Building bridges: Parent University on racial equality in the US

SAVANNAH, United States — Parent University, a Baha’i-inspired organization in the United States, is drawing on its decades-long experience of promoting racial equality in Savannah, Georgia, to foster greater societal unity at a time of heightened consciousness in the country about racial prejudice. The organization is building bridges between community members and representatives of local government, including the mayor and the chief of police, by hosting constructive online discussion spaces to explore issues of equality and justice.

“The issues facing the community can be resolved through an attitude of learning,” says Michael O’Neal, executive director of the organization. “Parent University emerged more than 20 years ago—at another moment of tension over racial inequalities in Savannah’s education system—as a way of connecting parents, city and school officials, and other community members in a learning environment where we could apply the principle of Baha’i consultation instead of the oppositional attitude that had led to impasse.” In such gatherings, the perspectives of diverse members of the community are heard in order to reach consensus on action.

Parent University now runs educational programs that allow parents and teachers to regularly consult on issues facing their community, often with the participation of school administration and the municipal government.

Within days of the eruption of unrest across the country over police violence toward African-American citizens, the organization invited Savannah’s chief of police to an online discussion with members of the public. Acknowledging that the concerns of community members were shared by officials helped to create the mutual understanding needed for a constructive conversation to take place. “I am appalled and disturbed by what I’m seeing,” said Police Chief Roy Minter. “I wear this uniform to work, but I live every day as an African-American male, so I never, never forget where I came from, I never forget what I’ve gone through…”

Subsequent conversations have strengthened a sense of shared purpose among different segments of society toward improving systems of public safety.

“We know that crisis brings creativity and opportunity,” said Mayor Van Johnson at a recent discussion hosted by Parent University. He observed that opportunities were now being created for decision-making to include “people who have never been at the table before.”

The mayor and the chief of police highlighted the critical role that Parent University plays in enabling close engagement between parents and local institutions and between diverse segments of the community that would otherwise rarely interact. “It is important for us to be on a call like this and to continue using numerous avenues to improve relationships, but also with the youth in our communities,” said Police Chief Minter.

Looking to the future, Mr. O’Neal speaks of the transformation that is needed in the relationships between different social actors. “Attitudes of conflict and opposition are not how we will get rid of racism. We must establish collaborative and inclusive relationships among individuals, communities, and institutions of society based in the realization of humanity’s oneness.”

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