites of Passage program for Change Inc. staff and participants.


Most recently, Corey and Minkara co-facilitated the Rites of Passage program for all Change Inc. Crossroads staff members. Here are excerpts of a recent interview between Change Inc. Communication Specialist, Katie Cudnowski, and Corey as he reflects about this experience and his own Rites of Passage journey.


KC: What is the significance of Rites of Passage?


CB: Rites of Passage is a cultural African American plight, a passage that that is utilized by those taking part. In the program, participants journey down the passage to take a deep look at the African American culture and go back to the times of slavery and talk about what took place from slavery up until today. They then attempt to understand who they are as a people prior to slavery. Together, Rites of Passage participants and I identify the problems, the concerns, the issues, the awareness, what they know, and the history of African Americans as a whole. We also look at their relationships with people of different colors and cultures in order to gain understanding of certain situations they’ve gone through.


KC: Why does Rites of Passage matter?


CB: There’s an old saying, “In order to know where you're going, you have to know where you come from.”It can seem as if the only Black experience an African American person in America has comes from slavery. If we look at a Black person’s experience from a different perspective and as being one culture and being one people, we know their history expands far beyond this. Slavery is the worst thing that ever took place for a black person in America. Through Rites of Passage, African American Black people are able to examine and work through who they are beyond slavery.


KC: Why does Rites of Passage matter to staff at Change Inc.?


CB: There are a lot of members of the staff at Change Inc. that are people of color. Once participants, which include some members of Change Inc.’s staff, go through the Rites of Passage they will be able to learn if and where the Native Americans or Latino Americans come in as part of the African American plight. They can learn about different cultures and how they played a part in the story of African Americans. Participants can learn where and how the connection between the White American and the Black American came into contact through slavery.


There are two staff who are White that have been involved with Rites of Passage and they have a different perspective on things. These staff have “wow” moments and there is a lot of sadness because our group is talking about actions their White ancestors committed against our Black ancestors. It’s not easy to hear on either end.


On another note, my last name is Byrd. I was able to use Rites of Passage to find out that my heritage goes back to Senator Byrd's plantation in Virginia.Sometimes I think about who would I have been if I weren’t Senator Byrd’s property?As a group we think about how people could justify having other people as property, and what the mindset and the psyche of the individuals that held people as property was like. Rites of Passage looks at these questions along with the good, the bad, and the ugly situations between cultures and opens these up for discussion, which is invaluable to our staff.


KC: Who is Rites of Passage’s intended audience and why does it matter to them?


CB: While the current Rites of Passage program is for African Americans, we have brought in individuals from other cultures so that they can have an awareness and understanding of what Black people have gone through and are going through. It also allows African American individuals to be able to talk about the hurt and the pain and share things that they may not have had the platform with which to share otherwise. Eventually, I hope to put on a Rites of Passage for all cultures. Perhaps one to takeHmong Americans, Native Americans, or Latino Americans down their Rites of Passage culture journey. There could also be one for the Caucasian American because they have a Rites of Passage as well, though very different from other ethnicities.


Rites of Passage is more than a gathering of individuals. Rites of Passage is an opportunity to unpack an individual’s entire sense of being. Through the leadership of qualified individuals such as Corey, local African American Black community members recount their ancestry and all of the things that make up who they are today as a people and as an individual. This offers participants the unique chance to connect with their past and learn how to shape the future.


If you are interested in joining or learning more about the Rites of Passage program, please contact Corey Byrd at cbyrd@thechangeinc.org.


Thank you to the Minneapolis Foundation for supporting two cohorts of the Rites of Passage program in 2022. We look forward to sharing stories of this journey in the future.

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