Iya Oloriwaa was one of a small handful of Black students attending Brooklyn Tech High School in the late 70s.
At first she was thriving, an honor roll student with great expectations. And then suddenly out of nowhere, she lost her mind.
“At 15, when the hormones set in, I was hit with a severe bout of depression and lost my mind,” said Oloriwaa. “I became suicidal. I went from being on the Dean’s List, to dropping out of school.”
“When you are a precocious child, a high achieving child, people think you don’t need much. You may get the accolades but not the ‘We have to take care of her.’”
So, Oloriwaa said, she ended up making some really bad choices– ones that got her in trouble, landed her in the hospital and then eventually into therapy.
“Being able to talk about it was helpful,” she said. “But the therapist didn’t look like me, so she didn’t have a full grasp on what I was going through as a young black woman.”
Eventually, Oloriwaa, at age 18, discovered a community of Brooklyn residents rooted in African spirituality and realized what she was missing: a village of adults with a toolkit for helping her navigate life, realize her purpose and affirm the skin she was in. Being around a council of elders who prayed for her, mentored her and celebrated life through African music and dance was the most healing and grounding experience of her life.
She wanted others in her community to have access to these same affirming practices. So in 2002, Iya Oloriwaa launched Egbe Iwa (a Yoruba phrase that means “Of Young People”), a year-long cultural mentoring program in Brooklyn that serves as a rites of passage for young people moving through puberty and entering adulthood.
Rooted in core the tenets of Yoruba, Afro-Cuban, African-American and indigenous cosmology, the Brooklyn-based grassroots program consists of a series of dynamic workshops that teach youth skills that emphasize supporting positive self-affirmation and building strong moral character toward leadership in the community.
“We experience a rites of passage in every stage of our life, from birth, to puberty, to marriage, to becoming an elder until you die … All of those significant points in your life, you move from one stage to the next.” said Oloriwaa. “Puberty rites really is unlike any other stage of life, because if you turn left, your life can go left; if you turn right, your life can go right.
“During puberty, if you are not in an environment where the attention is not focused on you and you become confused, you can get pulled into very negative situations.”
With Egbe Iwa, each young participant has access to a team– an elder, a mentor, an alum from the program, and a person that prays for them everyday: “This helps them to get focused and get direction so they don’t fall through the cracks and learn to navigate the process,” said Oloriwaa.
But, don’t count on the youth to know or understand this concept to be something that will help them– much less volunteer to participate on their own:
“I can count on one hand how many people that come into the program actually want to come into the program,” Oloriwaa said. “Remember, we’re dealing with young people. We have this before and after picture, where everybody who is brought in is mean mugging, arms folded, mad at their parents or whatever …
“And it’s not an easy program; they have to work. But by the time they graduate with their fellow akeko (students), they have bonded and are joking and happy.”
Oloriwaa can go on and on about how the program has transformed the lives of and given purpose to its participants:
“We had one young man who was determined to be a drug dealer. He actually told us that that was how he wanted to make money. Today, after the program he’s a leader in the community who saves lives. … Another from some years ago had severe body issues, was depressed, overweight, didn’t like himself; and now he is running for mayor in his community.”
Oloriwaa says the key to the transformation might start with the mentoring and support of the elders but ultimately completes itself with the other youths. When one young person begins to transform, they inspire the others to change while also encouraging the others through the process.
“We had a girl that was going through deep depression and wouldn’t even get out of bed for her workshops,” said Oloriwaa of the program during COVID. “When we were remote, she’d be on camera while in bed. But her team pushed her! And now, she is present and happy and is now graduating.”
In other words, the youth bond, begin to trust in each other and learn the fundamentals of community building – that is, a responsibility to more than just self but to the village as a whole.
“If we’re having a workshop and someone is late or struggling, they will call them on their cell phone and ask that person, ‘Where are you? Why aren’t you here? What are you going through?’ They begin to see the value in holding each other accountable.”
On June 5, at 3:00pm, Egbe Iwaa will hold Ite Siwaju Commencement Gala & Ceremony, its 10th commencement ceremony and 20th anniversary gala and celebration entitled the at Glen Terrace, located at 5313 Avenue N in Brooklyn. Entry is open to the community with general admission tickets priced at $125 and children’s tickets priced at $65. For tickets, visit eventcreate.com/e/egbeiwagala.
“This 20-year milestone is an incredible testament to the strength of community and the love we have for our young people,” Oloriwaa said. “With a full support team dedicated to each and every teen that comes through our program, our goal is to empower our youth to have what they need to realize their best for themselves, the community and in the world!”
To register your child for Egbe Iwa’s 2023-2024 Session or to make a donation, visit EgbeIwa.org. To inquire on becoming a mentor with Egbe Iwa, email [email protected]. And to connect with Egbe Iwa, join the Egbe Iwa Facebook community, follow the organization on Twitter at @EgbeIwa1 or on Instagram at @EgbeIwa.