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.
PJ: Danita, I am so happy you could join us today, and I look forward to the conversation. Maybe, just to kind of get us started, you could just introduce yourself and describe who you are in relation to the Baha’i community-building process. I know you are embedded in a community right now, and maybe you could share a little bit about the nature of that community and the work that you are doing there.
Danita: I am Danita Hardin, so happy to be here, to be able to share with my friends, May and PJ. I am working in a neighborhood in Virginia that is a beautiful, diverse mixture of individuals. It has a large African American population, and there are also many immigrants in this neighborhood. There has been community-building work going on in this neighborhood for several years, and after some time, it was recognized that, in order for this work to go deeper, and for the inhabitants of this neighborhood to be able to move to the forefront of the community building activities, that it would be beneficial for someone to go and live there.
That “someone” ended up being me, which I feel is one of the most wonderful things that has happened to me, because through living in this neighborhood, side by side with others, we are learning together. This process of community building is not one that takes place with someone, I think it best happens when the people who are doing it are experiencing their reality together. So, this was just a wonderful opportunity for us to grow as neighbors, grow as friends, grow as collaborators, grow as co-workers, and grow as community builders in this neighborhood.
PJ: Thanks. Maybe for the first question that is coming to mind for me, is something that you shared at another gathering that we were at together, where are you talked about how in society, we are very good at enabling environments of oppression. So much of the environment that we live in, in America, is oppressive, but that your experience with the Institute process, and with the people that you are working with, is that it is a tool that enables environments of empowerment. It would be nice to hear a little bit about your thoughts around the difference between an environment of oppression and environment of empowerment.
Danita: One thing that I have really seen is that the capacity to have conversations with others is a capacity that does not have to take a long time to develop. But it is an important capacity to have in order to move this community building process forward. I was a school teacher for more than 20 years, and one thing that I noticed immediately when a parent of color would come into my classroom, is that they would be shocked when I would ask them about what they wanted for their kids. What did they desire? What did they want their kids to learn? What were some of the things that were important to them?
I think that, one of the things that this institute process offers is that it gives everyone in the community an opportunity to express themselves, and it gives them a language with which to do it, that really equalizes everyone in the community and the neighborhood. It does it swiftly, it does not take years and years before people feel like they are able to express themselves. I think the only thing that could hold individuals back is maybe those who have moved into the neighborhood, not really having belief and faith in the capacity of those that are native to the neighborhood. I have seen, in a very short period of time, children from the children’s class, engaging in conversations with their families and with their classmates, with their teachers, with their friends in the neighborhood, and describing the things that they have learned, whether it is as simple as them talking about what it means to be generous, or what it means to be honest, or the fact that they had heard in this class, that they had been shown kindness. But feeling empowered to be able to say these things that maybe before, they did not have the vocabulary or the opportunity to even describe these things to each other.
I have seen parents, who had participated in devotional gatherings, describing the feeling that they felt when they were engaged in collective worship to their friends, and feeling very comfortable and confident within a very short period of time, and inviting their friends also to join them in prayer. And not being concerned whether the friend was Christian or Muslim, or even what the response of the friend was going to be, just that there was now this confidence in this ability to really express themselves, and I think that is a huge difference in an environment that is oppressive, as opposed to an environment that is empowering. People feeling free, and feeling that they can say what they think and what they feel, and feeling like they are going to be heard. Not only that, but actually that their opinion is important to this process. Their opinion and their thoughts are important to the movement of the entire community and that this is something that they are not only a part of, but they need to be at the forefront of this, and I think that it just really has a transformative impact on individuals and on families when they start to feel the power of being heard. That is my insight and few initial thoughts, and few initial observations.
There is one particular young lady, her name is Najee, and I can remember her talking about, we were finishing up with a children’s class in the neighborhood, and I remember she said, ‘Miss Danita, I need my own prayer book.’ Of course, I gave her a prayer book, and when I went to go get her for the children’s class the next week, the mom started telling me, ‘Miss Danita, why did you give that girl that prayer book? That girl has been up all night for days and days. I can’t get her to sleep, because all she wants to do is read these prayers over and over again, and then when she’s not reading the prayers, she is singing the songs.’ So I asked Najee, ‘I know you love the prayers, because we would always sing the songs and say the prayers and practice,’ but I was wondering what was her motivation for, really, all night going through them and studying them and trying to learn them. And she was like, ‘You know that prayer gathering that you have? I want to have my own.’ So she was really actually trying to prepare herself for inviting her friends and her family to have a prayer gathering in their own home. So really this was the first time that she had felt this confidence and comfort in her ability to reach out to friends and family and invite them not only to come to her home but invite them to engage in something that she felt would have a transformative impact in their lives.
And she, at that moment, became the protagonist, and she became actively involved in this community-building process. She was not just a participant in one of the activities, but she saw that, ‘Actually, you know what? I can play an active role. And not only can I play an active role but actually,’ at the end of her devotional gathering, she invited all of the people that were there to host their own devotional gatherings. So she really saw that this is a process that we all can actively take a part of. And I feel that because the environment was created, where people felt free, number one, to express themselves, where their thoughts were heard and listened to and acknowledged, but also, in addition to that, they were immersed in the word of God, because we really know that there have been many, many things in neighborhoods, and in communities, and in countries, and states all over the world that have been tried, but have really been unsuccessful in removing the chains of oppression from individuals, from communities, but we really see that this immersion in the word of God is really what begins to have a transformative effect and I think the transformation is the thing that helps people to continue.
Motivation will get you started, but motivation is not going to make you or give you the same type of movement, the ability persevere and push through really difficult challenges. So I could be really motivated to do almost anything. I could tell my kids right now, ‘I will give you a dollar if you can go and clean the bathroom really well.’ And then for that day they will be really motivated. In fact, I can be honest it happened. A few weeks ago I decided, just because we are stuck here in the house that I would have a contest to see who could have the cleanest bedroom for that week. I told the kids whoever had the cleanest bedroom at the end of the week, that team would get a certain amount of money to split between them. And for that week, the bedrooms were spotless. But what do you think happened the following Monday, when the contest was over? There were socks all over the floor, so it went back to the same thing. That is the difference between motivation and transformation, and really what would help them to continue. If my kids knew that cleanliness is something that God desires for them, if they read quotes and prayers and it was deeply ingrained in their hearts, this thought of service to the family and how important it is so that is what we started to talk about, how important it is for us to be of service to our family and when we are doing things around the home, this is a service. And so then, I started to see them regularly, just going without my even asking. In fact, one of my foster sons was downstairs today, and he was just like, ‘Auntie, do you want to see the bathroom? It is sparkling clean.’ And I did not even have to ask.
In a larger context, in a community, when we start to see, first individuals who are engaged in these activities, in the children’s classes, in junior youth groups, in the study circles, in the devotional gatherings. First, they encounter the word of God. After a time, these words begin to penetrate their hearts, and then their very being is transformed. After a while you do not have to tell people, ‘Why don’t we stop throwing trash on the street?’ Because they start to see themselves, and the people around them, they start to see that they are noble beings, and that they should not live in a neighborhood where there is trash on the street. So these things begin to change themselves.
When your spirit and your heart are transformed, then you begin to see, ‘If this is how I feel inside, then how should things be looking around me? I should also be careful about the words that I say, because maybe the way that I am expressing myself could be damaging and harmful to other people. Maybe it would be helpful if I invited other kids to these children’s classes, because I see the impact it is having on my children.’ And so now, we are getting phone calls from other parents that we have not even met yet, who also want their children to be engaged in these children’s classes. I think that is another aspect of this community-building process, that is so beautiful but also so unique, and something that we have really never seen in the history of mankind, and I think this is really one of the keys to its effectiveness, and its ability to be long-lasting and sustain the impact that it is making and continue a larger and larger impact, and will impact more and more individuals and communities, and will impact all of society.
PJ: You wrote a really beautiful narrative of what has happened in this community over the first eight months of you living there and I am going to refer a little bit to it throughout our conversation. But one thing as you were just talking, what came to mind was, you mentioned a lot of patterns of thought and action, patterns of behavior that are emerging and growing in community, and so I guess it might be helpful to describe, what are the patterns of life that you feel like you are trying to foster? And then maybe a connected question that I will throw out there is, what your vision is for the community? Where do you get that vision, and how does that vision become everyone’s vision, and not your vision? I love this idea of building protagonists, and your community being at the forefront. And there is this idea that you mentioned in your narrative about the movement populations as part of your vision.
Danita: Yeah. That is an interesting question, my vision for the community. It is hard for me to answer it without really talking a little bit about the neighborhood that I grew up in, in Washington DC. This was in the 80s, and it was in the middle of the crack cocaine epidemic. At one point the conditions in the neighborhood had gotten so bad, that there actually was a tank, a real actual tank from the National Guard parked on the corner of my neighborhood, and I just remember this vision of going to the corner store to get a bag of chips, and diagonally across the corner there was a tank there, with the actual gun, like the long gun pointed there, to enforce this curfew that had been put on the neighborhood, so that we could try to cut down on some of the violence. And then I remember my mom saying that she grew up during the Vietnam War era, and she does not remember going to as many funerals as I had gone to as I was in my teenage years.
I think as an African American woman who grew up in a neighborhood like this, and somehow, by the grace of God was able to accomplish something. This was because of many, many prayers, lots of love, but also because I never had any doubt that I was supposed to be able to accomplish something. I wonder often what it was, and now I have stepped back and reflected, and obviously my story is not the same as many people’s stories that grew up in that neighborhood. Many people ended up incarcerated, many people did not make it past their 14th or 15th birthday, and so what was so different that happened in my life, as opposed to what happened in their lives? One of the things that was different, was that I always had a vision. I always knew that there was something great that I was supposed to be doing, that there was something bigger than myself that I was supposed to be a part of, and the reason I knew that is that, by the grace of God, I had a mother that told me that all the time.
So my vision really for the community that I live in now, is that every single member of that community has a vision. My vision for the community, cannot possibly ever be just my vision, because the second that I tell you what my vision is for the community, I think we lose sight of what this community building process is. My vision for the community is that every single member of the community has a vision, and that at some point, the members of that community have the opportunity and the space to come together to collectively share that vision, and then as a community, we create a vision for ourselves. Not my vision, not your vision, not the Baha’i vision, not the Christian vision, not this version of that vision, but the vision for this community in light of the study and immersion of the word of God, in light of this transformation that is taking place in our hearts, in light of us being human beings, in light of us realizing that justice is deserved, in light of us feeling that we can and should be able to express our thoughts freely. I think that, that is really my vision for the community. And from that, many things might emerge.
From that, I know, I was with a junior youth group in person, before we could not meet in person, and we were talking about some of the needs of the community. And so, the junior youth group, we started to list some of the challenges that we see in the community, and so one of the things that we saw was that a lot of the younger kids are struggling with certain subjects, and math just happened to be one of the particular subjects that seemed to be a struggle. So we talked about what it is that we could do to assist with that challenge, and of course the junior youth spontaneously said, ‘We need to have a tutoring group. We have to put together something, where the slightly older members of the community are helping the younger members.’ So maybe the junior youth help the children, and then maybe we reach out to the youth, who meet regularly, and ask them if they can even help us. And if we need to go even further than that, we can call to talk to some of the parents, like how can the parents support this process also?
I thought it was really profound, because all of the solutions that they came up with started with them. It started with the members of the community. At no point did they say, ‘This is not something that we can do. It is just too bad, I’m really sorry that this is happening, but oh well.’ At no point did they start to blame other people or point the finger at whose fault it was, or what system was not working correctly. They just immediately started to think of solutions, and they started to think of people right there within their own communities that they could go to, to support the solutions that they were trying to implement. That also, I feel is just something that I pray will eventually be a part of every community around the world, where people see that many of the resources that they have, that they need, are right there within their communities, and that when we become unified, and our voices become strong, and our hearts become transformed, and our spirits become led by God, and certainly through the teachings of Baha’u’llah, His most recent manifestation, then we start to feel like we do not have to waste time blaming people. We could spend all day and all year, worrying about what the reason is that these things are happening, but why not spend a little bit more of the time trying to solve some of these things, and why not try to figure out what we can do right here in our own neighborhoods, in our own communities to try to solve some of these things?
Stay tuned for the second part of this conversation, coming soon!