Innovation and Humanist Inquiry: A Project for Emerging Spiritual and Ethical Leaders
February 1, 2023
The Interfaith Innovation Fellowship at Interfaith America served as an incubator to deeply consider the manner of curating, cultivating, and co-designing relational spaces for critical interreligious work, especially during this time of social and political turmoil.
In my role as a Humanist Chaplain at a university, and who centers Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC), queer, and first-generation students, I engage with a diverse range of geographies as well as spiritual and philosophical traditions. Participating in fellowship meetings were incredibly generative, in that, each member through their own tradition, imbued my conception of innovation with rigor. My understanding of difference has deepened, from a static and coherent concept to a more complex dialectic to creatively reckon with the matrix of power that governs how we view and enact our lives.
With my commitment to amplifying the perspectives and histories of the margins, this fellowship played an integral role in helping me both define and clarify my own values as a practitioner and how these interfaces with the communities I serve. Unpacking who I am, my positionality, as well as my assumptions of “the other” and society is a form of accountability and allows me to work towards an ethical and reciprocal ethos. Significantly, what emerged during our meetings were additional questions to evaluate the “meaningfulness” of program development. These questions include: What does it mean to give people a voice and in what ways may this voice be stifled? What does empowerment look like in group settings? And how can learning environments provide the conditions to sustain generous dialogue and listening, especially with difficult conversations? Given the stakes of these questions in society today, I am fortunate to have acquired the relational tools to engage these questions in community with critical acuity. Throughout the fellowship program, I was able to think about the contributions of a Humanist perspective, as well as my orientations as a decolonial, intersectional, and embodied scholar-practitioner. I have come to better appreciate my sensibilities and perspective as a Humanist/Freethinker, especially when these have not been highlighted in interreligious discourse and engagement.
With the help of the Interfaith Innovation Fellowship, I developed the Humanist Hub for Freedom Making, a student dinner series and mentorship program for emerging leaders that takes up themes of inquiry, narrative, and memory. These themes with Humanist insight coalesce around worldbuilding for liberation. The program comes at an urgent time to reimagine the ways we think of relationships and meaning-making. This space provides opportunities to imagine and transgress oppressive systems and to realize decolonial and abolitionist futures. This experience will be a supportive lab and network to think about the ethical, philosophical, intercultural, and interreligious challenges of this era. During the fall, we launched the dinner series (received with great success) and this spring, we will continue with the mentorship aspect of the program. These dinners were co-developed and co-facilitated with two undergraduate fellows and program participants.
The first dinner of the series occurred in late October and centered on inquiry and meaning-making in everyday life. Facilitators broached questions on the ways we are educated or socialized to not question or disrupt conventional thinking. The second dinner occurred early December, where the students explored personal narratives, both a concept and process where we use stories to inform others, connect over shared experiences, say when we feel wronged, and even sort out our thoughts and feelings concerning our own actions and wrongdoings. As such, this iteration of our dinners explored the essential question, “What is your story?” to uncover opportunities for growth and development and continued meaning making. Some questions explored included: Can you describe the last time you managed to navigate a complex situation? How did you overcome it? Did this experience impact your self-image? If so, how? Would you describe the impact as positive, negative, both, or neither? The last dinner centered around memory. Memory can be an integral part of structuring our personal narratives. During this discussion, we reflected on the role of memory in understanding our individual and shared identities. We also discussed the impacts of remembrance and forgetting, with a focus on the impact of remembered history and forgotten history on our collective imagination. We considered: How do we construct history to preserve memory? What are the implications of remembrance, and forgetting, in how we view ourselves and possibilities in the future?
The next phase of the project will commence in the Spring of 2023, with an emphasis on leadership development. Students will examine “on being human as praxis” (Wynter). In particular, students will home in on the ways they embody or would like to embody social change. Activities include identifying their theories of change and accountability, with the goal that the work in the leadership program will seed innovative and meaningful initiatives. I am grateful to the Interfaith Innovation Fellowship program and my cohort in helping extend my commitment to marginalized identities and liberatory futures.
Anthony Cruz Pantojas, MATS, MALS, Ph.D. Candidate (they/he/elle), is the Humanist Chaplain at Tufts University. They earned a Masters in Theological Studies from Andover Newton Theological School.
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