by Evana Upshaw, ICJS Communications Associate

ICJS fellowships make space for justice leaders, congregational leaders, and educators to learn interreligiously. But at ICJS, we want interreligious practitioners to take what they have learned beyond the classroom and apply an interreligious perspective to their work in and around Baltimore.

This past year, with the support of the T. Rowe Price Foundation, ICJS launched a Capacity-Building Grant program for alumni of the ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship to inspire, incentivize, and equip these nonprofit and community leaders to create a new interreligious initiative within their sphere of influence. 

ICJS offered four $2,200 Capacity Building Grants to Justice Leaders Fellowship (JLF) alumni who had an initiative that integrated their expanded understanding and interest in crossing religious barriers in service of the common good: Kathleen St. Viller Hill, Ayman Nassar, Farah Shakour-Bridges, and Micky Wolf. These grants expanded the capacity of participants to take the risk to initiate their idea, and a few weeks ago the recipients presented their final projects to ICJS and other justice leaders.

Justice is not “Just Us”

Kathleen St. Viller Hill is a 2017 JLF alumnus and the executive director of the Elijah Cummings Youth Program in Israel (ECYP). This youth leadership development program was founded by the late Maryland congressman and civil rights activist, Elijah Cummings, and seeks to honor the relationship between him and the Jewish community in Baltimore.

Kathleen’s project furthered the work she has already done with a youth-led podcast called, “Justice is Not Just Us,” which aims to facilitate conversations with young people about how they experience their intersecting identities. She said, “The goal of our project and our social justice team fellowship was to bring together diverse teams with multiple identities with the main focus on race and religion to discuss, build and organize around social justice.” 

The young people explored race, religion, nationality, and gender, among other identities, and Kathleen noted that they wanted to focus on young people within Maryland’s 7th district—the district Rep. Cummings served. 

In her presentation, she played clips of the young people’s reflections on their intersecting identities and noted the importance of partnerships in her line of work. The ECYP is closely affiliated with the Baltimore Jewish Council, and other key partnerships in the building of the podcast were Aaron Henkin of WYPR and the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

A youth-oriented podcast

Ayman Nassar is a 2021 JLF alumnus and the president of the Islamic Leadership Institute of America (ILIA), which is a youth development organization in Baltimore. ILIA trains Muslim youth in skills like project management, where they learn planning, organizing, and entrepreneurship. Ayman said that the youth in the organization already do community service projects like food drives, but when the youth heard about the grant, they decided they wanted to start a podcast and invite other young people from different faiths on to discuss religion. 

With some guidance from leadership, the group focused on the topic of social justice within and between different faiths. Ayman said that the project had three main components: to empower young people, to build some interfaith collaboration, and to build capacity. He emphasized the key role that servant leadership plays in Islam and the importance of taking responsibility. 

“The Prophet, peace be upon him, said as a prophetic statement in one of his hadiths, ‘All of you are shepherds and all of you are responsible for your flocks,’” he said. “The statement goes on to talk about the father in his household, the mother, the child, the employer, the employee, and so forth. Everyone is responsible.”  

The mentors helped the youth understand the idea of social justice, and that became the topic of their first episode. The podcast’s second episode was about food security since the youth were familiar with the idea due to their involvement in ILIA’s food drives.

Creating an interreligious quilt

Farah Shakour-Bridges is a 2021 JLF alumnus and founder of 4B4 Education, Inc., a non-profit that uses educational experiences to promote unity within and between communities and families. With the grant, Farah created the “Peace and Justice Unity Quilt and Conversations Project.” 

Through this project, which was grounded in the unique perspectives of communities that have been targets of hate-based crimes and historical injustice, 4B4 Education Inc. sought to build community by bringing together Muslim, Christian, and Jewish youth, adults, and families to conduct a series of intergenerational conversations, she said. 

“Examining themes around peace and discord and justice and injustice, the project culminated in the construction of the Peace and Justice Unity Quilt, that reflects our individual and collective vision for a more peaceful and just future,” she said.

The quilt project brought together Christian leaders from Mount Moriah Baptist Church, Jewish leaders from Hill Havurah, and Muslim leaders from Masjid Muhammad, all located in Washington, D.C. Farah said the participants rotated between the three locations throughout the following months of the project, each session facilitated by practitioners of the three faiths. During sessions, they held trauma-informed discussions about social justice, and “then we also went into another trauma-informed approach, which is the creative process of quilt making,” she said.

“We rotated locations to create a healthy sense of discomfort,” she said. “When you walk into another religious house, you can feel a little disoriented. That was intentional. We wanted all of us to feel a little disoriented so that we could get to know each other better.”

The completed quilt will take turns living at each place of worship, and will eventually be deconstructed so that each person can have a piece. Participants will also be given a museum plaque “to hang in their homes as a remembrance of this activity and to remember to be in solidarity,” Farah said.

A retreat to reflect on spiritual journeys

Micky Wolf is a 2021 JLF alumnus and CEO of Dent Education, and the co-founder of Co-Creation C_, or the CCC. The CCC works with young adults in their early twenties. “We focus on weaving a social fabric that’s rooted in transformative relationships, co-creative joy, and imaginative justice, and a social fabric that is values-based, inter-religious, and includes those who are not religious as well,” he said.

With the grant money, the CCC put on a six-day retreat over New Year’s that placed emphasis on intentions going into 2023. People came in from all over the country, and there was free-flowing time for reflection. “Part of the retreat was actually having the time and space for people to reflect on their personal and spiritual background and values, and then discuss those with one another. It was inspired in many ways by the type of things that we do with ICJS.” Micky said. They used ICJS’s Sacred Rules for Debate vs. Dialogue in their discussions.

A question that the retreat participants wrestled with was, “What are the spiritual practices that you hope to deepen, continue, or start, in your year ahead? And what’s one small step that you can take to begin that journey?” 

During his presentation, Micky played clips of some of the participants’ reflections. One mentioned how discussions about religion are taboo in day-to-day life, so they were grateful to have that space to discuss interreligious topics. At the retreat, participants created a group artwork project, and at the end of the experience, each person cut out a piece to gift to another person that they connected with during the retreat. 

Fatimah Fanusie, ICJS program director for the Justice Leaders Fellowship, said it is clear that each of the grants achieved significant results.

“We have been impressed with the positive impact our Justice Leader Fellows have had in their communities, and we see the potential for much more,” she said. “These grants will act as a catalyst in building an interreligious community that will work for justice and access to opportunity for all.”