Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Cultural and religious competency starts by looking beyond the news and Google searches

Cultural and religious competency start with being able to tell the difference between reliable and unreliable sources of information about specific groups of people. The concept of cultural competency goes hand-in-hand with religious competency, since so many of our cultural differences stem from religious differences.

It sounds obvious that the most reliable sources of information about a particular cultural or religious group are people within that group; regardless of this, most mainstream information we have about them is compiled by outsiders to those groups, or by aggregator software programs which sometimes target credible sources, and sometimes not.

As a former Baha’i and a current Nichiren Buddhist, I know firsthand how exasperating it is to find gross misconceptions, inaccuracies, and even misspellings about one’s religion in resources—such as college textbooks and encyclopedias of world religions, let alone the mainstream news—that are assumed to be authoritative and well-researched.

It’s one thing to make occasional honest mistakes based on available information; far too often, however, I’ve found that many of the authors of these resources are downright careless—such as when, for example, they don’t even take the time to correctly spell the name of a religion, or find out if it is correct to say it’s a denomination of something else or an independent religion entirely. I wanted to scream every time I would pick up yet another religious encyclopedia and flip to the “B”s to see an article that reads something like “Bahollah founded the B’hai Faith, a sect of Islam...” (The founder’s name is Baha’u’llah, and the Baha’i faith is an independent religion, not a sect of anything.)

Overall, I’ve found such reference material to be absolutely useless beyond giving only a vague idea of generalizations that practitioners might use to describe their religions.

So instead, my two main portals for accurate intercultural and interreligious information over the past half-decade have been the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit (IFLC), and Read the Spirit.

An October 2014 post on its Web site, which briefly described how the organization was formed, stated that the IFLC grew out of a response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. “As the world watched the twin towers of the world trade center collapse,” it stated, “a number of our local leaders were already planning a coordinated interfaith response to the anticipated backlash against the Muslim community. The Interfaith Leadership Council grew out of that response.”

If separated from the historical reference preceding it, those last two sentences could easily have been assumed to be a response to events that took place last month, rather than 15 years ago. Good thing the Interfaith Leadership Council already exists, and hit the ground running over a year ago in anticipation of what would happen if the November 2016 election turned out the way it did. I found two great Detroit Free Press articles here and here which describe the IFLC’s efforts starting in late 2015 to help counteract the misinformation-based prejudice and violence that have for too long characterized intercultural and interfaith relations in America (particularly regarding Islam).

I re-introduced my readers to Read the Spirit in my first post in this series, via the efforts of the MSU School of Journalism to create aseries of easy-to-read cultural competency guide books, and I will describe more of the groundbreaking work represented in Read the Spirit’s catalogue as I read the books in it. I also encourage you to check out Read the Spirit’s online magazine regularly for the news that’s left out of the mainstream headlines.

“Cultural competency” has become a buzzword for continuing education in business; it’s even the name of a category in the files of human resources departments seeking to meet the needs of an increasingly more diversified workforce. Educational institutions as well are beginning to step up to the challenge of helping to foster true pluralism in the U.S., particularly in southeastern Michigan.

Hopefully this will prompt them, when it comes to revising their reference material, to reach out to actual religious communities and interfaith organizations rather than continue to rely on about.com and so-called news sources that are long overdue for fact-checking.

Image: “Riverview Library” by Karla Joy Huber, 2007; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker

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