Article: Kevin Heffernan
Photos: Unite by Night, Kevin Heffernan
For many of us, 2016’s election was an eye-opener for issues of inequality including racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia and more. Until that election, and the vitriol surrounding it, many of those unaffected by bigotry or unjust legal policy failed to notice it.
In the time that has passed since November 2016, many people and groups have come to realize that shares on social media and calling elected representatives have had limited impact on our country’s state of affairs.
We sat down with two such women, Emily Perryman and Samantha Wentlent, co-founders of Unite by Night, a local nonprofit startup organization, to ask them about their motivation, their action, and its impact:
That initial motivation was the reality of the world, troubling situations in this country, things we were definitely not hyper aware of prior because… We were living in a bubble.
We started over 18 months ago. We attended the Women’s March in DC and saw the velocity, the energy of those who were feeling the same way as us—wanting to advocate for positive change for a diverse variety of important causes that intersect. We sat down and thought about how we could do something more than just share articles or opinions on social.
Our plan was just to do an event at first. We interviewed a few local nonprofits we felt were already doing great work, and whose mission and values aligned with our goals of celebrating and promoting diversity and inclusion.
We met with the National Federation for Just Communities (NJFC of WNY), found it to be a perfect fit, and offered to help throw an event that would raise awareness and visibility amongst young professionals and fundraise for their organization.
They were onboard and we got to work. Along with our two co-founders, James Neiler and my husband, Nii Sowah, we put together a fundrasising event featuring a diversity fashion show.
Instead of making it about the clothes, we made it about the people, and asked all who walked in the show to hold signs that told everyone about their identity, what represented them and what they are proud of.
NFJC was really happy with the effort and we realized we had laid the foundation for something bigger, Unite by Night. A model that donates a year’s worth of professional service and volunteerism to local nonprofits that align with our values. We’ve invited people from various backgrounds to donate their time and skillsets to help various nonprofits that we believe in, whether that is consultation services, event coordination, communication strategy, PR services, website development, social media and more, the model is sort of a “Teach them to Fish” endeavor.
We mentioned the Women’s March as being a catalyst for us. It introduced us to an opportunity to speak out in our own communities about what we believe in and collaborate for positive change for the greater good. While we don’t use this experience to talk about our personal politics and beliefs, we use it instead to represent how we were inspired, motivated and encouraged by our fellow citizens across the country who all came together to represent their views and speak out. That is truly the beauty of this country. That day we saw many different points of view from both sides of the aisle and a variety of personal experiences, and we were very proud to be living in a country that allows us the chance to speak out. It made us want to do more in our own community to make a positive impact in whatever way we could.
So, we put together a diverse group of young professionals who have a lot to offer to meet the diverse needs of local nonprofits that do important work in our community.
Along with the Unite by Night fashion show, we also did a Flashlight Walk with the NFJC in response to the August 2017 rally in Charlottesville, Virginia last summer. We wanted to provide an event and a platform to speak out about this unjust, unacceptable and racist activity, and allow people an opportunity to connect with one another, coming together symbolically to represent and grow a stronger community.
We’ve since dedicated this next year of Unite by Night to the SSJ Sister Karen Klimczak Center for Nonviolence. It is yet another local nonprofit that directly aligns with our values. Not only do they focus on nonviolent approaches to conflict, but they facilitate a social justice-oriented summer camp for children with the WNY Peace Center called Camp Peaceprints – teaching children ages 8-13 early on the important of diversity and nonviolence, providing them with peaceful conflict resolution skills and exposure to a broader community.
In our work we reach out to nonprofits and they generally seem surprised when we say, “We have a group of professionals who would like to assist you.”
They think we charge, but we don’t. We’re really just introducing them to a new audience and helping them with exposure, addressing challenges and filling holes.
So far, we have worked with the NFJC, this year has been dedicated to the SSJ Sister Karen Center, and we have also been recently involved in a mini project with the WNY Women’s Foundation, helping them with the roll out of their All in WNY initiative. We’re also taking part in meetings with the WNY Women’s Action Coalition and learn from other participants. These efforts allow us to connect with others, tell our story and seek out new opportunities to use our time, talent and treasure to make a difference.
We’re in the thick of year two and thinking about how to make this sustainable. There was a great crowd at our first Flashlight Walk event, and a ton of interest in our second. We think this is indicative of people’s desire to just do SOMETHING. They are now more aware of the issues we’re facing than ever before, and they want to react in a way that has meaning.
We’re in the process of approval for federal recognition of 501(c)3 status, we’ve developed a board of directors, and we have so many new member volunteers joining us to participate. This group started with conversations, and that will always be our main driver moving forward.
We’re doing our best to keep conversations candid, frank but respectful. We’re talking about politics and people, and it gets sensitive, but everyone involved has got to be open to multiple ideas and diverse views. We must place an emphasis on listening. If we’re going to be diverse and inclusive, listening and empathy have to come first. It’s not always easy, but it’s crucial.
Part of why everything is so divisive is that people aren’t willing to take the time to find common ground, and while we work with nonprofits, or have gatherings at events, we can encourage people to meet others and seek that common ground. There’s not just a black and white here, there are many shades of gray for many people. Our own friends can sometimes be uncomfortable speaking to each other about many of these issues, but we’re going to push forward because it’s important to do so. Conversations can be candid, but respectful at the same time.
As we consider our future, we’re looking into building chapters of Unite by Night at colleges and universities in Western NY and beyond. This idea came to us when we were selected to present at the SUNY Diversity Conference in late 2017, one of the few non-academic presenters at the system wide conference event. A solid reputation will help us potentially accomplish this and grow. We can’t work with everyone, everywhere, but so long as the volunteer work we do is successful, and it impacts the organizations and the communities they serve, we’ll continue to grow. We’ve got friends in other cities looking into starting their own chapters of the organization already!
New communities will have specific needs, so this will always rely on the passion of those involved. These are your nights, your weekends. Taking that time requires a solid commitment, and that commitment from our members is what we’ve been able to grow upon since our foundation.
To learn more about Unite by Night check out www.unitebynight.com or find the group on Facebook. Upcoming events are listed and those interested are encouraged to attend and get involved.