Brown University

One Providence? Using an Interfaith Forum to Confront Polarization by Isabela Karibjanian @ Brown University

At just after 6 pm on Wednesday, November 1, Providence Mayor Jorge D. Elorza’s first Interfaith Forum began. Thirty to forty community members from a wide range of ages and faith groups packed into a cafeteria at Providence Career and Technical Academy. Aiming to promote “inter-religious dialogue and diversity education”, community leaders facilitated discussions on prejudice, hate crimes, community safety, and the challenges of unifying diverse groups. Speakers and participants alike stressed the importance of confronting polarization and divisiveness by creating networks among various faith-based communities in Providence.

Two central questions that arose for me as the evening progressed were:

  1. How can faith be drawn on in support of coalition building?
  2. What are the limitations of faith-based political and community organizing?

The Mayor’s Office brands Providence as a city active in the “resistance” to the types of rhetoric and divisiveness espoused or normalized by the most recent presidential election. This resistance takes many forms, including declaring the city a “Sanctuary City”, creating a hate crimes hotline, passing community-police relations legislation, and holding interfaith forums in an attempt to build bridges and forge unity in Providence.

The forum, as Mayor Elorza noted in his opening remarks, aimed to build upon his “One Providence” policy. Born out of the divisive rhetoric of the 2016 presidential campaign, Elorza and his staff “looked at a list of groups that Trump insulted” and created initiatives, announcements, and programs supporting vulnerable communities in the city. He commented that the sociopolitical forces dividing America are stronger than what has been seen in the past 50 years; to combat that, he reinforced the necessity of “uniting communities” wherever possible.

Following a series of speakers from faith communities, city government, and Providence police, participants engaged in a workshop. Based on conversations at my table and between participant, I identified a few key ways in which constructing larger faith-based activist coalitions can be used in the “resistance”:

Confronting social segregation and the “empathy wall”. Participants seemed acutely aware of the role they played in exacerbating the American sociopolitical divide by living in their own bubbles. Several participants at my table who were from the wealthier East Side of Providence (where Brown is located) seemed hyper-aware of this issue. “People need to know each other more,” another noted. Several remarked upon the complacency of certain faith communities to take care of their own, but not look across the larger Providence faith community landscape to interact with others.

Through their desire to create networks of interfaith, inter-community interaction, they directly confronted what Arlie Russell Hochschild deems the “empathy wall” in her book Strangers in Their Own Land. This wall, which Hochschild says is an obstacle to deep understanding of another person, makes individuals feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs than them (Hochschild 12-13). By attempting to reach across faith groups and socioeconomic groups within the larger context of the city of Providence, those who attended the forum attempted to confront the much larger, national issue of polarization through a community-centric, individual-driven approach.

Combating ethnocentrism and group polarization. Most at my table identified themselves as members of particular faith communities within Providence, and as hoping to accomplish societal change in the city and the country through action from within their faith community. Though participants at the forum derived their sense of self through membership in a faith group, they hoped that membership in faith groups more broadly speaking could help them transcend group divisions and could unify them in accomplishing their goals of an inclusive, tight-knit city. In Donald Kinder and Cindy Kam’s Us Against Them: Ethnocentric Foundations of American Opinion, the expression of social identity and classification of individuals into groups is linked to ethnocentrism. The participants at this event sought to subvert such a narrative, however, and instead prevent against ethnocentrism resulting from faith-based identification. By creating inter-faith group networks of communication and action, many hoped for broader social integration.

The forum also sought to address issue polarization within Providence by addressing social segregation. As Cass Sunstein writes in Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide, when people find themselves in groups of like-minded individuals, they are more likely to move to extremes in ideology, leading to group polarization. This can be exacerbated by social segregation, which separates group members from the rest of society and creates a sense of suspicion about nonmembers. The forum organizers, and those participating, strove to decrease this segregation by having members of various faith communities, socioeconomic backgrounds, and location within the city interact and exchange ideas.

However, there were noticeable limitations in the tactics proposed by the participants at this forum.

A predisposition for interfaith organizing? Though the organizers and participants aimed for interactions between groups not frequently in dialogue, the participants themselves were self-selecting individuals. Those who attended the event, and those at my table, were highly concerned about societal rifts exposed through the most recent election and campaign season, and wanted to take some kind of action at the local level. I would argue that the groups that most need to be pulled into the conversation in order to accomplish event’s goals were those least likely to attend – those from faith communities that are more insular in nature and those who may not recognize the problems that the others highlighted as critical in nature.

Political and doctrinal disagreements. Even if a crosscutting faith-based network in Providence were to be accomplished as the organizers and participants hope, it is important to recognize that there are limitations with such a plan. It’s not an end-all-be-all solution to group polarization and ethnocentrism. No community of worship is homogeneous, nor is an entire denomination, or religion for that matter. Despite stated aims of unifying the entire city through the power of interfaith connections, different denominations and religions have varying doctrinal beliefs and political leanings. One participant insightfully described how certain communities become complacent when their “own kind” is taken care of, and often neglect to look beyond. Another took it a step further and directly confronted the spectrum of political leanings present within Christianity – ranging from the more socially liberal policies espoused by the Unitarian Church, for example, to the more conservative values espoused elsewhere. Should a crosscutting faith-based network be constructed in Providence as the participants hope, it would need to find a balance between serving as an arm of “the resistance” against Trump’s policies and rhetoric and being careful to include variation in beliefs among communities represented.

Though there are both political possibilities and limitations inherent in the type of coalition-building attempts seen at Mayor Elorza’s Interfaith Forum, forums such as this can serve as an important first step in organizing. Having an event whose aim is to confront issues of discrimination against particular religious, groups, hate crimes, and polarization is key in addressing the “empathy wall” and group polarization. Using a common, broader spiritual identity appealing to certain moral principles rather than policies can be effective in bringing people together and cultivating trust among fellow citizens. Participants, though self-selecting in nature and possibly pre-disposed to want to engage in interfaith dialogue, had the opportunity to meet members of differing faiths and socioeconomic situations and find common ground, which can lead to further issue-based organizing and community building. Even if few concretely actionable items developed from the discussion, having conversations with those of differing beliefs and backgrounds is a valuable, and increasingly rare experience, and an important exercise in engaging with pluralism.


Photo by Will Hart, “Providence RI skyline2.jpg”, Creative Commons 2.0 license.

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