2023 Culture Bearers

Top left: Nothando & Vusumuzi Zulu, Top right: Ramona Kitto Stately, Bottom Left:Ginga da Bahia (Irenio Dos Santos), Bottom Right: Titilayo Bediako

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For over four decades, Nothando and Vusumuzi Zulu have been stalwart proponents of Kujichagulia, the Swahili word meaning self-determination. The concept of African people defining themselves is at the heart of why they are community activists and Storytellers. They believe that the ability of a people to decide who they are, have been and will be is an awesome power to wield. 

They revel in the opportunity of transmitting the values of our African ancestors through story.  

Both transplants from the south: Nothando from the sharecropping farms of Nat Turner’s county in Virginia and Vusi from the often tumultuous city of St Louis, Missouri. 

Nothando’s stories are filled with the strong human imagery of her rural – sometimes harsh, but always filled with familial love – upbringing. Nothando is a sharecropper’s daughter born in Franklin, VA. She’s the youngest and only surviving member of her six siblings in her family. While Vusi grew up in in the city where, as he often says, “we moved every time the rent was due – and we paid rent every two weeks!”  Together they sought to capture and channel the energy of the Black Power and Civil Rights movements through the act of simply telling audiences who Black people really are.  

As co-founding members of the Black Storytellers Alliance in Minnesota they began producing the popular “Signifyin’ & Testifyin’” three-day storytelling festival in 1991 after returning from the National Association of Black Storytellers, Inc. (NABS) festival and Conference in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. It was such a moving experience for Vusi who had never before attended a NABS event that they knew they had to bring something like that back to inspire the people in Minnesota. 

”Signifyin’ and Testifyin’” has entertained, enthralled and educated tens of thousands of Minnesotans since its inception 31 years ago. Nothando and Vusi have brought Tellers from across the country to weave the same storytelling magic. And whether it’s Vusi’s true-life experience in his story, “The Hog Rustlers”, or Nothando’s powerful telling of “The Eagle”, festival participants and audiences continue coming back year after year to glean more nuggets of truth about our people through the art of oral storytelling. Their Storytelling brings forth the ethos in addition to the pathos of our people. They demonstrate the Joy of being Black. 

It’s who we are. 

You can learn more about their work at: https://www.blackstorytellers.com 

Ramona Kitto Stately is an enrolled member of the Santee Sioux Dakhóta Nation. She has a BA  in Dakota Art and Culture, a minor in Business, and a Masters of Education with an emphasis on Teacher Leadership from Augsburg University. After 15 years directing Indian Education at Osseo Area Schools in Minnesota, she is now Project Director for the We Are Still Here Minnesota, creating action for narrative change. Ramona is the mother of two children, Jillian and Reuben citizens of Red Lake Nation, an accomplished beadwork artist with moccasins on display in the Science Museum of Minnesota, and currently serves as the Chairperson of the Minnesota Indian Education Association since 2016. 

She is a part of the scholars’ team with the Minnesota Humanities Center for Learning from Place: Bdote since 2013  and the author of  Pazahiyayewin’s Story of the Bdote which was inspired from her Great-Great Grandmother who survived the genocidal tactics during the US Dakota War. Ramona currently serves as 2023’s Indigenous Elder in Residence for Carleton College. 

Ramona and her son Reuben have also been spotlighted in the Documentary Film “Stories I Didn’t Know” with Rita Davern (Co Director/Producer) and Melody Gilbert (Co-Director and Award-winning documentary filmmaker). The documentary addresses little-known history of the Dakota in Minnesota and Rita who is looking for her Irish roots. The two stories collide in an inspiring conversation of truth, healing, and friendship. Stories I Didn’t Know was purchased by PBS world Television and has been seen all over the world. 

Ramona was the Recipient of the 2021 Ron McKinley Award from Minnesota Education Equity Partnership whose focus is to build equitable education spaces that uplift and empower Minnesota’s POCI students and advance racial equity and excellence in education.

It is an extreme honor to be called a culture bearer. As a Dakota woman, I call it lifeways. We have over 12,000 years of human history to share about this place, MniSota Makoce. We are Minnesota, and we have so much knowledge to share with one another that reminds our spirit of the strong foundations of who we are. 

You can learn more about her work at  https://washmn.org

Titilayo Bediako is a teacher extraordinaire. When she came to the Minneapolis Public Schools in the 1990’s, she brought the African American holiday of Kwanzaa with her. What started as a classroom project of 25 students turned into a districtwide program of over 200 students from African, Asian, European Latino, and Native ancestry. Ms. Bediako started WE WIN Institute in 1996, and worked full time as a public school teacher, and simultaneously raised two young children.  Amongst her credits include: Runner Up for Teacher of the Year, Outstanding Black Teacher, awarded by the Minneapolis Black Principals’ Association. Ms. Bediako has demonstrated that by teaching children about their rich cultural heritage, giving them a “can do” attitude and never giving up on them, that remarkable successes can happen for marginalized youth.  Through WE WIN Institute, she has proven that all children can learn and that all children can reach their highest potential.  

You can learn more about her work at: https://www.we-win.org

The director and creative mind behind Brazil Arts Twin Cities is Ginga da Bahia (Irenio Dos Santos). He is a choreographer, dancer, and dance and capoeira instructor from Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. Growing up in the Liberdade neighborhood of Salvador, he was immersed in a dynamic convergence of artists and organizers for human rights. He was a leader of the Filhos do Centro Histórico movement to raise political consciousness among community members resisting eviction for the city’s plan to create a tourist district in Pelourinho. He studied the foundational roots of Afro Brazilian folkloric dance with our culture bearers in Afro Brazilian religion, Candomblé. He has 30 years of experience, including professionally dancing with the Federal University of Bahia Dance Group, Oficina Nacional de Dança Contemporânea da Bahia, and many independent folkloric dance groups. He toured Europe twice as a featured soloist with Brazilian dance troupes Frutos Tropicais and Viva Bahia. He won first place in the National Jazz Dancing Festival on Brazilian Television System (SBT), with Silvio Santos. 

In New York City, among many events, he performed in “Ologundê ” at Peter Norton Symphony Space, was a guest choreographer for the Queens College Faculty Dance Concert 2014, dance instructor with elders at the Casa Boricua, and was the heart of the Saturday Brazil Night at S.O.B.’s, performing samba, orixas dance, and axé, bringing people together on the dance floor for more than ten years. In Minneapolis since 2016, he has been teaching dance classes with various arts organizations, performing in BrazilFest’s annual Carnaval, “Body Prayers” dance project, and leading the Brazil Arts Cultural Center. He’s currently working on the upcoming project, Immigrants: Dancing Our Stories.You can learn more about his work at: https://gingadabahia.portfoliobox.net/