November 14 2018

Anti-Racism in Community-Based Education

by Tiffany Puett, Institute for Diversity and Civic Life

While I teach religious studies in university classrooms, I also direct a nonprofit educational organization, the Institute for Diversity and Civic Life (IDCL), where we offer programs that build understanding of religious and cultural diversity. Many of our programs are geared towards adult learners and, more specifically, professionals who are navigating dynamics of diversity and difference in their organizations, companies, or communities.

These programs focus on developing knowledge, strategies, and skills for engaging with contemporary religious diversity. They aim at helping people create inclusive spaces that accommodate and allow for a range of social identities, backgrounds, and worldviews. We like to think that, at its best, this engagement with religious diversity can help foster a more just and inclusive society where diverse individuals and communities feel seen, heard, and valued. Often, grassroots programs and initiatives on religious diversity are shaped by pluralistic approaches. IDCL’s mission intersects with pluralist values in many ways, but we use the concerns and approaches of anti-racism and anti-oppression to probe how religious differences are managed in American communities.

Methods and Approaches

Our community-based educational programming on religion builds off a notion of religious literacy—this idea that people ought to know something about religions and that this knowledge will make them better and more adept citizens. Religious literacy has been a popular concept for years now used to justify the importance of studying religion—whether in universities, public and private schools, or through public programs. Often the case is made in terms of a civic problem: Americans know very little about religions, including their own, and this illiteracy compromises their abilities to be effective citizens in a liberal democracy. To be an effective citizen, one must be educated and informed. A basic knowledge of religion is important for understanding American politics and navigating diversity. Yet, exactly what kind of knowledge religious literacy entails is not entirely clear. Often this essential knowledge is framed in terms of facts, historical figures, events, and theological or religious concepts. However, knowledge of these facts and concepts doesn’t equip a person to effectively interact with religious differences. These might be part of the vocabulary of religious literacy, but without skillful use of the grammar, the terms aren’t useful. And the grammar in this analogy involves an awareness of the social context in which diverse religions exist. In an American context, this entails structural dynamics of unshared power that mediate encounters with religious diversity and difference.

IDCL’s programs focus less on a fact-based approach to understanding religions and more on developing frameworks and skills for recognizing and responding to differences and diversity. Anti-racism and anti-oppression are the lenses we use to parse out what these frameworks and skills entail. Anti-racism education calls for social transformation. And it starts with an awareness of how our society has been constructed around hierarchies and unshared power.

We take a lived religions approach to thinking about religions. This means decentering an older world religions model that can often focus on religions from the top and misconstrue them as monolithic. There can be a vast expanse between the orthodox theologies, rituals, and customs described in a world religions textbook and the ways that individuals actually experience and live out those religions. A lived religions approach can shed light on the diversity, nuances, and complexities within religions and religious communities. Along these lines, no one experiences their religion in isolation. An individual’s lived experiences of religion are mediated through other aspects of their identity, such as race, ethnicity, culture, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, ability and class. We use intersectionality as a framework to illuminate these relationships. Intersectionality denotes the various ways in which race, gender, and other aspects of identity interact to shape individual experiences. It problematizes viewing racism, sexism, classism, or other social structures of inequality as discrete and independent of one another. It challenges unitary theories of race, class, and gender and other structures of inequality. Intersectionality supports an anti-oppression framework in that it acknowledges a multiplex of structures of inequality and oppression.

Yet, to center an anti-racist framework is to acknowledge that racism is the ground on which other forms of oppression have been built. This was a country built on the genocidal slaughter, destruction, enslavement, and dehumanization of indigenous people and peoples of African descent. Understanding the social construction of American society requires continually asking how these histories of violence and dehumanization shape the social structures and institutions we inhabit today, including American religions. So we emphasize the social context in which religions are lived out. Encounters of religion in the American public sphere typically do not take place in circumstances of equilibrium or on the so-called level playing ground. Intersectionality helps illuminate the intersections of religious oppression or marginalization with other forms of oppression and dominance. It begins to bring to light the complex dynamics at work in the racialization of religious identities.

We work to historicize dynamics of religious diversity, as we talk about Christian privilege or hegemony, the ways in which Christianity—especially Protestantism— functions as the norm by which all other religions are measured and described in American society and how this norm has played a role in the racialization of minority religious groups. We also problematize demands to be known; we work to hold space for those who don’t want to be known or to engage, those who instead experience these pluralist impulses as reiterations of historic dynamics of domination.

Anti-Racism Strategies in Practice

We offer a program called Engaging Religious Difference, an adult education workshop that we’ve delivered in two-day, one-day, and half-day formats. It’s aimed at helping people learn how to navigate religious differences and diversity within their communities, organizations, or workplaces. But this process of thinking about religious difference can also help participants critically interrogate all the ways in which they see and assign difference, especially when that difference is attached to hierarchical power arrangements. We strive to ground this knowledge about religious difference in skills for equitable social transformation.

As adult learners and professionals, participants come to our programs with an abundance of insight and experience and often a lack of time in their busy lives. While we suggest supplemental readings, our programs cannot depend on required readings to lay a foundation of knowledge. Moreover, adult learners do not want to be lectured to. They want to learn through reflection and praxis. So we structure this program to be interactive, experiential, and conversational.

We start with a self-reflexive piece. Cultivating self-reflexivity is an essential component of this pedagogical approach. Much of the critical work of this model probes normativity. People need to be able to recognize what they see as normative. We ask participants/students to look carefully at themselves, reflect upon their own social locations, and consider how those experiences shape the way they interpret the world. And then we ask them to explore how their interpretive lenses inform the ways they view differences and common ground. We do this through exercises and activities, such as a privilege inventory and a social-identity matrix (examples of these can be found in the appendix of Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice), which prompt participants to think about their identities in relation to social structures of dominance or subordination.

The workshop then moves into a brief historical overview of diversity, tolerance, and religious freedom in the United States from the colonial era to the present day. Using short documentaries and media clips, we discuss Christian dominance, religious justifications for racial hierarchies, and religious discrimination, such as anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Longer format workshops often include an interactive case study component as well.

The workshop then circles back to the self-reflexive piece and emphasizes critical conversations about narratives of community—the nation, the state, the city, the workplace, the organization—and the politics of representation. We ask how these narratives draw boundaries and engage in complex processes of inclusion and exclusion. These conversations explore whose interests are served by drawing these boundaries in this way rather than another. They probe how the ways in which we define and describe who “we” are might reproduce patterns of dominance and structural inequality. We talk about how we can construct new narratives of who “we” are that promote equity and inclusion and are formed through equitable processes. And then we engage in conversations where participants work together to think critically about their spheres of influence as well as where and how they can affect change.

Conclusions

The mission of the Institute for Diversity and Civic Life is to advance understanding of religious and cultural diversity and advocate for a more inclusive public sphere. Pluralistic approaches to religious diversity often claim to be neutral and objective when they are anything but. This can lead to blindly defining differences on our own terms. But anti-racism and anti-oppression frameworks call on us to recognize that we are doing normative work and to constantly and diligently pay attention to the norms, biases, and expectations informing this work.

We’re striving to facilitate an educational process that is democratic, participatory, inclusive, and affirming of human agency as well as the human capacity to work collaboratively to affect change. And through our community-based educational programs, we want to enable the development of a sense of agency and capacity to change oppressive patterns and behaviors in oneself and in the institutions and communities of which one is a part.

 

Resources

Adams, Maurianne, and Warren J. Blumenfeld, et. al, eds. Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, 3rd edition. New York: Routledge, 2013.

Dei, George S. Sefa, and Mairi McDermott, eds. The Politics of Anti-Racism Education: In Search of Strategies for Transformative Learning. New York: Springer, 2014.

Johnson, Allan G. Privilege, Power and Difference, 2nd edition. New York: McGraw Hill, 2006.

Kimmel, Michael S., and Abby L. Ferber, eds. Privilege: A Reader, 3rd edition. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2014.


Tiffany PuettTiffany Puett is the founding director of the Institute for Diversity and Civic Life (IDCL) in Austin, Texas. She holds a PhD in North American religions from the University of Waterloo and an MTS in ethics from Boston University. Her work has analyzed pluralism, multiculturalism, and the formation of religion in the American public sphere as well as issues of identity and the politics of representation. Through IDCL, she researches, develops resource guides, and leads workshops on religious and cultural diversity, equity and social justice. She also directs Religions Texas, a collaborative research initiative to document the religious diversity of Texas. In 2017–2018, she was visiting assistant professor of religion at Trinity University. In 2018–2019, she will teach at St. Edward’s University. She also serves as the regional coordinator for the AAR Southwest Region.

 

Image: “Students march because Black Lives Matter,” Minneapolis, Minnesota, May 1, 2015. Photo by Fibonacci Blue (CC BY 2.0).