Students Take the Lead
Teenagers for a More Tolerant Future
by Ryan Polsky
“World Religions” is being taken to a whole new level in high schools across the country. Young interfaith activists are bringing it beyond the classroom to engage not only mind, but heart as well. These young grassroots activists are inspiring their peers to learn about different religions through clubs that promote dialogue and service.
In 2014, Jaxon Washburn found himself with a diverse group of friends at Arizona College Prep School in Chandler, AZ. At lunchtime they discussed each other’s cultures, backgrounds, and beliefs. These conversations created a desire to start a formal interfaith club, and soon the World Religion and Tolerance Society (WRTS) was born.
In Washburn’s words, WRTS is “a grassroots, student-led, high school interfaith group for students of all different religious and nonreligious backgrounds to come together and have discussions with one another in friendship and relationships based on our shared values.”
When he transferred to Williamsfield High School in Gilbert, AZ he started another WRTS. Today, students meet weekly at both WRTS chapters, and the Williamsfield group has become a Cooperation Circle of the United Religions Initiative.
“We bring in guest speakers from around Arizona Valley representing different faith communities. They’re able to come after school and present their faith background to us, hand out materials, and answer questions,” Jaxon says.
“Most of all, they are firsthand representatives of these different worldviews. It’s a neat opportunity for high school students to be exposed to cultures and belief systems that they might not have learned as much about, giving them an opportunity to empower themselves and advance their understanding of religion.”
He believes interfaith work is crucial for a better tomorrow: “We live in a pluralistic society, one that, at its core, welcomes people of different faiths and allows them to worship freely. With that, we need to cultivate and cherish the values of interfaith work. Even more than that, being able to communicate with one another in a civil, respectful way, being able to collaborate, work together, and build relationships based on the shared values we have, makes our society a better place.”
Washburn’s leadership and passion has landed him many opportunities, among them visiting the United Nations in New York City and speaking at the 2016 Parliament of World Religions in Salt Lake City, UT. When he speaks, he encourages fellow high school students to start their own interfaith groups: “One of our missions is to establish a stepping stone for high school students to continue interfaith work and get a head start. We feel as though high school students are just as capable of being interfaith activists as the college youth. We’re just trying to bring the interfaith movement to even younger levels.”
A Growing Movement
Washburn’s work with WRTS has inspired high school students across the country. When Bany Crisp heard about the WRTS from a friend, she immediately seized the opportunity. In fall 2016, she founded a chapter at Midlothian High School in Richmond, VA.
Crisp’s interest in interfaith work stems from her curiosity and desire to dive deep. “I read books about world religions and then realized I wanted to meet people from these religions and get to know them,” she said. By doing so, she realized the similarities among world religions.
“There are so many things people of different religions don’t realize we have in common, so I think it’s important to focus on the similarities. And to also learn about the differences, because that can be beautiful, too. It’s important for people to be educated on these issues.”
Interfaith conflict and violence around the world inspire her to be an agent of change. She believes interfaith dialogue and collaboration are key to addressing these larger issues. “You see things that are happening all over the world, conflicts between different religions, and you just want to learn more and help with that in the future.”
Like the Arizona chapters, Crisp’s WRTS club hosts guest speakers and participates in local interfaith service projects. Some of the most notable projects have been partnering with a local church to feed the homeless and organizing a clothing drive for Syrian refugees.
Crisp and Washburn are both members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and it’s their Mormon faith that drives them. Washburn explained, “As a faithful and practicing Mormon, I feel my faith is very open and inclusive, which drives me to learn more about different faiths, encourages me to find the best in everyone, and to on all the good in the world.”
Pushing Back Against Hate and Bigotry
A semester prior to Crisp starting the Richmond chapter of WRTS, Sana Shareef felt called to start an interfaith club at Saint Edward’s School in Vero Beach, FL. After witnessing and being a target of religious bigotry, she wanted a club that met hate with knowledge.
“I had the idea of starting this club during the beginning of the spring semester of my 10th grade. I wanted to start it because at the time, intolerance was becoming too familiar for a lot people I knew. It became my goal to address that religious intolerance with religious literacy. The reason why I had that goal was because I’m a Muslim, and I have experienced and seen first-hand this religious intolerance that goes on.”
While believing interfaith clubs are important for people at any stage in life, Shareef feels especially strong about the need for them at the high school level: “In high school, not a lot of students are expressive or tend to talk about religion. It’s not something that you would do as a teenager; religion is not a big part of your life. But because of the intolerance I was seeing in the outside world, I wanted to do something about that in my school. While I didn’t see this intolerance inside my school, I thought maybe it was there, but not as explicit as in the outside world.”
Her passion led her to establish the Breaking Barriers Club. Its mission is to help dismantle stereotypes and bring about a greater collective awareness of all religions through discussions and debates on common religious preconceptions and practices, lectures by area religious figures, volunteer opportunities at local religious institutions, and a culminating year-end event that consists of an interfaith panel discussion for the benefit of the school and community at large.
The end-of-year interfaith panel was part of “Finding Common Ground: An Interfaith Conversation.” This first installment was extremely successful, with over 300 people attending the panel of seven speakers. The Muslim panelist Imam Khalid Latif, who shared his experiences as a chaplain at NYU and for the NYPD, impacted Shareef the most:
When he spoke, it was incredible. He started the speech with his experiences as a Muslim in this country and the bigotry he’s seen. For example, when he was in his police uniform at the 9/11 Memorial, he was insulted by a fellow American because he looked Muslim and had the cap on that Muslims wear. He said that the woman next to him, who lost her son on 9/11, had stopped the other man and let him know what an insult that was.”
She was also struck by Imam Latif’s discussion of the intersection of intolerance and bigotry. “Even though he’s Muslim, he said he doesn’t know how it feels to be a black person in this country. That was quite eye opening; he’s saying that religion is not the only problem, but race is also a huge problem. It’s not just religious intolerance, but a host of other issues that need to be discussed as well.”
“Bigotry is a huge problem in the world, especially in the United States, even though we are one of the biggest cultural melting pots in the world. Unfortunately, even though you often see it among adults, teenagers and students aren’t immune to bigotry.”
These speakers and experiences have propelled Shareef to the next level of leadership and to interfaith activism. As she focuses on finishing high school next year, she is ready to take on the challenge of standing up to hate.
“It’s really important that we, as young people, who will be the future leaders of the world, acquaint ourselves with these issues at this time – now – so that we can know the issues and deal with them correctly. Knowledge and education of religious intolerance will be the solution to the bigotry you see in the community. With the recent Manchester attack and terrorist attacks around the world, this issue is at the forefront of society.”
A new wave of grassroots activists is sprouting up. These youth are breaking barriers, building tolerance from the ground up amidst the chaos that often accompanies high school life.
This piece was originally published by URI North America.