This is the first of a series of posts about the interfaith initiative, Muslim Neighbors. This series focuses on the development of an evaluation model for Muslim Neighbors. The model pulls from my community arts background, but I think a strong argument can be made for its usefulness for community and faith-based initiatives.
When someone asks me what I do, I flounder for a bit and then rest on one of the following answers, depending on who is asking: I teach for an online master’s program in art education. Or, I am a community engagement consultant for churches. Or, I am a community arts educator. My husband has an easier answer: what doesn’t she do? And then lists a litany of projects I’m currently working on. What this question raises for me, however, is my own difficulty separating the different work projects I do, because, in my thinking and approach, they are interconnected, one informing the other.
The things I am currently involved in:
Muslim Neighbors, likewise, includes a variety of activities. It started as a response to the use of Islamophobic rhetoric in the presidential debates in late 2015 and ended with the formation of a coalition of religious leaders in early 2017. At the time it began, I was immersed in collaborative research on young Somali American leaders in Columbus, Ohio through the project – Urur Dhex-Dhexaad Ah: Community In-Between. My husband came home after a meeting with his Arabic tutor, a man in his thirties originally from Tunisia. As they discussed the current political climate, he expressed a growing fear for his family and when I interviewed him later, was hesitant to even speak about various topics for fear of retribution. He said was thinking about leaving. My husband came home angry, and, as he has said many times since, “ready to put on a sign and march in the streets.” I, ever the pragmatist, suggested to reach out to a young man he met at the Islamic Center the year or two before to see what they may need instead. So, he did.
As a result of that initial contact, the two met and talked about taking a group of Muslim Americans to local churches. The location was important to us, as practicing Christians. Our view of our faith is one that promotes peace and justice. However, we have found that many Christians (and people in general) parrot the ideas presented to them, intentionally or not, through news networks, social media, and even at times from religious leaders, and perpetuate Islamophobia. We hypothesized that if they just learned a little bit about Islam and Muslims, that would change. People would be more likely to think critically about what they are hearing and seeing, stopping to consider possible alternatives. In other words, the ideology hasn’t been challenged, because there hasn’t been an opportunity to stop and think about it. Moreover, with increased violence towards Muslims, my husband in particular wanted to ensure that our local Muslim community and Islamic Center would be supported by their Christian counterparts. He began reaching out to local Christian leaders asking if they would be interested in hosting a panel and explaining his idea of creating a network of support in case of emergency.
These ideas about Muslims among Christians are not unfounded. A Pew survey found negative feelings toward Muslims in the general American population also found that these feelings were slightly stronger among U.S. Protestant and even stronger among White Evangelicals (Kipka, 2017), which Ken Chitwood attributes to religious illiteracy, largely negative media portrayals of Muslims, and the stereotypical ways Muslims have been regarded historically. All contributing to a general animosity toward Muslim Americans, and in some cases, leading to violent attacks (Chitwood, 2015). Chitwood encourages Christians to begin with changing themselves (because of these misguided attitudes) and continues to urge Christians to build relationships and participate in experiential exchange with Muslim Americans (in addition to education and instruction).
So, in January 2015, we offered a panel at the church where I was working. The event was well received and covered by local media (Bongiovanni, 2016). After the event, I offered to the group my services to develop a photonarrative exhibit. From there, our partner connected me to nine local Muslim Americans, all connected with the local university despite our best efforts to engage individuals and families beyond.
But, that points to the context. Greater Lafayette is located between Chicago and Indianapolis, surrounded by small rural towns, and is comprised of Lafayette and West Lafayette. It is a thriving city, with one of the largest growth rates in the state, and is supported by major employers including Purdue University, Caterpillar, SIA, and more who attract an unusually large international and well-educated population to the area. The wealth and quality of social services draws a different population from surrounding counties.
It is not only the Wabash River that separates the two cities; perceptions of the population differences echo that of the Pawnee/Eagleton divide on Parks and Recreation. Perception of West Lafayette is white collar, wealthy, diverse, educated, and liberal while Lafayette is blue collar, middle to lower class, crime-ridden (because of the migration from Chicago, as a former neighbor once told me – coded language for the African American population), and conservative. The democrat mayor of West Lafayette and the republican mayor of Lafayette work well together, but even the necessary descriptors of their party affiliation almost always attached to their office serve reinforce the divide. Or, perhaps as someone who moved into the area in the past five years and lives and works on the east side of the river, having heard early on that Pawnee/Eagleton was based on greater Lafayette continued to get to know the community within that framework. But, these perceptions are a misnomer. There are certainly different resources and demographics between the two, presenting different challenges. However, in some regards, it is the perceptions of one another that drive the divide rather than any concrete differences.
The Islamic Center is located on campus in West Lafayette, and is the only mosque within an hour’s drive, serving the faculty, staff, and students the university as well as residents of the surrounding communities. While there are a number of permanent residents (mostly professionals), much of the Muslim population are students (harking to their institutional history: the Center was started by the Muslim Student Association a member of which still serves on the board, though it still does not allow female board members, a point of contention for many, especially as that policy has changed within MSA and the Islamic School) making for a large transient population of both domestic and international students. There is a diversity regarding ethnic background and religious practices. There is just one place to go if one wants to practice within a community, so they must figure out how to work together. It does not mean that people aren’t excluded or that disputes occur, but it is a different reality than that of Christians in Greater Lafayette who have over 40 churches to choose from.
Then, situate the city within the state context: There is an interesting narrative of Greater Lafayette as a progressive island amid a sea of conservatism. And this dynamic is impossible to ignore given the connection of Islamophobic rhetoric used among Republican presidential candidates during the 2015-2016 campaign season.
So, I met people, interviewed them about their experiences growing up and living in greater Lafayette, and photographed them in locations of their choosing. We put together an exhibit, working with participants to craft their narratives and select photographs to display, which opened at an arts event at the church in April 2016. The exhibit was displayed at several locations over the next two years: Fuel Coffee Shop, West Lafayette Public Library, Q Commons at Riverside Covenant Church, IU White County Hospital, Monticello Public Library, the Taste of Tippecanoe and Tippecanoe Arts Federation.
At the next location, a coffee shop, I planned a community dialogue event, to bring people together from different faiths over shared interests. While the panels focus on getting to know our neighbors as Muslims, the idea behind the dialogue event was to create an opportunity to get to know our Muslim neighbors as neighbors who care about issues and are invested in their community.
My husband and our partner planned panels at over a dozen churches. I organized the exhibits and worked with our partner to offer corresponding events. We met regularly to talk about the issues and project and how we wanted it to move forward and continued to make changes as to how we approached the initiative and led events. As the initiative progressed, I began to think more about sustainability. My husband’s network of leaders extended as far as offering panels. But, as we talked about our intentions and vision for the community, something more was needed. Something that was proactive, continued to develop relationships and trust and cooperation, and that would continue without any of us.
When the Executive Order on Immigration was signed in January 2017, I immediately received several emails from people who knew of my work with Muslim Neighbors and wanting to do something. It was then that I called on that network of leaders that my husband built, and others I knew through my work with Trinity and the other downtown clergy, to come together and form a coalition of religious leaders. The first Interfaith Leaders of Greater Lafayette meeting was held just a few days later, with over 40 people in attendance and representation from the Bah’ai, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian community. From that meeting, I began to build a more formal organization with leader’s meetings to discuss issues facing our community and public education events and fellowship/service opportunities for members of different religious communities to come together around issues facing our community and build relationships. The organization continues today under different leadership.
So, how do I evaluate this initiative, which began as a panel of three Muslim Americans and moved circuitously through artmaking and dialogue to end in a coalition of now over 60 religious leaders representing five major religions? And, how does positioning this initiative as social cooperation (Finkelpearl, 2013), socially engaged art (Thompson, 2012), Arts for Change (Borstel & Korza, 2017), and/or Interfaith Peacebuilding (Woodrow, Oatley & Garred, 2017) inform its assessment? And, what does loosely holding the boundaries of these evaluative frameworks offer in possibility for moving forward?
In other words, what can we – faith communities, community artists, workers and researchers, and project leaders – learn from taking a look back at Muslim Neighbors?
Muslim Neighbors Website: www.muslimneighbors.com
Bongiovanni, D. (2016, Jan. 3). Talk tackles questions about Muslims. Journal and Courier. Retrieved from https://www.jconline.com/story/news/local/2016/01/03/talk-tackles-questions-muslims/78229086/
Borstel, J. & Korza, P. (2017). Aesthetic Perspectives: Attributes of excellence in Arts for Change. Animating Democracy. Americans for the Arts.
Chitwood, K. (2015). A Radical Response to Islamophobia. Sojourner. Retrieved from https://sojo.net/magazine/august-2015/radical-response-islamophobia
Finkelpearl, T. (2013). What we made: Conversations on art and social cooperation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Lipka, M. (2017, AUGUST 9). Muslims and Islam: Key findings in the U.S. and around the world. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/08/09/muslims-and-islam-key-findings-in-the-u-s-and-around-the-world/
Thompson, N. (2012). Living as form. Creative Time Books and MIT Press.
Woodrow, P., Oatley, N., & Garred, M. (2017). Faith Matters: A guide for design, monitoring and evaluation of inter-religious peacebuilding. CDA Collaborative Learning Projects and Alliance for Peacebuilding.
Ruth M. Smith
Community arts educator and researcher. Drinking coffee. Home educating. Making art. Listening intentionally.