LEADD: An Interfaith Youth Leadership Training in Grand Rapids, Michigan

I returned earlier this week from Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I co-led an interfaith leadership training for seventeen youth for LEADD, a project of the Interfaith Alliance which I coordinate. The timing of this training done in partnership with Kent Intermediate School District was ideal as the Mayor of Grand Rapids proclaimed 2012 a year of interfaith understanding for the whole city. In response Kent ISD received $25,000 in grant funding to organize a year-long interfaith youth leadership program for high-school students from 9 schools in their district. This training happened during an interesting time in Grand Rapids as the FBI released data listing Michigan as the 5th state in the nation with the highest rate of hate crimes. Also, a Kent ISD study of 5213 students shows that 60.4% felt discrimination in this past year based on their appearance and 27.3% said they felt discrimination based on their religious beliefs. While out of the 5213 students 32.2% said they have discriminated against someone else in school and 18.7% of those students said they discriminated against students because of their religious belief.

The LEADD training in Grand Rapids focused on introducing youth to the history of religious freedom and religious liberty in the U.S. LEADD usually opens up the training with a civics lesson on the historical conversation the U.S. founders had around religious liberty, and then connects youth to the current conversation on religious liberty in the media today. In Grand Rapids, youth also participated in workshops called “Dealing with Stereotyping” and “Conflict Resolution” where they were introduced to ways to address stereotyping and conflict they might see in their high-school or local community. The youth responded with enthusiastically to everything they learned, and like w/ every other LEADD new friendships bloomed between everyone throughout the three days.

Fun group pic of all the nice things we said about each other….

One youth participant, Jasleen Kaur, a Sikh shared her thoughts about the recent Sikh shooting and felt LEADD created a safe space for her to talk about her communities reaction to the tragedy.

“It’s a good feeling you get when somebody knows your religion,” Jasleen said. “It gives us hope that now that people know, we won’t have any more of this.”

Another youth Madeline said:

“I feel like it grounds me more in my own faith,” said Madeline Reeves, 15, a sophomore at Catholic Central. “Talking about my faith makes it real for me.”

You can read more about what some of the youth in the training thought in this article by Charley Honey, featured in the local Grand Rapids Press and online at Mlive!

I had many many fave moments during the training, some of which included intimate lunch time conversations with the youth about everything from wearing the hijab to conservative family members accepting interfaith engagement. I felt personally that we had crossed the line of tolerance and moved into pluralism when one youth from what seemed like a conservative Baptist church ask me how she could start exploring meditation while maintaining her faith identity.

Another moment I liked was when we did an activity where we taped A4 size paper on the backs of youth, gave them washable markers and told them to write a nice message mentioning the best qualities they noticed on the backs of each other. The facilitators also participated int his activity. I’m glad I left with an awesome parting gift from the youth- where one youth wrote on my back:  “Sana- you are a great leader and an inspiration to my future!”- Sydney. Like I said…..awesome and I accomplished what I came to do- positively inspire youth using interfaith engagement! Check out more comments in the pic below:

An activity from the last day- write messages about what you liked about a person you met during the training.

LEARN MORE ABOUT LEADD: go to www.interfaithalliance.org/LEADD! Follow LEADD on Twitter @YouthLEADD or “like” LEADD on Facebook! For more information about how to host a LEADD training in your community e-mail Sana Saeed, ssaeed@interfaithalliance.org!


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