by Eleanor Mitten
To date, the course Anti-Black Racism in the US and Building a Unified Society has had eleven offerings and 930 participants. The Project Center, a new evolving collaborative resource led by faculty member Jeanais Brodie for reflection and building relationships, has grown out of course participants’ desire to continue to share what they are learning about the oneness of humankind through meaningful individual, community, and institutional action focused on freedom from racial prejudice.
On May 22, the Project Center held the second in a series of planned quarterly gatherings where anyone interested in race unity can attend and learn about participants’ current work for both incremental and expansive social transformation. Over 50 people came to hear the strengths and the challenges encountered in four different initiatives created through “deliberate, persistent, and prayerful effort”: The Pure in Heart, presented by Agnes Ivery, Christian Hansen, and Dianne Savage, Addressing Anti-Black Racism among Institutions in the Northwest Region, presented by Erica Toussaint, African and Haitian Asylum-Seeker Accompaniment, presented by Ruha Temlock, Save Edison Park: A Community Action in Unity!, presented by Dr. Ding-Jo Currie.
The Pure in Heart
Agnes Ivery, Christian Hansen, and Dianne Savage shared the foundational concepts for the weekly program they have created together for spiritual healing leading to transformational relationships through exploring history, personal narrative, song, prayer, and study of Bahá’í teachings. They have identified and applied practical spiritual tools in Bahá’í Writings for awareness of, and healing from, the suffering and pain of racism in oneself and others. They described the vision for the Pure in Heart, “We are seeking those people who feel the need to work together for the betterment of the world. Working with the Writings and prayers to open our minds to our hearts. Making that connection with God and each other: the Pure in Heart with the Pupil of the Eye.”
By intentionally replacing negative thoughts with positive ones, drawing on ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Writings, example, and His high esteem and manner of love and respect He showed for people of African descent, they explain, “When you catch yourself thinking a negative thought you recognize it as being negative so that the next time the negative thought comes, you can stop the thought and replace the negative with something positive. That is why it is so important for us to know each other and discover the beautiful things about each other so we can remind ourselves of what precious souls we really are and gradually replace our sense of superiority and suspicions with the truth that we are one people and we need each other.” Agnes Ivery told a profoundly moving story, “The Black Pearl who Became the Black Rose,” of her own transformative healing experience through learning of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s elevated relations with the Pupil of the Eye, and also being in relationships and community with people who “reach out to one another with God’s love and have God’s love in their hearts.” The Pure in Heart is selfless love in action and welcomes collaboration with all on this healing journey.
Addressing Anti-Black Racism among Institutions in the Northwest Region
Erica Toussaint shared, “The Regional Baha’i Council of the Northwestern States is working to accompany all regional and local institutions and agencies in a process of learning around the goal of eliminating anti-Black racism. We strive to learn how to engage in, and promote, increasingly loving, open and truthful relationships among individuals, institutions, and communities. We hope to advance relationships that allow friends of African descent and other people of color to bring their full authentic selves into a community that is welcoming and trusting.” In December of 2020, the Council invited friends of African descent to a region-wide conversation so the Council could listen and truly hear the friends’ concerns and experiences. What the friends of African descent described inspired the Council to take up lines of action; address anti-Black racism among institutions and to develop an effective way to address the issue in a culturally relevant way for Persian friends. The Council chose the ABR course as a way to advance understanding and action among the institutions.
Three months later, all nine members of the Regional Council participated in the Spring 2021 ABR course. The Council also invited members of four Local Spiritual Assemblies with the largest diverse populations in the community to join them in the study of the course. 33 Local Spiritual Assembly members from these four Assemblies, two board members from the Regional Training Institute, and one Auxiliary Board Member were able to take the course. In addition, three Teaching Assistants for the course in Spring of 2021 resided in the Northwest Region. The Council continued to extend invitations to Assemblies to participate in the course. By May of 2022, after four consecutive cohorts of course participants from the Northwest responded to the Council’s initiative, over 140 LSA members from 24 Assemblies, as well as all the members of the Regional Training Institute Board, completed the course. Currently, the course’s teaching team has twelve Teaching Assistants from the Northwest. 40% of the participants for each cohort have been people of color who the Council has encouraged to enroll in the course.
At the end of each course, the Council reflected with members of the Assemblies to learn about the role of institutions in the work of eliminating anti-Black racism in communities and creating a welcoming environment. At the local level, deepenings on race, some with interfaith groups, are underway in Portland, Oregon, and as well as in Seattle, Sammamish, the Western peninsula of Washington, and with Assemblies of Thurston County. In Olympia, Washington, 200 participants recently attended the Souls of Black Folks conference, which was developed and planned by friends of African descent. The Council continues to encourage participation in the ABR course and is committed to listening and making adjustments to what is being learned at the individual, community, and institutional level.
African and Haitian Asylum-Seeker Accompaniment
Four years ago, Ruha Temlock began going to the immigration detention center in Eloy, Arizona, out of her concern for asylum-seekers from Africa, the Caribbean, South America, and Asia. She wanted to offer them support, let them know someone is aware and cares about their suffering and experience. Since then, she has connected with hundreds of people fleeing from violence and persecution who are kept in the complex dehumanizing system of detention. With Covid restrictions, she could no longer go in person to the closely monitored visits, so she began written correspondence and phone calls with asylum-seekers in detention throughout the US. She has shared Bahá’í Writings and prayers with them, developed friendships, and they have described harsh racist treatment in the detention centers. She has reported these to human rights groups and journalists, who then investigated and reached out to DHS, which led to some changes.
Ruha works with twenty four different national and community organizations that help asylum-seekers to find sponsors, pro bono lawyers, and finances to pay exorbitant bonds, to connect asylum-seekers with family, and offer support with post-detention case management. What started as an individual initiative to create friendships with people detained during their flight from injustice, has grown to involve deeply spiritual conversations and relationships with those seeking asylum, the creation of a social justice ministry immigration accompaniment group called “Contigo” with Unitarian Universalist, Bahá’í, and Buddhist members, the support of the Tucson Bahá’ís for Race Unity, and some local Bahá’ís who write to friends in detention. Ruha strongly encouraged more Bahá’ís as individuals and communities to support and nurture friendships with detained asylum-seekers and also when they are released from immigration detention to live throughout the country. She emphasized that this compelling and needed service to asylum-seekers can be reproduced anywhere in the US.
Save Edison Park: A Community Action in Unity!
Dr. Ding-Jo Currie and her husband, Mark, live across from Edison Park in Huntington Beach, California. The park is a tree-filled green space and center of recreation and enjoyment for hundreds of community members from diverse economic and cultural backgrounds. In November 2021, without any community participation in the process, the city approved plans to completely redo the park. The plans would remove the mature trees and greenspace, eliminate many of the recreation and sports facilities used by low-income residents, and unearth toxic waste in the soil. The only residents who were notified of the proposed plans were those who had paid a fee to the city to use the park.
When neighbors who used the park learned of the city’s plans, some felt hopeless and others wanted to protest. Ding-Jo and Mark created 500 flyers which their neighbors distributed. They invited people to a zoom meeting in December 2021 where the principles of consultation were introduced and adopted. The community action group consulted and understood the importance of universal participation. They, in turn, consulted with many park users and city leadership. Saving the park started as the individual initiative of two people who were willing to apply principles of consultation and collaboration to the process. It grew to include hundreds of diverse people in consultation, common purpose, collective work, and conflict-free organized advocacy. The city stopped the proposed plan on March 1, 2022, and in April there was a large community wide gathering in the park to build unity, friendships, and create more awareness for any future plans for preserving this beautiful central community space that so many enjoy together for their wellbeing.