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Interfaith Social Action group fosters cooperative efforts on the Hill

Published: Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Updated: Tuesday, March 13, 2012 08:03

Interfaith Social Action group

Courtesy Megan Berkowitz

The Interfaith Social Action group received official recognition from the TCU Senate last semester.

A student group is taking Tufts’ commitment to active citizenship and diversity and combining them with a religious spin. The Interfaith Social Action group (ISA), which was officially recognized as a Tufts Community Union group last semester, is made up of students committed to social action through their religious beliefs.

“The goal of Interfaith Social Action is to bring people of various faiths together for the shared purpose of social action because they are motivated by their faiths to do so,” sophomore Jordan Dashow, ISA’s team coordinator, said.

“The thought is that community service is a central belief in most of the major religions, and so the idea of our group is that you can foster interfaith dialogue and general dialogue about issues on campus by inspiring people through their faith to do work,” sophomore Megan Berkowitz, ISA’s external outreach coordinator, said. “We don’t require that people have faith to be a part of it, but the idea is that it’s a motivating factor for a lot of people.”

Rachael Pettengill, the Protestant chaplain at Tufts, proposed the idea of ISA last year.

“One of the things that I wanted to do was to form an interfaith group around social justice issues, and I began to meet with a lot of students interested in doing justice work through their faith,” she said.

Pettengill explained that she was more involved with the group last year, but has since stepped back as the organization has found its legs.

“Right now, I’m just serving as their advisor,” she said. “When I first came in, I was interested in bringing the group together. I used to attend a lot of the meetings, and taught them leadership skills like how to network, how to have one−on−ones, how to plan campaigns, etc., and they really began to catch on. I’ve started to step back and empower them to own the group, and I’ve been really impressed with the work they have been doing.”

The ISA members’ diverse religious backgrounds lead to a variety of reasons for participation.

“Coming from a strong Jewish background, the importance of ‘tikkun olam,’ which literally means ‘repairing the world,’ has always been stressed to me from an early age,” Dashow said. “Social justice was emphasized both by my parents and my Jewish day school, and was part of what attracted me to Tufts. I see ISA as combining my passion for active citizenship and my passion for Judaism.”

Berkowitz explained that her background has also been a driving force in regard to her passion for social justice work.

“I come from an interfaith family, and so coming from that kind of background, it was always kind of a no−brainer to me that people of different faiths could get along and talk about their beliefs and morals,” Berkowitz said. “When I came to Tufts and had some experience with the religious organizations on campus, I noticed that people got so wrapped up in their own group and didn’t always reach out to other groups. I think that there’s a lot that people can learn from other religions and people of other religions, and the idea that people can do great work while fostering connections with people of other religions was really important to me.”

Sophomore Megan Clark, the ISA’s internal outreach coordinator, joined the group because of her commitment to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights, the ISA’s area of concentration this year.

“I really like the idea of action motivated by faith, and initially, what attracted me was specifically the LGBT rights focus, because I particularly care about LGBT rights because of my faith,” she said. “Often faith, especially if you are a Christian, is perceived to work against LGBT rights, and I wanted to work for them.”

Each year, ISA plans to focus on one social justice theme, and this year, the group found that it was most passionate about LGBT rights.

“Basically, every year we choose a social justice theme, and we start each semester off with an education panel to educate and motivate Tufts students to take action,” Dashow said. “From there, we work with organizations in the greater Boston area to do service. At the end of last year, we brainstormed a lot of different topics, and one that we had the most members excited about was LGBT rights.”

Last semester, ISA decided to focus more specifically on transgender rights.

“We had an education panel in October that explored the current state of trans rights in the state and the country, as well as the intersection of gender identity and spirituality,” Dashow said.

“We had three panelists who identified as transgender or genderqueer, and two cisgender panelists who spoke as allies to the trans community,” Berkowitz said. “After the panel, we went to MassEquality, an organization that advocates for the rights of queer and trans people, and did some phone banking with them before the Transgender Equal Rights Bill was slated to come before the legislation.”

The group also attended the Transgender Day of Remembrance in Boston last November.

Although ISA is not motivated by politics, Clark said, they are seeking to make real change.

“We’re not a political group by any means,” she said. “We have the education component, the service project component, and since we would like to effect real change, we did go through a political angle for transgender rights.”

This semester, continuing their commitment to LGBT issues, ISA is focusing on homelessness among queer youth. According to the Center for American Progress, while only about five to 10 percent of the overall youth population is gay or transgender, they account for an estimated 20 to 40 percent of the homeless youth population.

“April is our month of action, and we are going to kick it off with an education panel about homelessness among queer youth,” Dashow said. “From there we are gong to be doing several community service activities with organizations that specifically work with queer youth, and some kinds of mentoring or general outreach with queer youth.”

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