Lessons From Prince William County, VA
Q & A with Illana Naylor, founding member of Unity in the Community in Prince William County, Virginia
Editor’s Note: In response to a rash of hate crimes in her community, Illana Nayor reached out to her church, other faith communities and concerned citizens to form Unity in the Community in 1995. The group, based in Prince William County, VA, has remained active for nearly 15 years, and a key to the group’s success has been developing and maintaining a diverse network of allies. NIOT.org spoke with Naylor about Unity in the Community’s roots and the importance of cross-cultural organizing in building inclusive communities.
NIOT.org: Describe the origins and impetus of Unity in Community.
Illana Naylor: In the spring of 1995, my church, the Manassas Church of the Brethren, engaged the youth in the congregation about what concerns they had for the future. Many spoke of their concern about racism. Then during the summer there were alarming reports in the community of a Korean business targeted by arson, a swastika burned on the lawn of a Jewish family and on the fence of an African American pastor, and a local baseball team using KKK symbols for good luck. In response, I sent out invitations to 300 religious leaders and concerned citizens to gather together to tell their unique stories and to affirm that love is stronger than hate. It was time to let our light shine and our voices be heard and not to be overcome by darkness and silence.
NIOT.org: What has been Unity in the Community's experience organizing across different cultures, faiths and constituency groups?
Illana Naylor: People of faith and citizens were called together to celebrate our diversity and to give voice to the reality that we are stronger when we stand together. We began our journey by showing “Not In Our Town” to over 600 people followed by guided discussions and action plans that impact our work to this day. We all have a stake in the culture of our community and we share equal responsibility to nurture and to promote cross-cultural understanding and proclaim the richness of our diversity. Unity in the Community has no office. The community is our home. We meet each month in a different location, usually a house of worship, and when we hold events we look for opportunities to demonstrate our understanding and commitment to the cultural diversity present in the community. In 2008, we celebrated the International Day of Prayer for Peace (IDPP) at Dar Al-Noor, a local Islamic mosque, during Ramadan, allowing Christians, Jews and Unitarians to break the daily Islamic fast with our Muslim neighbors. This year, Congregation Ner Shalom will host our IDPP event.
NIOT.org: What challenges have you faced in trying to make these connections and build these bridges?
Illana Naylor: One of the biggest challenges we face is that we have two cities and one county intertwined geographically-Prince William County, Manassas and Manassas Park. As a result we engage and respond to three governmental bodies, three school districts, three police chiefs and three departments of social services. The deeper challenge is to find a way to share and to find meaning in the stories each of our diverse cultures seek to tell and to communicate them broadly in the three jurisdictions. When we were seeking ways to hear the pain of our gay sisters and brothers, we lost the support of some in the religious community; when we offered sanctuary to our Muslim friends or slept in African American churches to prevent church burnings, or have sought justice for our immigrant friends, often those not immediately have disengaged.
NIOT.org: How have you found common ground?
Illana Naylor: We seek and work to cultivate an appreciation for the different cultural heritages present in our communities. While we celebrate our unique identities, we also try to involve the various communities more actively in preventing, stopping, and responding to hate crimes and activities. Unity in the Community tries to create safe spaces to discuss difficult issues and does not shy away from the complex, difficult concerns in our community whether they relate to our schools, our police, or government councils and boards.
In partnership with George Mason University, the City of Manassas, Prince William Study Circles, The Center for Voter Deliberation of Northern Virginia and Everyday Democracy, Unity in the Community helped organize neighborhood study circles [http://www.pwsc.org/] with the goal of building relationships and understanding between diverse neighbors. We also sponsor an Immigration and Human Rights film series at George Mason University, and recently released the resource “Words of Compassion: Supportive Statements on Immigration” [www.UnityITC.org/documents/Compassion.pdf].
In addition, we maintain our visibility in the community by having booths at various community events.
NIOT.org: Based on Unity's experience, what value do you see in cross-cultural, cross-constituency organizing?
Illana Naylor: The richness of our environment -- natural and human -- thrives upon our diversity. We seek to give voice to this truth and to envision a community living in wholeness and mutual respect. When a Latino immigrant was robbed and killed by two African American men, Unity in the Community contacted an African American pastor, a Latino pastor, and a Catholic priest, and together we worked to provide a memorial service. Unity in the Community also helped to fund the repatriation of the young man’s body to his native country. Our ready relationships enabled us to move quickly and authentically.
NIOT.org: What are the dangers in mobilizing only the people who agree with you politically?
Illana Naylor: We do not seek to mobilize only those with whom we agree. However, the longer we serve our communities and the more we are recognized for identifying and challenging hate, the more labeled we are by some in the community as controversial. We respond to such criticisms by continuing to commit to ongoing positive efforts, trusting in the goodness of our community, speaking out in support of victims, and finding ways to demonstrate and celebrate the richness of our community.