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Building Community Despite Gentrification

Makeena Rivers | Jul 24, 2019

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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Makeena Rivers | Jul 24, 2019

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

For years, the Brooklyn Baha’i community has looked for meaningful ways to build unity and justice in their neighborhood.

New York City draws people from all over the country and the world, and Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, known as Bed-Stuy, attracts many young people like me who come to live there. Lots of the younger adults I know live in Bed-Stuy, part of a community of folks brought together by the Baha’i Faith. 

Here, people gather to pray in each other’s homes, throw vibrant parties on holy days, and build loving relationships with others from wide and varied backgrounds. The Baha’is in Bed-Stuy try to constantly think about how they can be of service to the people around them, and contribute to the betterment of their neighborhood.

Abdu’l-Baha, the son of Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i Faith, said:

… the honor and distinction of the individual consist in this, that he among all the world’s multitudes should become a source of social good. Is any larger bounty conceivable than this, that an individual, looking within himself, should find that by the confirming grace of God he has become the cause of peace and well-being, of happiness and advantage to his fellow men? No, by the one true God, there is no greater bliss, no more complete delight. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, pp. 2-3.

Many of my Baha’i friends live in neighborhoods undergoing the process of gentrification. In New York, the housing market is difficult, but tons of jobs and dreams bring young people here. Gentrification funnels those upper-middle class or wealthier people into neighborhoods, while pushing black and brown residents out as the cost of living rises. While businesses like Starbucks or Whole Foods play a large part, individual newcomers also have a role in upholding gentrification—and though racially diverse, many of my friends in the Baha’i community are still a part of the gentrifying process. 

Baha’i community building efforts aim to foster both the material and spiritual progress of humanity. While many of the themes discussed in the materials we study with children, youth and adults focus on spiritual concepts, other activities are intended to spring from a rich culture that emerges when people gather, pray, and try to seek spiritual truths together. The Baha’i Faith stands for justice and the amelioration of racism, so how can efforts to build community thrive despite gentrification? How can we uphold universal participation if folks are constantly being pushed out of their communities?

Now, in order for folks of lower socio-economic status to be able to stay in places like Bed-Stuy, where young people are moving at higher and faster rates, it is necessary to focus on supporting fairer housing laws, protecting local black and brown businesses, and push back against a culture that excludes longtime residents from their own communities. 

In an effort to start effecting positive change in Bed-Stuy, some of my friends began attending their community’s meetings. Thinking of ways to build community as a newcomer can be tricky. Baha’is believe that in order for humanity to progress, both the material and spiritual needs of humanity need to be met. Additionally, Baha’is don’t believe in swooping into a community as if we will somehow be its saviors and miraculously resolve all the problems people face:

Development is a process that must benefit all and draw on the talents of all. The universality and spirit of common cause infusing the new global development agenda reflect a growing commitment to the premise that every member of the human family has not only the right to benefit from a thriving global civilization but also the capacity to contribute to its construction. Capacity of this kind is defined not only by the potential to achieve goals, but also the determination to take needed actions. – Baha’i International Community, 14 March 2016.

A newcomer cannot say what a community needs, but someone who has more experience can share valuable insight. In trying to partner with our new neighbors, we should implement the wisdom that is shared with us. A part of this might just be to support those at risk for being pushed out financially, and find ways to give wisely and mindfully.  

Hopefully, in time, gentrification will not be allowed to thrive, culture will not be erased, and genuine unity and diversity will flourish. Even for those of who have successfully avoided contributing directly to gentrification, the challenge to create a society rid of such vulnerabilities due to inequality still exists. 

There is still so much to learn and so far to go, but if we seriously work on strengthening the justice and love we are meant to have for one another, entire systems will be able to shift.

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