At the California Museum’s New ‘Unity Center,’ Conversations Trump Confrontations
Sasha Khokha, The California Report Magazine
Aug. 25, 2017
In 1999, white supremacists firebombed three synagogues in Sacramento, and a women’s health clinic that performed abortions. In nearby Shasta County, a gay couple was murdered in their bed.
It became known as the “Summer of Hate.” The city was left reeling, but its leaders came together and decided to build a center where people from different backgrounds could meet and learn about civil rights history. It would also encourage people to teach each other about their differences, and search for common ground.
Nearly two decades later, the Unity Center at the California Museum in Sacramento is finally ready. It opens its doors Saturday.
Museum director Amanda Meeker said she had some doubts about the project’s relevance a year ago, back before the 2016 election and a wave of white supremacist rallies. “I actually thought ‘Is this something we still need?’” she recalled. “Turns out that unfortunately, it is.”
Giant photographs hang on the museum walls, showing a rich diversity of faces, bodies, and styles: There are Californians in braids and headscarves, and other residents hugging, standing, smiling, or sitting in wheelchairs.
The Unity Center uses interactive stations, videos, and games to create an immersive experience. One display surrounds the visitor with four large video screens of people talking. It’s like being dropped into the middle of a conversational circle, each speaker looking you directly in the eye.
The first discussion to appear on the screen explores the experience of young Muslims.
“Personally, my Dad is an air force veteran,” says Misha onscreen. She wears a hijab. “I have the right to live here openly as a Muslim.”
“There are lot of assumptions,” explains a young man named Tariq. “Being black and Muslim, [strangers] either assume you are a convert, or very recently come to Islam. Islam has been in my family for quite some time.”
The other people in the video nod their heads in agreement. Sitting on the stool, it really feels like you’re in the room. Meeker said that effect is not an accident.
“We really wanted to really involve the visitor in the conversation. What if you could eavesdrop, be a fly on the wall?” she said, “Hear a group talking candidly about something you would never be able to hear?”
In another conversation, adults with disabilities talk about being a parent.
Vance has two daughters, and uses a wheelchair. In the video, he says that when he and his wife were expecting, they were met with confused reactions. “Once you announce to somebody that you’re having a baby, people I’d gone to church with, or hung out with…would ask, ‘Hey, how’d that happen? How’d you get pregnant?’”
A woman named Shannon shares a similar experience: “All my friends didn’t think I could have sex. They thought because I’m in a wheelchair, I’m asexual…they couldn’t imagine it.”
Cayla Sharp and Anne Cohen met each other for the very first time at a celebratory reception for the exhibit on Aug. 21. Both women are featured in Unity Center videos: Cayla appears in one that features transgender and gender-nonconforming youth. Anne’s video is about parenting with a disability. She also writes a blog, Spastic Mama.
The two excitedly shared their reactions to each others’ videos, and then the thrill of seeing the entire exhibit.
“There was never a place for me to understand gender issues, and disability issues, from a younger age, because those types of things aren’t preserved in museums and history books,” Cayla said.
“Just to see your community so represented in a museum outside of San Francisco, where it’s going to be seen by a broader community, in years to come, is exciting!” Anne said.
A different exhibit features a diner-style booth where you can sit down and play a card game with other museum visitors. The game is similar to a “stump your friends” game known as “two truths and a lie.”
Pinki Cockrell, who is white, sat down in the booth with two African-American women, Akilah Young and her mother Felicia Young.
Felicia went first, picking out three cards that described possible scenarios, identities and desires. Hers read: plan to be a politician, live in a foster home, and parents are divorced. Pinki guessed that “plan to be a politician” was the false card, but Felicia told her that was actually true. What was false? She had never lived in a foster home. Pinki shook her head: “You just can’t judge a book by its cover!”
At a recording station, an 11-year-old named Zoe sat down on a stool and got ready to record her thoughts for the museum archives. As a robotic female voice counted down from three, she took a deep breath.
“I’ve been bullied millions and millions of times,” she said into the camera. “Just remember, you don’t have to listen to what people say. Like if they say, ‘you’re ugly’ or ‘you don’t belong here.’
Then Zoe’s voice got firmer: “You don’t have to be a bystander, you have to do something.”