United by their differences
Diversity group personifies many faiths, cultures
SHARON - As a child, Rahul Polu wasn’t sure how to be both Indian and American. He lived in a small town in Texas. His parents sensed his discomfort, and he sensed something similar in them; the other youngsters’ mothers, it seemed, never had much to say to his.
They moved to Massachusetts when Polu was still in elementary school. They had family here, but the move didn’t change the fact that he was one of only a few Hindu students in school. If the subject came up, his classmates would ask questions like “So you worship cows?’’ or “Your God is an elephant?’’
Now 16 and a junior at Sharon High School, Polu has finally found understanding among his peers. The breakthrough came not just with maturity but also through a group called Sharon Youth LEAD, for “leaders engaging across differences.’’
Friends persuaded him to join the group as a freshman. He started to talk more about himself, but he was learning at the same time. In Texas, Polu had never heard of Judaism. In the group, he learned about other faiths, and also about his own, as other Hindu students talked about practices unfamiliar to him.
Polu and other Youth LEAD students, with guidance from program staff, now host twice-monthly discussions, plan and run an annual conference on religious diversity with Northeastern University, and give workshops for elementary-school students. Members have the option to receive extensive training on group facilitation, and they host other special events throughout the year.
This afternoon from 1 to 3, some of them will speak in Boston and facilitate dialogue as part of a panel on religious diversity hosted by the Mary Baker Eddy Library.
The youth group’s roots lie in faith diversity. Founded in the late 1990s as Interfaith Action, the group changed its name last spring to reflect students’ interest in talking about other differences - things like ethnicity, culture, race, gender, sexuality, and class.
“One of the best meetings the kids said they had last year was about class differences,’’ said Janet Penn, the group’s founder and executive director.
Penn and her staff have begun expanding their reach by working with the Hockomock Area YMCA to contribute new elements to the Y’s existing youth leadership programs, focusing on youth-led community service projects and connecting youth from different backgrounds.
When the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks happened, most of today’s Youth LEAD members were no more than 7 years old. Jillian Bunis, a junior, was in first grade. She said meeting Muslim students in the youth group helped her become more comfortable with a religion that sometimes has been demonized since the attacks.
“I got to interact with Muslims as friends, not strangers,’’ Bunis said.
She participated in a group activity called “I Am,’’ in which students write all the stereotypes they can think of on large sheets of paper at the front of the room, one paper for each group, to stimulate discussion. Seeing the notions written down makes them look ridiculous, she said.
Asked about her view of Muslims before joining Youth LEAD, Bunis said, “I can’t say that I held any of those stereotypes on the board, but I wasn’t comfortable with them. I just felt more comfortable with other Jews. I didn’t have to explain anything.’’
Students do plenty of explaining in their monthly meetings, and by talking at length with their peers, they develop friendships that might otherwise have been unlikely.
Many of their meetings are held in houses of worship. When they visited a mosque and learned about some of the practices followed there - women covering their hair, men and women praying separately - Bunis saw similarities to Judaism.
Like Bunis, Patrick Jones, a senior, wasn’t very comfortable with Islam before he joined the group. He attended Sharon’s alternative education program in his younger years, and recalls it not being very diverse.
“I kind of came to incorrect conclusions about some people,’’ he said, but the youth group “really exposes the illegitimacy’’ of those preconceived ideas.
Jones, who grew up with Catholic parents but describes himself as “not very religious at all,’’ said he developed a skewed perspective on Muslims through media portrayals of them after 9/11. But in the group, he was able to connect with students of different backgrounds, spend time with them, and get to know them as individuals.
Students gain confidence, too; Jones now feels more comfortable speaking in public, while Bunis feels more motivated to do well in school.
Another student, junior Amal Cheema, remembers how upset she felt during the 2008 presidential election, when some Americans claimed Barack Obama was Muslim and therefore not worthy of their vote for president. How, she wondered, could people devalue someone solely on the basis of religion - and, specifically, her religion?
Cheema decided to join Youth LEAD after attending the group’s Sacred Seasons dinner, a fall celebration of peace and multiculturalism in Sharon. Students were serving the food and starting discussions. She knew she had to be a part of it.
“I realized that you didn’t have to be some prodigy to do something important,’’ she said.
The group was founded in response to a spate of hate incidents in Sharon, including vandalism of synagogues and mailings sent to residents. Clergy and other members of the community rallied with help from the Anti-Defamation League, and ADL seed money got Interfaith Action off the ground. Youth LEAD has since become a nonprofit organization.
Penn said that while it’s important to examine the past, the group tends to look forward and ask the question “What now?’’
“We don’t have to be polarized,’’ she said. “It doesn’t have to be a clash of civilizations.’’
She said she hopes students take away a sense of self-assurance about their beliefs, the ability to communicate those beliefs respectfully, and the skills to put thought into action.
Jennette Barnes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.