Power in their passion: the impact of teenage interfaith leaders
By: Kyle Kooyers, Associate Director
& Zahabia Ahmed-Usmani, Program Manager
Kaufman Interfaith Institute
If there’s one thing we’ve learned from three years of doing interfaith youth programming, it is this – when you invite a group of young leaders to work together to change their community for the better, even if you anticipate greatness, you’ll still be amazed by them.
As the Kaufman Interfaith Institute has leaned into our focus on the Next Generation, we wanted to create a next step for emerging student leaders who had participated in Day Camp or had attended some of our family focused programming. We really do believe that middle and high school students are the future of interfaith cooperation and their leadership offers the world a rich perspective and energy.
Atif was a tenth grader in Holland, Michigan when he first participated in the inaugural youth programming offered by Kaufman Interfaith Institute. Of his experience Atif said, “As a Muslim youth in a predominantly White, Christian community I have faced discrimination and misunderstanding about who I am, my whole life. Kaufman programs have given me a place where I belong, in community with friends of every religion or no religion at all.”
Mackenzie, a senior in Jenison, Michigan, reflected on her participation with profound eloquence stating, “I have found beauty and truth within many traditions different from my own. It has been so valuable to grow alongside individuals who are driven towards creating oneness instead of sameness.”
Drawing upon our experience working with college-age interfaith leaders on area campuses and with the support of the Wege Foundation and Interfaith America, we set out to create a leadership development program that gave a younger demographic a platform to shape the next chapter of the interfaith movement in West Michigan and guide the work of the Kaufman Institute. The result: the Kaufman Interfaith Leadership Scholars Program.
Having just completed our third year of the program, the Leadership Scholars meet every other Sunday during the school year to connect with their peers, from different faiths and worldviews, who want to work together to make our world a better place. During our time together, teens receive mentorship and training on implicit bias, power and privilege, intersectional identities, being an ally and influencer as well as foundational tools of presentation, professional speaking and storytelling. The projects and the work are driven by the young leaders themselves as they look to create grass-roots community impact.
Emma, a Jewish sophomore in Jenison, Michigan, says of the program, “Scholars has given me a community of amazing people who understand what it’s like to be a minority or outsider in your community. Our wonderful leaders, along with all of my peers at interfaith scholars, have fostered an environment where I feel safe asking questions and learning. They have taught me that although my experiences are different and the holidays I celebrate might seem strange, my voice and thoughts are powerful and relevant, and they can make real, tangible change in the world.”
The Scholars have done a variety of impactful programs in the past, from technology and hygiene drives to addressing Eurocentrism in the classroom curricula. This year’s Leadership Scholars wanted to do a project that focused on environmental racism and shared perspectives from different religious, spiritual and secular backgrounds that speak to why caring for the earth is important. Having learned from an Ottawa County naturalist that invasive species are one of the biggest threats to our West Michigan environment and that many of the parks accessible to communities of color are disproportionately impacted, our Scholars set out to see how they could help.
As the Scholars explored the impact of invasive species, they found that garlic mustard was a particular problem, depleting the soil of nutrients and leaving an "oil-spill-like” mark on the land it inhabits unless it is removed. This vivid imagery and the need for accessible nature spaces for our community led the Scholars to seek out a garlic mustard clean-up at Aman Park, which has some of the most abundant variety and quantity of indigenous wild flowers in West Michigan. Unfortunately, the park is being invaded by garlic mustard.
In partnership with the City of Grand Rapids and Friends of Grand Rapids Parks the Scholars recruited peers and community members to assist with the clean-up efforts. The Scholars wanted to leave a lasting impact so they also built boot cleaning stations to be installed at Aman Park and other GR parks. These stations will prevent the spread of invasive species outside of the park. The students also compiled videos of multi-faith perspectives on this topic and shared them on Kaufman's YouTube channel.
What was the impact? Friends of Grand Rapids Parks reported that the Scholar’s clean-up day was the largest group of volunteers they had ever had – pulling a total of 10 industrial sized garbage bags worth of garlic mustard AND installing 6 boot cleaning stations at 3 Grand Rapids area parks. Clearly there is power in their passion.
During his time with Kaufman, Vishnu, a Junior in Grand Rapids shares, “Being an Interfaith Scholar has helped me improve my leadership skills, learn about the different religions represented within my community, and understand the intricate socio-political issues that plague our society today.”
“The lessons I have learned about systemic racism, inequity, and religious discrimination have impacted the speeches I deliver and the arguments I advance during Speech and Debate competitions. This program has helped me build the skills I need to become a better leader, as well as enabled me with the resources needed to help my community.”
Even though our Scholars year has come to an end, as we look to the summer months, we are excited to once again offer our Youth Interfaith Service Day Camps! If you know of a middle or high school student who would be interested in exploring world of interfaith leadership through visiting sacred sites and building community through service, we encourage you to check out our Day Camp website. June 13-17 will be an “Intro to Interfaith & Cross-Cultural Understanding.” June 20-24 will be a “Justice and Equity Immersion.” Registration closes soon and scholarships are still available!
Recognizing that the youth in our communities and congregations are our future, when it comes to interfaith cooperation and creating positive change, we need to welcome them around the leadership table as well. They too have a part in dismantling bias, assumptions, fear, and hate so our schools and communities may become places where everyone is valued, respected, and loved. They offer us immense wisdom, vision, and hope as together we shape how Kaufman and the West Michigan interfaith movement will look well into the future!