Diversity event relocates
In its early days, Unity in the Community was like a large church picnic – a time for members of Bethel AME and their East Central neighbors to come together, relax, break bread and share stories.
Over the years, the annual gathering at Liberty Park grew. Before long, the crowds not only drew people from the church and neighborhood, but from across town and as far as Idaho.
Now, 13 years since its inception, Unity in the Community has become so big that organizers are moving it.
“Since we are no longer solely a neighborhood celebration, the Unity in the Community organizing committee decided that we had outgrown our birthplace in Liberty Park and are ready to move to the larger Riverfront Park,” explained Ben Cabildo of AHANA, a local minority business and professional association. “The more people we expose to diversity, the better for everyone.”
This year’s Unity in the Community will feature an interactive multicultural village representing more than 30 countries and cultures, he said. It will include a children’s activity area, a job fair, a health fair, raffles and live performances by the Bethel AME Choir, Hawaiian hula dancers and many others. The village and other offerings will reflect this year’s theme, “Many Cultures, One Community.”
“It will look like the World’s Fair all over again,” Cabildo said.
But the decision to move Unity in the Community to downtown Spokane wasn’t exactly good news to some East Central residents, who felt they were losing their neighborhood celebration.
Unity in the Community replaced East Central Neighbor Days, an annual tradition since roughly 1980, according to Jerry Numbers, of the East Central Community Organization board. Now that Unity in the Community is moving downtown, residents of East Central – an area bordered by Division Street to the west, Havana to the east, Spokane Falls Boulevard and Trent Avenue to the north and 14th Avenue to the south – will have to come up with another event to bring the neighborhood together, Numbers said.
“Unity in the Community will be a much bigger celebration, but it won’t be the same neighborhood celebration,” he said. “We’re happy to see this grow into a citywide event, but Unity in the Community needs to remember its roots and where it began.”
The decision to leave East Central also has been criticized by one of the city’s best-known and most vocal minority groups, the NAACP.
“It’s no longer what it started out to be,” said NAACP chapter President V. Anne Smith. “It has lost its significance. Unity was where black children could walk in without being threatened by police. As soon as it goes down there (Riverfront Park), our little, young black boys are going to be scrutinized and watched. They’ll even be stopped.”
Smith said she’s heard from several East Central residents who don’t want to go downtown for an event that used to belong to their neighborhood. Several African American organizations, including the Coalition of 100 Black Women, also were disappointed to see Unity in the Community leave East Central, according to Smith.
To express its disapproval of the decision, the NAACP plans to boycott the event, she said. By taking it out of East Central, Unity in the Community becomes tailored for the majority white culture instead of minorities, she said.
“We always have to go to the white community to see diversity,” Smith said.
“You don’t see blacks downtown. Spokane likes to portray itself as an all-American city that embraces diversity, but it’s still a white city. … It’s so sad that some of our people will fall into the trap of always accommodating to those who are not of color.”
Spokane’s premier multicultural event was the brainchild of the Rev. Lonnie Mitchell, pastor of Bethel AME.
During a planning meeting in 1994, he and other church members agreed there was a sense of fragmentation in Spokane – ethnic diversity was growing, but racial and cultural barriers continued to hinder growth and development, Mitchell said.
“We felt it was very important for people to know the strength of diversity in Spokane and for people of different cultures and races to understand each other,” he said.
So Bethel AME hosted a picnic with lots of food, music and information booths at Liberty Park.
Five hundred people came to the inaugural Unity in the Community event. A few years later, the crowd tripled to 1,500.
Now, organizers are expecting 10,000 people.
“It’s wonderful to see people from all walks of life come together,” Mitchell said. “We’ve all learned that we can have our differences and at the same time, we can come together and allow these differences to help us create a more vibrant community.”
Mitchell and Bethel AME organized Unity until three years ago, when the pastor turned it over to AHANA. Cabildo, AHANA’s executive director, then brought together a committee of volunteers to plan and oversee the event.
Cabildo said Unity’s crowds simply outgrew Liberty Park. Last year, he and others received complaints about traffic clogging neighborhood streets and lack of accessibility to the restrooms.
The event also needed a more central location because participants were coming from everywhere, not just East Central, he said.
“I should apologize for not informing everyone about the move,” Cabildo said. “I really felt bad that some people weren’t happy about this.”
Despite objections from the NAACP and other individuals earlier this summer, Cabildo and other organizers hope people will come and support one another, while honoring Mitchell’s original vision of uniting Spokane.
“I look forward to seeing people from all cultures come together and pretty much showcasing who they area and how their culture can strengthen the life of Spokane,” Mitchell said.
“… I’m grateful that it’s reaching more people. It’s a blessing, and we appreciate Spokane for embracing Unity in the Community.”