During the Nissan Foundation's 30th anniversary year, we'll be profiling some of the Foundation's many grantees working to promote the value of our differences. Here we spotlight the InterFaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit. #NissanFoundation30
In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a group of clergy and lay people in Southeast Michigan came together in solidarity to plan a joint prayer service. This meeting of faith leaders formed the beginnings of what would become the InterFaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit (IFLC), a three-time Nissan Foundation grantee.
"The IFLC sees itself as a connector of connecting organizations," says Wendy Miller Gamer, IFLC Program Director. "We provide a way to bring together both people of faith and faith communities as well as people who may not have a faith but who see a value in faith community organizing."
Over the past 20 years, thousands of school children across Southeast Michigan have benefited from the IFLC's flagship interfaith and cultural literacy program known as Religious Diversity Journeys (RDJ). In 2020 alone, approximately 800 junior high students participated in the program, which took them on a series of field trips to learn firsthand about the specific culture, practices and beliefs of different faiths. As part of the program, students visit a Hindu temple and a Sikh gurdwara as well as Christian, Muslim and Jewish houses of worship. Additional field trips take them either to the Detroit Institute of Arts to explore how faith is represented in art or to the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, Mich.
RDJ students enjoy lunch at a Metro Detroit synagogue
"We give kids the opportunity to learn about people perceived as 'other' in an effort to lower that barrier of 'otherness' so we can know each other's stories from our own perspectives – not from a textbook," Miller Gamer explains.
During RDJ field trips, students rotate through various activities and engage in a Q&A session with clergy and other leadership of that faith community, and a highlight of the day is always lunch.
"The food served is always culturally connected to the specific community where we are," Miller Gamer notes. "The meal serves as a really important teaching moment."
As an example, when students visit a mosque, they may eat food that is traditionally considered Middle Eastern. At a synagogue, they may meet eat pizza from a kosher restaurant. At a Sikh gurdwara, students may experience sitting on the floor and being served vegetarian Indian food.
A RDJ student dons a turban at a Sikh gurdwara.
"In addition, we intentionally put students in groups to create diverse communities within each cohort," Miller Gamers says. "We talk to the kids about how important it is to talk to each other and with each other during that down time. They may not realize it, but the experience is 100% curriculum-based!"
For the past three years, the Nissan Foundation has awarded the IFLC a grant to support its RDJ program. When programming had to be moved online in the spring of 2020, the Nissan Foundation grant helped the IFLC adapt its curriculum to an online format.
"Schools pay about $120 per student for the program's six field trips including lunch," Miller Gamer says. "That's less than $20 a field trip. Even so, this cost can be a full-stop barrier for a lot of our partner schools. We never want tuition to be a barrier to participation. That's where we turn to our foundational partners."
Over its 30-year history, the Nissan Foundation has awarded approximately $13 million to more than 150 organizations offering educational programs that bring diverse cultural perspectives, experiences and voices to communities across the country.
An RDJ participant meets a Holocaust survivor during a field trip to the Holocaust Memorial Center.
"The IFLC's Religious Diversity Journeys program perfectly embodies the Nissan Foundation's mission to build community by valuing cultural diversity," says Parul Bajaj, the Nissan Foundation's Executive Director. "Through unique, immersive field trips and interactions with clergy, the students come to recognize and appreciate the variety of faiths throughout our world."
The IFLC hopes to bring its RDJ in-person programming back this spring but has fully adapted it to an online format.
"The program we're running currently contains a full curriculum of material that can be used by teachers 24/7, and twice a month we hold live Zoom sessions with different clergy and religious leaders," Miller Gamer notes. "We're keeping kids engaged asynchronously as well as live. It has been so valuable to see how diversity, equity and inclusion can be actualized on screen."
A student tries on a sari during an RDJ field trip to a Hindu temple in Metro
Established in 1992, the mission of the Nissan Foundation is to build community through valuing cultural diversity. Over the last 30 years, the Nissan Foundation has awarded more than $13 million nonprofit organizations that support the Foundation’s mission. The Nissan Foundation is part of Nissan Americas’ commitment to enriching people’s lives by helping to meet the needs of communities throughout the U.S. through philanthropic investments, corporate outreach sponsorships and other charitable contributions. More information about the Nissan Foundation can be found online at www.nissanusa.com/about/community-relations.html.