By Mariam Awaisi
“All of us share more similarities than differences – the obstacles we have to overcome are ignorance, fear and alienation. Our job is to become more energetic and more convinced that we can in fact make change.” (Dr. Kamal Ali, speaker on the law enforcement panel)
On Friday, April 10, Critical Connections – together with its partner Karuna Center for Peacebuilding – hosted a day-long symposium, “Building Inclusive Communities: Engaging with our Muslim neighbors.” The event was held at the Kittredge Center for Business and Workforce Development at Holyoke Community College in Holyoke, MA and drew over sixty participants and speakers. It brought together local educators, law enforcement personnel, social services providers, and religious leaders.
Critical Connection’s Executive Director Mehlaqa Samdani and Karuna Center’s Executive Director Olivia Dreier noted that this symposium was in keeping with their organization mission of building inclusive and resilient communities through dialogue, analysis, and outreach.
The symposium officially commenced with its first panel, “Teaching Tolerance: The Role of Educators,” in which local educators discussed best practices around increasing diverse perspectives in the classroom. Ms. Samantha Camera, a history and social studies teacher at Amherst Regional High School, recounted how she began writing curricula for several of the courses she now teaches – including World Religions and Anthropology – to ensure that the experiences of the culturally and religious diverse student body were adequately represented in course offerings. According to Camera, the support of the administration was crucial to such efforts. Ms. Meg Hutcheson, Director of Curriculum at Wilbraham and Monson Academy, emphasized the importance of diversity training and education for faculty and noted that building inclusive communities starts with pronouns: Who do we mean by “we” and “us”? And in the context of education, who is excluded and who is included when teachers use this terminology? In addressing the continued negative perceptions that abound about Islam and Muslims in popular discourse, Ms. Barbara Sahli, an educator and Master’s candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, observed that the most effective way to counter these negative impressions is to provide opportunities for Muslims and non-Muslims to meet, play, talk, work, and eat together. She went on to say that because Muslims are such a small minority in the United States, “there aren’t enough Muslims to go around” to respond to these misconceptions. However, professional development and diversity training can mitigate these and help bridge the gaps that often exist between students and educators.
The second panel of the day, “Building Resilience: The Role of Law Enforcement” featured varied perspectives on the role of law enforcement in the community. Dr. Kamal Ali, a Professor at Westfield State University and an Imam/Chaplain for Muslim inmates at the Hampden County House of Corrections, underscored the importance of understanding the context in which mass incarceration takes place. “Being black in this country is difficult, and being black and male is even more difficult,” Ali explained. “Being black, male and Muslim is the perfect trifecta.” He emphasized that until conditions of inequality, alienation and urban poverty are addressed, recidivism among prisoners will continue. Visionary programs such at the one instituted at the Hampden County of Corrections by Sheriff Ashe – which allow inmates to earn a college degree, rehabilitate, and escape the conditions conducive to crime – can play in important role in helping reverse this trend. This set the stage for Mr. Robert Lewis, Supervisor of the Joint Terrorism Task Force at the local FBI office in Springfield, who stressed that while national security issues were at the top of their agenda, contrary to popular belief, their office did not have the resources or manpower to carry out extensive surveillance and listen to everyone’s calls. He maintained that the FBI’s priority was to respond to real threats and stressed that law enforcement agents must possess sound people skills in order to do their work effectively. Northwestern District Attorney Mr. David Sullivan candidly shared his perspective on his department’s duty to the community, noting that their work was not simply to do legal justice but also social justice, and to understand the root causes of crime, which include poverty, mental health, and substance abuse. “When we look at law enforcement today,” Sullivan asserted, “we are building exclusive communities.” Building inclusive communities necessarily requires law enforcement departments to be representative of the communities they operate in, and this means that their recruitment practices need to be more strategic.
The vital need for cultural competency and training was a central theme of the third panel, “Embracing Refugees: The Role of Social Service Providers.” Moderator Reverend Susannah Crolius began by highlighting the fact that Springfield, MA is home to several thousand refugees, the majority of them from Iraq, Somalia, and Syria. In her role as a Staff Attorney at the Central West Justice Center, Ms. Mary Johnson spoke of the need for agencies such as hers to better understand the needs of their constituencies so that they can more efficiently receive the aid they require. Ms. Mary Averill, a clinical social worker, similarly stressed the need for cultural competency – particularly in interactions with refugees – as what is taboo or shameful in one culture may not hold in another. “If you don’t know,” Averill said, “don’t make assumptions.” Ms. Kathryn Buckley-Brawner, Executive Director of the Catholic Charities Agency of the Diocese of Springfield, echoed this sentiment, noting that the lens service providers look through often become barriers to providing services. Cultural awareness and competency, as well as a conscious dismissal of one’s own biases, can help overcome such obstacles.
After a delicious Mediterranean lunch came the final panel of the day, “Bridging Divides: The Role of Faith,” in which representatives from the local Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communities emphasized the need to build relationships among different faith communities. “Too often religion is misused as an instrument for division and injustice,” said Dr. Mohammad Saleem Bajwa, a physician and founding member of the Islamic Society of Western Massachusetts. He pointed out, however, that time and again members of the Interfaith Council of Western Massachusetts have come out to show solidarity and support of the local Muslim community. Dr. Martin Pion, a Professor of Religious Studies at Elms College, emphasized that sound relationships and friendships forged through the Interfaith Council of Western Massachusetts have been particularly useful in responding effectively to crises, and hoped that the existing bridges among faith communities would continue to gain strength. When asked about the challenges associated with keeping young people involved in faith communities, Reverend Marisa Brown Ludwig mentioned how interfaith work that “crosses boundaries” can often be a pull for this demographic. Lastly, remarks from Rabbi Justin David, spiritual leader of Congregation B’Nai Israel in Northampton, MA (read by Reverend Ludwig) addressed the need “to engage in relationships with the goal of changing ourselves” in order to “grow in empathy, understanding and kindness.” For Rabbi David, this is where faith comes in: “through these micro acts of mutuality and reciprocity, perhaps some tiny ripple will develop and eventually lead to some kind of a change none of us can foresee.”
Participants and speakers then joined one of the four sector-specific working groups to devise strategies on the way forward. While one hour certainly was not enough to capture the full range of opinions, perspectives, and ideas of the groups, some concrete recommendations were made, including: developing media analysis classes for students, mutual assistance associations to aid recent refugees, interfaith youth activities, and Muslim-administered trainings for police and FBI personnel.
Overall, the symposium was a day of deep listening and learning, resource-sharing, and creating opportunities for intra- and inter-sector collaboration around building cohesive and resilient communities, with many participants requesting to “keep the momentum going.” It was evident that connections were being made as participants and speakers exchanged contact information and promises to stay in touch and share information. As District Attorney Sullivan reflected, “the diversity of people represented at the symposium opened many new doors.”