Face to Faith Featured in Doha
02 Apr 2014
This week at the 11th Doha Conference on Interfaith Dialogue Matthew Lawrence, Director of Programmes at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, gave a speech detailing the Face to Faith programme and the powerful effects that this programme has on its student participants.
Matthew spoke about how the schools programme, designed for 12-17 year olds, is active in more than 20 countries, connecting students in a moderated space where they discuss challenging issues from a variety of perspectives, in a respectful and safe way.
The Tony Blair Faith Foundation provides the practical support required to help prevent religious prejudice, conflict and extremism. We work with current and our future leaders, our youth, providing the support to help prevent religious prejudice, conflict and extremism in the present and future generations.
We work in some of the world’s toughest situations where we offer bold, practical and innovative solutions where there is real need. We seek to build replicable and scalable programmes which can be adopted by governements and other organisations to have an impact far beyond our resources as an individual foundation.
The pace of change brought about by rapid globalisation and its interaction with religious ideology is immense. At a global level, there is increasing recognition that there will be no lasting solution to many conflicts across the globe without understanding religion’s place within them. Our over-arching approach is based on two pillars:
Through Education we provide decision makers with an analysis of the complexity of religion’s impact in the world; and we empower young people with the knowledge and skills to understand religion, opening their minds to respect and not fear difference, and to resist extremist voices.
And through Exposure we facilitate human connections with lasting emotional resonance by exposing people to others with different cultures and beliefs. They can learn from each other and so live with each other. We believe that demonstrating the positive role that faith can play in society is the most effective way of weakening the corrosive narrative of extremists.
After all, where there is ignorance there is often fear and where there is fear there is often conflict. But where there is greater knowledge there is greater understanding. And where there is greater understanding there follows a greater chance of peaceful co-existence. We believe there is no answer to this problem that doesn't start and continue with the importance of educating our young people. And we must ensure that our programmes are not elitist, that we are not picking the just the few, but reaching the many – to bring about real generational change.
The Face to Faith Programme
Face to Faith is our global high schools programme, for young people aged between 12-17. We seek to empower them through an educational experience that provides an opportunity to safely learn to negotiate diversity, through experiences that help to make the unfamiliar familiar, and to develop the key skills of dialogue needed for peaceful coexistence in a globalised world.
We argue that an understanding of, and openness to, different religious perspectives and religion’s role in the world should be delivered through education systems worldwide and we work closely with governments, school networks and international institutions to achieve this. The approach of Face to Faith is one that encourages young people to develop an understanding of different faith and belief perspectives, and learn how to engage with them respectfully, finding ways to share and recognise difference. Giving young people the skills and opportunities that they need to live with difference, to overcome their stereotypes about one another, and to build mutual respect and understanding lies at the core of Face to Faith.
Face to Faith encourages young people to learn about one another, and explore diversity in a variety of safe spaces. In addition to the safe space created by teachers in the classroom using our materials, we have created two virtual safe spaces to enable international dialogue without the need to leave the classroom. We encourage students to engage with one another through our online learning community. This is a private, and moderated online community, where students are able to explore one another’s points of view and experiences. This is a vibrant online space, with over twenty two thousand students from over a thousand schools registered as users.
It is important to note that, while schools are keen for their students to use computer technology, very few school systems are supporting students to develop the skills to use the internet for respectful online interaction. Schools often seek to protect students on the internet, by protecting them from the internet; yet the ubiquity of internet access dooms this to failure. We can’t expect students to learn good communication skills from the internet as it exists; if anything, the models of interaction demonstrated there, are disrespectful, closed-minded, and confrontational. We need to teach and model good practice, and give students a safe space (and the necessary support) to help them to use the internet for effective and respectful global communication.
Probably the favourite space for interchange for many students is our programme of facilitated videoconferences. We use a range of sophisticated software to bridge connections between schools around the world – even those in low-bandwidth environments, to be able to engage in dialogue with one another. All our videoconferences are facilitated by skilled and experienced facilitators who are able not merely to develop the dialogue between students, but also to explore and enrich the opportunities for learning that take place. Most of our videoconferences take place in English, although we are able to facilitate in Arabic and other languages, and it is not uncommon for teachers to help students with translations of key terms. Thereby a class of students in Pakistan can share views with their peers in the Philippines and the United States, or a group of young people in Mexico can explore issues with others in Italy and the UAE.
Key to the success of Face to Faith is the fact that it is a peer-learning programme; so the learning that takes place in the videoconferences, and through the online community is generally dialogical and reciprocal; I learn from you, and you learn from me. This is a particularly powerful approach for a number of reasons. Learning from one’s peers frequently enables a much deeper level of understanding, and certainly establishes a much greater emotional resonance. One of our American teachers reported:
“We held a videoconference with a school in Jordan at the start of our Islam unit. The dialogue was thoughtful, informative and warm between the two schools. But the greatest moment came toward the end, when a young woman from Jordan told our students that she had been very nervous to speak with them because she wasn’t sure what American students felt about Islam and she wasn’t sure if there were misunderstandings about the religion. She said that the videoconference had made her feel so much better, because she had been able to talk with students who clearly cared to understand Islam. I wish I could recall her exact words. What I do know is that a number of my students were in tears, and it created an added dimension to our Islam unit that I know had a great impact.”
Learning is not merely “flowing into” the classroom, it also flows out – the students who are learning are simultaneously teaching, and being empowered by the realisation that this experience gives them a voice that can be heard around the world, to explain their points of view, explore their cultures, and correct the misapprehensions and misunderstandings about themselves which they may encounter. One of our teachers in Egypt described her students after a videoconference dialogue:
...they felt awesome at the end of VC, when they found out they could be persuasive and change for a moment the opinion of their counterparts in US towards Egyptians. There were some very challenging questions from their counterparts which allowed my students to discover themselves more than ever.
One concern that people sometimes express when they hear about Face to Faith is that it may challenge the faith identity that young people already have, but in fact this dialogical responsibility means that it most frequently works in reverse, to strengthen and deepen their own understanding of their faith and their behavior within it. Many inter-faith commentators remark that, through dialogue with others, their own faith is deepened, and our students report this – but in addition, students frequently demonstrate a growth in understanding of their own faith too. When one is surrounded by a community of faith, one doesn’t have to think deeply about the positions that are shared by everyone – they seem obvious; they appear to be universal axiomata of experience. However, when this is challenged by someone who is from outside that community; “Why do you do that?” Students often find that they don’t know, and this recognition of their own lack of knowledge of their own traditions proves a powerful spur to deepening their own understanding. One Indian parent commented to us that her daughter had never shown any interest in her Hindu culture – never attended the temple, never read scriptures, or participated in Family rituals – until she had to explain it to those outside India who had no knowledge or understanding of her culture. This is a much more common result of the programme, prompting young people towards a more thoughtful, personal, and profound engagement with their own traditions. An understanding which again helps them to counter destructive narratives.
When the Face to Faith programme started, many people told us that it would be impossible to carry out this kind of dialogical interchange around Faith with young people. We have demonstrated that it is not only possible, but also positive and desirable for young people to have these kinds of experiences. We believe passionately that the values and experiences of Face to Faith should form a key central part of every child’s education; that dialogue, and learning to live with difference should be as normative as Maths and Science in every school curriculum.
As I mentioned, at the Foundation we work to incubate programmes that enable other organisations, governments and institutions to be equipped to counter narratives of prejudice and violence. We are already working with governments and educational bodies to expand and develop our Face to Faith programme and I hope that where possible the organisations you represent will be inspired to build this network; we believe that this is a great gift that we can give to the young people of this world. I hope that you and your young people will join us on this journey…