July 1, 2022
Faith-based Lynden group works for racial unity
Clifford Heberden

Front Street’s iconic windmill-themed building tells a story of tradition in Lynden, where a community group seeks to encourage conversations about racism that will inspire understanding and equality. (Joe Mabel, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

July 1, 2022
Faith-based Lynden group works for racial unity
Clifford Heberden

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At the time of George Floyd’s murder and subsequent Black Lives Matter activism in 2020, the country was reckoning with a heritage of racism and police brutality. In Lynden, a March for Black Lives event organized by a Black Lynden high school student and others was met with strong and loud opposition by a large group of counterprotesters — many armed, some carrying assault rifles.

The division demonstrated that day in Lynden galvanized some in the small, close-knit community to start an organization that would bring people together.

Two years on, the organization will mark the anniversary with an event designed to do just that, as it gears up for a new phase in its efforts to unite the community.

Racial Unity Now (RUN) was created, organizers explained, to create spaces where people could gather, find understanding and engage in conversations to build bridges between communities and cultures in Lynden.

“We’re really wanting to work at increasing racial understanding and building towards racial unity,” said Saji Oommen, RUN board member.

‘Be the Bridge’

On July 5 — the second anniversary of Lynden’s March for Black Lives — RUN will hold an event called Be the Bridge at the Thirsty Badger, for the community to gather for food, drink, and conversation. 

Guest speaker will be Natasha Likkel Tripplett, an author and social justice advocate who has family in Lynden and has visited often.

Tripplett is excited that Lynden is willing to take this step and that like-minded people are coming together around issues of equity and creating organizations like RUN. “This is an opportunity for the city of Lynden, for the people, to have a touchpoint to address some of these issues,” she said.

To have these conversations, people need to take note of personal experiences and how those can either contribute or hinder reaching across some of these divides, she said. “Being really self-aware is going to be the first step for any cross-cultural relationship.” 

“The heart is there to want to serve and to want to address the issues, but the know-how, how to actually go about and do that, that’s where people need to be given the tools to figure out how to have these conversations in a productive way and in a safe way,” Tripplett said. She wants to help people with some of the language that will allow them to have these conversations.

“I think it’s important for everybody to do this work, regardless of their race or background because it transcends race,” Tripplett said. “Issues of equity and inclusion have tentacles that reach beyond race.”

Community-level change

RUN got a big boost earlier this year when the Mount Baker Foundation awarded them a multiyear, $185,000 grant to support the organization’s efforts in the northern part of Whatcom County.

The foundation focuses on equity and health determinants, child and family well-being, raising kidney health awareness, diabetes prevention, innovation in dialysis, and facilitating organ transplant.

Debbie Ahl, executive director of the foundation, said the intersectionality of public health and social determinants compels the foundation to take the issue of racial equity into account.

“If you look at the two predominant causes of kidney failure, they are diabetes and high blood pressure,” Ahl said. “Diabetes in particular is an area that is impacted by social determinants of health and so a lot of the upstream factors, a lot of those, are disproportionately experienced by people of color.”

Ahl said a lot of the kind of transformational change that Mount Baker Foundation would like to see happen in local communities really comes from the communities themselves.

“We want to be a catalyst, and we want to be transformational,” Ahl said. “We know those are really big words and we’re still working on that, but we do know that it’s a combination of community engagement and addressing things from multiple focal points.”

Ahl said the foundation was excited to help RUN with the grant since “a lot of their focus appears to be on really engaging with the community and helping the community become closer and addressing issues of racial equity.”

Oommen said the grant will be used to hire staff to move forward. “It’s bridging those racial divides, increasing communication, bringing down the fear and anxiety, it’s increasing neighborliness,” he said. “I think all of those go into creating a healthy community.”

A changing community

Board members of Racial Unity Now gather for a meeting. In past years, the organization has organized online seminars, public gatherings and community events to spur conversations about race in the local area. (Courtesy of Saji Oommen)

Terell Weg, a co-founder of RUN, said the march and counterprotests inspired her and others to address the issue of racism.

“It really was just shocking to see the racism that existed still in north Whatcom County,” Weg said. “It spurred us to get together and start talking through the racial inequity, trying to learn, and we decided that we wanted to start meeting and talking about how we could impart change.”

The aim of RUN, said Ron Polinder, another co-founder, is to get people to engage in conversations and learn about each other in an attempt to bring communities together.

“Prejudice, discrimination and bigotry continue to exist and we probably all have that in our hearts,” Polinder said. “We need to examine ourselves and each other to try to create better understanding and even reconciliation with people different than ourselves.”

Polinder said many people do not have the education or experience to fully understand the racial dysfunction that still exists in the nation and immediate community. 

“Those are the issues we want to address. We’re hoping to expose more people in our community to the realities of racial tensions and problems, and hope for greater sense of understanding and affection,” Polinder said.

“The reality is that we are a changing community. We’ve got a lot of people that are coming here from across the border to work the land like they’ve done for many years and there’s a growing diversity,” Oommen said. “So as a community, we need to be people who are open to connecting with people outside of our family units.”

Faith roots

Racial Unity Now is a faith-based organization that operates along the teachings of Christianity. 

“Those of who started it … want to really be the hands and feet of Jesus and be able to show and love others the way that we believe it needs to be shown,” Weg said. RUN’s platform, however, specifically states that they want to include voices from other faith traditions that have similar values.

Polinder said the values of the religion guide them their work within the church community and the community at large.

“It starts with scriptural teaching about how we treat our fellow man, how we can love our neighbor, how we see people as equals created in the image of God,” Polinder said. “The scriptures call us to seek the welfare of the city, to be engaged with the culture around us, in that spirit that this is our community and when we see things that aren’t right, we are called to speak into them and try to help people see there’s a better way.”

For Tripplett, depending on how this work is rooted in faith can make it even more powerful.

“If people are really honest about their faith and really about what the Bible teaches about diversity and inclusivity, I think people would have a greater reckoning with the truth that this is important, and this matters to God,” Tripplett said. 

Toward reconciliation

Oommen said Lynden has historically been a church community and that understanding that propels RUN to work within the parameters of the population and their faith.

“We’re hopeful that the church can be a part of the solution,” Oommen said. “We’re called to be people of hospitality, we’re called to reach out to the orphan, the widow and the stranger and so I’m hopeful that the church can play a role in bridging those divisions and ultimately lead us to a healthy community.”

“We want to start a movement of reconciliation within the church that we don’t feel is there right now in Whatcom County,” Weg said. “Our main thing is education at this point and trying to change the minds of those who are open, and then hopefully over time, it will start to seep into the minds of those who are not.”

Weg said RUN members realize that extinguishing racism in Whatcom County is very much a long-term goal that could take a generation to accomplish, but hope that working in partnership with churches will further the movement.

“Educating, inspiring, and transforming our community into a place that celebrates differences and strives for racial understanding we hope is universal enough that it speaks to anyone wanting to advance racial equality,” Weg said.

— Reported by Clifford Heberden

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