3FF’s Education and Training Manager Debbie Danon shares her story of going to Sweden to train a group of interfaith practitioners:
I am sitting opposite my Swedish guide Anneli at the Paideia European Institute of Jewish studies in Stockholm. Anneli passes me a plate of cinnamon buns as she gives me the low-down on tomorrow’s training participants. I’m here to train a newly formed network of 16 interfaith activists in 3FF’s methods for “Excellent Interfaith Encounters”.
“Now, remember, the ‘culture of consensus’ is a huge part of Swedish culture. It can make people a bit terrified to disagree with each other. They’re always looking for common ground, because consensus and compromise are seen as positive values, and difference can be seen as disruptive or difficult.”
I chew on my bun. I’m clearly going to be a foreign trouble-maker here, advocating the need to discuss difference and controversy, not hide it under the table.
The next day, I walk into Fryshuset, Sweden’s largest youth-work complex, not knowing whether to expect lively debate, or a sea of nodding heads terrified of disagreement. The assembled group are a diverse and experienced bunch from a range of fields – educational organisations, youth work bodies and religious institutions. I put my best “Good Morning” voice on and we begin.
As usual, one of the first things I raise is safe space – how do we create and maintain a safe space to get the most from our interfaith activities, today and in our everyday work?
“Agreeing ground rules with the group gives us power as facilitators to stop discussion if it gets too heated,” chips in a Muslim youth worker. So discussions do get heated, I think. That’s a good sign for later.
In the afternoon though, we hit a barrier. I ask participants to brainstorm controversial topics that arise in their work. Suddenly they are fascinated by either the ceiling or the floor. Anneli nods at me knowingly. Finally, someone pipes up: “Israel and Palestine?” And they’re off. The floodgates have opened and they list all the issues that have ended up in the “too hot to handle” box: gender politics, religious violence and corruption, medical ethics… the board is soon full and there is no room for more.
I am struck by the force of this torrent of “off the table” topics. The group seems visibly relieved to be allowed to mention them by name, let alone talk about them. It’s the same relief I see among teachers in the UK at 3FF trainings. Sometimes we may be able to avoid these issues, but there’s always the possibility that they will surface. As educators, we have to be ready to use these moments as learning opportunities by ensuring that participants have a productive dialogue, not a heated debate.
One group of participants used their new knowledge to develop an activity to discuss the effects of international conflicts on Swedish young people of different faiths and beliefs. They said this understanding “was important to get past surface pleasantness and into deeper understanding.” Their suggestions to ensure safety included:
- Working with young people who already have established relationships
- Holding the group at a neutral venue, i.e. not a house of worship or faith-based community centre so no one group felt more “at home”
- Establishing or revisiting ground rules, and sticking them on the wall
- Assuring young people that they could pause discussion at any point if they felt uncomfortable
- Using “I statements” to help participants own their contributions – my beliefs, not “facts”
- Ensure enough time for reflection at the end, and staff to make themselves available to debrief or listen if young people wanted to share afterwards
I could tell the trainees my experiences of UK classrooms and training teachers. It took a group of their own to show them that speaking about controversial topics was not only desirable, but well within their reach.
Being afraid to tackle controversial issues is not Swedish – it’s human. But sometimes we have to feel the fear and do it anyway. I left inspired by my Swedish colleagues’ courage, and excited by what they will go on to achieve in their new interfaith network.
The training Debbie ran was sponsored by three organisations: The Church of Sweden, Paideia (The European Institute of Jewish Studies) and “Together for Sweden,” an interfaith youth project of Fryshuset.
Many thanks to Anneli Radestad, whose belief and hard work made this training possible.
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