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.

“I can even say that this program has changed my life and had many influences on things: the environment, the people, the spiritual atmosphere.”

Hi everyone, thanks for tuning in. Illumine America is a podcast that explores constructive solutions to some of America’s most pressing social issues. Today, we’re back in Durham, North Carolina with our Race Discourse Officers, PJ Andrews and May Lample. If you missed the first part of this two-part interview, I recommend going back and checking it out first.

We’ll be hearing more from a team working in Durham to implement a Baha’i-inspired community-building program. They’re going to explore some questions with us. What motivates people to sustain participation in such a program, when forces of apathy and disillusionment can be so strong? How do you build bonds of trust that are stronger than longstanding prejudice? And what does it look like to see an abstract vision slowly become reality, right before your eyes? Let’s hear from Durham.

May: You so nicely explained the junior youth program and its impact. It might be nice to hear about what some of the motivation is for people to participate, because we know that apathy and passivity are strong forces that are acting on all of us in society, and it is very easy to become disillusioned. What makes young people and their families want to participate and stay in this process, even despite the challenges that arise?

Malayja: I would say from past experience, parents have seen growth in their child. In their language, how they are speaking, the approach of behavior. I would say also consistency, because we are also — that is one of our big things — being consistent with our junior youth, whether they are still a part of the group or not, we still try to keep everyone involved, and find ways for everyone to be included, no matter what we do in the community. Prayers, devotionals, Youth Night.

Malik: Yeah, I think parents really respect, as you were saying, the consistency it takes to show up, show your face, stay in contact, and also they see the children’s growth, like she said. I have had personal experiences just recently, where parents would say, “I have noticed my children treating their siblings better, treating me with more respect, treating their peers with more respect, and it correlates with the time frame that they have been in this group.” They notice that the group has made differences. Once we start to talk to the parents about the program in depth, in my experience, the majority of the time, if not 90% of the time, if not more, the parents are receptive to what we are saying, and they are intrigued and interested in what this program could do for their children. And even more times than not, they are excited to have their children involved.

Mostly, I explain the program: how systematic it is, and how uplifting it is, and what our efforts are. It is really not challenging to get the parents on board, but the children, especially in that time frame, when, like you were saying May, so many of the social forces of apathy and lethargy are weighing on these children through technology and whatnot. I try to excite the children, this is something I do as an individual approach, is to try to get the kids excited. Let them know that this is for the community. This is for you to be involved with other peers that are looking to persevere in life. But also, as young people, we like to have fun, we like to do activities, we like to get our body moving. Make sure that you are educated on health, and how to have fun and be joyful, how can you have fun in the neighborhood, talking to your neighbors and uplifting your community.

Malayja: What Malik was saying is very true. I can even say that this program has changed my life and had many influences on things: the environment, the people, the spiritual atmosphere. And I am sure that what I learned, I can rub off on my junior youth, carry these spiritual virtues and assist them, and give them the right environment, help them believe that they are on the right path in life. And that is what really helps motivate me, and motivate my youth to still be involved and be a part, even if just by themselves.

Ian: I think the motivation in a program like this is quite tough, because it is a new program. In the expression of the program, and in every different place it is established, it is a process of learning. And we have to ask how to establish it, how to help young people connect to it, how to find young people who are going to be connected to the program, like animators, and how to help them to maintain their vision in a process of learning. It can seem like a lot of ups and downs, and you sometimes see the fluctuation of the participation in an individual group vary greatly. So helping the youth to stay motivated, with a strong vision while those ups and downs are happening, is very challenging.

Shadi: I think the question of motivation is one that we have been thinking about a lot. I think there are many forces that contribute to motivation, and we are learning about the conditions that enable motivation to be both awakened and sustained over time. One of these is of course, understanding the force that comes through understanding. We know that there is a longing in every human heart for meaning, and that every soul, every human being yearns to understand the purpose of their existence, and not only do they yearn for meaning, they also yearn for this meaning to find expression in this world. One thing we have found helpful is to describe this path that the Institute has traced out in relation to this purpose, as a means by which their moral purpose and life can both be gradually discovered and exercised. At the core of this process is the belief that every human being has a purpose, and it is twofold: to the develop themselves intellectually and spiritually, but also contribute to the advancement of society.

That being said, sometimes, we might believe that if one understands such a thing very well, then one will also necessarily act on it. But we have seen that the equation is not that simple. Just to know something, is not the same as being acutely aware of it, and allowing it to influence our thoughts and actions consistently. In some ways, not only this thinking needs to be reshaped, but also the internal convictions of people need to be transformed. Convictions around who they are, around what their purpose in life is, what their identity is as members of the human race, what role that they play in the advancement of society, and whatnot. I think in some ways, this is our frontier of learning: how to create an educational process with conditions that enable people to become transformed, not only in mind but also in heart, and I think that that applies to everyone, us included.

Nathan: I want to tell the story of one child, and some of his experiences that he shared with us, and some of the things his mom shared with us, about why he really wants to participate, and why he gets so motivated to come each week. This young man, he is I think six years old, and I guess to preface this story, I think for a lot of young people, when they are first joining, we knock on the door and we try to have these pretty elevated conversations at the beginning. At the same time, it is the environment, I think, that attracts a lot of people in addition to the ideas. And so I think for this six-year-old, at first, he was just excited to be able to get out of the house, and be with an environment of friends, and participating in a safe and uplifting, musical, artistic activity on his block.

But this young man, he had a really hard time participating in harmony with the other children his age. He would get in lots of fights and arguments. The teacher had to talk with his mom a few times, and the mom said that, “This always happens, every single program he ever goes to, he gets kicked out of, and I always get calls, whether it’s the library, or the school, that he is in trouble,” and this Mom very much cares about her son obviously, so she said, “I just can’t let him participate in anything.” And we were thinking she just wanted to keep her son safe, and did not want him getting yelled at, or in trouble, so the only solution she could come to was, “I’m just not going to have him go to any program anymore.”

Which was really sad, because even though he was getting in a lot of trouble in all these places, he really wanted to connect. He just did not know how. So the teacher started creating a space for him just one-on-one. He would do the lessons one-on-one, she could help him a lot with his reading, and I think they created a kind of relationship that can be a catalyst for transformation. And by the end of it, he was in the program for maybe six months or a year before the family had to move out of the neighborhood, he was telling us stories about how in class, the teacher was like, “Who knows what the word generous means?” And his hand went up and she was like, “You know what the word generous means?” And he was like, “Yeah! Generous means when you share the things you have with others.” And she was like, “How did you learn that?” because she just did not expect that this young man, who is always getting in trouble, would know some of these concepts and words and be able to share them clearly and eloquently, and he said, “I learned that in my children’s class in my neighborhood! I have the nicest teacher!” And he was like, “Can I share with you more of the quotes?” And so she started letting him do presentations for the class about the different ideas he was learning about.

And so being able to have a space like this, and look past some of the external behavior, about which maybe people would say, ‘He’s not motivated. He doesn’t really want to do this. He’s not really taking it seriously.” But being able to look past that, and create the kinds of conditions that would cultivate some sort of successful, positive participation, has also had a reinforcing effect on this young man’s ability to participate prosperously and harmoniously in other environments in his life as well.

“Once I start to explain what my goal is, what I am trying to do, the virtues that I carry, the spiritual concepts that I am trying to share, and grow within myself…those stereotypes, or those prejudgments, fall away.”

May: Thank you for sharing that. Could we explore some of the approaches and methods that you guys are using in the community-building process that have led to bonds of intimacy, or trust, or mutual understanding across what are perceived as dividing lines in the neighborhood? It can be lines of race, or whatever keeps people naturally apart. How have you been able to overcome some of those forces?

Malik: I think you can break some of those barriers with the tools that we have. What I am referring to as “tools” is the junior youth program itself, and everything that comes with it: being associated with it, and having the information, knowledge, and experience of being within the program as an individual like myself, for when I go to a person’s door. When a stranger knocks on your door, who is of a different color, or a different race or ethnicity than you are, you might be wary at first.

Once I start to explain what my goal is, what I am trying to do, the virtues that I carry, the spiritual concepts that I am trying to share, and grow within myself, automatically (well, not automatically, but sometimes automatically), those stereotypes, or those prejudgments, fall away. There is one idea that I like to carry with me: a smile and sincerity can go a long way. Once you get one-on-one with another human being, and you are able to connect with them in conversation, those barriers can be broken down pretty quickly.

Nathan: Yeah, I am the only member of the team who is from a different background from the majority. Because you guys are Black, and Shadi is Latina, so she can connect really well with a lot of the Spanish-speaking families. I think it’s fine. So I was just sitting here and thinking —when I think about what allows connections to form, part of that, I am not really sure, because a lot of the knowledge that allows that to happen is kind of tacit knowledge. Like how you were talking about, Malik, just the way you are, the smile, the desire to know people, the sincerity, the virtue you try to embody.

But also I was just thinking about some of the things that I have tried to do pretty consciously, that we are trying to learn about. I think one thing of course that was already mentioned, but to reiterate, is to be patient when there is no trust, or when people are a little uncomfortable at first. People are not used to having people come knock on my door and say, “Hey, do you want to participate in the betterment of your community? Do you want to join a neighborhood educational program?” It is not a common way that people usually engage in service or participate in civic engagement.

And then of course you add the fact of my being a white guy in an all-black neighborhood, people are like, “Oh do you know anything about this neighborhood?” And I am like, :Oh yeah, well you know actually I spend a lot of time at the University.” And they are like, “Oh really? Wow that is interesting!”

There was a group of youth one time who, after we became friends, and they came to a few meetings, and we kind of broke the ice, and we had hung out at their house many times, they were laughing in my car and they were like, “Hey, so Nate!” I was like, “Yeah?” “So, we have been wondering for a while…” I was like, “Oh yeah what is it? Tell me.” They are like, “So, are you black?” I am clearly the whitest guy in the world, so I was like, “No, I am not black, I am a white guy.” And they are like, “Yeah man, but sometimes, you know, people don’t look black, but they’re black, but we were just wondering.” I am like, “Yeah nope, I’m just a white guy.” And they said, “So, what are you doing here?”

It was kind of a new thing to see a white guy participating in this way in the community. So I think part of it is just being present over time. I am trying to become one with my fellow man, but also be conscious of some of the things that I have to try to do as a white person to prove my sincerity to make genuine relationships.

Sometimes, be quieter, or be conscious of creating opportunity and equality, in light of such history of inequality, or in light of a lack of history of interacting with people with a different race and background, and that goes for myself too. And the other thing I was thinking about that I try to do consciously, is I try to learn the history of the place. I have tried to learn the history of the institutions that are here and to become familiar with the general discourse of the community, in a very limited way, just reading books and whatnot.

But I also to really try and to get to know the person I am talking to, and their personal history, and to be aware of certain national and historical trends, but then to not read every situation into those stereotypically, or to generalize, but to try and get to know everybody’s life story that I am interacting with. Which I think, beyond shaping the way that we interact and engage, allows other people to know that I know them, and create a lot of the safety, friendship, and love. Because once you know people’s stories, your appreciation for their being increases so much in and of itself. Of course, I am trying to improve and enhance my ability to connect with people of all backgrounds.

“Ours is a very purposeful association.”

PJ: What confirmations are you experiencing around the vision of this process becoming more of a reality in your community?

Malayja: I would say that the confirmation I received is basically, in order for things to happen, you need to put in action, and stay consistent to your word, meaning, and involvement in the community. And I can see that He has been leading a path for me to help assist others.

Shadi: I think maybe the concept of unity deserves some comment. In the last few years, we have been able to see the growing number of people — whether it is those who are on this call right now, mothers in the neighborhood, children, young people — achieve a higher degree of unity. I will describe it in different ways that I have seen it. One is just through the love, fellowship, and friendship that we see among this group of people, but another is also the unity of purpose that we all have. Ours is a very purposeful association.

We are working together, laboring in a common enterprise to create patterns of community life that take spiritual principles into mind, and I see it also in the way that some of the young people that we are engaging with are beginning to think about their life. There is a children’s class teacher who was studying psychology at North Carolina Central University. And after holding a children’s class in the neighborhood for 6 months, she reconsidered her professional path, and decided to go into education. And the reason was because she had interacted with this particular educational process, and interacted with the children in the neighborhood, and also had studied the spiritual education of children, which is part of the training for teachers. So I think of this decision.

We have another animator who is on track to getting his law degree, and when I first met him, he said, “I want to go into corporate law.” After about a year of animating a junior youth group in the neighborhood, Nathan and I were having a conversation with him, and he said, “You know, my interests have changed. I realize that there are so many questions around the concept of justice that, I think as a lawyer, I would like to learn about. I don’t think I am interested in corporate law. The reason why I wanted to go into corporate law was because of the income that I would have, but this whole year has allowed me to reflect on the principles behind my choices.”

I think we also see it in these small, little things that often happen and the interactions we are having with the friends that we are serving. But there is an impact, there is an influence that the Institute process is having on the minds and the hearts of everyone involved.

May: It has been really nice to get to hear what has been happening in Durham. I think it is really rich, what you guys are sharing, and it is helpful for our work, and also for other people engaged in the community building process.