Guest post by Triesta Fowler, MD, Scientific Diversity Officer for the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD), and Monica Webb Hooper, PhD, Deputy Director of NIMHD.
In honor of Black History Month 2023, we are highlighting positive and protective factors that raise awareness of and show appreciation for the myriad cultural and community strengths that facilitate safe spaces, where the health of children and adolescents can be fortified and maintained.
“It takes a village” is a proverb that has been attributed to African cultures. For example, in Lunyoro—the language of Bunyoro, a Bantu kingdom in Western Uganda—“Omwana takulila nju emoi,” means “A child does not grow up only in a single home.” The idea behind the proverb is that although parents have the primary responsibility for raising children, the “village,” or their community, also plays an important role in how a child is raised. It is a longstanding belief that the community should and can create a safe and healthy environment in which the child grows. This belief in the power of community is an important component and strength of African American culture.
Members of the village become part of a redefined extended family that share a common culture, values, and customs. These members may include other relatives, close friends, neighbors, and a trusted religious community. These connections have been defined as “fictive kin,” or people who reinforce and extend the familial bonds beyond a biological relationship.
One area that is impacted by the village concept is caring for children, which becomes a shared responsibility across all the members of the fictive kin. Parents and their children are given the opportunity to be supported by and connected to additional community resources and to gain an increased awareness and access to what is available in the community, including opportunities to enhance a child’s learning and developmental processes. The village can also have positive effects on a child’s well-being and physical and mental health. Indeed, the social support and perceptions of cohesion in such neighborhoods are related to fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression.
As children grow up surrounded by fictive kin, they develop their own sense of community and connection to their village. Conscious community-building can also spark a sense of responsibility to give back to the community and its members beyond any personal benefit. This sense of community consists of four components: a sense of belonging, a belief that you can make a difference in your community, a feeling that needs will be met through the resources provided by the community, and an emotional connection that results from shared experiences.
This emotional connection can help address the feeling of isolation that may arise from the pressures of society such as systemic racism, and surrounding children with people who share these experiences can help increase positive coping skills and reduce mental health concerns. That is, the community has the power to act as a buffer and offer needed protection to children and adolescents.
For generations, the idea of “it takes a village” has been at the center of African American culture because it creates an environment of love, support, and protection for all its children. It highlights the belief that the environment provided by the extended family gives children the best start in life and is an investment in their future. This concept will never grow old and is something that everyone from all cultures can actively support. During Black History Month and beyond, we encourage advocates for holistic physical and mental wellness to learn more about the importance of community-level social support—the village—and fictive kin.
Dr. Fowler leads NIMHD diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility efforts in collaboration with NIMHD leadership and staff. She was previously a medical officer and Director of Communications and Outreach within the Division of Intramural Research at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) leading key diversity activities. She began her work in diversity outreach and engagement at NICHD in 2007 as the director and creator of The National Child and Maternal Health Education Program.
Dr. Webb Hooper is an internationally recognized translational behavioral scientist and licensed clinical health psychologist. She has dedicated her career to science that benefits and serves communities with a focus on chronic illness prevention and health behavior change. Her overarching goal is to do the work necessary to produce meaningful, positive change and assure health equity. Before joining NIMHD, Dr. Webb Hooper was a tenured Professor of Oncology, Family Medicine & Community Health, and Psychological Sciences at Case Western Reserve University and Associate Director for Cancer Disparities Research at Case Comprehensive Cancer Center.