Ford Foundation Awards $100,000 Each To LaGuardia Community College And Queens College For Religious Tolerance Projects — Two Queens Institutions Among Only 26 Chosen Nationwide —

QUEENS, NY, December 14, 2005—LaGuardia Community College and Queens College of the City University of New York have each received a $100,000 grant from the Ford Foundation to implement programs that will engage members of the college and surrounding ethnic communities in a dialogue on religious issues. Other awardees among the group of 26 were Barnard College, Yale University, University of Michigan, and University of Wisconsin.

The new LaGuardia program is entitled Let Everyone Remain Free. “This project will prepare LaGuardia faculty and staff to better address the issues of religious pluralism in the contemporary world and on our campus,” says President Gail O. Mellow. “And it will allow our college and the religious community the chance to discuss these sensitive topics in a thoughtful and constructive way.”

The Queens College project, The Middle East and America: Clash of Civilizations or Meeting of the Minds, builds upon History Professor Mark Rosenblum’s nationally acclaimed pilot project to promote understanding and informed discussion about the Middle East conflict on campus, in high schools, and in the larger community. Says President James Muyskens: “Colleges and universities have a moral, social, and educational imperative to probe difficult issues and find solutions to seemingly intractable problems. Professor Rosenblum’s project is doing just that by stimulating dialogue and creating an extraordinary learning community. It is deeply gratifying that the Ford Foundation has recognized these accomplishments and the value of moving our project to the next level.”

Both LaGuardia, which is called “The World’s Community College,” and Queens College are ideal institutions to explore religious issues as they are located in Queens, the nation’s most ethnically diverse county. Students from more than 150 nations, representing nearly every religion, can be found on their campuses.

The funding source is the Ford Foundation’s Difficult Dialogues initiative, designed to help institutions of higher education promote an open campus environment where sensitive subjects can be discussed in the face of reports of growing intolerance. The goal is to help institutions address these challenges through academic and campus programs that enrich learning, encourage new scholarship, and engage students and faculty in constructive dialogue about contentious political, religious, racial, and cultural issues.

“Colleges and universities are uniquely suited to expand knowledge, understanding, and discussion of controversial issues that affect us all,” said Susan V. Berresford, president of the Ford Foundation. “The selected projects illustrate the thoughtful and creative ways institutions are promoting intellectually rigorous scholarship and open debate that is essential to higher education.”

The LaGuardia Project
The college’s winning proposal is a four-part program.

First, the college will reach out to the community and establish “study circles,” bringing together campus and community representatives. As many as 20 study circles—made up of eight to 12 people each—will meet for five two-hour sessions to talk about the relationship between educational institutions and the religious community.

“Discussions will examine the sources of tension, opportunities for collaboration, and the American traditions of religious freedom and academic freedom,” says Rosemary Talmadge, the project coordinator who will oversee the study circles. “Through these candid conversations, each study circle will strive to develop strategies for community action and ways to build a productive relationship with the diverse religious communities of Queens.”

The second way the college will address the issue of religious diversity is by having students videotape personal narratives that describe their religious upbringing and experiences. This process, called digital storytelling, will allow hundreds of students to explore the diversity of religious experiences in Queens.

“Through digital storytelling,” says Ms. Talmadge, “students will be able to explore and share their religious experiences in an open and intellectual environment.”

The initiative’s third component will have faculty design new educational materials on religious diversity in America that will be integrated into existing curricula. Faculty will also be invited to participate in a yearlong faculty development seminar where they will explore the role of religious diversity in American life.

The fourth and culminating project is a campus-wide event that will bring together students, faculty, and community members who have participated in the three other activities. During this all-day event, students will share their digital stories, faculty will showcase their newly developed teaching approaches, and members of the study circles will describe their work and plans for future activities.

The Queens College Project
The Middle East and America: Clash of Civilizations or Meeting of the Minds, begun in fall 2004, initially brought together 15 Queens College undergraduates—Jews, Muslims, and Christians—for research and discussion of the Arab-Israeli conflict. They were joined by an assistant principal and seven history and world studies teachers from five Queens high schools. Keenly aware that the Middle East conflict is a volatile topic, the teachers used their experience in the course to create their own curricula and programs. Non-matriculating senior citizens also participated in this unique multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and multi-generational course.

The curriculum included films, readings, and lectures by guest speakers representing different viewpoints. Among the nationally prominent guests were Omar Dajani, former senior legal adviser and member of the Palestinian delegation at Camp David in 2000 and 2001, and Janine Zacharia, Washington bureau chief for the English-language Israeli daily The Jerusalem Post.

A critical component of the course was an assignment Professor Rosenblum calls “Walk in the Others’ Shoes.” After taking a test that revealed their outlook on Middle East issues, the students spent the next 10 weeks conducting research and, ultimately, presenting a persuasive case for the opposite perspective. “This approach is Rubik’s cube education, looking at the struggle from many angles,” says Professor Rosenblum.

The program continued throughout the fall 2005 semester, greatly expanding its outreach to public high school teachers and students. On Election Day alone, 45 teachers from four boroughs attended presentations and discussions at the college, culminating with a visit to a multimedia photo exhibition, This Land to Me: Some Call it Palestine, Others Israel. The exhibit in the Godwin-Ternbach Museum explores the conflict through life-size photographs and audio, first-person narratives of a cross section of Israelis and Palestinians.

Professor Michael Krasner, a Queens College political scientist and co-founder of The Middle East and America: Clash of Civilizations or Meeting of the Minds project, will be co-teaching the spring 2006 course, which will examine the role of mass media in portraying the conflict. Guest speakers from the New York Times and other media outlets will generate discussion in the class. Students and teachers will also have access to a permanent reference center of original print and video source materials on the conflict that is being developed at Queens College.

“This grant comes at an opportune moment in the life of our Middle East education project, which is designed to give hope without delusion,” says Rosenblum. “We have been overwhelmed—in the positive sense—with requests from high schools citywide to provide teachers with curricular and other educational tools to help students understand the conflict in all its complexity. The timing of the grant is also symbolic, because the Israeli and Palestinian elections will soon occur, potentially providing a plausible exit from the murder and mayhem. The Ford Foundation funds will allow us to implement our growing project at this very critical time.”

Mark Rosenblum, director of the Michael Harrington Center for Democratic Values and Social Change at Queens College, has been directly involved in Middle East conflict resolution since the 1980s.

This fall the Clinton Global Initiative selected another Middle East project designed by Professor Rosenblum as one of two initial programs focusing on religion and conflict resolution. Professor Rosenblum has met with President George W. Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, King Abdullah II, and the late Yasir Arafat. His peace efforts include organizing and moderating six international conferences with PLO and Israeli leaders; founding the Israeli-Palestinian Youth Dialogue program; and authoring a series of highly regarded insider reports, “Negotiations Watch” and “Jerusalem Watch.” In 1999 the Forward newspaper named Mark Rosenblum one of the 50 most influential American Jews.

The Ford Foundation’s Difficult Dialogues Project
The Ford Foundation launched Difficult Dialogues in April 2005 by inviting proposals from all accredited, degree-granting, non-profit institutions with general undergraduate programs. Over 675 preliminary proposals were submitted, signaling widespread interest in finding effective ways to teach and discuss sensitive topics. A panel of higher education experts reviewed the preliminary proposals and selected 136 institutions to submit final proposals.

Difficult Dialogues is part of a broader, $12 million effort by the Ford Foundation to understand and combat anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of bigotry in the United States and Europe. It builds on the foundation’s history of supporting efforts by colleges and universities to foster more inclusive campus environments and to engage effectively with the growing racial, religious, and ethnic diversity of their student bodies.

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