What does “WIIFM” have to do with fostering interfaith and multicultural understanding? This is a question I asked myself when a public relations consultant volunteered to advise the Steering Committee of the Sharon Pluralism Network (SPN). “WIIFM,” or “What’s in it for me?” refers to the idea that people take interest in activities when they believe that paying attention leads to something of value for them.
Two years ago the SPN was created to bring Sharon’s leadership organizations together to support religious, ethnic and cultural pluralism. Its inspiration and direction comes partly from Interfaith Action, Inc., a youth leadership organization started in response to anti-Semitic incidents in town. If you are Jewish, you might know Sharon for its relatively large and diverse Jewish population. What is not widely known is that Sharon also is home to a mosque and a growing Indian Hindu population, as well as several Christian churches and residents who are not affiliated with an organized religion. In addition, Sharon has expanding Chinese and Russian communities. It has been referred to as an “ethnoburb,” or multicultural suburb, a concept of growing interest as immigration patterns change in the United States.
Sharon’s religious and ethnic diversity reflects the impact of globalization on a local level. Increasingly, we live side-by-side with people who are different from ourselves, but as it turns out, we aren’t so good at meeting our neighbors when we see them as unlike us. Robert Putnam, a political scientist and Harvard professor, has written extensively about diversity and the benefits for individuals and society when people can work with their neighbors to invest in their communities. However, in a recent nationwide study in the United States (published in Scandinavian Political Studies, vol. 30, 2007), he found that residents of ethnically diverse communities reported being more isolated and less trusting than residents of homogenous communities. During a radio interview, I heard him express concerns that these findings would be interpreted to suggest that people are better off if they remain separate. He stressed that communities need to actively work to create the “sense of shared citizenship” associated with healthier communities, and that working on the local level is an effective way to build bridges among divergent groups. In other words, people need help to understand their differences, so they do not develop misconceptions and fears that lead to further divisiveness and isolation. Religious, ethnic and cultural differences among people can be a source of personal and civic enrichment and vitality when fostered in the context of openness and understanding.
Not surprisingly, I am frequently met with blank stares when I tell people I am the coordinator of a “pluralism network.” The SPN faces several challenges, and as a first step, we have needed to get the word out about the value of pluralism. It is an unfamiliar concept to many people and it differs in important ways from the older idea of our country as “a great melting pot.” Pluralism encompasses the process of engaging with and understanding others who are different, while maintaining one’s sense of identity and belonging to one’s own group.
Our consultant helped us understand that we need to provide opportunities for people to engage in positive experiences of pluralism, to come together to learn about each other in interesting, fun and non-threatening ways. As he would say, “the experience is the product.” We decided to start with a medium that holds universal appeal, popular movies. We selected a theme that is relevant across cultures, the struggle between traditional family values and modern society. Through informal discussions and reaching out to members of the various communities, we selected four movies to be shown on separate Sunday evenings. Each featured different ethnic or religious groups in Sharon: Together, about a Chinese child musical prodigy and the complex relationships among people in different social strata; Crossing Delancey, about relationships among first and second generation Jewish immigrants; East-West, a French-produced film about a family who returns to Russia under Stalin; and Mr. and Mrs. Iyer, about Hindu and Muslim relations in India. Through contacts with a local rabbi and a member of the Chinese community, we engaged three professors from Brandeis University and one from UMass Boston to discuss the historical and cultural contexts of the movies prior to the viewings. Local community members also spoke about their personal experiences to relate the films to everyday life. A sampling of foods, prepared by local residents and restaurants, provided a gastronomic taste of the featured groups.
The series was very well-received in Sharon and brought capacity crowds to the public library. Animated discussions followed the films and members of the audience from different backgrounds shared similar experiences, sometimes in unexpected ways. For example, when a local resident spoke about her experiences growing up in Stalinist Russia, a member of the audience from Greece related similar feelings growing up during the 1960s Greek military junta. Even when the topic of the film could be quite serious, the food made the evening more festive and helped engage participants in conversations. They were eager to learn the cultural and religious meanings of the dishes, and asked for recipes. We all learned that many cultures have similar dishes, for example, savory pastries come in the form of Chinese dumplings, Jewish knishes, Indian samosas, and Russian vatrushki.
On reflection, the film series was an excellent way to build new connections among diverse community members. Contacts developed in selecting films, coordinating speakers, preparing the foods, and during the evening viewings and discussions. Many attendees asked for another series. In the future, we hope to draw more diverse audiences to the films, since people were more likely to attend the film about their own culture. We have learned that much of the work of bringing people together is about developing personal connections among people across groups, who then can reach out to additional members of their communities.