Project Interfaith, Social Justice, and Arts
Mohammed Ba-Aoum, member of the Interfaith Advisory Council & Graduate School Diversity Scholar
Promoted in a partnership with the Virginia Tech Interfaith Advisory Council and sponsored by a Graduate School Diversity Scholarship and an Interfaith Youth Core Grant, the project “Interfaith, Social Justice, and Arts” aimed to support the advancement of an inclusive environment and foster interfaith and pluralism at Virginia Tech. I believe art is a powerful medium that can cross boundaries and transform communities, and challenge stereotypes. Highlighting stories, songs, discourses, and images showing solidarity among people from various secular and religious backgrounds can affirm our unity and promote a more inclusive atmosphere.
Thus, we proposed and organized a Virtual Art Exhibit and a panel discussion titled “Interfaith, Social Justice, and Arts”. Art gets us to see the reality in light of new reality and it makes values such as love, empathy, respect, understanding become tangible. The Virtual Art Exhibit was a manifestation of this fact. It opened a chance for Virginia Tech students, faculty, staff & community members to express through artwork (drawing/painting, photo, or short video) how their religious, spiritual, or secular beliefs inform their perspectives in social justice efforts. It provided a safe space, especially for voiceless or marginalized groups, to freely express their spiritual beliefs and experiences on social justice. The received artworks were inspired by various worldviews and emphasized essential meanings such as coexistence, interfaith solidarity, racial equity, and peace. For instance, Ashlyn McDonald, Undergraduate Student, won the best photo award for a work titled “The Lie of Mutual Exclusivity,” which highlights her experience as bisexual and Christian. Alaa Abdalla, Muslim, Graduate Student, won the best video award for a short clip titled “Jeez ya Allah” presents a visual representation of God’s place in her life and thoughts. Sangeetha Kowsik, Hindu, Community member, submitted the best drawing titled “One World Be the Change”, showing all faiths stand together against racism. Susan Kurtz, Jewish, Community Member, won the best painting award for an artwork titled “Stretch” that depicts a group of students from various beliefs in an exercise of the Human Knot. The art exhibit may be seen online at dos.vt.edu/interfaithart.
The Art Exhibit was launched on April 21, 2021, preceded by playing a piece of music done by Itraab Arabic Music Ensemble and a panel discussion I had the honor of moderating. The panel empowered participants to explore the arts as a means for facilitating interfaith understanding and advancing social justice. The first panelist, Dr. Anne Elise Thomas, ethnomusicologist writer and music and dance performer, talked about the intersection of Art and interfaith. She stated that faith in interfaith should not be restricted to organized religion; instead, we can think of “faith” more broadly – in the sense of “there is something worth striving for.” The second panelist Jon Catherwood-Ginn, associate director of programming at the Moss Arts Center, talked about intersections among arts, social justice, and interfaith engagement. He illustrated the roles, responsibilities, and inherent tensions of arts institutions in fostering interfaith experiences and advancing social justice. The third speaker was Katy Shepard, artist and philosopher, who talked about cultural violence (i.e., tearing down statues/monuments, burning books) and replacement of culture (i.e., forcing a religion upon a people or retraining them in “real” arts). The panel was recorded and is available online.
The four winners of best art submissions got a chance after the panel to explain what inspired them to do their work. The event gathered students, faculty, staff, and community members. The project gave space for people from all backgrounds to provide their narrative on interfaith solidarity and social justice, which fostered a climate of welcoming and affirming our ability to live side by side. It showed that our diversity could be an excellent source for education and collaboration instead of hostile conflicts. It challenged xenophilia and stereotypes about underrepresented groups. The event received overwhelmingly positive feedback, and it built relationships between multiple groups and departments at Virginia Tech for further collaboration on advancing diversity on campus.