Conversations on religion, media and Islamophobia with Simran Jeet Singh

Last week, I spent two days with Simran Jeet Singh – a scholar-activist who works at the intersections of religion, politics, and media. As a Sikh-American, and as a professor of religion, he is able to provide both comprehensive academic grounding and moving personal narratives to illuminate the challenges of religious identity and diversity in America today.

In addition to his talk on “Islamophobia, Hate Crimes, and the Racialization of Religious Identity” at Grand Valley State University, which will have a video up soon, I interviewed him for Catalyst Radio on his work around media and religion. To read the summary & listen to the Soundcloud link, click here. 

He was also interviewed on WGVU by Mariano Avila, local Inclusion Reporter. Listen to his report here.


Catalyst Radio: Religion, media and Islamophobia with Simran Jeet Singh

Listen to my interview with Simran Jeet Singh, a scholar of religion and social activist, about religion, media, and Islamophobia.

Click here. 

Aired on 3/31/17 on Catalyst Radio, 88.1fm WYCE, Grand Rapids Community Media Center’s community radio station. 

Media literacy plays critical role in 2017

This originally appeared in The Rapidian on January 10, 2017.


One year ago, Catalyst Radio was relaunched with a new team of hosts and fresh eyes on its goal to catalyze change in the community through conversation on social issues, public affairs and media literacy.

As one of the hosts of Catalyst Radio, which is a 30-minute, weekly interview-based program on WYCE 88.1fm, I have been able to hear endless of stories from Grand Rapidians making a positive difference. Whether it was in our own community or having an impact around the world, people shared their experiences on everything from addressing racial equity to helping Syrian refugees, promoting youth creativity to fighting for justice in Standing Rock.

Over the past year, we have seen firsthand how community media can stand as an alternative to the ad-based, profit-driven mainstream media, as well as be a resource for local narratives around culture and society. Also over the past year, however, we have been witness to a national climate of increasing volatility and polarization. As we now enter into a new year, with it comes the latest challenges in our media landscape.

The challenge at the top of my mind is the increased urgency of media literacy.

Media literacy is defined, by the 1992 Aspen Media Literacy Leadership Institute, as the “ability to access, analyze, evaluate and create media in a variety of forms.” In an updated definition from the Center for Media Literacy, they go on that media literacy should promote understanding of the “essential skills of inquiry and self-expression necessary for citizens of a democracy.”

Media literacy is more than a tool for understanding, then, it is a civic duty. In an era of fake news and distrust of media, a lens of critical media literacy skills might help us better understand and engage with the community issues and world around us.

So what are the challenges that we are facing?

The 2016 presidential election, in the words of Chris Jackson of Ipsos Public Affairs, may mark “the point in modern political history when information and disinformation became a dominant electoral currency.” According to a survey conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs for BuzzFeed News, “fake news headlines fool American adults about 75 percent of the time.” Further, those using Facebook “as a major source of news are more likely to view fake news headlines as accurate than those who rely less on the platform for news.”

While fake news is a newer reality of our media landscape, a trend that has been building for years is the distrust of mass media by the public. According to Gallup, trust in mass media “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly” sunk to an all-time low in 2016, down eight points from previous year alone. Only 32 percent say that they have “a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media.”

In order to combat these challenges, we must not only hold media institutions accountable to uphold these principles of critical media literacy, we must also hold ourselves responsible as consumers. We can each adopt an attentiveness and mindfulness toward what we consume and absorb, noticing themes such as authorship, format, audience, content, and purpose. Questions to consider, therefore, as suggested by the Center for Media Literacy’s pedagogy are:

  • Who created this message?
  • What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?
  • How might different people understand this message differently from me?
  • What lifestyles, values and points of view are represented in; or omitted from, this message?
  • Why is this message being sent?

There is no easy solution to fix or improve the media landscape, but there are steps each of us can take to improve our own awareness and engagement. At Catalyst Radio, we plan to continue to ask these questions of ourselves and our guests, and thus feature stories that challenge dominant narratives and create opportunities for informed, inspiring action.

Our episode this coming Friday, January 13 will explore fake news and its implications, previewing an upcoming panel at the Grand Rapids Public Library on the topic. The episode airing on January 20th, Inauguration Day, will provide an essential historical context to the national moment we find ourselves in.

Moving forward in the year, we will continue to feature perspectives to deepen our own critical lenses, building on last year’s interviews like the basics of media literacy, the importance of civil discourse, and the way people can build democracy into online platforms.

I am a firm believer in the power of stories and media to shape ideas and shift culture. As Charles Blow reminded readers in his recent New York Times op-ed, “When politics seem out of your control, remember that community and culture are very much in your control.”

While the Community Media Center can continue to live into our mission of building community through media, particularly with this lens toward media literacy, all of us – programmers, readers, consumers alike – need to adopt our own critical perspective from which to read, write, listen, and speak. The challenges of 2017 require it of us.

Stand with Standing Rock

It feels like one of the biggest historical moments of our time is occurring right now – a confluence of both great injustice and violence, but also prayer and solidarity. The moment, or more appropriately movement, that I’m referring to is the Standing Rock resistance against construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Or, if you think of movements through the frame of hashtags, #StandwithStandingRock / #noDAPL.

I haven’t known what role I should play from my small sphere of influence in Grand Rapids, and as someone whose identities put me in the “colonizer” camp of history. How could I appropriately and meaningfully be an advocate for those suffering and putting their lives on the line to protect their land and futures? How could my public decries of what’s happening match with my daily actions in someway? How is my platform and my influencing power most usefully utilized to elevate voices and promote a narrative of mobilization and action?

Thankfully, the opportunity fell into my lap to use my radio program – Catalyst Radio – and my role as a community journalist – to provide space to have someone at the core of this issue share his story and insights. I merely asked the questions.

From his perspective as a Navajo person and as an organizer, Colby Roanhorse shared in a 30-minute interview moving insights on his time, along with the Grand Rapids group, in Standing Rock, as well as important context for the movement and concrete actions people can participate in from home.

I’ll say no more, because I really want everyone to hear this interview.

Check it out – Catalyst Radio: Grand Rapids DAPL Resistance Fellowship


Building a common life after the presidential election

This piece also appeared in the Kaufman Institute Interfaith Insight on Tuesday, Nov. 1 and the Grand Rapids Press, Muskegon Chronicle, Kalamazoo Gazette, and Jackson Herald on Nov. 3.

These past few weeks, as we have come closer to the end of an election campaign cycle that has proved ugly and divisive, I have become increasingly focused not on Nov. 8, but instead on Nov. 9 and beyond. This campaign has deepened divides among Americans, and this social reality will not disappear once we elect a new president. The concerns that have been raised, the pain that has been made public, will live on and remain necessary to address.

Eboo Patel and Krista Tippett recently addressed this topic — and their visions for where we go from here — at a recent panel I attended that was hosted by Interfaith Youth Core. Held in Chicago, the panel was titled “Diversity, Disagreement, and Democracy: Faith & Politics in an Election Year.”

Patel, founder and director of Interfaith Youth Core, and Tippett, acclaimed radio show and podcast host of “On Being,” brought wisdom and foresight to a challenging question of our time: How do we live together beyond this election?

Because, as we were reminded by Tippett: “If we don’t live together, we don’t live.”

It has become increasingly evident during this campaign cycle that we as Americans and fellow citizens hold many differences. We come from diverse backgrounds, we live out values in conflicting ways, and we hold varied ideologies. Diversity is a fact of America. But how we engage diversity is a choice.

And importantly, as Patel often notes, diversity does not just include differences we like. Diversity also includes the differences we do not like, and the differences that we would rather not engage.

These are the differences that have become most prominent during the presidential election.

But when the differences are so numerous, and the divides so vast, how can we imagine constructing a common life? When compromise is seemingly impossible amid polarized, partisan rhetoric, what hope do we have in creating circumstances for common ground to exist and flourish?

Our panelists, each coming from their own fields of interfaith engagement and journalism, brought two answers to the question of how we can build common ground and a common life: relationships and listening.

Patel reminded us that even when individuals are not able to agree or cooperate on one task or goal, there is possibility of finding another shared goal that people can work on together. The interfaith movement is rich in examples of groups that find certain projects to work together on when they remain in disagreement about other issues. Even while people from varying religious, spiritual and secular traditions have different notions of life and death, they can still find shared interests and build common ground from there.

Tippett then reminded us that political life requires not only advocates, those who seek to further their own issues and goals, but also listeners. Listening, she said, is not just about being quiet and waiting for your turn to speak. Listening is about being present, and hearing the pain or concern of another. By doing so, we enlarge our sense of the world, and deepen our understanding of ourselves and others along the way.

Relationships and listening. This may sound simplistic and idealistic to some, or like a feel-good Band-Aid to a much deeper broken system. But I believe that living out these ideas in practice is something that can truly change our communities and society.

And the reality is that these things already are creating positive change and growth for our country. The stories of people building relationships and cooperation across difference, or using listening and dialogue as a tool for social change, are the ones that I hear weekly on Tippett’s radio program. These stories are the ones that thousands of Interfaith Youth Core students and alumni across the country are promoting through their work that spans disciplines and fields.

Common ground and the common life is already being constructed through relationships and listening, but we do not hear these stories on the evening news. So part of our challenge during and after this presidential election is to not only utilize these approaches, but to pay attention and take this alternative narrative seriously.

Yes, brokenness and hopelessness are real. I see it and feel it, like many others, on a daily basis.

But a common life is still possible, because dialogue and cooperation are also real.

Let us live into this reality together, not as Democrats and Republicans or as conservatives and progressives, but as collaborators toward the common life. Because as Tippett reminded us at the panel, the “together” part of this work is not an option – it is a necessity. We live together, or we don’t live at all.

A highlight of my young career

On October 28, 2016, I was honored to attend the Interfaith Youth Core Luncheon: Diversity, Disagreement, and Democracy. On the panel, two of my heroes – Krista Tippett and Eboo Patel – explored faith and politics in an election year. As an alumna of IFYC programming, I was asked to give the introduction and share my story. Here’s a bit of the text, and here is the video of the entire panel.

It is my pleasure to be here today to celebrate Interfaith Youth Core and participate in this important conversation with the panelists and all of you.

I am Katie Gordon, and I’m an IFYC alumna currently living in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Working for the Kaufman Interfaith Institute at Grand Valley State University, I see enormous opportunities for campuses and the broader community to come together to address our shared challenges. In my free time, hosting a public affairs radio program for the Grand Rapids Community Media Center, I see the potential for media to build community and promote social change. I live and work at this intersection of interfaith cooperation and media, and try to harness the power of both to secure a “more perfect union.”

Both of these things, for me, come down to one idea: the transformative power of sharing our stories.

To back up a little bit, I first heard the word “interfaith” when I was sitting in a professor’s office, trying to make sense of the time that I had just spent in northern India. It was the fall of my sophomore year, and he very wisely distilled my hours of rambling into two insights.

He told me, “Katie, what I’m hearing is that you are passionate about two things: learning about religious traditions, and hearing people’s stories.” He suggested I look into something called “interfaith.”

Fast forward six years, and here I am, still being fed off of the stories I’ve heard as a part of the interfaith movement, stories that often don’t make the headlines.

There is a thread that connects that conversation with my professor to me, standing here today. The thread runs through an Interfaith Leadership Institute — the flagship IFYC gathering that catalyzed my interfaith leadership — and through hours of the On Being podcast, which sparked my interest in media as a tool to advance meaningful dialogue across difference.

Through my involvement with IFYC and On Being, I have come to better understand the richness and diversity within and between traditions, the complexity and variety of the human experience, and most of all, the strength of a united community. At a time when the fabric of our society seems as torn as it has ever been, I take heart in how my thread can help stitch my own community back together. I am inspired to see my fellow IFYC alumni — clergy and medical professionals, educators and policy wonks — build communities that value diversity as well as similarity, and dialogue as well as debate.

This work has also allowed me to remain hopeful – hopeful despite a polarizing climate where difference is engaged not as a way to build relationship and understanding, but as a position from which to battle. Interfaith Youth Core and On Being have provided participants and listeners like me a set of values to uphold, a method of deep listening that humanizes the other, and a set of questions to live into. IFYC and On Being continuously reveal how strong our communities and democracy can become, and how the seemingly hopeless problems of our time are nothing in the face of a growing group of committed interfaith leaders.

In that spirit, today we will hear from our esteemed panelists about how we can move forward in the midst of this divisive moment.