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North Carolina Central University (NCCU) and WI: Capacity Building Through the Arts and Dialogue

Jan 20, 2023

Photo: The Cast for “The Bus Stop” joins the audience in welcoming the directors, Dr. Stephanie (Asabi) Howard and Mr. Najee Brown to the stage.


Last April, Wilmette Institute staff visited North Carolina Central University (NCCU), a public historically Black university in Durham, North Carolina. Dr. Harvey McMurray, professor at NCCU for over 35 years (pictured here), and a longstanding Bahá’í, graciously introduced the Wilmette Institute to university administrators, professors, and local like-minded organizations.

It did not take long to realize that members of the Bahá’í community had previously collaborated with NCCU’s Office of Community Engagement and Service through the Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program since August 2016. It should be noted that all undergraduate students require community service to graduate, and their motto is – Truth and Service.

Interdisciplinary Collaboration

Together with a special visit from former Universal House of Justice member, Mr. Kiser Barnes, Dr. McMurray, a couple representatives of the Wilmette Institute, and NCCU professors engaged in conversations to explore collaboration on how to systematically address community-building and social justice issues.The fruit of these meetings was quite clear after just a few sessions. Dr. McMurray had invited professors from various departments including Criminal Justice, Theatre and Dance, Social Work, Political Science, Public Administration, History, and the School of Education, to establish an interdisciplinary framework to explore social justice and community-building initiatives. For many, this was a unique space because as Dr. McMurray stated, “This would be the first time that an interdisciplinary initiative was centered around the arts and education.”

Capacity Building Through the Arts and Dialogue

head shot of Stphanie Howard smiling, in black and white

In collaboration with stakeholders at NCCU, the Wilmette Institute introduced the idea of using the arts as a catalyst for prevalent discourses in society. November 10 – 13th, 2022, the NCCU Department of Theatre and Dance headed by Dr. Stephanie (Asabi) Howard (pictured here), in collaboration with the Wilmette Institute, hosted a powerful play, The Bus Stop, to create a springboard for dialogical education about the pressing social issue of the mass incarceration of people of color.

Written and co-directed by Mr. Najee Brown, the play features the lives of five African-American women who form friendships with one another as they regularly take the bus to visit their loved ones who are incarcerated. The play addresses many issues such as structural racism and its impact on the Black family unit, the school-to-prison pipeline, access to quality education, privatization of prisons, intergenerational communication, and the need for social justice and community development. 

Over five hundred individuals attended the six performances. After each show, there was a post-performance discussion with the audience, including students, cast members, activists, justice-involved individuals, representatives from local organizations, professors, researchers, and members of the Baha’i community in the triangle region in North Carolina. During the discussions, some of the attendees eagerly shared their reflections about the play, while others painfully shared the impact of incarceration and poverty on their own families. One theme that clearly emerged was the need to recognize the intersection of race, gender, and class. In order to discuss a holistic approach toward lasting change, the interconnected issues had to be identified. While the first few discussions focused mainly on the problem of a racialized caste system, the discussions were increasingly characterized by insights that addressed dismantling systemic racism from ‘top down’ with policies and institutional changes to ‘bottom up’ efforts at the grassroots like community building, raising awareness, and spiritual education. A repeated point of discussion was the realization that sustained change had to involve the neighborhood.

Planners of this initiative challenged themselves with the question: How can a community-building process that includes artistic and academic activities help raise the awareness and capacity of students and community stakeholders? Mr. Najee Brown worked with NCCU student actors across the three-week rehearsal period, bonding with their stories and mentoring them. NCCU faculty collaborated with Dr. Chitra Golestani of the Wilmette Institute to build capacity with graduate students and local activists to facilitate the post-performance discussions.

Heartfelt Gratitude for Building Capacity

The faces of the cast beamed with joy as the audience burst into a standing ovation at the final show. The rich post-performance discussion that followed was embellished by the regular participation of cast members, who openly spoke of being transformed by the experience and process. At the celebration dinner that followed, one of the student actors was moved with a sense of humble gratitude, asking Dr. Golestani, “Why did you all focus on us and our school?” This opened a conversation about how the Wilmette Institute values the importance of HBCUs and specifically the collaborative will at NCCU to contribute to building capacity among its students and the surrounding community.

As this student expressed her appreciation for the opportunity to participate in the play, she broke into tears, along with her friend, the stage manager. They recounted how nervous they were at first and how much they enjoyed working with Najee Brown and representatives of the Wilmette Institute. Graduate students who facilitated the discussions also expressed that they enjoyed the opportunity to facilitate.

Debrief and Next Steps

On Monday morning, November 14, 2022, eight students, an activist/author, Dr. McMurray, Mr. Najee Brown, Mr. Jeff Albert, Dr. Chitra Golestani, several faculty, and the Director and administrator of the NCCU Office of Community Engagement and Service met to reflect on the experience as a whole and the next steps forward. After consulting at length, the students identified several issues that they would like to address: 

1. The need to raise awareness about student involvement in community-building on the NCCU campus. One student shared, “Students on campus need to stop engaging in the negative stereotypes and start caring about making change.” Others talked about how to get their fellow students to care about activism beyond getting credits for community service.

2. In selected areas surrounding NCCU, there are at-risk youth who don’t know the mission of NCCU or have never stepped on campus. One person raised the question: “How can NCCU reach out into the community and its efforts and start working with children and youth”? A couple of students intend to learn more about the social action based junior youth groups in the Durham area.

3. The question of how the Wilmette Institute (WI) can support the efforts was explored, and the desire to have WI guest lectures, an annual lecture series and online seminars were discussed. Also mentioned was the pressing need for applied research to better understand community life and provide evidence-based policy recommendations for community building.

Major take-a-ways from this initiative include the importance of establishing relationships, exploring pathways for interdisciplinary collaboration, building human capacity through accompaniment and embracing human values in social change. The Wilmette Institute looks forward to continuing to learn and explore ways to meaningfully collaborate with interested departments, faculty, administrators and students at NCCU in the year ahead! 

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