Getting a taste of political life, young people on a British interfaith program are discovering that the key facets of good leadership come from finding common ground.
Forty-five students spanning a wide range of faiths and non-religious beliefs recently graduated from the annual ParliaMentors program run by the British-based Three Faiths Forum (3FF), with the aim of developing a new generation of leaders.
The program brings together a group of carefully selected university students, to work in trios, on social action and empowerment projects on both local and national scales. Members of Parliament and Peers from across the political spectrum mentor the program participants, providing them with insights into politics through debates, committee meetings and networking with policymakers.
The program was founded by 3FF's Policy Public Affairs Manager Daniella Shaw-Gabay in 2007, and its first year was attended by Labor MK Stav Shaffir, who catapulted into the public eye as one of Israel's social justice movement leaders in the summer of 2011, and who in 2013 became the country's youngest ever lawmaker at the age of 27.
Several of the program’s latest graduates discussed their experiences with The Jerusalem Post.
The program demonstrates the importance of bringing people of difference faiths together, in any context, says Jewish participant Mark Robins. “Having grown up in what is commonly referred to as the ‘Jewish bubble’, attending a Jewish secondary school, and so-called ‘Jew-niversity’ in the form of the University of Birmingham, programs such as ParliaMentors and a previous program that I have participated in, the Campus Ambassador Program of the Coexistence Trust, offer someone like myself the opportunity to form lasting friendships with like-minded people of different faiths and backgrounds,” Robins tells the Post. He explains that the program enables people of different backgrounds to work toward a common goal and create something positive together.
Moreover, he adds, “with its heavy focus on social action, this program also goes beyond other interfaith groups where a lot of constructive words are spoken but no concrete actions are taken. Our event is a testament to the ParliaMentors programs emphasis on the need for social action.”
Robins worked together with a Methodist Christian and a humanist to organize an event at the University of Birmingham focusing on the issue of refugees and asylum seekers. This included a roundtable discussion by experts and talks by charity figure Shari Brown, an ex-Ugandan army officer who had himself experienced the process of seeking asylum in Birmingham and student refugee groups at the university.
Robins opines that if there were more programs of this kind between Israelis and Arabs, ”it would not only give these groups an opportunity to correct any misconceptions and challenge their own prejudices of the ‘other’, but would see them working together with a shared purpose, for the betterment of society, ‘side by side’ as opposed to ‘face to face.’”
Muslim participant Faraan Sayed expresses a similar sentiment, saying that the opportunities presented by ParliaMentors are rare, providing young people - at an age where they are engaged in academic debate - the chance to come together and talk openly about faith through constructive dialogue.
"The discussions prove that we all have so many questions we are afraid to ask about different faiths in fear of being misunderstood. In an age where religious tension still exists and is increasing (in parts of the world), this dialogue breaks down fear, prejudice and stereotypes giving young people a chance to understand the faiths of those around them," Sayed asserts. "By carrying out successful social action projects we wanted to show that faith is not a barrier to progress, and that every faith in fact promotes the same fundamental truths. When we learn that difference should not create divide, we can together create positive change."
Further than that, Sayed says that as well as learning about new faiths, he was able to help other people understand his belief in Islam, and why people have different interpretations of the religion.
Sayed was partnered with a secular Jew and a Taoist. The three created music and art workshops for elderly residents of a local care home for dementia sufferers. "This is because social care is losing a lot of money due to government cuts," he explains.
The team was mentored by MP Zac Goldsmith (Conservative) - who focusing on environmental issues during their sessions - met with them in parliament and took them with him on a day of campaigning. Team member Hanna Gynnerstedt describes the mentor experience as an incredible opportunity to learn what is going on "behind the scenes" in British politics and to understand how to bring about social change.
"For societies as diverse as the UK, programs that appreciate diversity and encourage young people to meet and learn about social action projects and politics are important for a future of people living together in peace and dialogue," she adds.
'My first close Jewish friend'
Isobel Obeng-Dokyi, a secular participant with a Christian background - working together with a Jewish student and a born-again Christian - recounts the difficulties her group faced while working on their project, which aimed to connect bright, young people in Bristol with the city's thriving media industries.
"Initially, differences in opinion made us quite weary of each other but eventually - through working so closely together - we’ve become great friends. I find both Nic and Coralie inspirational in their outlook on life, their academic ability and their contribution to this project," she tells the Post.
"Nic is also the first close Jewish friend I’ve had," Obeng-Dokyi notes.
Liberal Democrat MP Stephen Williams mentored this trio, meeting them in his Bristol constituency and at Westminster, providing an insight into daily activities and parliamentary business.
"Personally, I learned the importance of staying true to your own beliefs when entering politics," Obeng-Dokyi reflects. "Stephen comes from a fairly non-traditional background for an MP and he is also openly gay. It was fantastic to learn about the journey he has made and continues to make through politics."
After she completes her degree in politics, Obeng-Dokyi hopes to pursue a career in media and to travel to the Middle East and North Africa. Robins is also set to travel, keen to explore cultures and faiths on the other side of the world, in South East Asia. Meanwhile, Sayed has his sights set on a career in international relations and humanitarian work, and Gynnerstedt is heading back to her country of origin, Sweden, for an internship at the United Nations Association’s (UNA) office in Stockholm. "It will be a few exciting months where I will get the chance to implement my project management skills in an organization that works nationally and locally to engage people in global political issues," she says. "Hopefully it will lead me into an exciting future where I can help strengthen the role for young people in politics and a career in international politics."
As ParliaMentors director Shaw-Gabay says, "It’s all about the future rather than what happens on the program."