We stand at a critical decision-making moment as a nation. We can respond to terrorism by a violent few through policies and rhetoric that further divide and marginalize an entire population. Or, instead, we can embark upon the messy and necessary work of active citizenship that engage us with our neighbors and strengthen our community locally and globally.
As college students across the nation grapple with diversity and inclusion on campus, they are also wrestling with the question of what it means to embrace diversity as a nation—especially in this time of pain and uncertainty. Student participants in Lehigh University’s Global Citizenship program—which prepares students for living in a culturally diverse and rapidly changing world—have engaged in community-based learning that promotes their identity as active citizens while working with local organizations. Chief among the organizations is the local chapter of the Lutheran Children and Family Services Refugee Resettlement Program, which assists refugees and asylees through a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of State. These services are made available to hundreds of refugees each year in the five-county Southeast Pennsylvania area, Lancaster County and in the Lehigh Valley area, which includes Allentown, home to one of the largest Syrian populations in the U.S. and a neighboring city of Bethlehem, where Lehigh University is located.
Through this experience of close interaction with refugees, our students develop agency, the ability to tolerate ambiguity, and practice resiliency as they grapple with their role as global citizens in a changing world.
With the debate that is raging around acceptance of refugees in the United States, our Global Citizenship students are now facing questions and uncertainty around a program they have engaged with for years. They are trying to reconcile the lived experience of their meaningful, reciprocal relationships with the local refugee community with the vitriol spewed on the political stage in recent days.
In this learning moment, it is important that we—as a campus community and as a nation—think about this larger problem of ideological terrorism while also critically assessing our own role in creating a climate of meaningful partnerships across cultures. I have found three particularly effective ways to actively engage and create community that is truly inclusive: accessing compassion, engaging in collaboration and participating in critical thinking and reflection.
First, compassion. The partnership between Lutheran Child and Family Services Refugee Resettlement program and our students is one that is built on this core value. Finding similarities between the lived experience of resettlement – on the scale of going to college or resettling in a new country – is just one way in which our students and our new neighbors find compassion for one and other and share lived experiences.
The need to belong is among the most basic of human traits, and without fulfilling that need, the ability to find purpose and to thrive are seriously hindered.
A recent CBS News report pointed toward the large number of ISIS recruits coming from communities experiencing severe social problems and exclusion. Terror groups, cults, hate groups prey on the vulnerable. They prey on those who are outside of the social structure, who seek belonging and purpose in their lives. Social problems – from unemployment to drug addiction to domestic violence – can create an environment where such vulnerability is pervasive and exploitable. By promoting official or unofficial marginalization of a people, we create an environment of insider-outsider relations that only serves to create more vulnerability to such tactics. Intentional programming to engage and include by practicing compassion is one of the most powerful anti-terror strategies.
Collaboration is another primary strategy to promote community. How often do we interact with those who are different from us? The political scientist Ashtoush Varshney has done extensive work looking at societies with historically divided peoples – either by race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, or other characteristics – who are living as neighbors peacefully and with understanding. The key? Establishment of civic and civil partnerships that include participants across those dividing lines is critical to combating the types of exclusionary rhetoric and politics that lead to violence.
Projects within the United States such as the Collective Memory Project in Allentown, PA—which seeks to put a human face on the long history of immigration in the area by highlighting refugee and immigrant stories—helps promote understanding and dialogue. The Lehigh County Conference of Churches has been mobilizing interfaith dialogues and services, supply drives, and public awareness campaigns to promote understanding across boundaries. Bringing people together, rather than promoting rhetoric to drive us apart is critical.
Finally, the ability to engage in critical thinking and personal reflection is a must. A climate of fear and uncertainty pervaded the United States after 9/11, which lead to the very decisions that many have pointed to as the impetus for collapse in Iraq and the growth of ISIS. What lessons does that hold for us now? Are we listening to factual information, or the rhetoric of those who wish to pander and placate in a time of fear? Let us not repeat mistakes of the past in search of a false sense of security.
Beyond the critical eye on our media and politicians, inquiry of on our own behavior and ways of engaging in the world is also key. Humility and the capacity to critically reflect on one’s circumstances is difficult, and we often take for granted our many rights and responsibilities. Furthermore, many of us are drastically undereducated on the policies and processes that surround citizenship and asylum. While it is tempting to voice an ill-informed opinion, I urge all of us – just as I do my students – to conduct the due diligence necessary to ensure your arguments are sound and rooted in fact.
Compassion, collaboration, and critical thinking: these are the strategies that address the root of exclusionary systems that lead to inequities and vulnerabilities. Connecting with our community partner in recent days, I have been heartened to hear of the outpouring of support and assurances from a wide cross-section of faiths and frameworks. There are many people—locally and around the country—practicing compassion, seeking collaboration, and critically reflecting on our world. It is these individuals who will move our campuses—and our nation—closer to becoming the equitable, inclusive and safe places they should be.