Kujichagulia [KOO jee cha goo LEE ah] is the second day of Kwanzaa. In the Nguzo Saba, kujichagulia means "Self-determination:" to define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves instead of being defined, named created and spoken for by others.
Aletha Maybank exemplifies the principle of kujichagulia. Since she was five years old, she knew she wanted to be a doctor.
Today, Aletha Maybank is the assistant commissioner at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and serves as the director of the Brooklyn District Public Health Office, located 485 Throop Avenue between Putnam and Madison Avenues in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Although she is twice board-certified in pediatrics, preventive medicine and public health, Dr. Maybank left medicine after only a few years and instead chose to dedicate herself full-time to developing programs that serve to improve community health.
"We live in a time when health inequities in heart disease, cancers, obesity and HIV are great and have not shown much improvement over the past years," said Dr. Maybank. "These health inequities are rooted in the persistent social inequities--high unemployment rates, low high school graduation rates-- that exist.
"To make a significant and sustainable dent in these inequities, we need to have a seat, a few seats, at the table. Not being present in representative numbers at the decision-making tables limits our ability as a community to determine our own destiny."
She says, watching her mother make very difficult decisions for the sake of creating a better life for her family is the source of Maybank's own courage to make tough choices.
"[My mother] left her homeland of Antigua with no money and equipped only with her sense of resourcefulness and belief that America was the land of opportunity," said Dr. Maybank. "It is her self-determination in the pursuit of a better life filled with greater opportunities for both herself and for me that I have been exposed to my entire life."
Dr. Maybank also lists voting as key for a community seeking a path toward self-determination: "Not a typical message from a physician," she admits. "However, the more I interact with the political environment, the more I realize that the power still rests with the people, in terms of numbers. Politics influences so much of our daily lives, which means we as a community need to be more involved and engaged in the political process.
"Know the names of your local politicians, write or email letters to them, meet with them, and vote in the local elections. Your vote in all types of elections does make a difference and gives voice in creating our destiny as the black community."
Dr. Maybank adds that the power to create the life you want to live comes from the choices you make. And despite external circumstances, they do not have to define who you are and what you do in life.
"At any given moment, you always have the opportunity to think differently, to choose differently, to act differently. So choose to believe you deserve a better life and that you are worth your own effort to create the life that you want," said Dr. Maybank. "Sometimes it is not always easy to believe in ourselves. I struggle at times.
"That is why it is also important to hang around people who also believe in your potential, are supportive through your process of figuring life out, and can lift you up when you are having a hard time lifting yourself up.
"Keep your mind and spirit focused on your vision and goals, and your actions will naturally lead you to them."