Igniting Black Baha’i Youth (IBBY) 2022 Weekend Seminar
Reflections by Nadia Mehretab
Black Baha’i youth ages 18-28 from across the nation gathered in Washington, DC, for a three-day seminar on Labor Day weekend. Planned in the span of about three short months this summer, “Igniting Black Baha’i Youth (IBBY) seeks to foster a space of healing and spiritual deepening… and overall uplift the spiritual strength, capacity, and steadfastness in Black Baha’i youth in our communities.”
And uplift it did.
Arrivals to the DC Baha’i Center started Thursday night with about 35 participants coming from Minneapolis, Chicago, Toronto, Atlanta, various parts of California, New York, and the greater DC area. The love radiated from the start.
“I didn’t think this was going to be as impactful as it was, but right away when we began gathering Thursday for dinner, I felt something I never felt before. I’m still trying to put it into words,” says Kayla Taylor, one of the planners of the seminar weekend.
Inspired by conversations at the 2022 Baha’i National Convention about the importance of lifting up Black Baha’is and supporting affinity spaces, at the end of April, Taylor began working alongside five of her friends, Nadia Mehretab, Jason Henderson, Amani Lawrence, Emilia Mehretab, and Asiyih Lawrence, to create the program.
Putting on a nationwide gathering would take a lot of time and work and they felt the urgency to make it happen as soon as possible. With the help of Barbara Talley, planner and organizer of the “Arise: Pupil of the Eye” conferences, the team was able to raise funds from generous souls who were excited to support Black youth. Looking for attendees, the group started a shared list of their friends and launched a social media campaign and website posting weekly updates for a growing number of interested participants.
The next concern was to identify an appropriate space to host the event, thus beginning a loving and helpful relationship between the planners and the Washington, DC Local Spiritual Assembly who expressed their support and offered administrative guidance.
Assembly member Shayda Vance says, “The DC [Assembly] felt honored to host the IBBY conference and have the opportunity to learn together with this wonderful group of youth. We’ve been trying to learn as an [Assembly] how to support youth and also how to support and empower African American Baha’is. And along came a group of youth wanting to do both!” she says.
“The timing could not have been more perfect,” participant Aziza Hutcherson said on the last day as she thanked the planners. Many of the youth felt they were at a breaking point – the pandemic, increasing racial violence, and heightened tensions have created a confusing social reality that cannot be navigated alone. For Taylor and her friends, it became clear through frequent conversations that Black Baha’i youth sincerely needed a space to learn and heal.
Amani Lawrence explains his motivation for planning the seminar: “I thought that IBBY could be a source of excitement for Black youth, myself included, and this excitement would be used for arising to serve the Cause, in whatever capacity that may be.”
“The main reason we created this seminar was to have a place for us to form friendships,” says Taylor.
“A lot of us have participated in Baha’i youth activities throughout our lives but we are so often the only Black youth in those spaces,” she says. “That is just as isolating and disconnecting as being the only Baha’i your age in your community.
“This weekend was life-changing,” Taylor says. “The people I’ve met here are undoubtedly my friends for life.”
Because this conference was planned by youth for youth, social opportunities were plenty. With late start times, participants were able to explore the city and spend time together each evening.
“We were able to provide insight into what worked for us and what didn’t work,” says Mehretab. “We didn’t want to be tired throughout the day but we knew our socializing at night was important. It also allowed us to be creative. Youth are familiar with the conversations youth are having and it allowed us to design [relevant] workshops.”
They talked about the pressures of being a Black youth both within and outside the Faith and the important obligations to the Cause of God for this day and age. Many conversations were characterized by a unique understanding of the special message of love and peace that Baha’u’llah offers to a spiritually afflicted society.
Some of the most impactful workshops were the ones titled Foundations for a Fortress of Well-being and Self Love is Not Selfish Love. The latter was a youth-led discussion about the importance of rest and self-care in a troubled society with unique social stressors for those of African descent.
The weekend began with a planned trip to the National Museum of African American History and Culture where all 35 youth gathered to explore and learn precious parts of their history in a profound and interactive manner.
Participant Emilia Mehretab remarked on the importance of seeing the legacy of Black artists in particular, “As a precursor to the rest of the weekend it was important to see what Black people have contributed to this country’s progress,” she said. “And as an artist myself I hadn’t been exposed to many Black artists in that kind of space of grandeur. It was such a rare and inspiring thing.”
Following the excursion to the museum the seminar opened with a welcome dinner on Friday night for all the youth, facilitators, volunteers, and the Washington, DC, Baha’i Local Spiritual Assembly. Prayers were said and introductions were made, and the night closed out with the reading of a love letter written by the Assembly to the youth in attendance.
After breakfast Saturday morning, prayers began at 11 a.m. Workshops that day included topics such as Demonstration of Heart led by Ed Rice, a personal and touching tribute to the inspiring young Life of the Bab; Keeping it Real as a Black Baha’i led by Kelsey Taylor, an inside look at at the necessary qualities of heart and mind as professionals; and The Growth of the Faith amongst the Dark-Skinned People of the World by Tod Ewing, a dynamic presentation on the brilliant souls at the forefront of sharing Baha’i community-building strategies throughout Asia, Africa, and the Pacific.
During break-times youth reflected on the parts of the weekend that most impacted them. “I think the self-love talk we had was pretty great because, as Baha’is, we’re taught to be of service to the world,” says Hiyab Haile, an attendee from Virginia. “It’s pretty important to focus on ourselves too because resting helps with our goals. It shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing.”
Saturday night closed out with Persian food for dinner, a salsa dancing lesson and karaoke.
After breakfast and opening prayers on Sunday, the group held a workshop, Foundations for a Fortress of Well-being, with discussions on relationships and marriage. Infused with the Faith’s principle of harmony of science and religion, married couple Angela and Karim Ewing-Boyd conducted an intellectually empowering workshop that shared insights from Angela’s background in therapy and Karim’s work as a school administrator. Participants left with an appreciation for marriage as a spiritual institution as well as a personal journey that anyone can prepare for through study of both the Baha’i Writings and psychology.
A group photo was taken after lunch, followed by a final session led by Ruha Benjamin, an African American Studies professor from Princeton University, titled Viral Justice: How to Grow the World We Want. In the workshop, youth used theater arts and the study of various passages from the Baha’i Writings and influential Black authors to explore ideas around power and the true nature of justice. The day ended with a cookout where participants grilled burgers and hot dogs for one another.
As the seminar neared its end many youth reflected on those moments of impact throughout the three days.
“What I’m taking back to my community is that, if there’s one thing I think I’ve learned this weekend is that there is no formula of how I’m supposed to give service,” says Haile. “Someone can take a different path to give service. I don’t have to take that exact path.”
Haile, an urban planning master’s student at George Washington University plans to use her studies to “right the wrongs of the past” and make “a significant difference in the lives of disadvantaged communities.” Haile was one of the many youth present at IBBY who hope to exemplify ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s guidance: “Work done in the spirit of service is the highest form of worship.”
On the final evening, the youth huddled together in warm conversation as love radiated throughout the room. Atlanta youth Ifeanyi Chuke Williams said that he was walking away from the IBBY seminar “with a sense of peace and resolve” in his heart. It appeared that the aims of the seminar to help, heal and empower had been accomplished.
The seminar was also a healing space for adult presenters as well who were able to form bonds of loving mentorship with the youth present. “I realized this conference/meeting of hearts answered an internal healing prayer that I didn’t even know I had asked of God,” says Rice.
Fellow presenter and Local Spiritual Assembly representative Ewing could be heard throughout the seminar sharing encouraging messages and demonstrating a welcoming spirit for every downtrodden soul who comes across Baha’u’llah’s life-giving teachings.
“During the first evening of the conference you could feel the excitement in the air.” Ewing says that it is almost certain that in any such gathering participants will be on a continuum ranging between “pain and possibilities.”
“Some of the individuals in that room would no doubt be struggling with some aspects of their life and though present could be in some level of pain,” he says. “This could be pain related to race or just the pain that life provides during these very challenging times.”
Ewing adds that others may be more at the place of joy in their lives and just vibrating with a spirit of possibilities. “It was important that the gathering provide an atmosphere that could embrace both ends of the continuum.”
As everyone prepared to leave the following Monday, the final devotions abounded with joyful and uplifting music along with a palpable spirit of touching reverence and just a little bit of melancholy. The hearts were clearly bonded together in love, devotion and a dedication to transform the world from a place of pain to joyful possibility for all people.