IFYC Alumni are uniquely positioned to break barriers and build bridges across difference. The Interfaith Innovation Fellowship was created to support alumni who recognize a community issue and want to offer an interfaith solution! With funding, in community, and alongside experts, fellows are supported as they dive into their ideas for creative social change. As we open the application for the 2022 cohort, we take a look back on the innovative work done by the 2021 fellows. Pritpal Kaur is the former Education Director at the Sikh Coalition and an advocate for increasing religious literacy in the classroom.
Alexis Vaughan: When I first learned about your project I thought of my godson, Siddhartha, who is about to start kindergarten. As a Jain, he has certain dietary restrictions and I know his parents are a little concerned about how he will fit in with the rest of the class. What was your inspiration for this project?
Pritpal Kaur: My project involved creating resources for addressing the needs of Sikh, Muslim and Jewish schoolchildren in the K-12 system to create safer and more inclusive classrooms for religious minorities. The inspiration was really a response to the increase in bullying of Sikh children that I was seeing in my work with the Sikh Coalition. Teachers don’t often know where to start or what to do to address this type of bullying, so I wanted to create a resource that would offer a starting place to teachers even before they step foot in the classroom.
There is an analogy used in children’s literature called “windows and mirrors” that illustrates the inspiration for this project. In the classroom every child needs to have a mirror to see their own identity reflected whether that’s through the teaching materials, what’s being taught and celebrated in the classroom, etc. Then there are windows for every child to be able to see into others’ identities and to learn about difference and to celebrate it. Recognizing religious diversity and the role it plays in students’ identity is to make students feel seen and heard and like they belong where they are. It’s more crucial than ever for educators to prioritize this for students.
AV: Why is it important for educators to recognize religious diversity in the classroom?
PK: The problem we are facing is that bias and bullying based on religious identity persists at alarming rates, particularly towards Sikh, Muslim and Jewish students. This results in children that are being inflicted with severe physical injuries and mental trauma at young ages.
Right now, the student population is getting more diverse, but the teaching population is not, and so the needs of students from minority religious communities are not being met by teachers. Creating change in schools and creating school climates where children feel safer and more included, starts with teachers.
Religion is inextricably tied to all the various ways people express who they are. It is important that teachers have high levels of religious literacy not just have a basic understanding of religious doctrines and practices but, more importantly, to model to children how to engage with religious diversity respectfully and empathize across difference.
There’s a common misunderstanding among educators that asks “am I allowed to teach about religion? Am I allowed to teach about a student’s festival of celebration to the rest of the class?” All these questions need addressing, especially in today’s climate because of all the politicization of education and divisive discourse on the national stage right now. All the uproar about critical race theory is, in my opinion, really a pushback against inclusion and diversity which is unfortunate because teachers have a civic responsibility to prepare young Americans for productive life in a globalized world. This divisiveness is putting teachers in a very difficult position, so unless there are tools to support and empower teachers to be able to do what they feel is right by their students in the classroom then these issues will affect all children negatively, not just religious minorities.
AV: What challenges did you face in doing your project?
PK: I wanted this project to be a joint effort of Sikh, Muslim and Jewish organizations. In the early stages it was challenging to find Muslim and Jewish partner organizations who wanted to work collaboratively in today’s climate. When I was having a particularly tough time finding partners, I reached out to people I knew in IFYC’s Alumni Network—old friends (from) my Faiths Act fellowship cohort, the Facebook group, and the other Innovation fellows. I ended up finding the right partners through crowdsourcing! I had friends reaching out through their networks and eventually it all worked out. I found the partners I felt that I was meant to work with.
AV: What would you say to IFYC alumni who are considering applying for the fellowship?
PK: I’ll admit that I was a little hesitant to apply for the fellowship at first because it seemed intimidating to apply when I didn’t have a fully formed vision for my project, but I came to realize that is the point of the fellowship! The process of the fellowship helps you articulate your passions and refine your project idea step by step alongside others who are similarly working to advance religious literacy and interfaith cooperation. The sessions we did on fundraising and practicing your pitch were especially meaningful to me because it allowed me to expand my understanding of what it takes to be an entrepreneur and create something that doesn’t exist yet. No one has it all figured out in the beginning but going through the process of refining and launching an idea with others was extremely helpful. Having the support of my cohort and learning from them along the way has opened my mind to think about greater possibilities for what I have started with this project.
IFYC is accepting applications for the 2022 Interfaith Innovation Fellowship now through January 16, 2022! Fellows receive a $5,000 grant to use toward getting their innovative interfaith project off the ground, an all-expense paid trip to Chicago for an exclusive retreat planned for the fall of 2022, and 10 months of support to grow their leadership experience and professional networks through one-on-one support from IFYC staff and their cohort members. For more information, contact Alexis Vaughan at firstname.lastname@example.org.