Bigotry-fighting Unity Center may find home at California Museum

Published: Saturday, Mar. 23, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Sunday, Mar. 24, 2013 - 12:01 pm

The Capital Unity Center – the anti-bigotry nonprofit that shut down last year after running out of money – is poised to come back to life in a new, 4,000-square-foot gallery at the California Museum.

"I have the space and a team in place to make it happen," said the museum's executive director, Dori Moorehead. "It's going to make Sacramento and California a better place."

About $2.4 million is needed to build the exhibit, restart the center's educational programs and hire a development officer, Moorehead said. "We have a strong core of donors who support civil rights education we can reach out to."

The vision for an internationally known center to battle bigotry and celebrate California's rich diversity was born after the 1999 firebombing of three Sacramento synagogues and a women's health center, and the murder of a gay couple near Redding.

The Institute for Advancing Unity was created by state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and 29 other prominent Sacramentans.

With $1 million in seed money from the late Sacramento businessman and philanthropist Morton L. Friedman, the institute raised and spent $10 million developing the center. Working out of an office, its staff created inspirational videos and went into the schools to present anti-bullying programs designed to break down stereotypes.

But when the project's fundraising stalled during the recession and its budget ran out, Steinberg called it "a dream deferred."

Thursday night, about 50 of Sacramento's leaders – including Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians across races and ethnicities – came to the museum to hear about its new gallery, which will be called the Unity Lab-California Speaks Out.

Steinberg recalled that after the 1999 firebombings and murders, Sacramento's leaders, piloted by then-Mayor Joe Serna Jr., met to explore "how we could fight intolerance not just in California, but the nation."

"Our dream was to build a center at 16th and N where tens of thousands of kids could come every year to learn about the good and the bad, tolerance and intolerance," Steinberg said.

When the money ran out, "it could have been the easiest thing in the world to fold our tents," he said. "Instead we've found a partner with a similar mission – our movement continues."

The Unity Center's educational programs could be up and running at the museum at 10th and O streets by the fall if the money starts rolling in, Moorehead said.

Susan McKee, Steinberg's district director, said the new exhibit could combine the interactive displays and videos developed for the Unity Center with new programs.

Moorehead, who joined the California Museum last year, first floated the idea of a collaboration with Steinberg six months ago. "He was at the point where he was going to have to pull the plug because he had no more solutions," Moorehead said. "But I have this building and a ready-made clientele of (up to) 70,000 K-12 kids rolling through here to learn how to speak out and protect civil rights."

The new gallery will go next to exhibits on the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, the Chinese Exclusion Act and the reasons why children from certain ZIP codes live longer, Moorehead said.

Dennis Mangers and Kais Menoufy, businessmen and community activists who have championed the Unity Center from the beginning, both backed the collaboration.

"It's a job that needs doing," Mangers said. "Every time people get complacent because they think things are getting better, they get surprised."

Menoufy, a Muslim, said Sacramento needs a place where people of different religions, ethnic groups and economic strata "can enjoy each others' beliefs and cultures."

Before it folded, the institute ran anti-bullying programs at area schools and created 21 videos of people such as Erica Fernandez, a Mexican immigrant from Oxnard who led successful protests to stop a natural gas pipeline from being routed through her community; the late Florence Jones, a Winnemem Wintu spiritual leader from Northern California who fought to preserve American Indian traditions; and Azim Khamisa, who forgave a 14-year-old gang member who fatally shot Khamisa's only son, Tariq.

To view the videos, go to people.

McKee, who hopes enough money will be raised to open the museum's new Unity Lab-California Speaks Out exhibit next year, said the good work the Unity Center did "inspired a lot of people, and we don't want to let that just evaporate."

To donate or learn more, contact McKee at or call (916) 996-5001.

Call The Bee's Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072. Follow him on Twitter @stevemagagnini.

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