In an op-ed in TheGrio, Donté Donald, vice president at Fenton Communications, makes the case that Kwanzaa is more important now than ever to recognize the strength of Black communities despite systemic pressures meant to break us, particularly in our economic system and the racial wealth gap. He shows that despite great challenges, Black people have made significant strides and highlights the role of Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) in advancing economic opportunity for Black communities.

This article originally appeared in TheGrio.

From December 26 to January 1, many Black families across the United States will celebrate Kwanzaa, which means “first fruits” in Swahili or the agricultural harvest festivals that are found throughout Africa. Growing up, my family didn’t celebrate Kwanzaa, or many holidays for that matter. But over time and especially in the last few years through my work with Black-led nonprofits, foundations, and advocacy organizations, I have come to understand its importance as a way to recognize the strength of Black communities despite systemic pressures meant to break us.

Stemming from the Black Power Movement and founded in 1966 by educator and activist Maulanga Karenga, Kwanzaa is a moment to honor Black people, celebrate our contributions, heritage, and culture, while acknowledging our shared struggles and our unwavering efforts to overcome them. The holiday encourages people to honor seven principles: Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), (Kuumba) creativity and (Imani) faith.

Nearly 60 years since its creation the meaning and importance of Kwanzaa continue to resonate. Despite achieving significant progress, Black communities continue to combat systems of oppression, institutional racism, and systemic inequities. These inequities may be most apparent in the racial wealth gap.

As a result of centuries of systemic oppression in housing, our education systems and labor force, and insufficient access to capital and other business opportunities, Black people have faced significant barriers building wealth. In 2022, the typical white family had about six times as much wealth as the typical Black family. This is not just a problem for Black communities, but the entire economy. Over the last 20 years, the racial wealth gap has cost the US economy about $16 trillion. 

Yet, despite great challenges, Black people have made significant strides and demonstrated the power of community development efforts in the face of oppression. The example of Black Wall Street comes to mind. In the early 1900s, the all-Black Greenwood community in Tulsa, Oklahoma – like many other Black communities across the South and Midwest during that time – developed their own stores, banks, schools, hotels, newspapers, and a hospital. Despite political limitations through Jim Crow laws and the threat of physical violence, Greenwood thrived — with every dollar circulating through the community 50 times before leaving — and became one of the country’s most prosperous communities before it was demolished by a racist mob in the 1921 Tulsa Race massacre. The massacre killed hundreds of people and destroyed years of Black success and wealth-building.

Black Wall Street demonstrated the power and effectiveness of Black people working together to grow their community, which reflects the fourth principle of Kwanzaa, Ujamaa (cooperative economics). What’s clear from this example and others is that when Black people have the freedom to use their agency to build power and create opportunity, Black communities and other communities of color can and do thrive. What’s also clear is that the United States owes these communities great recompense to right its historic wrongs against them. 

Read the full piece in TheGrio.