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Unity in the Community celebrates the diverse cultures in the Inland NW

April Anderson and Mareesa Henderson plan Unity in the Community.

Believing that racial or cultural bigotry is about ignorance, April Anderson and Mareesa Henderson have worked together for several years to educate people about the diverse cultures in Spokane through the annual Unity in the Community celebration of cultures in August.

From February through August, they work with a board of six and committee of 20 to plan the event.  About 150 volunteers help the Friday evening and Saturday of the event from setup to take down.

Preparations involve raising funds for school supplies and bike helmets, recruiting participants for the Cultural Village, inviting vendors to the Education, Career and Health Fair, and discovering new cultural groups to entertain.

Both believe the community needs to respond to diversity with more than just tolerance.

“We need to embrace our different cultures and walks of life,” said April.  “We need to come together to understand each other. 

“It’s 2016.  We shouldn’t have prejudice,” she said, appalled that her biracial grandson is shunned by neighborhood children.

“When high-profile people foster hate, others follow if they don’t know better,” said Mareesa.

Both value Unity in the Community because it breaks down divisions.

Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church organized the first Unity in the Community in 1994 at Liberty Park.  By 2007, it outgrew that park and moved to Riverfront Park. Ben Cabildo with the AHANA (African American, Hispanic, Asian and Native American) business association then organized it.  It became part of Community-Minded Enterprises along with AHANA.

Because volunteers do the planning and Community-Minded Enterprises was moving in other directions, the committee gained nonprofit status in April 2015.

“Our mission,” said Mareesa, “is to bring the community together and to educate on cultures while handing out free school supplies and bicycle helmets.”

“I believe all are equal.  We should not treat anyone differently because of faith, ethnicity, skin color or sexual orientation.  We should treat everyone with kindness and open arms,” said April.  “Life is too tough.  We don’t need the nonsense of hate.

“At Unity in the Community, we see thousands of people together getting along, smiling, being entertained and learning about resources,” said April.

It continues to grow.

Organizers added a senior resource area last year and gave seniors bags of resources.

This year, high school youth from Chase Youth Commission are on the planning committee. 

This year, it will include a parade for people with disabilities.

Its success is evident as news media have reported 10,000 people attending.  Last year, they gave out 2,000 bags of school supplies.

Last year there was a prayer booth in the health area.  Various faith groups and politicians are among more than 150 vendors.

“Unity is a success because local businesses support the vision of coming together as a community,” said Mareesa. 

“I never knew there were so many cultural communities,” said April.

People from different cultures share through entertainment—German and African-American choirs, a Native American hoop juggler, Middle Eastern dancers, African, Hawaiian, Hmong, Thai, Filipino, Chinese and Peruvian dancers, and many more.

Mareesa said they learn about groups by attending community events and through the diversity calendar Yvonne Montoya Zamora prepares each month through Washington State University.

“The Cultural Village has booths with representatives of different countries and cultures—Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Peru, Hawaii, Hmong and so many more.”

While Spokane may be 89 percent European American, people of many diverse cultures live here.

“There is hunger for education about diverse cultures.  It’s great to see parents supporting their children in the Cultural Village as they listen and learn,” said Mareesa.

April appreciates seeing “aha” moments happen as children have their “passports” stamped at each booth they visit to qualify for school supplies.

“It’s a priceless education as they learn to say ‘hello’ in different languages and learn about different countries,” she said.

People from other cultures, many of whom came as refugees, also learn.

An Iraqi man was worried during the war for his safety, so he didn’t wear his Iraqi clothing the first year, but he felt welcome, so now wears it.

“Seeing that kind of transformation is why we do it,” April said.

While they were setting up last year a woman from Argentina came through the park and saw the flag from Argentina.

“She started to cry when we told her what the event was about,” she said.

April is glad to hear about people finding jobs and other opportunities in the Education, Career and Health Fair.

April, who has been involved since 2005 and Mareesa since 2007, both have parents who are Italian and Hispanic.  Mareesa’s mother is Dutch and Native American.  Their commitment comes from their own diverse heritages.

Both volunteer through their employers, Comcast and Umpqua Bank, which are committed to improving the community by having employees volunteer during work hours.  Both also volunteer evenings and weekends.

April, who was chair from 2008 to 2013, moved to Spokane from a Hispanic part of Los Angeles her senior year of high school.  Having brought her parents to the Catholic faith, they came in 1982 to open a group home for developmentally disabled adults at Five Mile Prairie.

When she first came, she wondered where the African Americans and Mexicans were.  She had never been in an area that had so many white people.  She experienced culture shock and racism.  Her parents returned to LA. 

When she divorced, she started going to Bethel AME and became involved with Unity in 2004 through Sterling Bank—now Umpqua Bank—her employer since 1991.

“I believe in giving to the community,” said April, who is now also on the Martin Luther King Jr. Family Outreach Center board.

Mareesa, chair since 2013, has been in Spokane 10 years.  She grew up Baptist in the Tri-Cities and graduated from Washington State University in human resources in 1998.  Her husband, who served in the Army, is African American and Chinese.

She worked 16 years in human resources with Dakota Direct now West Corp, through which she started volunteering with Unity.  Since last year she has been with Comcast and continues volunteering.

As one of the First Friday art events, Unity’s Rooftop Extravaganza fund raiser starts at 5:30 p.m, Friday, June 3, at Umpqua Bank, 111 N. Wall St.

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Copyright © May 2016 - The Fig Tree