With the afternoon sun beating down on my porch on College Avenue, I did my best to avoid the glare on my laptop screen and keep pace with the members of the Race Unity Circle. Six years old and based in Poughkeepsie, the Race Unity Circle was founded by, but not limited to, members of the Baha’i faith in the Hudson Valley. Baha’i emphasizes the unity of all people and rejects racism and nationalism; many of the founding Race Unity Circle members were committed to the elimination of racism as a spiritual imperative.
Over a Zoom call, the current members and I discussed their upcoming Race Amity Symposium (June 13-June 14), a collaborative event featuring groups from around New York and organized by the National Center for Race Amity. It is well noted—but incidental, as it was planned months ago—that the symposium occurs in the midst of one of the most monumental national conversations of race in decades. The significance is not lost on the members of Race Unity Circle. They launched the group after a white police officer killed Michael Brown in 2014, which widened participation in the Black Lives Matter movement that helped spur the widespread demonstrations taking place today.
The conference symposium, called “Envisioning Race Unity in 2020,” will feature discussions and films alongside speakers and storytellers. All will be hosted by the Race Unity Circle, now a spiritually and racially diverse community group devoted to its titular purpose. Sessions will focus on the factors that construct systemic racism: implicit bias, the artificial construction of race, the legacy of segregation, and white privilege and fragility. It’s a great big conversation, a skill that Race Unity Circle is well practiced in.
Deirdra Jen Brown, a local civil rights attorney and founding member of the Race Unity Circle, was stunned when she opened her inbox the morning of our group Zoom interview. A Race Unity Circle member had sent her an email regarding a years-old disagreement. It was not the sort of email that Brown comes across often—it was an acknowledgment of understanding. “I am sorry…I am learning that there is so much work to be done. I just wanted to let you know that I finally get it,” the email read. The message was in reference to a meeting three years before, when a white member had objected to separating into Black and white groups to discuss implications of structural racism. “Holy Christmas,” exclaimed Tamara Bond-Williams, another member of the Race Unity Circle present during the call, after she read the email. Brown let the moment sink in for the other luminaries of our Wednesday afternoon Zoom call.
The email was a surprise to all present, and just the sort of moment the Race Unity Circle strives to foster in its participants. The assemblage is a space of “amity,” a notion of friendship valued in the Baha’i faith. “It’s a bit Kumbaya-ish,” joked Bond-Williams. “It’s an old-fashioned word,” added Brown—Baha’i has roots in social activism stemming back to the early 20th century, when practitioners hosted a version of the race amity circles that continue today. It’s an improbable accomplishment, I thought. What started out as an imperative particular to Baha’i has blossomed into a community of diverse backgrounds, religions and creeds. “Who knows how many seeds have been planted?” mused Brown in reference to the surprising email.
Like all good things, Race Unity Circle kicked off with a screening of a PBS documentary. After a few meetings at a community member’s home, the group watched “Race: the Power of an Illusion,” an investigation of the scientific fallacies and sociological consequences of the notion of race. The far-reaching documentary provided the necessary sure-footing for constructive conversations about race and set a precedent for how the group would hold discussions in the future. They now meet monthly at the Poughkeepsie Underwear Factory, a new mixed-use development space in downtown Poughkeepsie.
No member of the Race Unity Circle professes to be an expert on any issue; as Brown says, “None of us have degrees in this.” Rather, pedagogy is left to the books, documentaries and studies the group digests together. They agree that the material lays the groundwork for organic conversations. Brown explained, “We’re parsing our history and trying to find a foundation of truth to build unity.” This is easy enough to say, but it takes patience and empathy to construct a discussion based around racism when some have only read in books what others have lived through their whole lives.
Still, personal connections among the group members endure. In fact, according to Brian Robinson, it’s the personal proximity rather than the material sources that promotes real learning. “We look like a group of people,”—by that, I think Robinson means a group of American people, representing a cross section of race and class—“we can’t just talk amongst ourselves, people who have never experienced this, and look at the statistics without the emotions and the real-world experiences behind it.” Diversity means more to the Race Unity Circle than a quota or a marketing campaign. It’s an essential part of learning how to empathize. “To hear from someone you have a relationship with and to hear ‘This is how this situation has affected me,’ now it’s not an abstract idea,” said Bond-Williams.
Tensions do flare from time to time. On the rare occasion they do, the moment is greeted with compassion and encouragement. Brown once had a member suggest to her they should “Stop complaining and perhaps start demonstrating our loyalty to this country by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.” Brown’s response? “Keep coming.” Whenever Brown would recall a moment of division, she’d use the phrase “bounce off” as opposed to quit or disagree. At first blush, our reactions to insensitive statements are to retort strongly and diminish the person that said them. Like it or not, that’s what cancel culture is. Race Unity Circle is the opposite. Rather than figuratively cast that person from the group, Brown said, “They bounce off, sometimes they don’t come back, but we keep doing it.”
The Race Amity Symposium begins Saturday, June 13, also known as Race Amity Day. This holiday was founded by the Bahá’í National Spiritual Assembly in 1957 with the goal of promoting racial harmony. The first day of the conference will begin with a morning meditation followed by hours of reflection, community and learning—learning which will take the form of art slams and discussions on institutional racism. When I asked how Vassar students can get involved in the Poughkeepsie community, the group was unanimous: Join our conversation.