Interfaith Youth Council in Los Angeles
Skillsets to Overcome Religious Bigotry
by Ariella Amit
As I was scrolling through my Facebook feed a few years ago, I came across a post encouraging Los Angeles youth to apply for membership on an Interfaith Council. I followed the link to the website reluctantly and began reading about the goals of the council. By the end of my interfaith research, I realized that being a privileged, white Jew living in Los Angeles, I have little exposure to different religions at all. I had gone to a Jewish summer camp, been involved in Jewish youth groups and experienced a Jewish education through Hebrew school for the majority of my life.
A few years ago, on a weekend retreat for my Hebrew school, I witnessed a few actions that highlighted my own ignorance of other religious beliefs and faiths. A younger student at the retreat kept insisting that all Muslim people were affiliated with ISIS; he spent a majority of an evening activity running around and disrupting activities while yelling, “Allah hu akbar.” Many students laughed or ignored him. However, I felt both agitated and angry witnessing his actions. Through this experience, I recognized that I didn’t know much about Islam at all and, subsequently, that I didn’t have the tools to combat his ignorance.
One counselor on the retreat had a lengthy conversation with the boy about his actions and opinions, and I chose to listen as well. In that moment I knew that in order to prevent myself from believing harmful stereotypes or media commentary, and to prevent and stop others from doing so as well, I had to find a way to educate and expose myself to different religions. I had to leave my Jewish bubble and learn about others.
I had never met a Zoroastrian, Hindu, or Buddhist person, to name a few, and was hardly familiar with their experiences and beliefs at all. I hadn’t acknowledged the sheer significance of this religious divide until I realized that I was completely familiar with the Jewish faith but had no understanding or knowledge of the faiths of my non-Jewish counterparts. So, I decided to attend the interfaith council’s next meeting, not through realizing that communities in Los Angeles need it as a basis for more peaceful relations, but rather to educate myself. This education, however, soon became an integral aspect of my identity and values.
The Interfaith Youth Council is a diverse group of Los Angeles youth that is sponsored by New Vision Partners, a nonprofit organization. The council is comprised of a people that are dedicated to religious acceptance and unity through learning and experience. We serve to educate Los Angeles-based youth about different faiths and beliefs in order to break boundaries that isolate religious communities, as well as to eliminate the harmful stereotypes that come with unawareness of these religions. Due to the recent growth and continuous presence of Islamophobia in the media, the council’s dedication to the elimination of these harmful inaccuracies and stereotypes is not only timely but necessary. As a council, we feel that though the road to religious peace and acceptance may be long, taking steps in the direction of youth education and exposure is crucial in redefining religious relations for the future.
When I asked my fellow council members and friends about the importance of interfaith work and the reasons behind their involvement in interfaith, they responded with attitudes similar to mine.
Niousha Far from the Interfaith Youth Council of Orange County states that, “I believe in the importance of interfaith work because of the necessity to understand the cultures and people different from your own. Whether or not you believe in religion, it has been an essential part of our history as humans, and thus the necessity to educate and understand where each of us comes from helps to build respect and break the hate that divides us.”
Niousha touches on a vital idea that likely deters many from joining an interfaith group; she says that regardless of personal religious beliefs, both education and exposure to other faiths are significant factors in developing acceptance and dismissing prejudices towards other groups. Moreover, an individual does not necessarily need to be “religious” to join an interfaith group, but just desire to advocate for tolerance and learn about world religions.
Another member of IYCLAC, Emily DiPressi, discussed her growing passion for interfaith work by stating, “I started interfaith on a whim, but it has really turned out to be something that I am passionate about. I believe that there are so many stereotypes and misconceptions people hold based on religion that are not true and that need to be broken. So many people are unjustly discriminated against on the basis of religious beliefs. Interfaith works as a platform to help bring an end to this discrimination.” Emily’s attitude towards an interfaith council's role in eliminating harmful stereotypes is shared by our council as a whole and encourages our members to become more active and engaged citizens. We are given tools to engage in political discourse regarding these stereotypes, and we combat prejudices by educating other individuals.
The council begins every meeting with a recitation of our mission statement, “IYCLAC provides youth of all religious traditions in Los Angeles a place for service, leadership development, civic engagement, and relationship-building. By breaking down boundaries and learning about each other’s faith, we promote the appreciation, acceptance, and celebration of our differences.” Our goals and work in the council can be summarized this way: service, leadership development, civic engagement, and relationship building.
Service – IYCLAC, as well as New Vision Partners, have created an accessible ‘space’ that is critical for improving religious relations but is also geared towards community service. As a council, we have continuously volunteered at the Union Rescue Mission in Skid Row to help homeless individuals and families. Additionally, we create fundraising projects such as the event for the Flint Water Crisis to raise awareness of current issues and provide our support for Flint.
Leadership Development – The council provides a space for teens to develop their roles as leaders and advocates for religious tolerance among youth. The council is divided into subcommittees that provide each committee chair with the opportunity to lead and plan multifaith events. By working together we learn to cooperate with faiths and individuals we wouldn’t be exposed to in our school or home environments and learn leadership skills as well.
Civic Engagement – One of IYCLAC’s primary goals is impacting the Los Angeles religious communities and youth in a positive manner. The council does this through discussions and forums, public statements, and events. The council is an inclusive, diverse environment that not only encourages diversity in religion, but in thought as well. By encouraging discussion and education, the council strives to create more socially and politically engaged members.
Relationship-Building – At my first Interfaith Council of Los Angeles County meeting, I was welcomed with enthusiastic smiles and introductions. Although we have built our own relations as a council and become a close-knit community of peers, we have also attempted to build positive relationships among different religious communities in Los Angeles.
As a council, many of us know that the interfaith relations and education levels in Los Angeles, although not perfect, are far better than those of other parts of the country. This past summer, a number of students from IYCLAC went on an advocacy trip to Washington, DC. In DC, we took part in a political efficacy program with other students from different states. After a long day of discussion groups and visiting various centers, my roommates and I piled onto a bus with other students in our program. The students around us began to discuss the current election and the candidates they preferred. One comment in particular, however, caught our attention.
One student, while discussing her views on Donald Trump, mentioned that she agrees with him that Muslims should not be allowed into our country for safety precautions. Shocked and horrified, my roommates and I looked at each other in disbelief. One of my IYCLAC roommates turned to me and said that the comment had made her feel unsafe and that she wanted to confront the student. My two roommates from Georgia, both Muslim, immediately were angered by this comment as well. As we all expressed our concern and distraught with each other, many of the other students on the bus seemed unbothered by her hateful opinions about national security.
Although we were all too angry and shocked to confront the student, we discussed the situation at length and came to the conclusion that her comment was most likely made out of ignorance and that she would probably not be willing to discuss the matter any further.
I can’t speak for my roommates, but I regret not speaking up that day. It may have been a difficult, perhaps impossible, to have a conversation with her and talk to her about what Islam truly teaches, I would have liked to have tried. After this encounter, my commitment and appreciation of interfaith increased significantly. I am appreciative of my own access to knowledge and exposure to other religions and am committed to promoting the same resources to young people in Los Angeles County.
As a youth interfaith council we attempt to create our own niche in the interfaith world and hope to leave our own impression in it as well. Through education, service, and multifaith cooperation we aspire to create a less significant divide between religious groups and decrease the amount of harmful stereotypes that youth in Los Angeles hold.