A Religions for Peace USA Interview with…
Last September a group known as the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) asked to purchase advertising space on the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA) as part of a larger anti-Islam campaign that AFDI has pursued in transit systems in several major cities across the country. Religions for Peace recently wrote about responses to this in California through street and bus art. Although SEPTA declined to run the Pennsylvania ads due to their inflammatory anti-Islamic content, a federal judge granted AFDI’s motion for a preliminary injunction. The ads ran for four weeks, beginning on April 1, 2015 on 84 SEPTA buses.
AFDI’s campaign did not go public without an outcry. The Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia raised a campaign in response to AFDI’s, titled “Dare to Understand.” This campaign caught our eye due to its novelty, authenticity, and those involved in the project. Religions for Peace USA’s Our Muslim Neighbor Initiative, a national public education campaign to improve the public sentiment of Islam and Muslims, is a fine analogue to Dare to Understand. In order to learn more about this program and its end goal, we sat down with Andrew Feigenbaum from the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia (IFC) to find out.
* * *
Religions for Peace USA: Regarding the name of the campaign, why do think it is so much easier for people to choose to fear something rather than try to understand it?
Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia: Going outside your boundaries to learn about “the other” is scary. It is uncomfortable and takes courage to take that risk. Discomfort, avoidance, or even fear are natural, default responses to things unfamiliar. Many people are content to avoid or inclined to judge that unknown group of people rather than taking the brave step of trying to understand them.
RFPUSA: What resources does the IFC provide to encourage Philadelphia residents to “dare to understand”?
IFC: The Interfaith Center gathered resources from a number of partners, including the Anti-Defamation League, the Interfaith Youth Core, and Take on Hate (Georgetown University). We have also organized educational activities for students, resource memos for civic and religious leaders, and a poster/photo contest.
Beyond this, all of the Interfaith Center’s programming is aimed at encouraging and allowing Philadelphia area residents to Dare to Understand.™ Whether it is a Workplace Diversity Training Seminar, an Interfaith Encounters Alternative Break for high school or college students, an Art of Interfaith Understanding tour at the Philadelphia Museum, or our nationally known Walking the Walk™ inter-congregational service learning initiative, the Interfaith Center creates those opportunities in myriad ways for the citizens of Philadelphia and beyond.
RfPUSA: How is the Interfaith Center working with local government and other civic organizations on this project?
IFC: The Center convened and led a Strategy Coalition, working with a broad and diverse coalition of civic and religious organizations, including the Mayor’s Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, and the Religious Leaders Council of Greater Philadelphia. They took seven months to plan and coordinate a strategic response.
We maintained ongoing communication with our local transit authority, SEPTA. Coalition meetings and conference calls brought together key constituencies and sensitivities. This enabled us to reach out further to be sure we engaged the thinking and partnership of the grassroots communities impacted, as well as the School District and law enforcement. Having the broad-based Coalition ensured that a wide part of the community was fully informed and engaged in the project.
We used our time together to brainstorm what approach and methods of public response (and their timing) would be most effective. We also made use of national partners from Washington, DC, New York, and San Francisco who launched response campaigns like ours. Together we developed a sense of best practices. We were present and provided speakers at SEPTA’s press conference announcing they would not appeal the legal decision, and we helped organize the rally at Love Park with Mayor Michael Nutter on the eve of the ad’s run.
RfPUSA: Were there organizations whose work in interfaith peacebuilding guided and/or inspired your efforts?
IFC: The crowdfunding that we did was inspired by the Talk Back to Hate campaign in New York City run by Akiva Friedlin, who generously offered practical advice. The Philadelphia and San Francisco Anti-Defamation League chapters also offered their advice and assistance.
There were many other response campaigns from groups such as the “Spread Hummus Not Hate” campaign in Washington D.C, comedian Dean Obeidallah’s satiric ads in New York, the Colorado Muslim Society’s posters in Denver, and the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs’ social media campaign in Chicago. These and more inspired the positive message and breadth of our campaign. We are especially grateful to the positive vision and creativity of Philadelphia photographer JJ Tiziou who helped us craft a positive visual messaging campaign.
RfPUSA: How has Dare to Understand been received by the greater Philadelphia community?
IFC: The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Many other cities adopted reactive or defensive responses and engaged with AFDI directly, but the Interfaith Center preferred to create a transcendent message of love and understanding. Numerous community and media entities reached out to us offering free guidance and advertising, and we’ve forged new relationships over the past two months. Major community foundations were inspired by this approach to the unwelcome hate campaign and provided the necessary resources to mount a public response.
RfPUSA: This campaign encourages the entire Philadelphia area to get involved. What is the role of an interfaith organization in a big city like Philadelphia?
IFC: The Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia wears a number of different hats. We see ourselves as a backbone organization which can lead a response to issues of interfaith importance and can connect diverse individuals and organizations to achieve our goals. That role is most clearly realized when the Interfaith Center convenes the Religious Leaders Council which gathers to discuss and act on pressing issues in our community.
We are also educators. We have a number of programs dedicated to adult learning and leadership, including art museum tours, human resources training, and interfaith dialogue facilitator training. Our youth programs include day-, week-, and year-long programs dedicated to educating young people, facilitating dialogue, and engaging in meaningful service. The Interfaith Center is continuously looking to improve its programming and expand into new areas.
RfPUSA: Does Dare to Understand have a finish line? What is the ultimate goal of the initiative?
IFC: There is no finish line per se. Dare to Understand is not just a campaign but an idea we live and breathe every day. We will continue to facilitate Dare to Understand conversations and share stories and training materials with our partners and social media base. We will look for more opportunities to spread images of love and understanding throughout the region through whatever mediums are available.
Although the hate ads have been taken down, hate still exists in this world and in this city. We will respond to future acts and words of hate with our Dare to Understand message. The ultimate goal is to expand empathy and promote peace, love, and understanding throughout our region so that Philadelphia can be a beacon and model for other cities with regard to religious pluralism.
RfPUSA: Do you believe a campaign like this can be successful at a national level? What do you think is currently missing from the conversation on religious difference/diversity in America?
IFC: I absolutely believe a campaign like this can be successful at a national level. Indeed, we had signatories to our petition from across the country and even the globe! The message resonates in all corners of the Earth because it is a universal message of peace and love which all people can relate to.
I think what is currently missing in the conversation on religious difference in the country loops around to your first question: How can we remove the fear so that people can Dare to Understand? How can we provide positive encounters for people who have not had the opportunity to engage with those of other faiths? How can we eliminate the blind hatred or judgment and create more comfortable opportunities for dialogue and engagement with “the other”?