What’s the Role of Dialogue During Covid-19?

Interfaith America Editor, Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, asked journalist Zaid Jilani, Bridging Differences Writing Fellow, questions about Greater Good’s work in the era of Covid-19 and the upcoming virtual conference “Bridging Differences: A Virtual Summit for Dialogue and Understanding” which he will be part of. The Conference, on May 15, is open to the public and will include IFYC President, Dr. Eboo Patel and Senior Director of Leadership, Jenan Mohajir, as well as IFYC alum, Rev. Jen Bailey.  Go to the website for more information and to sign up. 

Q: How has Covid-19 focused your thinking about compassion and how we can understand people different from us in this time of social distancing?

A: Covid-19 has made us think about our own frailty—and that of our society—in a way that many of us aren't used to. Personally, I have seen an outpouring of community support for individuals who are highest at risk—such as the elderly and essential workers. I think more and more, Americans are waking up to the reality of inequalities in our society and acting compassionately towards those who are facing great peril in the face of this pandemic. Although we aren't all equally susceptible to the virus, we all feel at least somewhat vulnerable and that helps open our hearts towards those who are sick or facing even greater risk than we are. More than ever, we have to behave compassionately and think about the plight of people from all walks of life, because this pandemic doesn't end until everyone is safe from this virus. 

Q: There are two competing narratives about what this moment is doing to us: We are going to use this time to become more understanding and interconnected world, or, Things are going to become even more polarized, unjust and adversarial.  Which are you seeing right now and what can we do to ensure that we move towards the former not the latter?

A: It's easy to look at negative events in the news or in our communities and grow pessimistic. But, it's truly remarkable to see that the vast majority of Americans are supportive of stay-at-home measures and social distancing despite our country's great cultural and social divides. People are coming up with creative ways to support communities that are on the frontline of the pandemic, and even with tens of millions of Americans suddenly unemployed, people are working together to aid the sick and comfort the afflicted. However, we could see this surge in compassion turn into a surge of polarization if we don't see strong leadership from government officials to address both the public health crisis and the economic catastrophe that is now underway. In times of pandemics, we tend to see more scapegoating of minority groups, a tightening of social cultures and more suspicion towards our neighbors. The quicker we can address the two major forms of stress bearing down on our societies, the quicker we can reduce any heightened polarization in our society.

Q: If you were to offer advice to a random person, like, say, me, about how to stay well and open and hopeful right now, what would you say?

A: Remember that your emotions aren't the same thing as reality. If you feel despondent one day and think, "I feel like life will never return to normal," that does not mean life will never return to normal. Remind yourself of the good things in life, the friends and family you have, and always remember that everything in life -- good and bad -- has a beginning, middle and end. You had a life before this pandemic, and you will have one after it as well. In the meantime, treasure what you have -- talk to your loved ones, read a good book, learn a new skill. Use this time in the fullest.

Q: What do you hope people get out of the conference and what kind of people should attend?

A: We are trying to support the needs of a broad audience at this event. People should attend if they are "professional bridgers"-- that could mean that they work for organizations where bridging is key to their mission, or they work in meditation or conflict resolution. But, we also want very much to engage people who work in diverse sectors--such as education, health care, or in faith communities, for instance--where it is important that they help people navigate their differences, perhaps now more than ever, but they don't necessarily have formal training in how to do so.

We hope all of these audiences come away from the conference with two things. First, we hope they leave inspired and convinced that it is actually possible for people and groups to work through their differences—those differences don't need to divide us. And second, we hope they come away with practical, research-based strategies for actually bridging those differences in their work or even in their personal life. They should gain an understanding of some fundamental principles for fostering more positive dialogue and understanding between groups--principles that they can start to apply tomorrow, even if they're not working with a formal program or curriculum.

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.