Highlights from this year’s LEADD trainings

LEADD 2012Thanks to everyone at Interfaith Alliance for giving me a warm welcome as the new LEADD Coordinator for the organization’s youth program! I’m excited to report that I’ve already enjoyed the chance to organize a Leadership Education Advancing Democracy and Diversity (LEADD) event.

As you probably know, LEADD is Interfaith Alliance’s innovative program that immerses high school students in the history of the First Amendment, particularly its Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses. During the trainings, which are either weekend or daylong, students learn about current policy, legislative and legal issues regarding religious freedom.

 

This month, Interfaith Alliance was invited by the Kent Intermediate School District in Grand Rapids, Mich., to host a three-day leadership training for high-school students. This invitation came at an ideal time as Mayor George Heartwell proclaimed 2012 to be a year of interfaith understanding for Grand Rapids. Seventeen students from nine school districts and from diverse faith and non-faith traditions – including Sikh, Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, Baptist, and atheist – attended the LEADD training. One of the highlights was exploring the history of religious freedom in the United States with our guest speaker Christopher Lund of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.

In the midst of the training, Charley Honey, a reporter for the Grand Rapids Press, joined us to learn more about LEADD and what the students were learning through the program. His subsequent piece published in the Grand Rapids Press highlights how one of the students was inspired by the LEADD training to create an interfaith student group at her high school. “Part of the journey of faith is being able to understand other people,” Honey quotes Elena, age 15, in the article.

Earlier this year, we hosted a daylong LEADD training for high-school students in Arlington, Va. Eighteen youth from Muslim, Catholic, Unitarian Universalist and Buddhist backgrounds attended our LEADD training hosted at the Unitarian Universalist Church in May.

During that training, we gave a ‘civics’ lesson by going over the Constitution and what it says about freedom of religion. We explored the faith narratives in the media and how freedom of religion is being impacted this election season. The highlight of the training was the Supreme Court mock trial, during which participants took on roles of the Supreme Court judges, respondents and petitioners, as an interactive way to learn how the Supreme Court works. Participants also had an opportunity to engage in dialogue with each other by sharing their experiences growing up in each of their faith communities.


LEADD’s success and potential is evident through the enthusiasm of the students who went through the training. Abrar Omeish, a senior at Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax, who is Muslim, spoke highly of her experience at LEADD. She said, “After seeing the agenda, I was impressed with the program and was expecting to learn the historical context of interfaith communities in the United States. Many of my expectations were met, and I am very excited to learn more about and continue to participate in LEADD.”

I was also asked by rising 9th-grader Genevieve Harms, a Unitarian Universalist from the event’s host church, to help organize at the church a yearlong interfaith program modeled on our LEADD training.

Another highlight of my LEADD experiences thus far was when Huffington Post Religion retweeted a tweet by 17-year-old Libby Parker-Simkin, a young supporter of LEADD, in response to @HuffPostRelig’s question: What does freedom of religion mean to you?

I’m looking forward to expanding the LEADD program by organizing more frequent trainings around the country and also by planning a LEADD alumni reunion to support our existing group of LEADDers. Such an event would connect them to professionals working in interfaith organizations in Washington, D.C., and around the country.

LEADD now has a Facebook Page and a Twitter account: @YouthLEADD. Please follow us on both for updates on what LEADDers are doing and to learn about future LEADD dates! You also can visit our LEADD page for more information on this important program.