Project Unity is shutting down for good … or itfs rising from dormancy and starting over — whatever the membership, and anyone else curious about the organization, decides when they meet at Longfellow Center, Ridgeland and Adams, on Sunday, Sept. 26, from 2 to 5 p.m.

First and foremost, the get-together is a reunion, a chance to catch up with those who engaged in a unique interracial social experiment back in the 1990s.

“Project Unity was about fostering friendship among people of different races,” says Pat Winters, who chaired the organizationfs social committee. The group was always more social than organized.

It all harks back to February 1992, said Project Unity co-founder Karin Grimes, when a parent-student forum at Longfellow School identified lack of racial interaction as a concern. Students had friends of other races all through elementary school, then typically separated by race once they got to high school. The students participating in that forum pointed out that their parents didnft interact much across racial lines either. Maybe that was part of the problem.

Taking their cue, Grimes said, the adults organized a meeting for Longfellow parents that spring and discussed some ideas on how to address the issue. Oak Park had a reputation for fostering stable diversity, yet blacks and whites werenft interacting much.

Out of that meeting, book groups formed to discuss UIC Prof. Thomas Kochmanfs book, Black and White Styles in Conflict, focusing on the day-to-day communication differences that too often get in the way of interracial understanding.

The groups met monthly until the spring of 1993, then came together to discuss where to go next. Thatfs when the idea of a community-wide organization was floated. A board was established, along with a number of committees. Book groups continued, in some cases turning into discussion groups. An annual dinner-dance was scheduled. And the group came up with a name: Project Unity.

Grimes and Cheryl Capps became co-presidents and the organization remained active for a good 12-15 years, reaching its peak in 1999, when membership topped out at 130 households (235 adults).

But times changed, kids got older and members ran out of steam. Project Unity has been inactive the last five years or so.

“Ifm not disappointed,” said Capps. “I just donft have the energy. I wish someone had picked it up and kept it going. Therefs still a need, but maybe people arenft as passionate about diversity as we were. To me that means maybe Oak Park has lost its edge. People used to come here for the diversity, but thatfs not a conversation Ifm hearing anymore.”

Winters, who as chair of the social committee was one of the primary instigators behind the social get-togethers Project Unity sponsored, is retired now and travels a lot, so she isnft around Oak Park as much. This past summer, feeling out of touch, she walked over to Cappsf house, and they started talking about a reunion.

“I want to see if we can rekindle interest in the activities,” Winters said. “We used to have game nights and go dancing. I wondered if others feel out of touch with the network.”

The other motivator for the Sept. 26 meeting is figuring out what to do with the modest funds left in Project Unityfs bank account. Capps is hoping to get some ideas from the membership on how to close down the account.

As an educator, Grimes thinks the greatest need is assisting young families now so the minority student achievement gap wonft be so pronounced later.

“Therefs a disparity when kids enter kindergarten,” she said, “and it gets worse from there.” She sees the Collaboration for Early Childhood Education as the area where most effort should be directed.

Winters used an old phone list of members and got 30 positive responses about the upcoming reunion. Shefs hoping the word spreads.

All three think there is still a need for an organization like Project Unity, but the torch will have to be passed to younger parents.

“There may be a lot of young families out there who are interested,” Grimes said.

“Are we back to square one?” Winters wondered.

A questionnaire has been sent out to former members in order to gauge their level of interest on a variety of fronts.

At the very least, they hope to catch up with a lot of friends from the past.

“We may have everyone give a quick recap of whatfs happened in their lives since,” Capps said. “It should be fun.”

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Still meeting

Pat Healey is the fourth member of the group planning the upcoming reunion. She is also a member of the only remaining active group from 1993. Here are her recollections:

I remember when I first learned about Project Unity. I read an article in Wednesday Journal that this new group was searching for minority members. At the time, I was just beginning a class called Race Relations at the University of Chicago, and I figured if I could cajole my way into this group, it would be good for a paper. It was, and I got an A.

In spite of my jaded beginning, I am still a member of the only active remnant of Project Unity. At first, I was a member of a multiracial book group. We still greet each other around town. When that disbanded, I was asked to join a racial discussion group. At the same time, I was hosting community outreach subcommittee meetings at my house, attending dances where I never abandoned the dance floor, and participating in an NBC segment on race relations, called “Black, White, and Angry,” filmed at my house, featuring Project Unity members. My single-minded entry had turned into wide-ranging, enthusiastic participation.

Over the years, as the founders turned over leadership roles to others, the group lost steam. However, my oft-changing discussion group chugged along. At one time the group had 11 members. Slowly, people dropped out because of family disruptions, lack of interest, moves, or, in one case, because of a felt religious prohibition against the pro-gay rights stances espoused by the other members.

The final six have been members for well over 10 years. Three live in Oak Park, one in Berwyn, and two in Michigan, where they moved specifically to promote racial interaction between the residents of mostly white St. Joseph and mostly black Benton Harbor. We have examined our racial, religious, gender, ethnic and political views. We have challenged one another. In doing so, we have sometimes surprised ourselves with our deeply-imbedded stereotypes. We have celebrated and mourned together.

We are friends and are still meeting.

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