“Are you greater than the sun that shines on everyone? Black, brown, yellow, red and white — the sun does not discriminate.”

Boston activist Sara Ting penned “The Sun Poem” in 1985 in a campaign to recognize and promote racial and ethnic harmony through words. Sara, who is Chinese American, has empowered people all across the country through those words. She even got “The Sun Poem” recognized in a resolution unanimously passed by the Boston City Council.

It also inspired the founding of World Unity Inc., a nonprofit that since 1994 has promoted diversity and aimed to change Boston’s reputation of being unwelcoming to people of color. In 2020, then-Mayor Marty Walsh went so far as to declare racism a public health crisis.

On this week’s edition of the Joy Beat, Ting sat down with All Things Considered host Arun Rath to discuss “The Sun Poem” and the work of World Unity Inc.

Arun Rath: You’ve said that “The Sun Poem” was born in Boston, so take us back to 1985 and the gestation of the poem.

Sara Ting: It was actually written in 1978 in a personal journal; it didn’t become public until 1985.

The poem came on a journey I was on at that time to try and understand the meaning of God. In life, we have different camps of people: those who believe in God, those who don’t, and those who aren’t sure. I was one of the groups that didn’t feel sure, and I said, “Let me find out if God really exists.” I thought the best way to do this was to find a place of worship.

I thought this was going to be an easy journey. It wasn’t. At the first place I went to, at the end of the service, I thought someone would welcome me and say good morning — some word of acknowledgment that I was standing in front of you. Not one single person spoke to me. Not one person said, “Good morning, welcome.” It was like I was invisible.

Now, I didn’t let that affect me too much. I thought, “Well, this is not the only church in Boston. I’ll try another one." The same thing happened again. I said, “Well, I’ll go across the river.” Unfortunately, the same thing happened; no one spoke to me. And then I thought to myself, “I’m a friendly person. I don’t need somebody to come up to me and say 'Good morning' and 'Hello.' I’ll do the outreach.

So I went back to Boston, and there were about 200 people in this particular place. At the end of the service, I kind of looked around to see if there might be a friendly face. I picked out this couple and introduced myself, and I thought, “Great, I can have an engaging conversation.” It wasn’t.

At this point, I’m feeling really, really dejected. As the bus came, I stepped onto the bus, and I didn’t see any passengers. As the bus was pulling away, the sun broke through, the clouds came shining on my face — the rays of the sun — and I heard this voice in me: “I don’t just shine for you, Sara. I shine on everyone.” And the poem was born. “Are you greater than the sun that shines on everyone? Black, brown, yellow, red and white. The sun does not discriminate.”

Rath: That’s wonderful. Tell us about the journey from there to World Unity Inc.

Ting: So what inspired the founding of World Unity Inc. was this poem. It was part of a public service campaign in 1985, and I was commissioned to produce a 4-by-8-foot poster for the YWCA because their first imperative is the elimination of racism.

I’m at an event, and a young lady comes up to me and wants to tell me what the poem did to her. I said, “OK.” Apparently, she was a member of the YWCA, and when she first saw this poem, she couldn’t ignore it. She said she actually hated the poem. I knew she wasn’t being malicious; she wanted to tell me what this poem did for her.

Apparently, when she saw the poem, it opened up the wounds and brought back the memories of being discriminated in Boston as an Asian American woman. She realized over time, after seeing this poem over and over again, that she had to let go of the past and forgive.

The minute I heard the word “forgiveness,” this vision to build a permanent landmark showcased in this poem came to me, and the need to create an organization whose mission will be not only to promote equality, diversity and inclusion, but to build this landmark.

Rath: You know, we’re in Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month right now. I was just on a panel this week talking about some of our shared heritage, so it feels like this conversation is especially timely. Also, we’re in a context of a new kind of anti-Asian hate. Talk about this context at this moment because I feel like we really need “The Sun Poem” right now.

Ting: Let me say this: There are no laws, policies or technology that’s going to remove anyone’s biases or hate. The change we need has to come from within the person. The poem can help ignite the change; it’s up to the individual to want to be a better human being and to want to grow personally and professionally.

The beauty of the poem is that there’s no judgment in it; it just invites each of us to answer this simple question: Are you greater than the sun that shines on everyone?

So we have to think again, well, how am I treating anyone who is different from me? What it requires of each of us is to be honest with ourselves and to have the courage to face yourself and be OK with being accountable. On the other side of this concrete is growth and the opportunity to have a wider circle of friends and to have a life that’s much richer than you’d ever imagine.

The poem actually also inspired a song and a wonderful program called Singing Equality Across America and Around the World. The song was performed at the United Nations by children in 2015.

One child said that when he sings it, it makes him feel like he can do anything. We want all children to feel that way. They look at the world with fresh eyes and a pure heart. The words that they shared with us about the impact of the song and the poem, to me, speak the truth.