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Building bridges for tomorrow’s faith leaders: the Multifaith Future Leaders Program

October 13, 2009 – 7:39 pm14 Comments

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A leadership program is working to ensure tomorrow’s multicultural leaders will understand other faiths, writes Deborah Stone.

Heba Ibrahim is a young Muslim leader, who sits on the Islamic Council of Victoria. Amelia Tendler is a Jewish student with a passion for interfaith. Krista Celle is an involved Christian whose church is central to her life.

All three share many qualities: they are young, engaged with life and passionate about their own faith and culture. Perhaps they will grow to be leaders of their own communities, representing the particular needs and passions of their own minorities.

The leadership they will provide in their communities will include an understanding of other religions and ethnicities thanks to their involvement in an exciting new program to provide leadership training to future leaders of Victoria’s faith communities.

The Multifaith Future Leaders Program brings together young people identified as potential leaders of their own community and provides leadership training in a multifaith environment. Heba, Amelia and Krista are all part of the first Future Leaders group which began in February 2009.

The group came together with a three-day residential leadership seminar in Campaspe Downs, on the outskirts of Melbourne, supported by the Victorian Multicultural Commission. The seminar was a chance for young leaders to learn basic skills like public speaking, media and team-building. Puzzling over the shared challenges of writing a media release or giggling blindfolded over a team-building exercise the three young women were part of a group of thirty young leaders sharing the experiences of preparing for leadership in a unique environment.

They all say the skills they learned were valuable. But just as important was a chance for participants to share the experience of learning and get to know people from very different backgrounds. Studies of interfaith programs have shown working together on joint endeavors and understanding oneself as a similar to others are essential to overcoming a perception of difference.

For these young multicultural leaders, learning leadership is now something they have in common with people who may dress or celebrate or believe differently but are equally passionate about building community.

Heba Ibrahim says the networking opportunities of the program were important to her. “The most valuable asset that this leadership program left me with is a wide network of very intelligent people who come from a range of backgrounds, not only culturally and faith-wise but also academically and professionally. Hopefully they will be lifelong friends and people I can partner with in the future on projects that will benefit Australia as a society and maintain harmonious communities.”

Understanding others and being understood is essential to the program. Says Amelia: “I think this a fantastic opportunity to reduce ignorance and encourage tolerance and harmony among people from different religious backgrounds.”

Amelia hopes the next generation of leaders might be more tolerant than current faith leaders because they were more open to different ideas. “I’m a strong supporter of interfaith dialogue and multiculturalism. I really want to be part of promoting understanding.”

The young people involved in the program are aged 18- 26, most of them university students. Some have been involved in interfaith programs such as Building Bridges, a secondary school program, but many have no prior experience of other faiths. They are at the age where they are forming and solidifying their ideologies and understandings of the world.

The Multifaith Future Leaders Program was developed by a Jewish communal organisation, the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation Commission (ADC), to ensure young potential leaders in this age group have an opportunity to understand the pluralistic Australian society. The ADC’s mission is to counter antisemitism and other forms of racism and to promote justice and opportunity for all.

The program is funded by the Victorian Multicultural Commission, which enables the ADC to make the seminar free and draw in a good variety of participants. The first seminar had Jewish, Muslim and Christian participants but a second seminar will be held in February 2010 and will include representatives from other faiths including Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Bahai.

The seminar, though, is only the beginning. Participants build networks and hopefully friendships which mean they keep in touch. Additional programs throughout the year provide opportunities to discuss issues, commonalities and differences and to do joint activities. This year’s participants are working on putting together a joint charity project, having recognized that charity is a value all their religions share.

Krista points out that the program enables friendships across barriers that often don’t happen when people are fully engaged with their own little worlds.

“The first thing that comes to mind when I reflect on the program is how unique this situation is, yet none of the participants live more than 30 minutes apart in Melbourne. How come this dialogue doesn’t happen in our homes and communities and how can 30 people who are so unique and different cohabit peacefully for three days without any prejudice-fuelled riots?

“I believe it is because we broke down a barrier of fear and misunderstanding when we gave each the right to ask, “Why are you different?” and found out that we had so much in common.”

Multiculturalism is by no means a value Australians can take for granted. As recent racially-motivated attacks have shown, there are still some Australians who are hostile to difference. The far right continues to have its attractions and particularly in times of economic challenge there is a tendency for people to retreat into the worlds they know and be frightened of those who look or act differently.

Young people who are passionate about their own culture need to have opportunities to celebrate their own beliefs in the context of Australian diversity and respect. This is particularly important when extremism and the rejection of all others are motivating terrorism and hate in other parts of the world.

When our future leaders have friends and contacts who will be leaders of other communities, we have an insurance policy that promotes diversity, tolerance and sustained cohesion in our multicultural society.

Plus, as the young participants say, it’s a lot of fun.

Deborah Stone is executive director of the Anti-Defamation Commission, which runs the Multifaith Future Leaders Program. If you would like to participate log on to www.antidef.org.au or call (03) 9572-5770

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