Harnessing the Potency of Interfaith Cooperation in Social Justice Movements

Usra (left) and Katie (right) discuss how interreligious cooperation and conversation on campus can impact and inspire social justice movements.

On February 8 and 9, the MSC and Institute for Justice Education and Transformation hosted a two-day interfaith leadership training with the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC). Campus community members were invited to participate in an interfaith literacy and strategic visioning session on the first day. The second day, students learned about storytelling as a tool for interfaith cooperation.  We interviewed IFYC trainers, Usra Ghazi and Katie Baxter, about what it means to make a social impact across lines of difference.

Why do you personally feel that interfaith campus cooperation is important and relevant to social justice work?

Katie: Students come to campus with many different beliefs that society has taught them to keep private because we think of religion as a personal matter.  But these beliefs often run deep, and to really respect someone else as a whole person, this includes respecting that person’s beliefs, even if you don’t agree with them.  To me, that’s justice: allowing someone else to be who they are, and knowing that, by doing so, you can be who you are, too.  I also feel strongly about the civic and social purpose of interfaith cooperation.  We need to bridge the divides that can run deep between religious communities so that we can promote a culture of pluralism both on campuses and beyond.

Usra: There are great examples from historical movements in the United States when college students have been the driving force behind social change. I think back to the Civil Rights movement, Environmentalism, and Multiculturalism as groundbreaking, youth-led initiatives. Many of the leaders behind these movements are my faith heroes-individuals inspired by religious and non-religious values to fight for social justice. Likewise, young people today are harnessing the potency of interreligious cooperation to address social issues such as domestic poverty and environmental sustainability. Student leaders of the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge and the national Better Together campaign are strong examples of this.

What has been a project that has inspired you recently?

Usra: There are so many! At one campus I’ve worked with this year, the entire campus and a strong group of diverse community partners have come together around the President’s Challenge and Better Together to transform the campus into a model of interfaith cooperation. In just one year they have trained students to run an interfaith action campaign, founded a new interfaith service club for students, launched academic courses on interfaith cooperation all while mobilizing students and community members to serve local food pantries and soup kitchens and raise awareness about domestic poverty. That’s a huge impact!

What was your “a-ha” moment that made you passionate about interfaith work?

Katie: Before coming to IFYC, I worked on college campuses where my work was focused primarily on leadership with a strong emphasis on identity and diversity.  Too often I saw excellent student leaders with several years of diversity training be at a loss when questions of religion and faith would come up or feel strongly about their religious tradition but not be able to talk about it.  For example, I’ve seen RAs from different racial and ethnic backgrounds be thoughtful about the identities of their residents, but unable to work with one another when religious barriers became evident.  I’ve also seen many students of all genders, races, and sexual orientations express that their religion is the piece of their identity that is most salient to them personally.  Through these kinds of experiences, I realized that religion was an important omission from conversations on diversity, multiculturalism, and justice, especially when you add the rhetoric about religion coming out of American media in the last decade.

Usra: The wonderful thing about being a part of the growing interfaith movement is that every day brings a new “a-ha” moment. My first was during an interfaith service council meeting as a high school student. I was invited by IFYC and honestly, skeptical about interfaith work at that time. But not long after joining, I found myself thinking deeply about my convictions as a Muslim and as a civically minded young adult. My “a-ha” moment was at the age of 18 when I realized that interfaith service work was making me a better Muslim, and an empowered member of a large community of diverse social activists that I didn’t realize I was a part of, until then.

What was your personal journey that led you to IFYC?

Katie: I come from an “interfaith family.”  That is, my immediate family practices a mainline protestant tradition, but my maternal grandparents are Jewish.  This was always something that seemed normal and easy to me.  As I grew up, I realized that some of my peers thought differently, and I experienced a number of thoughtless anti-Semitic comments while in high school.  I went on to get an undergraduate degree in religion and a master’s degree in College Student Personnel, which led me to work with students on college campuses. I really developed a passion for bringing students together around questions of identity and difference (see above!).  We learn and grow so much when we form real relationships with people who are different from us!

Usra: As a Pakistani Muslim growing up in a mostly White northern suburb of Chicago, I was well aware that my religious and spiritual development was coinciding with some big hisorical moments in this country. It was in the aftermath of 9/11 that I especially began to think about my role as a young Muslim woman with close friends of Atheist, Jewish, and Christian beliefs. Amidst this turmoil, I was invited to join an interfaith service youth group with IFYC- a group that showed me how powerful the intersection of faith and service can be. I have been with the organization ever since.

What are some action steps that students and campus community members can take post-training to get involved in the interfaith movement?

Katie: Tell your story!  Share what you learned!  Go start an interfaith conversation!  Learn about a tradition you don’t know much about!  Find a way to have an impact across lines of difference!

The Interfaith Leadership Training, co-sponsored with the Lubar Institute, is part of the MSC’s commitment and participation in the White House Interfaith Initiative

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