About 10 years ago, Bellevue resident Jane York had an epiphany. At the time, the then-77-year-old was looking to meet people in her increasingly diversifying community. So she decided to attend a gathering hosted by the Cultural Conversations program, a recently developed entity designed to bring women from all walks of life in the city and the Eastside together.
At the gathering, Nura Adam, a native of northern Somalia who came to the United States when she was 12 years old, discussed a recent experience she’d had at the airport. En route to visit her father in Djibouti, she was racially profiled while going through security. It was a hurtful and intrusive experience.
As Adam talked about what she had encountered to the wider group, something shifted in York.
“I’m sitting here listening to this — and I’d always been kind of prejudiced to other races,” York, who said that she was taught prejudice growing up, recently recounted. “And all of a sudden, I thought, Why would something like that happen to such a beautiful person?”
York burst into tears, and now describes the moment as the start of a “fabulous healing.” Moved by what she’d heard, she asked forgiveness from those in the room who possessed the identities she’d once held negative attitudes toward. Though York and Adam have formed friendships with other women involved with the Cultural Conversations program, they became — and have remained — particularly close.
“Nura and I just clicked,” York remembered. “She’s become my Somalian daughter as a result of all of this.”
“Ever since… our friendship has really transformed to where we have become family,” Adam added. “We check in with each other at least three to four times a week over the phone.”
Friendships like York and Adam’s — both of whom have served other roles in the organization since its inception (York mentors; Adam moderates and facilitates) — are among the reasons why the Cultural Conversations program was formed to begin with: to connect women from Bellevue and the greater Eastside.
The event series originated in 2009, when the city of Bellevue’s neighborhood outreach team went on a listening tour of sorts. The group stopped by the meetings of faith communities and neighborhood groups to get a better feel for what the needs and interests of the region were. According to Carol Ross, Bellevue’s community relations coordinator, a lot of women were expressing interest in getting acquainted with people from various cultural backgrounds, as well as have a space to discuss concerns they had with others from the community.
Ross said Cultural Conversations, which officially debuted with the title in 2010, began with about 15 women meeting for coffee. But in the decade since, it’s evolved. Now, it can attract about 75 members of the community per gathering. Typically, gatherings are held between September and June at the Crossroads Community Center, unless otherwise noted.
Some get-togethers are more discussion-based; others are more presentational. A recent event had a speaker come in and conduct an interactive talk on how society views aging, and how it affects women; another was focused on participants writing six-word memoirs and breaking down why they chose to write the way they did.
Cultural Conversations also has touched on topics including human sex trafficking, disability and immigration, and it has made an effort to include people who have firsthand experience in the subjects. Spotlighting heavier topics can be difficult, Ross said, but it’s ultimately rewarding.
“It’s a program of storytelling and conversation, and it’s held in a place that’s meant to be safe, where members of the community can share their stories,” Ross said, adding that a goal is that, through the gatherings put on by Cultural Conversations, a diverse array of women can find universalities within each other’s stories.
For Ross, as well as for York and Adam, it’s difficult to pinpoint certain meetings that have especially stuck out to them, as the program has been consistently impactful.
“It’s hard to say what all my favorites are… I’ve seen the magic created where long-term relationships have developed with people that were most unlikely to have known each other,” Ross said. “Sometimes you need a box of tissues, honestly, because it’s so moving.”
“All events are really beautiful, eventful, and encouraging,” Adam said.
“The bottom line for me is that we are all women from different backgrounds and faiths who want to be loved, accepted and understood,” York said. “And that is what happens every time we meet… it’s just the most amazing experience.”
York did add that the event during which she met Adam remains a favorite moment for her.
Though it remains a priority that Cultural Conversations continues to have an impact as it moves past its 10th anniversary, something Ross would like to see is its participants working on a larger venture together.
“It would be really nice to have another project for the women… to work elbow to elbow toward a goal or project that’s supporting the wider community, because that’s where we really begin to learn,” Ross said.
York hopes that, eventually, every city in the country enacts a similar program. Adam would like to see the program be further duplicated by other communities, potentially on a global level.
“We really think it’s a great space that has a great potential for growth,” she said. “It has a wonderful, positive energy that’s very contagious. We think it’s a lovely program.”
“You leave almost levitating,” York added.
But over the last decade, Cultural Conversations has maintained a structure and level of engagement that’s proven itself consistently successful.
“What makes this program really work is people coming into the space honoring that we’re trying to create a safe space for a connection to listen as well as speak — to recognize that everybody carries a story,” Ross said. “One person doesn’t speak for everyone, so you want to get out and meet a variety of people.”
For more information about the Cultural Conversations program, as well as upcoming events, go to its page on the city website (https://bit.ly/2WB6Lep).