I was excited to return to Cincinnati where my father had been the CFO of the American Jewish Archives. I was on the road, speaking on Religious Diversity in our Schools and at Work at the invitation of a Women of Faith event sponsored by American Jewish Committee, Xavier University & the Brueggeman Center for Dialogue, Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati, and the Jewish Community Relations Council.
Now that so much of our work is done online and out teams communicate through cyberspace, it’s vital that cultural awareness, sensitivity, and competence in the area of religious diversity be part of the leadership tool box. Lessons learned from in-person presentations like this one should be reviewed and updated for a new world of long-distance work.
The event took place at Xavier, a Catholic university with a hefty investment in interfaith work. The attendees were leaders in various fields, particularly religion, education, and the legal profession. The men and women in the room were of different faiths, national origins, and generations. They were eager and enthusiastic to come together and discuss religious diversity, with one woman having driven five hours to attend.
Documenting my work, including this event, has been a priority for me especially during tumultuous times such as these. Religious Diversity in Our Schools was written shortly after the Oklahoma City bombing. Religious Diversity at Work: Guide to Religious Diversity in the US Workplace was written during the 2016 election cycle. Religion becomes a major focus of societal interaction, for better or worse. The times call for increasing our religious literacy, building interfaith coalitions, and training interreligious ambassadors. I am compelled to share the depth and breadth of my experience and inspire others to be community builders reaching across deep divides.
One of my main points was the lack of training materials appropriate for class room teachers and human resources departments. Despite the twenty-five years between the two books, there has been only modest investment in training for religious diversity in either the schools or the workplace. Further, in public schools, there may not be a written school policy regarding religion. Religion-related conflicts are often left to the classroom teacher to resolve. These individuals are unlikely to be trained to do so, a by-product of having little education about world religions, and often, about their own faith beyond childhood classes. The result is often an increase in the intensity of the conflict that can reverberate throughout an entire community.
Even diversity & inclusion trainers struggle when addressing religious diversity as demographics changes and the global economy make religion-related issues more frequent. The challenge is growing not only for diversity offices, but for HR departments which are increasingly taking over diversity-related responsibilities. In response, both books contain Quick Reference Religious Diversity Cards. Organized by theme with input from multiple religious traditions, the cards have proven useful to teachers, HR professionals, healthcare chaplains, and law enforcement. They are ‘cheat sheets’ for issues such as Sacred Food, Sacred Time, Sacred Space, and Death. The Cards provide a central mechanism for organizing community-based interfaith programs that involve multiple players who wish to work together while preserving their faith, culture, and traditions.
A planning session followed my presentation to look at future projects and dialogue options. Suggestions from the participants, based on my presentation, were collected and compiled in the notes below. Their comments may be of interest to other groups contemplating religious diversity projects. Such projects require considerable planning to launch effectively and with long-term sustainability. Cincinnati’s brainstorming results will hopefully inspire others to invest their time, energy, and entrepreneurial spirit in religious diversity initiatives.
• Deeper sense of cultural understanding (Religion as a key aspect of cultural understanding).
• Introduction to World Religions.
• Opportunities for interfaith studies classes.
• Educating/training teachers about religious diversity.
• Understanding religious bias.
• Better education about religiously required clothing.
• 2nd law of thermodynamics (an isolated system’s ability to do work decreases over time).
• Religious customs that might require accommodating – dress, food, alternative exam dates.
• Allow religion to be talked about and practice in schools as desired.
• Making space for a religious prayer.
• “the other”- how does it feel to be “the other”- non mainstream.
• Bullying children who are different.
• Give a platform to students with a certain religious faith traditions.
• Opportunities for youth of differing religions to encounter & be enlarged by each other.
• Opportunity to experience different religion outside of school walls.
• Defeating stereotypes people have about others from different religious backgrounds.
• Respect for Muslims, understanding Islamophobia and prejudice against Muslims.
• Respect for religion-based diets.
• Understanding family and religious background.
• What is the impact of expressing your religion in the workplace? Loss of job or promotion?
• Guarantee that religious accommodation do not harm your status or chance for advancement.
• Allowing a prayer space in the workplace.
• I think I was hired most often because of my religion, but never promoted.
• 70% of Catholics do not know a Muslim personally (Georgetown study). How do you create opportunities for positive encounters?
• Consensus on the mission.
• Aging in the workplace.
• When you’re the minority in the workplace and all others (team) are negative about you – What do you do?
• Are there efforts to implement more diversity awareness in the workplace albeit the noted decline in diversity training.
• The glass ceiling for women. Man-explaining and real lack of diversity.
• Uncomfortable sexual comments.
• Get people to understand why everyone doesn’t want a Christmas tree at work or for the company’s holiday card to customers to say Merry Christmas.
• Lack of sensitivity in the workplace to the fact that not everyone celebrates Christmas.
• Respect for religious holidays or vacation days. Time off for religious holidays.
• Different religious celebrations / observances require “ drop off” from work- does lack of understanding about that result in conflict?
• Accommodating faith-based diets: Kosher, Halal, Vegetarian, etc.
• Understanding religious dietary restrictions.
• Who defines modesty?
• Women wearing religious clothing or artifacts at work such as Hi jab or Hath or Phul.
It’s an honor to share the lessons, analysis, and strategies gained during my three decades and multiple books devoted to the topic of religious diversity. Keep in mind that in cyberspace, mistakes, miscommunications, inattention to personal beliefs will be remembered, recorded, and shared. As never before, it’s necessary to move forward together with integrity. “Harmonize Not Homogenize!”
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