The Power of Internet Relationships
“Wait, you’re a Muslim? But you’re not even brown!”
When Emina, a member of Project Interfaith’s Youth Service activities in 2010, was faced with this challenge, rather than becoming defensive or shutting down, she took it seriously. With a video camera turned on, she explained her identity as a Muslim woman and addressed some of the misconceptions underlying that question. That got the staff at Project Interfaith thinking. We asked ourselves, What if more people had the chance to define and share their religious or spiritual identity in their own words and to confront the misconceptions and misunderstandings they face because of this? Thus RavelUnravel was born.
An initiative of Project Interfaith, home-based in Omaha, Nebraska, RavelUnravel is an opportunity for people to share their religious or spiritual identity, confront stereotypes, and learn about the great diversity within religions and belief systems. What began as a project to capture 150 videos from diverse individuals and communities in Omaha became an international multimedia platform, currently with nearly 1,100 videos from across the USA and now internationally, all on view at the website.
How it Works
The framework is simple. Participants record a short video of themselves answering four questions addressing their religious or spiritual identity; a stereotype that impacts them based on that identity; how welcoming they find their community to be towards their religious or spiritual path; and anything else they choose to share about their religion or belief system.
The videos have been remarkable – from students noting that this is the first opportunity they have had to vocalize their spiritual identity to heartfelt stories of finding welcome and inclusion in a community. No two RavelUnravel videos are the same.
At its core, the program is designed to be as open-access and inclusive as possible, lowering barriers to participation and offering different ways to engage with the materials. Alongside the videos themselves, we offer resources and background information on different religious and spiritual traditions, assembled and reviewed to ensure both accuracy and readability.
The videos themselves are a doorway to deeper encounter. Participants tell us that recording and posting a video encourages deep reflection on self-identity. Watching videos of friends, peers, and colleagues, and of those from different communities, schools, and organizations, leads to greater depth of understanding, increased openness, and growing empathy.
A number of people have told us that recording their own RavelUnravel video became a source of pride, with one student recently updating his social media biographies to include his video. A number of his friends responded.
All videos posted to the site are publicly viewable and searchable, and once a user completes a simple registration they can also post comments and responses to videos. All content is moderated before posting, but from the start we wanted to encourage the community of users, and the wider interfaith movement, to take responsibility for maintaining and upholding the values of the site.
We rarely edit comments or videos, though we encourage respectful and meaningful dialogue. Creating safe, inclusive, and respectful spaces is an increasing challenge for online communities. Online engagement can often seem to throw up barriers to empathy. Being able to encounter another individual, belief system, or practice through RavelUnravel, however, seems to foster greater empathy through humanization and self-reflection. Youth groups and educators in areas with more homogeneous populations who have found the site and its resources invaluable for creating a culture of empathy and understanding, introducing their students to beliefs and cultures they might otherwise have encountered only in a textbook.
A core principle driving RavelUnravel is giving people the opportunity to self-identify and speak from their own experience and perspective. RavelUnravel is not trying to examine, judge, or monitor the orthodoxy of a person’s statements. Rather, it is an exploration of the tapestry of religious and spiritual identities that make up our communities and world. As we weave together the stories of those different identities, we can unravel and demystify some of the perceptions and assumptions that exist about them.
Being able to choose how to self-identify your video gives people the freedom to express the fullness of their identity, in their own words, while still being searchable within broader categories. For example, videos in the Agnostic category include people who self-identify as Agnostic/Atheist, Agnostic Jew, Not Religious, Christian Agnostic, and Spiritual; the Protestant Christian category includes Jesus Follower, Non-denominational Christian, and Believer in Christ, alongside multiple denominational identifications.
There are also a number of different ways to interact with videos, whether you’re interested in seeking out perspectives from people with a particular identity, videos which others have recently engaged with, or recent uploads. In time, we want the site to be fully searchable by additional categories such as gender, orientation, and religious persecution.
Nurturing New Communities
For me, what makes RavelUnravel such a useful interfaith tool is how it combines a simple framework with an accessible and engaging multimedia platform. That platform serves as a jumping-off point for deeper reflection, learning, dialogue, and empathy. High schools and colleges are beginning to use a six-week curriculum we developed that explores the themes of RavelUnravel in greater depth. Students often initiate their own RavelUnravel video campaign after exploring others’ videos. The campaign feature makes it straightforward for any group, organization, school, or cause to gather RavelUnravel videos from students, members, users, colleagues, and friends.
Five years ago we didn’t have the technology to mount this kind of project. Today I am excited to see RavelUnravel continue to grow and develop as people use it in different ways. We are working on subtitles in multiple languages. And we run regular online trainings and webinars, on platforms such as Google Hangout, to connect users and learn more about new possibilities. Please join us!
And please visit the site! You can listen to the videos, leave your comments, and upload your own story. And together, let’s weave a multimedia tapestry of the depth, richness, and complexity of our society.