Unite by Night
A new startup aims to promote dialogue and diversity
NFJC’s Lana Benatovitch, Glenn Jackson of Buffalo Promise, and Rene Petties-Jones of NFJC
Photos by Sara Heidinger
In the wake of the 2016 election, Emily Burns Perryman, Samantha Sowah, and many of their friends found themselves discussing tough topics, such as diversity, racism, and bias—topics that had never come up before, despite years of friendship. After the pair traveled to Washington, DC, in January 2017 for the Women’s March, they felt moved to turn those conversations—and the shared values and concerns that had emerged—into action.
Along with Samantha’s husband, Nii Sowah, and longtime friend James Neiler, they founded Unite by Night, a nonprofit startup that aims to help people across the community connect and spark discussions of their own, while also devoting a year of service to a local nonprofit.
“When we came back, we were inspired to do something locally, knowing that starting small and local can oftentimes lead to the greatest change,” Perryman recalls. “We didn’t need to reinvent the wheel; we just needed to find out who could use our help and reach out into the community.”
The group chose to dedicate their first year to the National Federation for Just Communities (NFJC) of Western New York, which offers diversity education programs for schools and organizations to promote understanding and overcome discrimination.
“A lot of people have a lot of feelings about [these issues], and they don’t quite know what to do about them or where to channel their emotions and concerns,” Perryman says. “We devote a year to doing good work with existing organizations that need support, so it provides a means for people to get involved easily based on their passion, education, training, or experience.”
Unite by Night participants have used signs, among other strategies, to tell their stories.
For the NFJC, the founders used their unique skillsets to plan events to fundraise and raise awareness, particularly among millennials—starting with a fashion show last spring. But, instead of showcasing designer threads or jewelry, attendees raised signs highlighting facets of their backgrounds—everything from “I am Catholic” or “I am going to be a mom” to “I am first-generation American” or “I had a transplant.”
“It created a dialogue with people from all walks of life, all different age groups,” says Alisha Taggart-Powell, owner of Janie’s Emporium Boutique, who has partnered with Unite by Night to offer advice and assistance and connect them with college volunteers. “We all have a story to tell, and, from this event and the dialogue it created, we found many commonalities.”
Creating open dialogue around diversity and related issues is a central theme of every event the group has organized so far, including a happy hour after the NFJC’s Dash for Diversity in October.
“When we talk about conversation today, it tends to be based around the digital age—email, text messaging, social media,” says Neiler. “The NFJC talks a lot about respect and understanding, and a lot of that gets lost in those forms of conversation. With the events we’ve supported, conversation becomes more real; it’s face-to-face and allows people to really understand one another.”
A fashion show emphasized communication rather than couture.
Last summer, after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, left a young woman dead and dozens injured, Unite by Night mobilized quickly to organize a flashlight walk through North Buffalo.
“We wanted to do something collectively to show this is not who we are as a community, as Buffalonians. It was a great night, walking up and down Hertel, to show our support and that our community would not tolerate this type of bigotry,” says Nii Sowah, who also coordinated with the NFJC to introduce a diversity training program at his workplace.
At press time, the founders were determining their 2018 partner organization, but say their overall goal will remain the same—to unite people of diverse backgrounds, bridge gaps in our community, and support another organization that’s making a difference.
“After the election, a lot of people were saying, ‘How did this happen?’ And the truth is, the fact that you don’t understand, and that we’ve stopped having conversations with people with different thoughts, is the problem,” Samantha Sowah says. “We’re still defining what diversity means to us as an organization, and being open to new thoughts and opinions is a huge part of that.”
Nii Sowah continues: “Respecting people’s experiences and perspectives, having an open dialogue, and being willing to have those conversations even if they’re uncomfortable—that’s the start of really, truly understanding what diversity is.”