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Fruits of “deliberate, persistent, and prayerful effort”: Report on Project Center Gathering #3

Nov 22, 2022

by Eleanor Mitten

The course Anti-Black Racism in the US and Building a Unified Society has had over 1,000 people participate in the twelve evolving iterations of the course. The Project Center, a new and developing collaborative resource for reflection and building relationships, has grown out of the participants’ desire to apply and share what they are continually learning about the oneness of humankind through meaningful individual, community, and institutional action focused on freedom from racial prejudice, America’s most vital and challenging issue.

On September 25, the Project Center hosted the third in a series of planned quarterly gatherings, open to anyone wishing to learn more about the transformation of racial prejudice into justice and unity.  Thirty-three people attended the virtual program to hear participants describe the strengths and challenges they encountered in four very different enterprises initiated with “deliberate, persistent, and prayerful effort” through innovative scholarship, arts, capacity building, and social discourse in the community.

Dr. June Manning Thomas

Struggling to Learn: An Intimate History of School Desegregation in South Carolina

The Project Center was honored to have Dr. June Manning Thomas, Mary Francis Berry Distinguished University Professor Emerita of Urban Planning of the University of Michigan, present on her new book Struggling To Learn: An Intimate History of School Desegregation in South Carolina published by University of South Carolina Press in March, 2022. Based on the experience she and her family endured as school desegregation pioneers, Dr. Thomas has created a project to enter into public discourse for people to better understand the history of anti-Black racism, how Black communities in the midst of systemic oppression of the Jim Crow South responded with constructive resilience to educate children, and the need for racial unity. Her extensive research spans from after the Civil War to 2020, yet at its heart it intimately recounts how in 1964, at only 15 years old, Dr. Thomas was one of 13 students who faced virulent prejudice and desegregated the local high school in Orangeburg, S.C., a school system riddled with racism and which was still completely segregated a decade after Brown vs. Board of Education.

Zoom screenshot of a slide from June Thomas’s slide show

In response to the unique scholarship emerging from her lived experience, Dr. Thomas has been invited to speak to large audiences at three different universities in South Carolina—Furman University, South Carolina State University, and University of South Carolina, as well as to students at the University of Michigan, University of Maryland, and San José State University. She has also presented at the Association for Bahá’í Studies and has an ABS article coming out shortly. In addition, she has shared her scholarship in virtual gatherings with the Racial Justice and Unity Forum, the podcast Bahá’í Perspectives, and the Wilmette Institute, where she is also the lead faculty for the course Anti-Black Racism in the US. One of the messages of Dr. Thomas’s extraordinary project that can apply to every person desiring to engage in public discourse regarding freedom from racial prejudice is to have an outward orientation and speak to hearts as well as minds; to look at the place where we are, the social context of where we live, and to use the opportunities continually before us to share and advance Bahá’í concepts about race unity. Her website junemanningthomas.com has a link to the book, and the many other works of scholarship Dr. Thomas has authored.

David Douglas

Conversations on Race and Community Building

David Douglas, a member of the Regional Bahá’í Council of the Midwestern States, started the group Conversations on Race and Community Building that meets weekly and serves the area around Grand Rapids, Michigan. The group started in 2020 when Mr. Douglas, inspired by the “moment of historic portent” described in the July 22, 2020 letter from the Universal House of Justice, reached out to neighbors who showed receptivity to racial justice and supporting Black Lives Matter on social media forums following the murder of George Floyd and the widespread demonstrations.  The group was primarily white and from the wider community with no education of Black history. With Mr. Douglas as facilitator, they consulted together about ground rules for conversation, topics to cover, and made lists of resources for study. 

Zoom screenshot showing David Douglas (top right) and a slide from his slide show titled “Racial Justice in Grand Rapids Michigan.”

As they were exposed to the facts of systemic racism in the country, the participants in the group underwent a transformation and were motivated to further their self-education and wanted to take action in their communities. Mr. Douglas knew that spiritual fortitude was needed for any action to lead to meaningful change, and created a space for the group to reflect together on shared values, the role models of civil rights advocates, and qualities necessary for change—wisdom, forthrightness, dedication, and courage. He also exposed them to guidance in letters from the National Spiritual Assembly and the Universal House of Justice.  Over the course of two years, they attended city council meetings to voice support for the passage of an anti-discrimination ordinance, wrote letters to city officials and engaged them in discussions, and participated in voter registration drives.

They were galvanized to further action after police killed Patrick Lyoya on April 4, 2022, near a neighborhood where Mr. Douglas’s extended family lives. The group decided to write to the Mayor of Grand Rapids, the City Commissioner, and the Commissioner of Kent County, and all individual City Council members. They carefully researched, revised, and crafted the letter to appeal to justice through the detailed examination of a long history of police brutality and violent misconduct towards the African American and African immigrant community in the Grand Rapids area. The letter, reviewed and supported by the Bahá’í Office of Public Affairs prior to being sent, offered concrete principled suggestions for solutions. 19 members of Grand Rapid institutions and religious leaders also signed the letter.  On September 6, three members of the group made a presentation of the letter at City Hall to the Mayor and City Commissioners.  In response, the Mayor, the deputy Police Chief, and Commissioner invited the group to meet with them and engage in deeper level discussions and steps to implement solutions. The group is continuing to learn how to work with city officials. Their example and narrative shows how essential it is to initiate conversations about race unity, justice, and equity with neighbors, to discover the areas of concern, interest, and shared values, to do the research, raise consciousness, and elevate the conversations to establish bonds and take action based on values and spiritual principles.

Slide of an excerpt from the letter the Conversations on Race group wrote to city officials in Grand Rapids, Michigan

Regina Jonker and John Wigley

Copper to Gold

Copper to Gold is a transformative personal capacity building program based on the Bahá’í writings and current research on racism. It addresses our socialization in a system based on race, and how individuals may not recognize the intense impact of this. What started as an individual initiative in April 2020, has grown to have five program developers, twenty-five facilitators, and is sponsored by the Spiritual Assembly of Nashville, Tennessee. The course takes place over 16 weeks in a closed group setting where intimacy and trust can be developed during the discussion sessions. Starting from the understanding that humankind is one and all are created noble, white participants are accompanied by Black participants who support their efforts and shed light on the consequences of biased behaviors and prejudice on the progress of community life.

Screenshot from breakout session for “Copper to Gold”

The group setting is “safe” in that it is confidential and judgement free. While not confessional, participants share their experiences to gain a deeper understanding of how racism influences us all and to explore how to undo this damage to ourselves and others.  The program covers how to recognize the common and all too often “unintentional” racist comments and “unconscious sense of superiority” that perpetuate estrangement, undermine community building efforts, and the achievement of racial amity with people of African descent and other people of color. It is for those who are willing to engage in the ongoing process of freeing themselves from racial prejudice through the application of Bahá’í teachings and to sit in discomfort with those who are willing to explore how racism, “the most vital and challenging issue”, has seeped into the fiber of our individual, community, and institutional lives. The program, which is closely aligned with the Institute process, has been growing steadily and organically for two years and is moving towards becoming incorporated as a 501c3 non-profit organization.  Individuals, friends in the wider community, members of institutions, and entire Spiritual Assemblies have participated and this has transformed the relationships and the collaboration among these protagonists. The course welcomes all who have the desire and the willingness to make the necessary changes in their heads, hearts, and actions to advance race unity. The email address for Copper to Gold is copper2gold1@gmail.com. The following link will allow anyone who is interested in participating in the course to be notified about the next information/intake session in January 2023: Winter 2023 Intro Form. The next course will begin in late January or early February.

Judith Partelow

NEIGHBORS, a collaborative community play

Judith Partelow, poet, playwright, actor, and director belonged to a writing group with 3 women, who had also taken the course Anti-Black Racism in the US. Together they shared essays and poetry to express what they had learned. This process inspired her to submit a project proposal to the Arts Foundation of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. She received a generous grant to develop NEIGHBORS, envisioned as a collaborative play about the impact of racism on individuals and communities specifically around the Cape.

Zoom screenshot featuring Judith Partelow (left) and Robin Joycwe Miller, collaborator, and creator of the play’s logo (seen at top of page).

Initially, there were concerns that a white woman got a grant to create a play about racism, when for years people of color have been denied funding to produce their work. Committed to the framework provided by the oneness of humankind, she consulted and collaborated with 12 writers, 18 cast members, and dozens of people supporting the play’s production who identify with diverse races and religions. She also worked with the renowned artist, author, and educator, Robin Joyce Miller, a resident of the Cape, who designed the logo for the play, contributed to its writing and performance, and this Project Center’s virtual gathering. The play had its first public reading on September 11 at the Cotuit Center for the Arts. Over 100 audience members from twenty-seven surrounding towns attended. Following the reading, the play writers, cast members, and more than half the audience stayed for well beyond an hour to discuss the issues the play raised, how it reflected their lived experiences in, and their hopes for, the community. Both the process of creating the play and the discussion afterwards generated new ideas, conversations, connections, relationships, and efforts. People have been inspired to explore how the play could be offered to local schools and also be a full production in theaters. Through the play and social discourse these conversations will continue to widen the circle of individual and institutional support for, and direct focus on, racial unity in the local communities.


For information on the first two Project Center gatherings, see also:
Report: Addressing Anti-Black Racism in the U.S. (Eleanor Mitten, June 2022 Newletter)
Graduates of WI Course on Racism Gather to Share Local Initiatives (Nicola Daniels, March 2022 Newsletter)

Contributors

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Eleanor Mitten, MTS

My research explores the histories of devotion as expressed in the generation of knowledge, material culture, and the formation of societies around the globe. For a decade I developed interfaith action programs for the faculty, staff, and students at Harvard University.

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