A Discussion with Charlotte Dando, William Temple Foundation

With: Charlotte Dando

August 31, 2016

Background: As part of the International Higher Education Interfaith Leadership Forum, in August 2016 Sara Singha conducted an interview with Charlotte Dando, who is an assistant director at the William Temple Foundation. Dando discussed the importance of interfaith work that includes young people, particularly creating opportunities for leadership and action outside established organizations.
Please tell us about your current work/role, and in what capacity it influences/incorporates interfaith efforts?

I’m actually not working directly in interfaith work right now. I work for the United Kingdom’s feminist political party, but I also work one day each week for the William Temple Foundation, a research hub which looks at the role of religion in public life. Prior to that, I played an active role for six or seven years in the interfaith movement. I was working for a few different organizations and did various things, including research, writing, and running training and facilitation in high schools and informal education settings. With Three Faiths Forum (3FF), I facilitated a great program called “Encountering Faiths and Beliefs” where there was a panel of people from different faith backgrounds, and the high school students could ask them any questions they wanted. I also wrote a book chapter for the Dialogue Society, a U.K. interfaith organization, and started an organization—which has sadly now stalled because of lack of funding—called the European Network of Young Interfaith Leaders, or Active Interfaith. The idea was to work as a peer network for younger people involved in the interfaith community to share best practices and support each other as activists. It included elements of challenging “elderism” in the interfaith movement. A lot of the young people who we worked with were really skilled, but they weren’t given the space within the structures of interfaith organizations to develop as leaders or have their new ideas taken on board.

Can you share a story about your personal background to illustrate how it inspired you to engage in interfaith service efforts?

I first got involved in interfaith when I started my undergraduate degree, around the age of 23 years old. I studied religion in the contemporary world, and at that time I didn’t really know where my personal faith was at, but I was exploring it simultaneously. I was studying a lot about Islam, especially British Islam, and realized that the more I understood, the less threatening and scary it was. I wasn’t really engaged in the Catholic faith of my childhood, and after a lot of searching eventually I joined the Quakers. The thing that has always kept me going is that interfaith work gave me opportunities to develop close friendships with people who are very different from me, at least on paper. One of my best friends is a Muslim woman, and there have been certain points where we have total disagreements, and we have to agree that we respect each other and love each other even if we don’t agree. I’ve never had that before, and it’s one of the most powerful things. I don’t really like small talk, and I like that in interfaith work you cut straight to the real, deeper topics, and you are able to have important conversations a lot more freely.

In your opinion, what is some of the most important work that is being done in terms of interreligious studies or efforts?

I think the most important work that is being done is often the work with young people. But sometimes I find that it is quite limiting, because there are a lot of interfaith leadership programs for young people, and they give them ambition, but then there’s nowhere for them to go. So we need to focus on the emerging generations. Some interfaith organizations do them an injustice by not providing young people a place to go and be leaders. Also, something that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is that with the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, a lot of the reason to leave was based on immigration, and if you look at the statistics, it was predominantly the older generations voting to leave, whilst younger people wanted to stay in the EU. I think something that we’re missing is more intergenerational work with interfaith and intercultural settings. So perhaps we should focus on the older generations, especially in the old English countryside, who don’t actually know anyone who is different from them.

To what extent should higher education institutions play an active role in interfaith service work and projects?

I think they definitely need to play a role: your university years tend to be when you become political, when you work out who you are and where you fit into the world. It’s important to see that you fit amongst differences, and that it’s okay that there are people who are different from you, and that it makes life interesting rather than being scary—it’s a pivotal stage in most people’s life. We need more work in that stage. I think there is a lot more happening in the United States. When I was at King’s College, London, we tried to start an interfaith network, and there was just a lot of apathy, and there wasn’t really much appetite for it. I don’t know if we were trying the wrong things, but religion in the United Kingdom is deemed to be very private. It is quite a difficult thing to get people to talk about. There definitely needs to be more innovation around that area. A lot of different organizations have tried to go into the university level in the United Kingdom, but I haven’t seen any of them as particularly successful.

The whole university experience here is different compared to the United States; we don’t put as much of an emphasis on extracurricular college life. I’d like to see more people try that.

But it’s not the only place that this needs to happen. In general, the people that go to university are going to be more educated and more likely to have to interact with those who are different from them. So if interfaith efforts only focus on people at the university level, then we are missing a huge group of young people who in theory actually need this kind of education more than university students.

What kinds of support have you receivedfrom your government, friends and family, institutions, organizationsin pursuing interfaith service-related work? What have been your greatest challenges?

In terms of funding, there’s about eight of us across Europe initially brought together by United Religions Initiative (URI), and we had all gone through interfaith youth programs. We tried to formalize and have people from the wider Europe network come together, and this was mostly initially funded by URI. We put in more funding applications but were not successful. In the United Kingdom, funding is very specific, and money tends to go to established, tried-and-tested, dialogue-based, “old school” organizations.

We were trying to be entirely inclusive of all faiths—we had pagans, agnostics, etc., so then you are framing it differently, and that is a challenge. It’s not just Abrahamic faiths. I also think we are missing something if we aren’t inviting non-religious people to our gatherings; some tensions tend to be more acute between religious and non-religious people, rather than between the different faiths.

Another challenge, which I have mentioned, is to be taken seriously as a young person. I don’t consider myself a young person anymore, but somehow in the interfaith movement my voice was not as important as the elder voices and the clergy voices. It saddened me that I’ve seen numerous young people with great ideas and talents turned away and put off because of this idea that there is a certain way we have to do things, the way it has always been done. But there are glimmers of hope. Coexister in France, for example, is a breath of fresh air. Before we started Active Interfaith we didn’t want to have to be a separate youth movement; we wanted to work with everyone. But I couldn’t create any traction in the wider movement. That, to me, was devastating. There are numerous young people who feel passionate about this work, but their experiences in trying to be taken seriously by some elders have been extremely frustrating, and we are losing brilliant people as a result.

What are some best practices you have seen or heard of for interfaith work that you would like to share with others in your field?

Inclusivity is important. Inclusivity of faiths and traditions, and also of age. That side of interfaith is extremely important, to realize that interfaith is not just limited to Abrahamic faiths. It is nice when people are dynamic and do something different. There are organizations that promote the idea of working together and developing true friendships, in contrast to many interfaith events I’ve been to, featuring panels of the same old faces who offer dry speeches, and then go back to their lives and don’t see each other for another six months. The idea of living together, and working together—that’s important.

What do you enjoy most about interfaith work?

People. When you see young people and children having light bulb moments, that’s really special and makes all of this worth it.

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