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Unity in the Community returns for its 27th year in Spokane: ‘Unity is important’

Aug. 21, 2021 Updated Sun., Aug. 22, 2021 at 1:37 p.m.

A Finnish woman presents Oliver Hagwood, 6, with a pencil and pamphlet during Unity in the Community on Saturday in Riverfront Park in Spokane.  (Amber Dodd / The Spokesman-Review)
A Finnish woman presents Oliver Hagwood, 6, with a pencil and pamphlet during Unity in the Community on Saturday in Riverfront Park in Spokane. (Amber Dodd / The Spokesman-Review)

Bilingual newspapers, free cotton candy from political campaigns and $4 water bottles were a common sight at Unity in the Community as it returned in-person, outdoor style at Riverfront Park on Saturday afternoon, drawing crowds from all over the Spokane area.

“I’m so thankful for everyone that showed up,” said April Anderson, one of the organizers of the event.  “My heart is happy. It was really important to have this event because unity is important.”

The youth-centered event started with a small “passport” as children visited booths in a “cultural village.” Countries like Guatemala, Finland, Sweden and Micronesia presented cultural segments on religion, language and food types.

Amy and Robert Hegwood brought their sons Oliver and Elliot to the event. Amy recognizes cultural experiments at a young age as “necessity for their development.”

“It was a fun introduction for diversity, but hopefully this will lead to more curiosity as they grow up,” she said.

Robert studies Modern Japanese History and was an associate in research at Harvard University’s Reischauer Institute for two years. Oliver, 6, was born in Japan.

“In my field, we have discussions of positive and negative interactions of cultures in the United States, and it’s nice to see the kids explore rather than me telling them things.,” Robert said. “Having opportunities for them to find things on their own is helpful.”

While the Hegwoods represent the event’s purpose, organizers Anderson and Mareesa Henderson had another goal: keeping the community event vibrant while keeping it safe.

“April and I have been walking around the park all day like, ‘Great turnout,’ but we need people to keep themselves safe,” Henderson said. “This year, we have so much hope and happiness planning this, but at the same time, it’s coupled with that fear.”

COVID, which canceled the in-person crowds last year, is rising and topping record hospitalizations that America saw during the winter. Henderson said Unity in the Community still was “mindful in planning,” with COVID affecting communities of color at higher rates.

“We did have less cultures participate because of COVID,” Henderson said. “It’s about drawing in as many cultures as we can to make sure Spokane is represented, but safely.”

Table and tent space were outlined at a 6-feet distance with temporary white spray paint. Brochures and businesses cards adorned the tables. So did handheld hand sanitizers.

Community presenters were snuggled at the back of their tents, only coming up to bump elbows or introduce their culture and history, sometimes raising their voice from a distance or reading out their signs. The Mixed Plate Food Truck, which served Korean beef and Island chicken in tacos or rice bowls, hung a laminated sign that ensured consumers that their entire staff had been vaccinated.

Throughout the day, live music such as World Relief’s The Neema Choir, who sing African Christian songs, attracted a crowed, but most still spread out and wore masks. Filipino singer Magdalena performed classics from Tina Turner and Rihanna, then dedicated a song to her 1-year-old family member who lost their life to COVID recently. Indian performers did cultural dances that were reminiscent of Bollywood culture .

Though Unity in the Community was a fun time to celebrate differences, organizations that provide aid and assistance to close the opportunity gaps in certain communities also came.

Duaa-Rahemaah Williams, a representative of Resident Action Project, sees their mission of making policy changes on housing and homelessness through personal testimonies encouraged in Unity in the Community.

“To be in community with one another means that we need to advocate on behalf of our community,” Williams said. “This is a multi cultural event, so we’re seeing more community members from different backgrounds than ever before.”

Along with organizations, different sectors of community such as business, education and career training were involved. Angela Schwediman, the current program director of Eastern Washington University’s Africana Studies, was in attendance. Schwediman has been part of Spokane since 1994, the same year Unity in the Community began.

With the country experiencing a period a social unrest and a rocky chapter of American democracy, Schwediman recognized the Africana program’s chance to educate and uplift diverse narratives at the event. Places like Unity in the Community could be a unique location for educators to set up shop and reach out.

“It was a number of (American history) coming together at once and ignited a consciousness,” Schwediman said. “We experienced cultural and shared trauma, and things like Unity in the Community are important for unifying and healing people.”

Throughout the six-hour cultural showcase, Unity in the Community was able to highlight how the backbone of Spokane is its people. Their differences glitter when the town comes together.

“You watch these sparks between people just go off during this event,” Henderson said. “The experience you see with the kids being excited about saying something in a different language? That’s what it’s about, building the roots in our youth so they can continue it on.”

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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