​Healing Through Cultural Knowledge

In April 1991, a group of concerned county, school and mental health professionals and community members launched Project Kofi in response to the alarmingly disproportionate number of African American boys placed in special education services in Saint Paul. 
Jermain Cooper, Kofi Services, Wilder, Amherst H. Wilder Foundation
Jermain Cooper, a Kofi alum realized a dream in August 2016 when T.R.U.T.H. Preparatory Academy Opened with more than 200 students. Cooper founded the charter school because he wanted to help address disparities in education. 
Students who joined Kofi were struggling at school. Their families often were living with toxic stress, trauma, and financial hardship. From its earliest days, Kofi has focused on giving students the chance to succeed through culturally appropriate mental health services that are based in schools but focus on the needs of the whole family.
The approach “brought so much integrity and respect inside the schools,” says Mary K. Boyd, who retired as an area superintendent at Saint Paul Public Schools after a 33-year career. “The youth understood that they were moving toward something that was etched in the pride of the African way. It raised their heads and their pride.” Kofi is derived from a word meaning “child of growth” in Akan Asente, a Ghanaian dialect.

Blending Culture and Mental Health

Kofi, celebrating its 25th year, is one of several ways Wilder works with schools to support the mental health of students and their families. Kofi began by serving African American boys in one Saint Paul school.
Over the years it has expanded to include African American girls and Hmong students. It now serves youth in grades pre-K–8 in 11 schools in Saint Paul. Rudy Rousseau, the longtime director of the program, estimates that Kofi has served over 6,000 African American students, parents, caregivers, and their families over the past 25 years.
As the program has grown, Kofi practitioners remain dedicated to providing a culturally responsive, multigenerational approach to school-based mental health services. “Instead of taking kids into a clinical office and talking to them about their behavior, our staff are there in real time, working with kids in the environment, and working with teachers and administrators to make a difference,” Rousseau says.
Kofi provides Western behavioral health techniques in a culturally responsive way. “Kofi is healing through cultural knowledge,” Rousseau says. “It’s more than wearing a dashiki or attending cultural celebrations. The culture informs us of how to provide the services and how to sustain the support.”
For example, fifth graders in the program take part in monthly activities and a culturally specific curriculum called Rites of Passage, which helps guide them into the transition to middle school.

The Importance of Hope

Dr. Artika Tyner, a civil rights attorney who is Associate Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Saint Thomas, remembers the confidence she saw when she attended a graduation ceremony last spring for fifth graders who had completed the Rites of Passage experience. She was touched by “hearing and seeing the stories of the young emerging leaders who understand their self-worth and know the possibility of going to college, of exploring jobs and careers.”
For Rousseau, that optimism will continue to be the key value of Kofi as the program evolves to continue meeting the needs of Saint Paul youth. “If there is one word that describes Kofi, it is hope,” Rousseau says.

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This story was featured in our 2016 annual report. Read the report to learn how Wilder strengthens children, families and communities.
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