For the past seven years, teenagers from different faith backgrounds in the community of Sharon, Massachusetts have been engaging in dialogue and public service. Formerly known as Interfaith Action, Youth LEAD was initially a formed out of a program sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League to foster dialogue in a religiously diverse small town setting. Historically a Jewish community, Sharon is now home to sizable Christian, Muslim and Hindu populations with eight synagogues, eight churches, and an Islamic Center.
Youth LEAD’s mission is to inspire and mobilize youth leaders to reflect upon their values and beliefs, connect with others across differences, and act together to address local and global challenges. With the motto of “reflection, connection, action,” the members of Youth LEAD are trained to first reflect on their own beliefs, before connecting with those who hold different beliefs, in order to act upon those differences and similarities for the benefit of the community.
What has made Youth LEAD’s approach to interfaith work so unique has been their commitment to authentic youth leadership. Youth LEAD is driven by the vision and actions of its high school leaders, with staff leadership offering organizational support. According to Jason Smith, former Youth Program director at Youth LEAD, “One of the most important things…that we’ve been doing is that people can articulate who I am and this is what I believe. And they’re comfortable doing that, both interpersonally and in larger settings, so that in college, they’ll speak up more, they’ll take leadership roles, and they’re comfortable asking other people to communicate and facilitate those conversations.”
Students involved instantly notice the impact. “I’ve always had a diverse of group of friends but we never talked about the important issues. We’d have a very diverse lunch table, but we’d be talking about a sale that’s going on at the mall,” explains Hadley Chase, Class of 2011. “And after I joined Youth LEAD, we started talking about the important conversations.” With this approach, Avni Kacker, Class of 2012, agrees that the program has helped her resolve conflicts in the community. “A lot of the issues lie within communication. Youth LEAD helps you to be able to communicate effectively.”
The success and popularity of Youth LEAD’s interfaith work has led the organization to expand from interfaith work to broader issues of identity. “It’s less a religious literacy program now than it was in the beginning, and its more about the interpersonal: ‘This is what I believe, this is what I experience, this is my world,’” explains Janet Penn, Executive Director of Youth LEAD.
Other major programs include the annual TIDE (Teenage Identity Diversity Education) conference, which is planned and run by Youth LEAD’s students for their peers across the country. Because of the students’ commitment to TIDE, and its measureable impact on the students, it has been called Youth LEAD’s most important program. Youth LEAD’s popular training workshops, honed over the years in the local community, are a core curriculum at TIDE, and are also exported to other communities across the United States throughout the year.
Youth LEAD is now starting the Communities Initiative (YLCI). The purpose of the YLCI is to create opportunities for high school youth across the United States to engage in deep, sustained equal status contact with youth from different religious and ethnic communities and develop the capacity to act together to strengthen the fabric of our democratic society.
The multi-year partnerships includes convening community members, assessing barriers to pluralism in the community, training, ongoing consultation, mentor development, TIDE, and taking part in a longitudinal evaluation of outcomes. The training gives teens important 21st century skills, including how to communicate respectfully when people are unlikely to agree; facilitate conversations that allow participants to see a human being behind a position; and organize diverse groups to celebrate together and address the challenges facing their communities. Adults receive training to mentor youth without controlling the outcome, allowing the youth to fully utilize their skills.
“I hope young people ultimately have lots of opportunities to engage deeply across differences, but then to actually do something meaningful,” says Penn. ”Then they’ll take those skills and…create some positive change in the world.”