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By Tom Holmes
In the midst of a lot of depressing news in the media about polarization in American society — a gay man committing suicide as a result of being harassed on the Rutgers campus, a pastor in Georgia planning to burn the Koran and an acrimonious campaign season — three idealistic young women are joining Dominican University's partnership with the Interfaith Youth Core in the belief that they can transcend polarizing differences and facilitate meaningful change in our society.
When Vanessa Delgado and Hannah Minks — both juniors at Dominican — heard during the summer that their school was planning to partner with the Interfaith Youth Core to, in IFYC founder Eboo Patel's words, "create vision and a campus ecology of interfaith cooperation in order to impact student and campus outcomes, increasing spiritual capital within higher education," they were immediately drawn to the undertaking.
Delgado, a lifelong resident of Chicago, said that her motivation to cross cultural and religious boundaries began with her mother. "I learned a lot from my mom," she said. "She always has been open to other people. She taught me to not judge other people before getting to know them, to see people for who they are inside"
Then her four year experience at Mather High School on Chicago's North Side reinforced what her mother had taught her. Mather had students from Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America who would "go outside of their cliques and actually talk to one another."
As an example of her high school's culture, Delgado told a story about two girls who were good friends even though their parents would have gotten upset had they learned that their daughters were associating with someone from a different ethnic/religious group. "At school," she said, "they opened themselves enough to be friends. The environment at school allowed a friendship to grow even though the environment at home did not."
The Dominican sociology major is also motivated by her experiences with the darker side of life. She said, "Personally, being Puerto Rican and therefore a minority, I have seen stereotypes. Sometimes people don't put a face to an issue. They don't have experiences with people different from them. Sometimes, the people who do the hateful stuff are the ones who speak louder than the ones who don't. I have seen that a lot."
Delgado is thinking about extending her education into graduate school to become a social worker. "My dream would be to create my own nonprofit organization," she said, "and I would love to see bridges being crossed and people actually having a better dialogue with one another."
So, when Dominican invited her to attend an IFYC weekend training session in Washington D.C. in October, the idealistic sociology major saw it as just another step in the direction in which she had been traveling most of her life.
What Eboo Patel and his staff taught Delgado was, according to the IFYC website, an "instensive partnership dedicated to holistic campus transformation" which includes three stages: 1) Assessment and Planning, 2) Program Implementation, 3) Evaluation and Sustainability.
What struck Hannah Minks, the other Dominican student who attended the training event in the nation's capital, was how little IFYC staffers focused on interfaith dialogue. "One of the speakers," she recalled with a laugh, "told us this was not going to be a kumbaya moment." Instead, the emphasis was on identifying an issue like hunger or the needs of immigrants, mobilizing around the issue and acting.
"It was all about mobilization," the Ohio native said. "How do you get people involved? What's the best action for the best outcome. It was very much about energizing and empowering you."
"It's almost like they trick you into being tolerant," Minks said with another laugh. She explained that when people of different faiths work together on an issue, they discover how much they have in common, and interfaith dialogue happens naturally almost as a by-product of the relationship which has been formed.
The Dominican art history major gave the example of a relationship she began to form with one of the other 120 student participants at the training event from all over the contiguous United States. "I assumed that she was some sort of Christian," she said, "because we had so much in common." Turns out, when Minks finally got around to asking what religion her new friend practiced, the young woman said she identified herself as a witch and was into Tarot cards and the energy we put out into the world.
She concluded the story by saying, "That was the first time I had encountered that!" Then, she added, "That was very interesting."
Minks, who described herself as a "pretty pious Catholic," jumped at the chance to be part of IFYC weekend, because it fit where she was in her own spiritual journey. "I had been doing a lot of thinking about faith during the summer," she said. "The only way you can prove your faith is right for you is to explore other faiths and have a dialogue with people who practice them. It makes you a little bit vulnerable, but I don't want my faith to be some sort of arbitrary thing."
"I'm not a fan of the name Interfaith Youth Core," she said after telling her story about befriending a witch, "because it's inadvertently exclusive." She explained that some of the students at the weekend training event identified themselves as atheists, agnostics or humanists. "It should be called the Human Youth Core, because anyone can be part of it."
Dr. Jeff Carlson, dean of the Rosary College of Arts and Sciences at Dominican, said that the university already started the work of implementing the IFYC three year strategy before Minks and Delgado attended the training session. As soon as school began in September, Dominican initiated work on step one — Assessment and Planning — in the IFYC model by engaging in a process of "mapping our own assets, looking at curriculum and campus programs, examining external communication and internal policies and looking closely at what our mission is for the purpose of creating not just tolerance but interfaith cooperation."
Jessie McDaniel, a freshman from Gurnee who is majoring in international diplomacy and relations, is plugging into the IFYC strategy by participating in the curriculum task force, the committee assigned with the work of discerning how interfaith respect and appreciation can be fostered in the classroom.
She described herself as having grown up Baptist but presently searching. "I know what my parents taught me," she said. "Now I have to find out what I believe."
McDaniel has high hopes for what the IFYC program, which Dominican is calling "Better Together," will do for her new school and for herself. "I like to think we are a pretty diverse school," she said, "and we all talk about religion, but we need to be more active in our religion."
On a personal level she hopes that being involved in Better Together will make her more comfortable talking about religion, "one of those taboo subjects." "I hope it will allow me to be able to have that curiosity, to be able to ask people questions like 'what is your religion and why do you believe that way' so I can understand where they are coming from."
These idealistic women acknowledge that changing the world is a huge challenge. "It's kind of sad," Minks said, "that we need an organization like Interfaith Youth Core to tell people to work together for the common good, because it's so obvious to me that that's the best way to improve our world. It may sound cheesy, but it's the truth when you think about it."
But, they also believe that people from different religions can actually work together to make the change happen. "I want this community to see that there is something very positive going on here," said Delgado. "If we can create a situation where our community is completely united, where religion and cultural background don't matter, maybe it will be a model for our society. It could happen."