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Organizers gear up for 27th annual Unity in the Community in Riverfront Park

Members of Neema Youth Choir perform during the 25th annual Unity in the Community at Riverfront Park. The region’s largest multicultural event was canceled last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is set to return Saturday.  (Kathy Plonka)
Members of Neema Youth Choir perform during the 25th annual Unity in the Community at Riverfront Park. The region’s largest multicultural event was canceled last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is set to return Saturday. (Kathy Plonka)

Like many of Spokane’s traditional outdoor events, Unity in the Community took last year off because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Saturday, the Spokane community’s 27th annual celebration of diversity returns to Riverfront Park.

Mareesa Henderson, who has volunteered with the event for 15 years, is ready for Unity in the Community to reemerge after a rough year. The event might have been the perfect antidote to erase the isolation and knit the community back together during a time of racial and social unrest.

“As you come into Unity in the Community, you feel like you just discovered something super special,” Henderson said. “It’s the way our community members interact with each other with this understanding of the event being about connection. We’re putting aside our differences and coming together as humans and recognizing and celebrating our differences.”

Instead of putting attendees at risk last year, Henderson and co-organizer April Anderson teamed up with organizations that offer free lunches to give out free school supplies, as a way to do “our part to give back.” The duo is also part of the Northwest Unity, a nonprofit that helps with Unity in the Community along with Spokane Teachers Credit Union every year.

Unity in the Community is what Henderson calls a “big undertaking.”

Volunteers reconvene every February to discuss the logistics of cultural representations, who will be in attendance and sponsorship. Unity in the Community also partnered with the Greater Spokane Food Truck Association to provide a diverse selection of food offerings. The goal is to communicate the “parallels of diversity and it being exchanged in some way,” and educate youth.

“It’s hard to quantify what that means other than, we’ve worked really hard to draw in members from various cultures who want to come in and share and be proud of their cultures to others,” Henderson said. “We really draw our youth in because we want to plant a seed as they experience something new, to understand differences are nothing to be afraid of. Not knowing or being ignorant of a culture can come with those fears because you don’t know what any of that is about.”

Along with the worldly cultural presentation, local community resources and agencies that provide services in health, career and education, as well as youth topics, will be presented.

Families can also receive one of the 1,000 bags of free school supplies, as schools are set to reopen soon. In addition to school supplies, Unity in the Community is giving out children’s books that “highlight the triumphs of all Americans, including those whose contributions are often overlooked.”

Even a year later, the event is still being altered by COVID-19.

The show will go on because of new protocols, although the event’s core meaning remains the same. As national and local COVID cases and hospitalizations rise, cultural representatives will need to find ways to communicate and interact with onlookers without putting anyone at risk. Some suggestions have included teaching traditional dances with a little more distance than usual, or setting up a booth on how to say greetings with a limit of both presenters and onlookers.

“We’re making sure there’s no large crowds that have gathered for too long, and encourage personal safety and self awareness to provide appropriate space.” Henderson said. “We’ve gotta do it in a way that doesn’t take away from the heart and soul of Unity in the Community, though.”

Pig Out in the Park, another local event that takes place in Riverfront Park, canceled its event for the second consecutive year as cases surge. Henderson said Unity in the Community partnered with the Spokane Regional Health District to draw up a safety COVID plan before Riverfront Park officials accepted the event host invitation.

“We’re lucky to hold the event this year,” Henderson said. “(Our concern) is navigating protocols the best we know how to push forward and be together on Saturday.”

Amber D. Dodd's work as the Carl Maxey Racial and Social Inequity reporter for Eastern Washington and North Idaho primarily appears in both The Spokesman-Review and The Black Lens newspapers, and is funded in part by the Michael Conley Charitable Fund, the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, the Innovia Foundation and other local donors from across our community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper's managing editor.

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