by Dr. Cobretti D. Williams
Friday, January 31, 2020
There is no shortage of contested issues on college campuses today. From race to equitable pay for college athletes, many of these issues are explored from different angles and are often taken up by social-justice oriented students and organizations on campus. While the efforts of social change require convergence and different groups coming together for a common cause, a constituency often left out are students and staff working in interfaith organizations and departments on campus. Eboo Patel is the founder of the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), an organization that works to promote religious pluralism and diversity in higher education. Discussing the differences that face higher education today, he says, “Though our nation is becoming more diverse in every possible way, there are too many examples of difference being divisive rather than constructively engaged. Campuses across America are facilitating positive interactions at orientation, in the classroom, and in co-curricular events that lead to lasting relationships across lines of difference.” A closer look at religious pluralism and interfaith community on campus may provide more insight for social justice initiatives than we previously thought.
At the foundational level, social justice and diversity begin with peer-to-peer interactions among college students. Colleges are becoming increasingly diverse across social identities, as such, the opportunity for meaningful connections across differences is ever-present. IFYC recently released a new report entitled “Friendships Matter” that explores the role of peer relationships in interfaith learning and development. A significant statistic within the report asserts that, among first-year college students, approximately 46 percent have five or more interworldview friendships; furthermore, this figure remains relatively unchanged after their first year of college. Though most social justice and diversity educators focus their efforts on differences in race, gender, or sexual orientation, for example, this report reveals another avenue by which institutions can strengthen conversations and find common ground among college students today.
Creating an environment where students can explore religious plurality and interfaith dialogue is important. It is also beneficial to have leaders that can guide and bridge dialogue between the different constituencies. In an article for the Association of American Colleges and Universities, Patel and other leaders of IFYC assert, “Higher education movements lack ‘legs’ if students are not committed or invested, and young interfaith leaders do not emerge unless they have civic spaces within which to develop.” Additionally, research confirms that interfaith programs share similar aims of leadership development for social change. It is clear this work happens in traditional sites of worship such as churches, temples, and monasteries, however higher education also has enough resources to produce similar opportunities for college students. Institutions like DePaul University run successful interfaith leadership programs. Whether or not institutions without religious affiliations have a desire to implement these initiatives is the question to consider.
In tandem with leadership development is civic engagement. Equipped with the awareness and tools to practice interfaith dialogue and cooperation, campuses can engage more with their surrounding communities and build partnerships across public and private spaces. This practice surfaces in a variety of ways, including service-learning and immersion projects built in collaboration within the local, national, or global communities. Furthermore, because students are engaging with interfaith worldviews, and institutions like Seattle University are structurally committed to these efforts, social justice and religious plurality are able to converge on issues involving faith in the queer community, prison reform, or racial justice. Therefore, as far as social justice in higher education is concerned, interfaith practice creates a path for colleges and universities to increase their civic education efforts, external partnerships, and community collaborations.
Despite best practices by some colleges and universities, notably those with established religious affiliations, institutional engagement with religious pluralism and interfaith dialogue still has room for improvement. In order for dialogue on social justice and diversity to broaden its impact through interfaith efforts on college campuses, institutions must reframe and consider their relationship with the topic of religion on college campuses. Though dialogue can often turn to conflict in public spheres of higher education, it is possible to reframe faith and spirituality as potential points of connection rather than a catalyst for division. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign provides a great example of this practice. Jewish and Muslim student faith groups gather for regular interfaith dialogue. Erez Cohen, the executive director of Hillel, has recently organized efforts to bridge conversations between different student faith groups, including the Muslim Student Association and the University YMCA. He says, “immersion programming is an important tool for building interfaith environments. Indeed, in the past three years Hillel has been leading interfaith trips to Israel with the goal of enhancing interfaith learning and understanding. Additionally, the University works with many ministries on our campus to create the Illinois Interfaith Conference each year. This is a unique space where students of different backgrounds and different levels of involvement can come and engage with other faiths.”
In institutions as diverse as colleges and universities, social issues are bound to become divisive; the nature of higher education brings together different opinions, perspectives, and knowledge to inform policies and practices in society. Religion is not absolved from division, but from the evidence of organizations like IFYC and interfaith organizations on college campuses, it can also serve as a point of connection. As Eboo Patel aptly put it, “As people from different backgrounds learn about one another, they grow in appreciation and are more able and willing to work across lines of difference for the common good, and gain profession competency and skills for civic leadership.”
SOURCE: Dr. Cobretti D. Williams
MAIN IMAGE SOURCE: pexels.com