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March 23, 2015 1

The Ripple Effect of Interfaith Dialogue

Dialogue Group (2)

Recent inci­dents around the world remind us of the power of hate and vit­riol to per­me­ate our reli­gious, cul­tural and national bor­ders. ISIS con­tin­ues to expand its alliances and fear-mongering tac­tics.  The world is in many ways par­a­lyzed to see a way for­ward, and the need for solu­tions capa­ble of build­ing bridges of under­stand­ing and respect has never been greater.

In this spirit, in early 2013, the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Con­necti­cut Office launched a Jewish-Muslim Com­mu­nity Dia­logue pro­gram between five Jew­ish and five Mus­lim women in the greater New Haven area. The women met for three con­sec­u­tive dia­logue ses­sions in March, April and May 2013. These ses­sions were so suc­cess­ful that all ten women requested a con­tin­u­a­tion of the pro­gram into the next year. Over the course of the 2013–2014 aca­d­e­mic year, four addi­tional dia­logue ses­sions were held that explored an array of top­ics related to their own Jew­ish and Mus­lim iden­ti­ties and experiences.

Each meet­ing fol­lowed key guid­ing prin­ci­ples such as active lis­ten­ing, sus­pend­ing assump­tions, and speak­ing from one’s indi­vid­ual expe­ri­ence. In between the for­mal ses­sions, the women teamed up in inter­faith pairs to orga­nize and host social, cul­tural and edu­ca­tional “out­reach gath­er­ings.” From hear­ing about a fam­ily member’s expe­ri­ence on the Hajj (Islamic pil­grim­age to Mecca), to attend­ing a Shab­bat ser­vice at a local syn­a­gogue, to par­tic­i­pat­ing in an Inter­faith Passover Seder, the women’s bonds were strength­ened and “rip­ples” of under­stand­ing could be felt beyond the group itself.

These rip­ples can be illus­trated in small moments the women have expe­ri­enced when going about their daily lives.

One Jew­ish mem­ber of the group described an expe­ri­ence she had recently in the restroom of a local depart­ment store. As she entered the restroom, she noticed two women, one wear­ing a hijab, and the other a teenager, sport­ing ripped jeans and streaks of pink in her hair. A few moments later, the Jew­ish woman wit­nessed the teenager aggres­sively ask­ing the other woman, “Why do you wear those awful things? This is Amer­ica; don’t you know that?” The Mus­lim woman was shak­ing and clearly fright­ened.  She didn’t speak much Eng­lish and there­fore didn’t respond. Instinc­tively, the Jew­ish woman walked over, took the Mus­lim woman’s hand and gen­tly led her to safety. As they walked out of the restroom. she heard the teenager shout a pro­fan­ity at both of them. She accom­pa­nied the Mus­lim woman to her fam­ily, and with a non-verbal ges­ture of shared grat­i­tude, they went their own way. No words needed to be exchanged. A quiet under­stand­ing of shared human­ity. A ripple.

One of the Mus­lim mem­bers of the group said that being part of the group has given her a clearer under­stand­ing of the rela­tion­ship between Judaism and Islam and has inspired within her con­fi­dence to share more of her­self with Jew­ish friends and acquain­tances. For exam­ple, within the last year she accepted an invi­ta­tion to share some of her insights and expe­ri­ences with a group of senior cit­i­zens at a local Jew­ish Com­mu­nity Cen­ter. Another ripple.

Another Jew­ish mem­ber shared a story about a recent expe­ri­ence she had on a small char­ter plane to Philadel­phia. There couldn’t have been more than 100 peo­ple on the plane, and she found her­self sit­ting in front of a scream­ing child. Every­one seated around her was agi­tated, hop­ing the child would calm down. The par­ents appeared to be Mus­lim, as the mother also wore a hijab.  The Jew­ish woman con­sid­ered what she might do to be help­ful.  Then, she remem­bered a gift that a Mus­lim mem­ber of the dia­logue group had given to every­one—Tas­bih, Islamic prayer beads that her hus­band brought back from his pil­grim­age to Mecca (known as the Hajj).  She reached into her purse, pulled out the prayer beads and offered them to the small child. The par­ents were dumb­founded as to what she was doing with them and ecsta­tic about the joy­ful calm they brought to their child.

Another Mus­lim mem­ber recounted her expe­ri­ence vis­it­ing her home coun­try of Morocco over the sum­mer. In a quiet moment of soli­tude and reflec­tion, she made her way to a mosque in order to say a prayer of heal­ing for the hus­band of a Jew­ish mem­ber of the group. An invis­i­ble line could be drawn between Islam and Judaism in this moment. A line cre­ated by rela­tion­ships of the heart.

Islamic scholar and char­ter mem­ber of ADL’s Inter­faith Coali­tion on Mosques (ICOM), Ambas­sador Akbar Ahmed defines dia­logue as a way to “redis­cover the essen­tial spir­i­tual unity in faith that tran­scends ideas of group honor and iden­tity.”  It is a sim­ple and yet pro­found process in which indi­vid­u­als can speak through dif­fer­ent lenses about their iden­tity and work towards human­iz­ing the ‘other.’ In the process, rela­tion­ships are formed – friend­ships that fos­ter love and not hate.

One of the Mus­lim par­tic­i­pants sum­ma­rized her expe­ri­ence over the last two years: “I am com­ing out of the end of the year as a stronger per­son. The sup­port and under­stand­ing of the group has touched other parts of my life. I feel we are build­ing bridges through com­pas­sion­ate under­stand­ing. This expands our net­work to places other than work and home. We are touch­ing on other beliefs than our own only to real­ize how great the com­mon ground is. The con­tin­u­a­tion of this work is impor­tant because such a group is a path­way to peace. These small steps can be a start to the cre­ation of sim­i­lar groups cre­at­ing greater under­stand­ing of dif­fer­ent reli­gions at a per­sonal level. As was said at the last meet­ing we still have a lot to learn from each other and in doing so we are com­ing to a greater under­stand­ing of our­selves. I look for­ward to all that lies ahead!”

 

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March 16, 2015 2

To Confront Racism, We Must Also Look In the Mirror

teenagers debateLast week, dis­turb­ing video emerged of fra­ter­nity broth­ers from the Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) chap­ter at the Uni­ver­sity of Okla­homa laugh­ing while singing a racist chant: “There will never be a ni**** SAE. You can hang him from a tree, but he can never sign with me. There will never be a ni**** SAE.”

The news comes on the heels of the recent find­ings from a Depart­ment of Jus­tice inves­ti­ga­tion in Fer­gu­son, MO which, among other things, revealed a deeply trou­bling series of racist emails by Fer­gu­son offi­cials. One email, for exam­ple, in Novem­ber 2008 pre­dicted that Pres­i­dent Obama would not be pres­i­dent much longer because “what black man holds a steady job for four years.”

With few excep­tions, peo­ple have denounced these inci­dents as racist. Imme­di­ately after the news broke, the pres­i­dent of the Uni­ver­sity of Okla­homa con­demned the stu­dents’ behav­ior and sev­ered all ties between the uni­ver­sity and the local SAE chap­ter.  At the same time, the national SAE head­quar­ters shut down the local chap­ter. Ferguson’s munic­i­pal court clerk was fired and the chief of police and two police offi­cers resigned after the DOJ report was released.

It is cer­tainly appro­pri­ate to con­demn this racism and teach peo­ple to chal­lenge biased lan­guage, but it is not enough.  Today, thank­fully, such overt racism is much less com­mon than in the past.  Still, there is an under­cur­rent of much sub­tler, more deeply buried bias that still flows through Amer­ica.  While fewer and fewer Amer­i­cans would use overt offen­sive, deroga­tory terms, many of us—consciously or not—have implicit biases (uncon­scious atti­tudes, stereo­types or unin­ten­tional actions that we direct at a mem­ber of a group sim­ply because of that person’s mem­ber­ship in that group).

The implicit biases embed­ded in, for exam­ple, the racial dis­par­i­ties in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem or the seg­re­gated nature of the col­lege fra­ter­nity sys­tem, can be as or more harm­ful than this hate­ful and deroga­tory language.

From a very early age we learn to dif­fer­en­ti­ate between things that are the same and things that are dif­fer­ent: one of these things is not like the other one.  Sci­ence shows that we make the same snap judg­ments about other peo­ple, using what we know and what we assume to cat­e­go­rize things. While that gives us impor­tant tools in mak­ing sense of the world, when paired with soci­etal biases and stereo­types it can become harm­ful. As a result of sub­tle mes­sages through­out soci­ety, most people—whether or not they intend it, and often when they expressly do not—have some implicit biases.

Stud­ies have found, for exam­ple, that doc­tors are more likely to pre­scribe pain med­ica­tion for white patients with a bro­ken leg than African Amer­i­can or Latino patients. Law firm part­ners, when asked to eval­u­ate a memo writ­ten by a hypo­thet­i­cal asso­ciate, scored the memo lower and found more mis­takes when they were told it had been writ­ten by an African Amer­i­can.  Another study found that, in order to get a call for an inter­view, appli­cants with typ­i­cally black names (such as Jamal or Lak­isha) had to send out 50 per­cent more resumes.

It is easy to dis­miss the racism at SAE and in Fer­gu­son as an aber­ra­tion and some­thing we would never engage in our­selves. It is much harder to deny that we have any implicit bias, espe­cially if you take the Implicit Asso­ci­a­tion Test. Because implicit bias begins at a very early age and devel­ops over the course of a life­time, there are ways we can par­ent, teach and inter­act with young peo­ple to coun­ter­act these direct and indi­rect messages:

  • Make your home, class­room and school envi­ron­ment as diverse as pos­si­ble so that from an early age, you work to coun­ter­act neg­a­tive biases. This means cre­at­ing an inclu­sive and cul­tur­ally sen­si­tive class­room with books, class­room dis­plays, bul­letin boards, hol­i­day cel­e­bra­tions, videos, sto­ries, text­books, etc. and make sure dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives are reflected in your class­room curriculum.
  • Affirm and reflect the dif­fer­ent aspects of iden­tity rep­re­sented in your class­room and help young peo­ple decon­struct assump­tions, stereo­types and labels they have about dif­fer­ent groups of people.
  • Teach stu­dents what overt and implicit bias are and seek their par­tic­i­pa­tion in pro-actively doing some­thing about it.

 

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March 2, 2015 3

From Selma to Ferguson: Standing Together for Justice

We_March_With_Selma

What do you know about the events in Selma, Alabama in the 1960’s? What part of that his­tory speaks to you?

This year marks the 50th anniver­sary of the march from Selma to Mont­gomery, Alabama. In the his­tory books, we know this as Bloody Sun­day, where 600 peace­ful pro­tes­tors were met with bru­tal­ity. As events unfolded, the media cap­tured pho­tos and film of what would later become the impe­tus for thou­sands to become a part of the move­ment. Dr. King and his fol­low­ers focused their cam­paign on Alabama because of the sup­pres­sion of black people’s right to vote there. They knew how impor­tant it was for the world to see the vio­lence and to have those images on its con­scious­ness. They knew that those who believed in equal­ity were not going to be able to sim­ply rest on their beliefs.

The Civil Rights Move­ment  needed action from the com­mu­nity, the nation and the gov­ern­ment and that was the moment when it was needed most.  It is hard to imag­ine the level of com­mit­ment one would need to inten­tion­ally expose one­self to phys­i­cal vio­lence, but that’s exactly what Dr. King asked of them in their fight for jus­tice and equity.  Selma is part of our shared his­tory, and there is no deny­ing that notable progress has been made.  Cur­rent events of the past year are a clear reminder, how­ever, that much work still needs to be done.

Last sum­mer, there was dis­cus­sion through­out the coun­try about Fer­gu­son being the Civil Rights Move­ment for this gen­er­a­tion. We can draw some com­par­isons to Selma, while rec­og­niz­ing that the bla­tant denial of vot­ing rights in 1960 Alabama was an extreme ver­sion of racism. Nightly, we watched as news media deliv­ered images of pro­tes­tors in Fer­gu­son who were angry and frus­trated by the tragic con­se­quences of the insti­tu­tional racism which has had a sig­nif­i­cant impact on their oppor­tu­ni­ties and liveli­hood and the community’s safety. As they had dur­ing Selma, peo­ple from across the coun­try were moti­vated to join in and become a part of some­thing big­ger than them­selves.  Fer­gu­son pro­vided that moment when peo­ple could take action in sup­port of the val­ues of jus­tice and equity we col­lec­tively hold as a nation.  Activism took on many forms, as peo­ple from diverse com­mu­ni­ties descended on Fer­gu­son to add their sup­port to the protest, sim­i­lar to the 8,000 that came to Selma on the third attempt to make their val­ues and beliefs heard.

Selma, Fer­gu­son and all the other events that have raised aware­ness to issues of injus­tice serve as step­ping stones to progress. It’s not enough for us to be con­tent with the advance­ments we’ve made; we need to con­sider how to con­tinue advo­cat­ing for insti­tu­tional change. Civil rights pio­neer, Fred­er­ick Dou­glass said “If there is no strug­gle, there is no progress. Those who pro­fess to favor free­dom, and yet depre­ci­ate agi­ta­tion, are men who want crops with­out plow­ing up the ground. They want rain with­out thun­der and light­ning. They want the ocean with­out the awful roar of its many waters. This strug­gle may be a moral one; or it may be a phys­i­cal one; or it may be both moral and phys­i­cal; but it must be a strug­gle. Power con­cedes noth­ing with­out a demand. It never did and it never will.”

Our beliefs in equity and jus­tice for all peo­ple mean we may have to be will­ing to chal­lenge the insti­tu­tions that are bet­ter served by main­tain­ing the sta­tus quo than by chal­leng­ing it.  Fifty years ago, the peo­ple of Selma faced injus­tice and decided it was time to stand up. We fol­low in their brave foot­steps.  Both Selma and Fer­gu­son pro­vide teach­able moments for edu­ca­tors to share his­tory and sto­ries, teach about bias and injus­tice and inspire stu­dents to take action to cre­ate pos­i­tive change in the world.

 

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