Syda Taylor started her community journey just over 20 years ago after a meeting with the Baha’i Local Spiritual Assembly for Chicago.
Members of the group had been looking across the city at towns and neighborhoods where there were no Baha’is. Two places at the time stood out: Cicero, a near-west suburb of many immigrants, and Bronzeville, the historic heart of Chicago’s African American community. So encouraged by the Assembly, Syda and her husband Kelsey moved to Bronzeville near the Baha’i Center at that time. Kelsey, a civil engineer, led a youth group called the Gap Community Project that taught leadership skills and cleaned the neighborhood on Saturdays. Syda became deeply involved in supporting local public schools.
As the years went by, Syda found herself playing increasingly central roles in Bronzeville, especially in addressing the long-term issues of structural racism affecting the community. Initially, there were community efforts that needed money, so she started helping with fundraising, including walk-a-thons and an art exhibit. She decided to convene a day-long conference called “Be the Healing” that brought world renowned author Dr. Joy DeGruy to Bronzeville for a year-long initiative with community leaders. She also joined efforts for an annual bike ride to commemorate Chicago’s 1919 race riots, which led to a scholarship program. Together with her husband and Bronzeville organizations, she organized a neighborhood day-of-service for Martin Luther King Jr. Day that has grown to 250 volunteers annually.
Funders started to be interested in Syda’s work, but she didn’t have the federal paperwork that would make it easy for her to accept grants. “Could you just pay directly for lunch for the conference?” she’d ask. Eventually, those funders encouraged her to start a new organization, which in 2019 officially became Organic Oneness. In 2020, due to COVID-19, her existing contract for a city-wide festival was canceled so she decided to make the leap full-time to work with the new organization. By that time, the pandemic was in full swing and reshaping the nonprofit landscape, but somehow Syda was undeterred. She stepped into the work she was feeling called to do.
The organization she built is part of a long American tradition of faith-inspired institutions doing work for the common good. Catholic Charities is an example of this tradition, as is the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN), a Chicago-based Muslim organization engaged in multi-racial and multi-faith efforts for social justice. (For more in IMAN’s work, see Eboo Patel’s Out of Many Faiths.) Syda jokes that she and the founder of IMAN often meet at panel discussions where is invited to present as the Muslim representative and she as the Baha’i representative. Both organizations take on urban issues such as health and good education access, inspired by faith values but deliberately serving a religiously diverse geographic community.
How do you establish an organization with faith-inspired values that serves a general public? For Syda, this question has practical answers. Half of the organization’s board is Baha’i, and half are people of other faiths. Of the people that have a staff role at the organization, Syda is currently the only Baha’i. While the mission and work of the organization is articulated in values that resonate with Baha’is (such as racial unity), she encourages people of other religions to find their own connection to the work. “I’m offering this as a Baha’i,” she says, “you bring what you have.” It’s the potluck approach to organizing.
Organic Oneness responds to community needs. When George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, the Baha’i center half a block away invited in Organic Oneness to help assist with a pop-up food pantry to serve and heal the community. When the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was dealing with a spate of racist and antisemitic incidents, a Baha’i alum reached out to Organic Oneness and asked them to help build bridges between groups on campus as well. The organization doesn’t have a master plan, instead trusting its growth will be like its name suggests: organic.
Renowned author and anti-racist educator Dr. Joy DeGury is a fan. She’s been a part of several programs organized by Syda and Organic Oneness. She says, “It has been a hopeful process witnessing the work of Organic Oneness unfold as they magnify the efforts of the beloved communities they co-create with.”
Syda sees the core of her community work as rooted in a fundamental Baha’i teaching: “be friends.” In later years, she went back to grad school to study community development, where her professors were detailing a spectrum of different approaches to community organizing. At some point she said it dawned her “I’ve been doing this all my life! It’s just being friends. Hang out with them, go to their homes, see what interests you have that are alike.” All of the history of community organizing, and all of Syda’s work, distills down to friendship.
Jeff Pinzino has spent more than 25 years working for social change as a community organizer, funder, fundraiser, and social entrepreneur. He has worked with People’s Action, Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, Midwest Academy, and Resilience Force, an organization that supports disaster recovery workers. He is one of the founders of Stone Soup Co-Op, Interfaith Youth Core, Fresh Moves Mobile Produce Market, and Chicago Blues Revival. He lives on the South Side of Chicago and is a member of Beverly Unitarian Church.
To learn more about Interfaith America’s Scouting Interfaith Leaders project, contact Jeff at firstname.lastname@example.org
American Civic Life
American Civic Life