This evening marked the end of the first successful day of ‘Intersections of Interfaith,’ the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s first interfaith conference hosted by the Center for Religion and Global Citizenry (CRGC) and the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), a non-profit that promotes interfaith dialogue. In a conference room of the Pyle Center, students, educators, interfaith activists, and spiritual leaders gathered for a day of workshops and dialogue to foster religious and non-religious pluralism at the UW and the Madison community.
Mishal Shah (UW-Madison, Senior) and Katherine O’Brien (UW-Madison, Senior) interfaith fellows with the CRGC, delivered the conference’s opening remarks, explaining how interfaith dialogue can serve as “an antidote” to religious discrimination and persecution by fostering communication between folks of different religious and non-religious identities.
Becca Hartman-Pickerell, who manages campus organizing for the IFYC, led the conference in a workshop entitled the Foundations of Interfaith Leadership. There is a crucial difference, she explained, between diversity and pluralism. Diversity is a fact; there are differences that exist in our communities whether or not we choose to engage them. Pluralism is the choice to actively engage with the realities of diverse communities; to talk about spiritual and other social differences candidly so as to value the traditions and experiences of others.
The conference’s content is guided by the concept of intersectionality, a term originated by the legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw to explain how the oppression experienced by black women is “greater than the sum of racism and sexism”; the interaction of the two systems means that their experiences will be different than those of other black people or women who are not black. The concept has become a framework for understanding individual experiences as shaped by the relationship between our various social identities. The conference’s organizers consider an intersectional approach to interfaith dialogue—one that accounts for our many social identities in addition to those that are religious, secular, and spiritual—the only one that will allow us to fully imagine the experiences of others, and advocate for religious pluralism.
As Katherine O’Brien mentioned in her opening remarks: “We chose to emphasize intersectionality at this conference because we want to create space for discussions of religious identity within larger conversations about diversity and inclusion.”
Conference participants explored these identities in the second workshop, Social Justice and Interfaith, led by Emma Cox (UW-Madison, Senior) and Hannah Kwiatkowski (Edgewood College, Sophomore). Participants were invited to consider concepts like discrimination, oppression, and privilege in the context of social identities. After plotting out their identities, the workshop attendees dialogued about the role of some identities, like ‘White’ and ‘Cis-male,’ are used to maintain systems of oppression like racism and sexism. The leaders closed by presenting ways to think about understanding privilege and marginalization in interfaith spaces.
The conference’s keynote address was delivered by Imam Sami Aziz, the Director of the Center for Spiritual Life at DePauw University, ‘The Heart and Spiritual Tradition in Islam,” which he closed by thanking the CRGC and IFYC and presenting some of the undergraduate fellows with personal copies of the Qur’an.
The conference continues Sunday April 7th, from 8 AM-3:15 PM. Two more workshops will be held throughout the day; ‘Engaging Religious Difference’ will begin at 9 AM and ‘Building Interfaith Spaces’ will be directly after at 10:30 AM. At 1 PM, the conference will welcome its luncheon panel ‘Women in Interfaith,’ which will feature Janan Najeeb (President of Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition), Sister Toni Ann Palermo (School Sister of St. Francis), Pastor Erica Liu (Co-Pastor at Pres House), Reverend Selena Fox (Wiccan Priestess of Circle Santuary), and Rabbi Andrea Steinberger (UW-Madison Hillel).
– Sam Ropa