Religious Councils of Students are Important
THE FOLLOWING BLOG WAS ORIGINALLY POSTED BY THE expert in residence kNOWLEDGE COMMUNITY ON december 20th, 2016. LEARN MORE AND ENGAGE WITH OUR 30 VIBRANT KNOWLEDGE COMMUNITIES HERE.
A few years ago, I had the privilege to help launch with several students our campuses’ multi-faith student council (MSC) which was, at first, simply a group of students who were interested in interfaith dialogue, had an interest in getting to know each other, and were available. From the beginning, I knew this would be a tricky organization to build and manage. The University of Minnesota, where I am currently employed, has almost 90 religiously affiliated student groups currently. This multi-faith student council was designed from the beginning to support and in many ways be the voice of all of these groups. How to do this was going to be the challenge.
Reaching out to my colleagues at the private universities, I was able to uncover a variety of models, but most of them were similar in membership to our own fledgling group: students who simply were interested in interfaith dialogue but no organizational structure that had any real connection to the other groups. So we sought out to create something quite different. And it began with a meeting with Richard Chambers, the University Chaplain at the University of Toronto.
Richard told of how each semester, he would bring together a representative from each of the religiously affiliated student groups for a dinner to as he described “figure out what they had planned for the semester.” As University Chaplain Chambers had a unique ability to craft programming and build partnerships between groups. But what Chambers was also doing was creating a space in which the students each were truly welcomed as part of the religious life on campus. From this idea, we at the University of Minnesota started to question whether we wanted to have representation from each of these groups on our “council.” This seemed difficult, as bringing together 90 religiously affiliated groups could make for a pretty tough meeting, however, if the student groups are able to come together why couldn't professionals.
Currently, this is the process we are building up at the University of Minnesota. Eventually, our goal will be to have a true council of representation from each of the religiously affiliated groups. As of current, there are maybe 15 groups represented. And from this council we are able to take the collective voice of the organizations to the administration, advocate with one voice for issues and policy shifts that need be addressed, and bring the concerns of the students to the administration. It’s not perfect, and much is to be done to make it a long-term effective strategy, but we are on the way.
Religious councils of students are important because of the need for the collective voice and strength and because administration need to truly hear from these students. So often, when situations occur on campus, the group most effected is the only group to speak up. In cases of Islamophobia, the Muslim Student Association will reach out for support from the administration. But what if the Jews and the Christians, the Buddhists and the Atheists each were standing up in unison to support these Muslim students. This is the essence of multi-faith council. By standing together in unison, the university recognizes that the concerns are not isolated to a demographic, but are the concerns of the larger student body.
Overall, universities should seriously consider building and supporting multi-faith councils at their university and give them space at the table to bring their concerns, exhibit power in changing campus climate, and overall be a voice for the thousands of religious, secular, and spiritual students on their campus. By doing so, the university might learn how valuable their voices and their leadership may be for the campus.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are my own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or landscape of higher education in regards to religious council in higher education. These reflections are my own and seek only to broaden the conversation reflective of the topic.