Nate Walker Fosters Connection Through a Creative New Social Learning Platform
August 9, 2022
Interfaith America Magazine’s Monique Parsons and Emma Sternberg sat down with Nate Walker, founder of ReligionAndPublicLife.org, to learn more about the social learning community and the partnership with Interfaith America as they host the virtual component of the Interfaith Leadership Summit this weekend.
The following conversation has been edited lightly for length and clarity.
Emma: Will you tell us about what is happening this weekend for ReligionAndPublicLife.org?
Nate: We are thrilled to be hosting the virtual component of Interfaith America’s Leadership Summit this coming weekend, and we anticipate many of the students and educators attending the Summit both virtually and in-person will be eager to join ReligionAndPublicLife’s learning community and share in all the things I am so excited our platform offers.
Which reminds me, there is still time to register for the virtual Interfaith Leadership Summit, taking place August 12-14. We would love to have your readers there with us.
Monique: With this partnership in mind, I would love to start with the big, open question. What is ReligionAndPublicLife.org?
Nate: ReligionAndPublicLife.org is a social learning community. The reason why we are combining social with learning and community is to really address a lot of different concerns at the same time. One, online learning is not always effective, especially if there is not a social component. But when done in a social way, when done in community, we can actually learn together, and we can move away from this idea that the expert has the knowledge, and the learner has to then learn it. Everyone in the circle has something to contribute. And that’s the pedagogy that’s driving this social learning community.
Monique: And what was the journey like that led you to this place?
Nate: A couple things come to mind. First, I am president of the 1791 Delegates, which is a delegation of First Amendment and human rights educators. For the past six years, we have been cultivating public education programs around religion and law, and we have various partners for whom we’ve helped create curricula and programs. Second, I really care about how people learn in all settings, and I deeply believe that effective online education can be an act of hospitality and accessibility for learning minorities. And finally, fifteen years ago, I bought the URL ReligionAndPublicLife.org, and I never knew what to do with it. Then the pandemic hit, and I realized this was the moment. So ReligionAndPublicLife.org is the result of these partnerships and my passion.
Emma: What does this social learning community hope to achieve, and who does it aim to help?
Nate: Our three primary audiences are learners, who are seeking to learn something; online educators, who need resources to teach; and then leaders in the community, like Interfaith America, who need resources to enrich their professional development. ReligionAndPublicLife.org aims to help these groups and our partners do that which they could not alone. So this includes investing money to cover the technological services our partners need and provide the live tech- and back-end support so they don’t have to make that investment … In addition, during the recession of 2008, I was the senior minister of The First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia. What I learned as minister is that my congregants were starting to retool and go back to school to gain new skills and certificates. I realized they were using a global crisis to refine their skills so that they could be more marketable as the crisis waned. That was the primary experience that led me to say that this platform needs to provide certificate programs that show an economic return on people’s investments.
Monique: It seems that the goal of ReligionAndPublicLife.org is to offer a wealth of educational resources while also providing a community for students, educators, and leaders to share and collaborate and build up one another’s skills.
Nate: Exactly. I was fortunate that when the pandemic hit, my life wasn’t too disrupted. So I thought, ‘how can I serve? How can I help?’ This project has been an extraordinary act of love, it has allowed me to tap into all of my nerdy interests from ministry to legal education to community building to technology to accessibility. And now I’ve found myself here two and a half years later, having gone through an incredibly generative process creating this community.”
Monique: ReligionAndPublicLife.org is the culmination of your passions for religion and the public sphere. I wonder how you might address concerns about the bringing together of religion and civic life.
Nate: Absolutely. By the time the states ratified the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1791, there was a full understanding that the government and religions should be separate. And that idea has continued to stand as a legal tenet of the country. However, that does not mean that religion is separate from your life. You don’t have to quiet yourself at a public event because you have something religious to contribute. No, this is what makes pluralism possible. When we harness the power of the state, saying, congress shall make no law and then we require the state to vigorously defend the free exercise thereof, you get this beautiful legal recipe for peaceful coexistence. So ReligionAndPublicLife.org is designed to bring together and to promote that legal literacy while also promoting literacy about all religions and none.
Emma: What do you see as the obstacles to people understanding the beauty of what you’ve just described?
Nate: A key finding I’ve discovered in my research and in my collaboration with other scholars is that when governments start to restrict religion, or privilege one religion over another, you start to see an increase in social hostilities and an increase in violence. So in the United States, there was a direct correlation of increases in social hostilities against Muslims with the call for the ban on immigration to the United States. Why does that happen? When you have a public that is illiterate about Islam, they can fall prey to fear base rhetoric, putting them as an enemy of the state, when in reality, there has never been an America without Islam. Therefore, I think it is the lack of that religious literacy and the lack of that legal literacy that has created this opportunity where there can be a political win for scapegoating the most vulnerable among us.
Emma: Based on that, I’m wondering how ReligionAndPublicLife.org will maintain a circle of conviviality and kindness, especially because social communities centered around religion and politics can often become heated.
Nate: As somebody who studies free speech and the First Amendment, I am deeply committed to this question. If someone is on the platform is notices inappropriate or hateful speech, they can flag that content and a message is then sent to the back end of ReligionAndPublicLife.org and we engage in a relationship with that person, offering them a chance to respond and a teaching moment. However, if there are routinely issues arising from an individual, they may be expelled from the community for some time. At the same time, I am a minister, and we have a deep commitment to restorative justice. If there is a space for somebody who has caused harm for them to rectify their mistake and exhibit sincere remorse and empathy, they will be allowed back in the community.
Monique: Finally, where is ReligionAndPublicLife.org right now, and where is it headed?
Nate: This week, we should break about 1,000 users on the site. At the same time, we are harvesting contact information for 16,000 college professors across ten academic disciplines so that we can engage in a seven-part relationship building campaign for them. Our big vision is that we want to be able to provide the technological infrastructure and the educational publishing clearinghouse so that all of our partners are generating income from the things they are already doing … Also, this whole project has helped me find a flow and rhythm in my life, especially during the tumultuous time created by the pandemic. I am fortunate to have been absorbed in this single activity of creating ReligionAndPublicLife.org, and I feel grateful for this project and for our partnership with Interfaith America. I can’t wait to watch the community flourish.
Reverend Dr. Nathan Walker is a First Amendment and human rights educator. He is president of 1791 Delegates, a public charity named after the year the Bill of Rights was ratified. In this capacity, he manages The Foundation for Religious Literacy and founded ReligionAndPublicLife.org, a social learning community and mobile app. Dr. Walker is an award-winning instructor of First Amendment and human rights law at Rutgers University-Camden, where he serves as an Honors College faculty fellow and public humanities fellow. He is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister and received his Master of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary. Since 2014, he has been serving as the affiliated community minister for religion and public life at the Church of the Larger Fellowship. He lives with his husband Vikram Paralkar in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
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