Illumine America is a podcast created by the U.S. Baha’i Office of Public Affairs. It explores some of the major issues facing American society, such as economic inequality, racial justice and race unity, the sustainable development of our planet, and more.
Just as much as we’re troubled by the challenges inherent to these issues, we’re also inspired by constructive approaches to them that we see being piloted everyday. Our podcast highlights, or illumines, the work of some of the individuals, communities, and institutions that are bringing fresh insight to these urgent conversations.
Note: edited for clarity and brevity.
Welcome back to the show! If this is your first time dropping by, Illumine America is a podcast produced by the Baha’i Office of Public Affairs that explores constructive solutions to some of America’s most pressing social issues.
This week’s episode, which is the first of two parts, features PJ Andrews and May Lample, our Race Discourse Officers, interviewing a team from Durham, North Carolina that have been working in their neighborhood to sustain a Baha’i-inspired program of community building that works with younger youth to develop their spiritual capacities to serve humanity. This program, which occurs in many places around the country and the world, is called the Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program.
May: Welcome you guys, thank you so much for joining us today. Maybe we could start with each of you introducing yourselves, and talking about your relationship to the Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program.
Malik Denni: my name is Malik Denni. I started as a full-time volunteer in late November. I got introduced to the program a little earlier in the summertime in August 2019. So I am about 6 months in, serving full-time, and I serve in the Durham area. I have one junior youth group.
Shadi: My name is Shadi, and live here in Durham, but I oversee the development of the Junior Youth Program in this community and surrounding area.
Malayja: Hi, my name is Malayja. I am serving as an animator full-time in Durham. I started in August, and serving full-time in December, and I love it.
Ian: My name is Ian, I live in Durham. I am in the middle of trying to start a junior youth group. It has been complicated by a global pandemic. In Durham, I am trying to serve the community and the junior youth program.
Nathan Glines: My name is Nathan Glines I also have a junior youth group in the same neighborhood as everybody else, here in Durham. I have been holding that group for about 2 years now in the neighborhood, and together also offering the courses of the distance education system promoted by the Baha’i training Institute in the area for maybe a few years before that. In addition to living and serving in this particular neighborhood, I also serve the Baha’i International Development Organization as a resource person facilitating visits and a learning process around the junior youth program on the East Coast as a whole.
May: Welcome everyone again, thank you all for being here today. It would be great to hear a little bit more about what the city of Durham is like, if you could tell us about the population that lives there, what the culture is like, that would be really nice to hear.
Malik: I would say that Durham has a pretty chill atmosphere, as far as where we serve in the Durham area. We have 9 zones that surround NCCU, which is North Carolina Central University, an HBCU in Durham. So these 9 surrounding areas around the university are where we serve. Primarily, we have Hispanic families, and African American families, so most of the junior youth groups that I have formed, and Malayja has formed, and Nathan’s group, are either primarily Hispanic or African American.
Also, a lot of the families we serve are probably below middle class. Some are more on the poverty side of things, and maybe underprivileged in some ways. But we see that the capacity of any human being, especially children, is extraordinary, so we like to serve in those areas for the reason, for the purpose of empowering people that may feel discouraged by their financial circumstances.
Nathan: One of the unique characteristics of this particular part of the city that we are all serving in is that it has a really long history of having a strong Black community. In the earlier 1900s, it was known as ‘Black Wall Street.’ It was a neighborhood called Hayti. Du Bois wrote about it, and said that it was an area with so much strong, Black-owned business, and the religious community was really strong. And he described its social and economic characteristics as a “beacon of light for the South,” and even described that, “there is a place in North Carolina called Hayti, in Durham, and this is surely a place where there are signs of progress.”
As a result of a lot of that prosperity, North Carolina Central University, which is an HBCU, was established in the middle of the neighborhood, which is really wonderful. So, the Institute has been able to have a wonderful partnership with North Carolina Central University, and been able to invite students to also participate in a lot of the service, learning processes that are underway, which is a really wonderful dimension of the neighborhood. A lot of students at university, they kind of have a bubble that is somewhat separate from the neighborhood within which they are located, but the university itself has this mission. Their motto is, “Truth and service,” and this desire that I think really emerges from its historical roots of interconnectedness between the institution and the community, that the Institute has been able to find common ground with, to try and collaborate together, and to try and find ways for young people to take what they are learning in school, and find ways, to find paths of service for them, to bring aspirations into fruition in the neighborhood around the university, which has been really cool as well.
May: It would be great to hear a little bit more about the Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program. What are some of its characteristics, how does it work?
Shadi: The Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program aims to work with young people between the ages of 11 and 14. And we believe that these middle school years are very significant, and a crucial time in the life of a human being. It is during this time that many aspects of their character, and their identities, are beginning to take shape. It is also during this time, maybe even more than any other point in their lives, they really have an acute sense of justice. They not only have a desire to learn about the world around them, but they also have a desire to contribute to its betterment, and to be able to bring about constructive change in our communities. So it is these particular characteristics of the age group that the program intends to respond to.
The program is there to really nurture this inherent potential of young people to contribute to the social, the spiritual, the cultural and material progress of their communities. And oftentimes, when we share about the program, people say, “Well, how do you shape moral empowerment? What contributes to moral empowerment? What is your conception of spiritual empowerment?”
The program has various aims to which we are trying to advance and learn about, but one of them is that one thing we believe really contributes to the moral empowerment of young people is their perception, their ability to see the world.
We believe that there are two dimensions to the way young people see the world, or could see the world. One is the material dimension of reality, but then there is also a spiritual dimension to it. There are these spiritual forces, the force of justice, the force of unity, the force of compassion, of love. We want young people to sharpen this dimension of their perception. One way in which the Junior Youth Program tries to empower young people is to sharpen their spiritual perception. We also not only want them to see the world in a different way, we also want them to talk about the world in a different way. Another aim of the Junior Youth Program is to enhance their powers of expression, to give them language that enables them to talk about the world in a way they see it.
Nathan: I think one of the benefits that the text, this curriculum offers young people, is that it exposes them to some of the initial elements of a conceptual framework that can allow them to analyze their neighborhood’s progress, their community’s progress, to begin to think about the many ideas that they are exposed to in the media and everyday conversation, in a world that oftentimes is very ideologically divided and confused. They are exposed to spiritual concepts that can help them understand the world with a hopeful outlook.
For example, some of the concepts they explore in the books, in the first year of the program, they are exploring the concept of God and His assistance that He provides humanity when we make an effort, which is especially important for a young person — to be able to make key life decisions that will guide who they grow up to be, and how they end up using their talents to serve humanity. They explore the nature of hope, and the many decisions and powers we can draw upon to remain hopeful as we are contributing to the betterment of our communities.
We are sometimes faced with disintegrating institutions and forces around us. The texts help them think about the nature of true joy and happiness, and how that can come from spiritual reality. There are also texts that help them consider what is humanity’s true nature as noble and virtuous beings, how to think about the kind of will and forces that propel our individual lives forward prosperously, and they are able to get a vision of different dimensions of community life and progress, sometimes implicitly through the stories, as they see active characters who are trying to better education for their community, better agriculture, and improve public health.
They also are able to, in some of the text, consider dimensions of science as well, and some of the intellectual capacities, mathematical capabilities, and scientific capabilities that they can draw upon in their practical efforts to better their communities. In all of these ideas, there is a humble effort to help adolescents have some initial ideas that can be built upon, that can evolve, especially in light of their practical experiences serving their communities, and uniting with their neighbors. We have seen that when young people really have a strong grasp of these ideas, it protects them from many of the more pernicious ideas that they are exposed to in various settings in their community.
May: You talked a little bit about the impact of the junior youth program on the neighborhood, and reaching out to neighbors. It would be interesting to hear more about that process, how this program really draws people together in the neighborhood, and creates bonds of fellowship.
Malik: I have some input on that question. One thing that comes to mind is that once we integrate ourselves into the neighborhood as mentors or animators, we seek to become leaders in that aspect: of creating fellowship in the community. So sometimes, neighbors are not outspoken, and it’s not always easy to get to know the people in their neighborhood, but as we integrate ourselves, we can become leaders as we go door-to-door, and go outside of our comfort zone to get to know everybody, and even try to introduce people, or have community gatherings, where we bring people from the neighborhood together, so that they could become more aware of each other and become friends as well.
Shadi: One element of the Junior Youth Program is service. From the outset, like Malik was sharing, animators are encouraged to assist the young people in their groups to begin think about the life of their community, and analyze ways in which they can contribute to its betterment. One simple way we have been able to do this, is encourage every group in the neighborhood to take a walk in their neighborhood, in their street, to begin to talk to neighbors, to consult with them about what kinds of service projects they could do. That is one way in which the Junior Youth Program has been able to begin a process of integration in the community where young people are interacting with the different members of their neighborhood in a process of consultation around the well-being of the street.
Malayja: Yeah, as Shadi was saying, I was just thinking about a past experience when me and my junior youth group and other junior youth members were exploring the neighborhood, walking around, and then they established that they wanted to build a trash can, because there was trash around the community, and they wanted to build a waste bin to keep the environment clean, and be able to, not just waste the environment just because there is no trash can. We just want them to have insight on things that should be done, need to be done, even if they are not in the community, but they know someone who lives there.
Nathan: Recently, some of us and some of the youth were on a call about our own experiences as adolescents, and many of the experiences young people are having, where sometimes at church, they feel preached at, and they cannot share what they think. Or sometimes with parents, the parent will say, “Stay in your place.” In school, some of the teachers in the neighborhood, the middle schoolers describe that the greatest value in educational performance would be that of obedience, and teachers will sometimes say, when a young person asks a question, that they are being disruptive, by merely trying to ask questions and engage.
One of the things that I think is a real advancement is for youth and junior youth to be able to explore ideas in a safe space, where people are not laughing that at them, or making fun of them, but they can also laugh and joke, and ask questions with openness, not because they are perpetually questioning without being able to formulate a sense of understanding, truth, or conviction.
Part of advancing understanding is the capacity to discuss, and have dialogue about core concepts. So I think that has been one impact that I see on the community of youth and junior youth participating, is that they are immediately, or not immediately, but there is a very short-term gain that so many of the young people describe with this program: “It has helped me with my voice. It has helped me become more open. I used to just stay to myself, and now I try to connect with others in the community.”
I think with the families that are participating, there is a lot of love and appreciation. A lot of the parents described to us that they are concerned about the well-being of their young, their children. There is a lot of heavy crime in the neighborhood, and a lot of adolescents are getting into things that are destructive for their well-being. So the parents really appreciate there being a safe space that is also facilitated by other neighbors, and particularly youth, so that we can support one another with that phrase, “It takes a village.”
It’s important to be able to live that — together in the community — and the parents really appreciate that. And it creates the kinds of trust and relationships that can become the seeds for more. And I think, lastly, that it provides opportunities for certain aspects of social action and service projects.
We used to have these community meetings in the park, where different neighbors would come together and suggest ideas for things that we could do as a community, whether they were cookouts, or little construction projects, like Malayja was describing, artistic projects. And I think everybody wants to live within a community that is like that. So I think it has an impact on the sense of safety, and interconnectedness, even in small ways. That is really important for a young person who is growing up, and who is going to remember these ideas from childhood, for the rest of their life.
PJ: Yeah, and as I have been listening, I have been thinking about, like you guys have been touching on different aspects of the Baha’i community building process, one that is envisioned to be all-encompassing, to encompass a whole community. I wonder if you could share a little bit about that process of taking this beautiful program, and implementing it in the community that you are a part of, both in terms of developing junior youth groups, in terms of how you build local animators, people from the community, from NCCU, the local university there.
Shadi: Well, maybe I can start just by sharing a little bit about the Baha’i approach to community building. The approach has evolved under a particular framework and philosophy of social change and development of education. Sometimes, these things are often implicit, but at times, it is helpful to bring them to the realm of the explicit when we are describing the nature of the approach.
One is that the Institute views human resource development in a very unpopular way, and that is as a process that creates an increasing number of individuals with wholehearted dedication to the material and the spiritual development of their people. And then the other is around the nature of change, the nature of transformation. There is no simplistic formulas to the approach. We really understand that the process of transformation of human society is a far more complex set of interactions between two parallel developments. One, the transformation of individuals, and two, the deliberate creation of new structures of a new society.
And so, it is according to this vision of social change, that the Institute process that we are engaged in, directs those efforts to raise human resources who can carry out a set of activities, such as the ones that we were describing, groups for the moral empowerment of young people, classes for the spiritual education of young children, gatherings of fellowship and worship with our neighbors, each of which are conducive to their own spiritual and intellectual growth but are also carried out in the context of each individual’s contribution to the establishment of new structures and new patterns of community life.
Nathan: As Shadi mentioned, from the beginning, we have been trying to promote an intensive process of participation and a process of capacity-building that has a really strong educational component, that enables people to be able to participate with increasing effectiveness. And part of that, as Shadi said, is due to our vision, just our belief in humanity, and Malik was talking about this, that all human beings have a right and a responsibility to contribute to the advancement of civilization.
The other dimension of it is, we have really lofty aims. You know it will take many generations, but our goal is to build unity of the neighborhood, equality between men and women, economic justice, and social safety and stability for all people. So practically speaking, if you are going to achieve such a vision, you really need everybody. The amount of power to create the incremental steps and refinements to achieve such a vision really requires everybody. So I think that is the other dimension for the practical dimension for why, from the very beginning, we have been trying to include everybody in participating in these efforts to further refine and develop the strengths of our community. Though it has started with the youth, it will always still be every member of the community, every age group. I think that as we have been able to expand participation within one segment or age group within the neighborhood, or one pocket, it has had a real reinforcing effect on the quality of what we are doing as a the whole, to have such a diversity of ages increasingly participating…
Stay tuned for the second part of this conversation, coming soon!