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Collective Impact and Islamophobia

Gathering the Stakeholders in Tennessee

I was first introduced to Middle Tennessee two years ago when I attended a community meeting addressing hate crimes against Muslims. What was planned to be a small group of concerned citizens turned out to be a behemoth of a gathering: more than 1,000 protestors arrived from neighboring states and beyond, led by Islamophobe Pamela Geller and her Act! for America.

I learned that evening that Islamophobia in Middle Tennessee is a multifaceted social problem. To be clear, its roots stem from racial and religious prejudice. But it is also deeply informed by economic and political discontent and by an emotionalism laden with fear. 

To counter this wide backlash, an anti-Islamophobia campaign in Middle Tennessee has to be able to speak to all of these sectors and perspectives. There is no one panacea; it will take multiple actors in multiple sectors.  This is what Our Muslim Neighbor (OMN) initiative is creating through its collective impact model in Middle Tennessee.

 Collective Impact

Collective Impact is a new way of community organizing and non-profit work. For Religions for Peace USA and its OMN initiative, it is grounded in community building and leadership developing. You need strong leaders to start a movement. But you need strong communities to foster the right leaders.

In November 2014, we brought together national and local leaders for the first Community and Religious Leaders Conference (CRLC) of Middle Tennessee. Gathering education experts, business leaders, clergy,  and artists, the CRLC was an experiment in deep reflective work on the Christian fears that feed Islamophobia and, in turn, the deep resources available for community building. (In future months, we’ll focus on Jewish and Islamic resources for interreligious relations.)

On the final day of the CRLC, our small group of cross-sector leaders began planning three new initiatives for OMN. With an already defined common agenda and clearly set goals, we were able to see how they fit into this larger picture of improving public opinion of Islam and Muslims in Middle Tennessee. Without two essential items (a common agenda and common goals) we would have been stuck in the mud – turning and turning the wheels in our mind, trying to figure out how our own individual, isolated work might relate collaboratively to others.

Collective impact is a way of community organizing that brings stakeholders together, and breaks down the siloed, lonely world of non-profits. A colleague recently reminded me that an essential aspect of organizing is letting go of our isolation. Collective impact is an attempt to do that in a new way for non-profits.

What Religions for Peace USA is doing with collective impact is new in a number of ways – it’s hard to measure and collect data on Islamophobia.  But we are working with education and research experts to forge news ways and to gain deeper insights about interfaith work itself.

In the end, the work of collective impact is all about ending one’s isolation, meeting all the players concerned about an issue, sharing our anxieties and critically reflecting on our religious or moral/philosophical framework. It’s about creating new and stronger communities together. We can’t do it alone.  So let’s do it together.

To learn more about the Our Muslim Neighbor Initiative, click here.