Kalamazoo, Mich. – The Baha’is of Kalamazoo and their collaborators welcomed 51 participants May 14–15, 2022, to the Kalamazoo Nature Center for “Building Vibrant Communities: A New Framework for Social Justice and Spiritual Transformation.” This workshop was part of a greater wave of tens of thousands of conferences hosted by local Baha’i communities worldwide over a course of three months. While the grassroots nature of the conferences allows for a rich range of forms and creative expression, the efforts across the globe aim to raise a single call: Inviting all well-wishers of humanity to walk together on a path of service, unified by a sense of collective action for the betterment of the world.
A warm and vibrant spirit filled the sunlit room from the very beginning of the Kalamazoo workshop on Saturday, May 14. The session opened with devotions, music, and an exploration of Bahá’u’lláh’s vision for the spiritual and material progress of humanity.
“Our aim is to bring unifying spiritual principles into the work of transforming ourselves and our communities: Wherever we find justice is lacking, and wherever we find humanity is needlessly suffering,” says event organizer and Bangor, Mich., resident Dale Mitchell.
Participants then explored how weaving those unifying spiritual principles – such as trustworthiness, cooperation, and forbearance – into our personal and collective actions could transform the very fabric of society.
During the second session, participants watched a short film that reminded us to consider how far the world has come in a relatively short amount of time. While the notion that every human life has equal worth – and that we are each part of the greater tapestry of humanity – is gaining wider acceptance around the world today, such notions led to the severe persecution of Bahá’u’lláh and those who promoted the unifying principles of the Baha’i Faith.
Lunchtime was a relaxing opportunity to visit with new and old friends. Many people enjoyed the open patios surrounded by woods, a stream, and sounds of spring in Michigan.
The third session invited participants to dive deeper into what it means to build vibrant communities through creative expression such as poetry and drawing. There was plenty of laughter, smiles, and lively discussion as people began thinking and working together in new ways. Later the group reflected on how much more powerful our actions can be when each step we take is connected by a simple strand of love.
An energetic highlight of the day was West African dance and drum, led by arts and community enrichment leader Heather Mitchell with Michigan State University percussionist, band leader, producer, and educator Kevin Jones, plus several student dancers and percussionists.
“This was the heart of the workshop. It was vibrancy in motion. By extending loving invitations and exuding a lively spirit, Heather was able to get everyone in the room dancing, from ages 8 to 88!” says Kalamazoo resident Karen Williams. “There’s a palpable sense of strength in community when every single person participates and feels valued.”
For the fourth and final session of the day, the group explored the centrality of education to the Baha’i vision of spiritual and social transformation. In fact, the Baha’i-inspired training institute is used on a global scale and has no parallel as a grassroots educational model for every age and every level of study. “It starts with one activity, but everything is connected. Everyone participates – families, neighbors, friends,” says Lisa Whittaker, event organizer and recently retired professor of Western Michigan University’s College of Aviation. She showed a clip from a talent show that local junior youth had helped plan to raise funds for the Tahirih Justice Center – a nonprofit organization that serves immigrant survivors fleeing gender-based violence. “Even during the pandemic, the youth groups found creative ways to connect,” says Whittaker.
The children and youth at the conference then joined the main session to share the highlights from their day. Older youth articulated how the transition from childhood to youth, between the ages of 11-15, represents a reservoir of capacity to transform society. Younger children shared a prayer they had memorized and handed out flowers with inspirational quotes as gifts for participants to take home.
The day ended on a high note with the group singing, “All activity begins with this simple strand of love … It is the vital thread.”
Sunday, May 15, focused on social justice in action – particularly how to launch a local chapter of Parent University.
“There’s a pressing need to take the essential ideas of transformation and put them into action,” says Mitchell, who is currently co-chair of Southwest Michigan’s Advocates and Leaders for Police and Community Trust (ALPACT). Mitchell had invited several community collaborators and representatives of local organizations interested in launching Parent University to the event, including Justice Against Bullying at School (JABS) and Helping Other People Exceed (HOPE) Thru Navigation.
Michael O’Neal, Executive Director of Parent University, hosted a lively virtual Q&A session after explaining why the organization has been growing for 23 years when others may come and go. “First of all, we define ‘parent’ broadly. A parent is anyone who’s interested in the success of our kids.” Secondly, organizers are encouraged to listen, remove barriers, and then build a program that suits their particular needs within the model. Importantly, the organization’s very structure works at dismantling the power dynamics that so often come into play when a service is presented as a way to fill someone else’s deficit. To illustrate how this program is different, O’Neal shared a course list from a Parent University event he attended just the day before. “See this long list of classes? The parents themselves are the ones deciding what to take. We don’t tell them which classes they need – and therefore what their deficits are. They choose. Do you see how different that is?”
Sunday concluded with closing remarks by David Douglas of Wyoming, Mich., who shared context on how these global conferences are merely the launching point of a 25-year series of plans that Baha’is and their collaborators are embarking on together. He prompted participants to consider: “Think of where you want to be in 25 years, and what you want for your community. What action will you take today to get there? What about tomorrow, or next week?”
Indeed, the workshop felt like the beginning of an ongoing collective endeavor where every person plays a critical role. As we continue to ponder the way forward to building vibrant communities, many participants are already making plans to form a local Parent University and children and junior youth empowerment programs.