There was a distinct lack of young people on the panel, in spite of the conference topic being interfaith work and youth. Finally, one young woman was invited to the stage to speak. As she was ushered off again, the Chair proclaimed, ‘Thank you, dear.’
Now this sketch might not be entirely factual, for I’m sharing a second-hand anecdote. It’s second-hand because I wasn’t invited. In fact, when my colleague asked if he could bring some of his young leaders to the youth conference, he was told that the event was aimed at “practitioners”. A curious turn of phrase, don’t you think? As if to suggest that young people are not practitioners of interfaith work. Rather, all too often it seems that young people are some kind of tick-box exercise in participation.
Let me say this sincerely before I begin my argument, I am extremely grateful for the pioneering interfaith activists of the 1990s alongside those who stepped-up after 9/11. These leaders spoke out side-by-side when others did not want to listen. They laid deep foundations for the interfaith movement. But now, some years down the line, we are witnessing a gulf between the pioneering generation and the younger visionaries. Friends, I’m going to argue that the lack of age equity in the interfaith movement is an enormous problem and it is stopping us from growing. I share my reflections in the spirit of dialogue, but be warned: I’m angry and I’m upset and I’m exhausted. So this may not make for easy reading, but these are things which long need to be voiced. I implore readers from the older generations to read on with an open heart and an open mind.
Young people are the future
Younger readers, how many times have you been told by an elder in the movement that they’re so glad you’re there because you bring so much energy? Elders, how many times have you said this? Young people do bring energy, that’s undisputable, and I’m really glad if my participation in an event has a positive and lively effect. That’s great! But how many times have I been thanked for bringing my professional communication skills, my well-honed facilitation techniques, my logical thinking, or my strategic vision?
Zilch, nada, never.
Young people are not invited to interfaith events because they are highly skilled, or because they are creative and dynamic thinkers, or even because they offer a fresh perspective. So why are we there? Because young people are the future. This phrase is offered as some kind of glowing recognition, but if we examine it more closely, it is imbued with micro-aggressions suggesting that young people cannot be leaders now, that their voices are not as significant, that they must wait their turn to have any control or power. But who are the leaders of now and why does their age matter?
Who is a “young person”?
I have encountered numerous young people in the interfaith movement in their teens or early twenties who are remarkably talented at dialogue, or have exceptional skills in a variety of useful areas for developing small interfaith organisations. These are the young people who I’d like to see not simply as participants within interfaith work, but as leaders, helping to direct the movement’s strategic vision and be recognised as decision makers. I’m always excited to see teenagers and young adults involved, because many of the “young people” I work with are not really, well, young! I use myself as an example, having turned thirty last year. I’ve been involved in interfaith and intercultural work for seven years, and I also have a decade of experience working and volunteering in the third sector. On a personal level, I've reached my third decade, I have a mortgage, and I have a responsible and respected job. Yet in the interfaith world I am a “young person”. Friends, this needs to be called out for the problem that it is. I am already looking for my own successor for the youth-led interfaith work I’m engaged in, but while I’m working myself out of a job, where will I go? What role is there for someone in their mid-thirties in the interfaith movement; I’ll be “too young” to sit on leadership teams, but will have outgrown the youth movement.
It amazes me that few see the irony of the ample “youth leadership” programmes implemented by so many interfaith organisations. When the programme is complete, who will they lead? Are you going to make room for the inclusion of these young leaders in your organisation? One such programme I took part in recruited an incredible group of idealistic change-makers, whom I felt sure were about to change the world. Four years later and at least half actively sought opportunities in the private sector after becoming disillusioned with interfaith work and fewer still are still regularly engaged in this work.
Some may ask, if I don’t feel like a young person, then why put myself into that category? I didn’t; or at least I didn’t mean to. We have limited power over our own identities; they are relation and dependant on the perceptions of those around us. One of the aims of the organisation I co-founded, the European Network of Young Interfaith Leaders is to challenge “elder privilege” in the interfaith movement. We also formed as a “safe space” where young people can reach their full potential and have their voices fully heard. Yet I have been challenged on numerous occasions with statements such as, “Why do the young people have to go off by themselves? It’s such a shame when the young people separate”. The supposition is that young people have purposely chosen to self-segregate. There is no self-reflection as to why this happens. Friends, ask not why are they choosing to separate, but why do they feel the need to separate? In most cases, it is because the existing spaces are not inclusive. Worse still, many interfaith spaces actually marginalise young people’s voice.
The Ladder of Youth Voice
We hear a lot about ageism in society, often presuming that this boils down to prejudices against older people. Yet according to the European Social Survey 2008-9, young people are far more likely to feel that they have experienced age based prejudice than older people. In my own country, the UK, I’m proud to say that we have some of the lowest levels of prejudice against older people in Europe with less than 20% of people aged over 70 reporting prejudice. However, more than 60% of under 25s say that they have experienced age based prejudice, some of the highest rates in Europe.
If you or your interfaith group is interested in, has worked in the past, or is currently engaged in work with young people, I encourage you to study the Ladder of Youth Voice (see diagram below) as a vital tool. Where do you feel your current projects sit on this ladder?
2. Decoration: This is the thinking that “we must have young people there” but without asking why? What for? Younger readers, how many times have you had to sit quietly at the back, until a camera is pulled out and then suddenly you’re needed at the front?
3. Tokenism: “We’re inclusive, we have a youth rep on our leadership team,” is something I hear all too often. With respect, I don’t want to sit on your leadership team as a token gesture; I want to be there as an equal based on your recognition of my skills and abilities.
5. Youth consulted: At a recent conference, our team of young leaders was asked for their ideas, invited to be trainers and to join the planning team. I sacrificed my limited spare time as I saw this as a great opportunity to model age equity, writing a plan for dynamic, engaging training. Two weeks before the conference, an agenda was disseminated and none of my ideas were included. I was asked to lead an energizer.
If anyone can give me an example of an intergenerational interfaith group which has climbed beyond the fifth rung, I will be flabbergasted. But feel free to pleasantly surprise me!
Damaging the movement
OK, this post is all a bit of a moan (I did warn you!) and you probably won’t be surprised to know that I’m given the impression that I am a trouble-maker. But here is the crux of the matter; I’m only saying this because I care. I am incredibly passionate about the interfaith movement and its potential to positively affect society; if I wasn’t, I would have left the movement years ago, like so many other disillusioned and hurt young people. Friends, this “business as usual” approach, where new ideas are rejected and the creativity and vision of young people is marginalised, is damaging the interfaith movement. A frank period of deep self-reflection is well overdue. I wonder, why aren’t we asking, what could we as a whole community of interfaith activists, be doing better? Is the movement growing? What are the skills we need our leaders to demonstrate? How do we stay relevant and connect with twenty-first century audiences? Our movement was founded on principles of inclusion, working together, and seeing people beyond their labels. Where are these important principles when it comes to young people in the interfaith movement?
Charlotte Dando is a writer, leader and activist who is passionate about growing the interfaith movement. She is a co-founder of the European Network of Young Interfaith Leaders. Follow Charlotte on Twitter: @CharlotteDando @Act_Interfaith
See Charlotte's Interfaith Ramadan article: Are You Open To New Light? from 2014