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Diversity Forum inspires conversations on religious identity and inclusion

November 20, 2023 By Elizabeth Stanislawski

Faith leaders called for people to hold respectful dialogue with those holding different religious beliefs during a well-attended session at the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s 2023 Diversity Forum Nov. 14 and 15.

“I encourage people to come around the table and stay there even though they disagree and do not see eye-to-eye, because you are committed to loving one another, despite the world’s expectation that you hate each other,” said Rev. Erica Liu. “If we don’t stay at the table, I truly believe we miss out. We miss out on what might unfold and what might be possible.”

The forum, themed Bridging the Divide, Realizing Belonging While Engaging Difference and hosted by the Division of Diversity, Equity & Educational Achievement (DDEEA), saw one of its largest turnouts since its inception in 2000.

More than 745 people attended the forum on November 14 and 15 at Varsity Hall in Union South in person, while another 1,700 people attended virtually. Preliminary numbers show online video streams have surpassed 9,000 views.

The annual event remains dedicated to discussing, sharing, and learning about contemporary issues of equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging.

During opening remarks, Chief Diversity Officer Dr. LaVar J. Charleston said this year’s theme is especially timely.

“Now is a pivotal moment for us to truly explore the intricate roles that religion, politics, culture, and beliefs play in shaping our intersecting identities, and to uncover how we can move forward collectively despite our differences,” he said.

Keynote speakers, panels, and breakout sessions for Diversity Forum are planned months in advance, but a week prior to the event, the DDEEA decided to replace its informational session with one entitled, “Religious Identity and Belonging: A Conversation with Faith Leaders.

The discussion, which took place at the end of Day Two, was one of the most highly attended of all the sessions and featured campus community faith leaders Rabbi Andrea Steinberger, Reverend Erica Liu, and Professor Asifa Quraishi-Landes.

All three had signed a statement that was posted earlier this month on the Center for Interfaith Dialogue’s website and shared campus-wide by Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin. The Center serves to promote religious identity, dialogue, and understanding to make our campus more inclusive and to prepare students for a religiously diverse world.

“The statement encourages us all to bridge the divide, to come together and really see each other by recognizing each other’s humanity, recognizing each other’s communities and families, and shared passions – factors that unify us more than divide us,” Charleston said.

The leaders talked about ways to foster respectful dialogue with others holding diverse religious beliefs, and how attendees can empower faculty and staff to support students on their personal faith journeys.

“We are all feeling a lot of pain as we are sitting here, as are many of you,” said Professor Asifa Quraishi-Landes during the session. “And look, there are many things we aren’t going to agree on, but at least we can all agree that children shouldn’t be killed, and that the innocent shouldn’t have to live without food and water.”

She recalled that when she shared those sentiments during a meeting with other faith leaders, everyone agreed, leading to the collective letter.

“The antidote to violence is conversation, it’s listening to stories, it’s telling our own stories, listening to our fears, and the fears of others,” said Rabbi Steinberger. “It’s being vulnerable and hearing vulnerability in another person. We are not here to tell you what the truth is. Instead, we are here to be wiser, more compassionate human beings.”

You can view the session, Religious Identity and Belonging: A Conversation with Faith Leaders” online.

Other highlights of the forum included the Day One keynote address by Harvard professor of public policy, politics, and ethics Danielle Allen. The keynote entitled, “How to be a Confident Pluralist, focused on how we can ‘disagree well.’ Dr. Allen explained that being a confident pluralist requires us to reconnect to civic experience, power and responsibility.

A woman speaks at a podium.

Danielle Allen delivers the Day One keynote address, “How to be a Confident Pluralist.” Allen outlined five steps: reflection, committing to non-violence, compromise, listening and never let anyone hold human dignity hostage.

“I can shape my own life and my private life, yes, but I also live in a big community,” Allen said. “My community is shaped by rules, norms, and constraints that govern how we live together. So, if I am going to be fully free, and if I am going to be a person who is the author of my own life, then I must be a co-author with others in our common life, our shared life.”

On Day Two of Diversity Forum, the son of formerly undocumented Mexican immigrants and award-winning poet José Olivarez delivered a keynote address drawing from his book “Citizen Illegal.” The book which was a finalist for the PEN/Jean Stein Award, and a winner of the 2018 Chicago Review of Books Poetry Prize, explores the stories, contradictions, joys, and sorrows that embody life in the spaces between Mexico and America. Olivarez recited many of his favorite poems from the book, including “River Oaks Mall.” An excerpt from that poem:

fun fact: when you have to try to blend in

you can never blend in

my dad gives me a penny

to throw into a fountain that makes dreams

come true. all my dreams except one.

my family trying so hard to be American

it was transparent.

Other popular sessions included Understanding Our Privileges to Become Better Allies Presenters: Undergrads of the Student Leadership Program,” The Power of Words in Promoting DEI: Understanding the Impact of Language,” Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC Student Panel),” and What is Code-Switching & How Does It Impact Belonging. You can watch all of the sessions online.

Next year’s UW–Madison Diversity Forum will take place on Nov. 13 and 14 of 2024. The DDEEA will announce a call for proposals in early 2024.