West Philadelphia’s House of Umoja Strengthens Hope and Community

A Swahili term for unity, the House of Umoja was launched in West Philadelphia by Queen Mother Falaka Fattah and her husband David when she learned that her son had joined a gang and proceeded to welcome the group as family. Over the past 50 years, the organization has become an instrumental force around the world in promoting positive development for youth, specifically by economically and emotionally supporting boys from disadvantaged urban backgrounds. 

House of Umoja’s roots extend even farther than the organization’s founding in 1970. In an interview with the New York Times, Fattah recalled that, in the years leading up to the founding of House of Umoja, Philadelphia was notorious for the gang activities occurring in every pocket of the city. Fattah created the Umoja magazine in 1968 with the help of 35 volunteers and her husband. In particular, her husband was a former gang member himself who was reminded of his past when they received a letter asking why Philadelphian children were killing each other. The two hypothesized that economic and emotional pressure led young boys to join gangs in search of a sense of family, and they created the House of Umoja as a blueprint to test this.

Fattah was ultimately motivated to launch the House of Umoja when Philadelphia’s gang violence hit close to home: she learned that her 16-year-old son had joined the Clymer Street Gang in South Philadelphia, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. Rather than disown him, Fattah welcomed his gang to come live with her family and 15 members accepted the invitation. Over the next few years, Fattah’s family provided the boys with positive guidance as well as educational and economic resources that changed their lives for the better; the boys finally found a sense of community. Soon, boys from gangs across the city began piling into the communal home wanting to make the same positive changes that the initial members had made. 

Fattah originally structured the House of Umoja as a replication of the West African city of Djenne, Mali, which was built on top of the Old Towns of Djenne and has been inhabited since 250 BCE. Founded somewhere between the 8th and 13th centuries CE, the modern city was built next to the Old Towns of Djenne, a UNESCO World Heritage site. In addition to this World Heritage site distinction, Djenne shares many similarities with Philadelphia: both are major trading centers, both are centers of advanced learning, both are famous for their architecture and both are situated along major rivers. Through these similarities, Fattah was able to capture the cultural ethos of West Africa right here in West Philadelphia. 

Over the next 40 years, House of Umoja made leaps and strides towards providing positive guidance and role models for young boys across the city and the world. Serving over 3,000 boys, the organization expanded its headquarters to include 22 buildings on a block in West Philadelphia and won over 100 awards for their work. However, the program ended in 2010 due to financial difficulties and Fattah simply getting older, according to Philadelphia Neighborhoods

Never one to sit still, Fattah and her family began laying the groundwork for the next phase of House of Umoja: creating an entire campus. Publishing the Umoja Plan in 2019, the organization has expanded their location to include 29 properties, with the most green spaces on any block in West Philadelphia and guardianship over open lots. The organization is continuing to renovate the campus, and is seeking support from the government and nonprofit organizations in this process. 

For more information about House of Umoja, visit their website here

Article by Amelia Winger on behalf of the Global Philadelphia Association