Capital Unity Center comes back to life at California Museum

Amanda Meeker, exhibits and programs director at the California Museum, shows the 4,000-square-foot multimedia California Unity Center on Thursday in Sacramento.
Amanda Meeker, exhibits and programs director at the California Museum, shows the 4,000-square-foot multimedia California Unity Center on Thursday in Sacramento. aseng@sacbee.com

Three years after the campaign to build a center promoting racial tolerance in Sacramento ran out of money, a smaller version of the Capital Unity Center has been resurrected as a multimedia gallery in the California Museum downtown.

At a grand opening Tuesday night, the museum will unveil “We Are All Californians,” an interactive exhibit featuring the sagas of nine immigrants from Mexico, Ukraine, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Eritrea, Guatemala and Jordan.

The exhibit is the first piece of what has been rebranded the California Unity Center, a 4,000-square-foot space dedicated to telling the state’s civil rights history and encouraging civic engagement, said the museum’s executive director, Dori Moorehead.

“We’re taking the Capital Unity Center’s ideas and updating them for what’s going on now,” said Moorehead, noting that more than one in four Californians are immigrants.

The California Endowment, a private health foundation, gave the museum $555,000 to create “We Are All Californians.” The museum is also using some of the $2 million in state money it now receives annually to further develop Unity Center exhibits and programs, said the co-founder of the original Capital Unity Center effort, former Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, who secured the state funding.

“It’s a very sweet moment to see this happen – progress does happen when people commit to making change,” said Steinberg. “This center was envisioned in 1999 to solve the same issues that existed throughout our history. The pioneers of this center hung in there.”

“We Are All Californians” includes the stories of one Sacramentan and four Los Angeles residents, said Moorehead, who called Los Angeles “the new Ellis Island.”

The exhibit also features several undocumented immigrants, said Daniel Zingale, senior vice president for the California Endowment. “It’s important that we make it clear that public health does not discriminate when it comes to immigration status – you can’t exclude people and be effective,” he said.

Central Valley farmworker Odili Chavez shares her journey from Oaxaca, Mexico, where she and her family lived in extreme poverty.

In her video, Chavez says she left when she was 26 years old. She said she paid a smuggler $1,800 to take her. “We walked for three days. We had to buy plastic bags to cover outselves to protect ourselves from the cold,” she said. They were caught by immigration officers, but she made it through on the second try, in a van crammed with people. Chavez has three children, one born in Mexico and the others in the U.S.

If she is deported, she said, “I’ll be grateful to this country for giving me so much.”

Bronislava “Slava” Sommer, a Jewish immigrant from Ukraine, shares her “Cinderella story” of marrying an American and becoming an ESL teacher here. In Ukraine, she said, she had to hide her faith.

The exhibit also tells the story of Sophal Ear, a Cambodian refugee who fled the Khmer Rouge and “learned about America by watching ‘Starsky & Hutch.’” He finished high school and college in California and later went to work for the World Bank.

The exhibit’s seeds were planted by the Institute for Advancing Unity, also known as the Capital Unity Center, born after the 1999 firebombing of three Sacramento synagogues and a women’s health center and the slayings of a gay couple near Redding. It was created by Steinberg and 29 other prominent Sacramentans across race, ethnicity and faith who hoped to build an internationally known center to fight discrimination and celebrate California’s rich diversity.

With $1 million in seed money from late Sacramento businessman and philanthropist Morton L. Friedman, the institute raised and spent $10 million developing educational programs and trying to construct a tolerance museum.

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.” The museum was never built.

Moorehead said the California Museum wll try to integrate as many of the original Unity Center programs as possible, and hold special day- or weeklong programs for students. “We have over 75,000 K-12 students a year visit us,” she said.

The museum hopes to open two additional exhibits by December 2017. The first, Advocacy 101, will teach people how to speak out and get the attention of lawmakers using past successes and failures, Moorehead said. The second, Speak Your Mind, will stage mock votes on historical issues, such as the 1882 California Exclusion Act, to see how people would vote today.

The Grand Opening is by invitation only. The new exhibit opens to the public at 10 a.m. Wednesday.

Call The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072.