Living with Difference: How to Build Community in a Divided World

Living with Difference: How to Build Community in a Divided World

Living with Difference: How to Build Community in a Divided World

Living with Difference: How to Build Community in a Divided World

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Whether looking at divided cities or working with populations on the margins of society, a growing number of engaged academics have reached out to communities around the world to address the practical problems of living with difference. This book explores the challenges and necessities of accommodating difference, however difficult and uncomfortable such accommodation may be. Drawing on fourteen years of theoretical insights and unique pedagogy, CEDAR—Communities Engaging with Difference and Religion—has worked internationally with community leaders, activists, and other partners to take the insights of anthropology out of the classroom and into the world. Rather than addressing conflict by emphasizing what is shared, Living with Difference argues for the centrality of difference in creating community, seeking ways not to overcome or deny differences but to live with and within them in a self-reflective space and practice. This volume also includes a manual for organizers to implement CEDAR’s strategies in their own communities.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520284128
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 01/12/2016
Series: California Series in Public Anthropology , #37
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Adam B. Seligman is Director of CEDAR and Professor of Religion at Boston University.

Rahel R. Wasserfall is Director of Training and Evaluation for CEDAR and a resident scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University.

David W. Montgomery is Director of Program Development for CEDAR.

Read an Excerpt

Living with Difference

How to Build Community in a Divided World

By Adam B. Seligman, Rahel R. Wasserfall, David W. Montgomery


Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95977-4


The Story of Practice

A radical Muslim activist from the United Kingdom, organizer of anti-Israel demonstrations and Relief for Gaza convoys, calls home in dismay when she finds herself participating in a program with Zionists — and then sums it up after two weeks saying, "I learned I could be friends with people I hate."


The key to the CEDAR approach is the requirement that participants, known as fellows, confront one another's differences — and then learn how to live with them anyway. In two intensive weeks of combined lectures, site visits, and hands-on learning, these fellows experience unfamiliar religious customs, grapple with beliefs that contradict their own, reexamine lifelong assumptions, and figure out how to share time and space.

CEDAR programs create new social and interpersonal spaces, broadening the range of possibilities to present a new way of "living together differently." They do not seek to build a new community in which everyone agrees and shares the same assumptions, but rather to teach people how to live with their different understandings of home, life, faith, worlds of meaning, and belonging. In short, they model the reality of how to live in our existing communities with people who are not like us — whether these differences are religious, national, tribal, linguistic, or sexual.

CEDAR was conceived of during a multireligious discussion around a restaurant table in the central market of Sarajevo in December 2001. There, against a background of wartime destruction, a conversation among a group of Jews, Muslims, and Christians sparked the idea for an experimental program using religion as a tool for understanding, not as a weapon for intolerance. In 2003 CEDAR launched its first two-week program in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia as the International Summer School on Religion and Public Life, creating a unique model for people with divergent religious identities to live with, recognize, and learn about "the other" together. Since then, the school has been held in a different country or countries each year, meeting in over a dozen locations on four continents. During its first decade of operation, it attracted more than four hundred fellows from fifty countries and a variety of backgrounds.

In 2013 the school changed its name to CEDAR and transformed itself as an organization. Instead of running one school a year, under the direction of an international team and local hosts, CEDAR is now an international network of programs — in Africa, the Balkans, and North America. The different programs that we have run over the last fourteen years have taught all involved a good deal about difference and how to get people to live with difference — not just with the cognitive dissonance it produces but also with the challenges to building trusting relations across different communities of belonging that result. We learned early that while religion may be a prime marker of difference, it is far from the only one. As we expanded our programs beyond the first schools in Bosnia, Croatia, and Israel, we gradually realized that the issues we were addressing were not limited to differences between religions, or even to those between religious and secular individuals. We came to recognize as well the importance of ethnic and tribal identities, and of sexual orientation, as sites of conflict, intolerance, and distrust among many people. Consequently, we integrated these themes into our programming.

We learned too that shared experience, as opposed to academic learning, is critical to providing a safe space in which people can explore their differences, even in the face of challenges to their own taken-for-granted categories and expectations. Shared experiences provide the frame within which fellows process and make sense of intellectual analysis. In addition, we came to realize just how important the group itself was to the work we wished to accomplish. In the first years of programming, we believed that the "other" whom the fellows would encounter, interact with, and come to understand was someone in the selected environment: Palestinian refugee camps, gay and lesbian churches, Alevi communities in Istanbul, Pomak villages in Bulgaria, and so on. What we discovered, however, was that these site visits and meetings were really just the backdrop for the real encounter — of the fellows with one another. We realized then how critical it was to bring together fellows from all over the world with as much diversity as possible in race, nation, ethnicity, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, profession, and so on. The "other," we came to recognize, was not outside the group, but inside — and it was in that internal encounter, and the act of building a group despite these multiple differences, that the key learning took place.

With time, we came to appreciate the importance of "reflective practice" in a program such as ours, and we decided to have an internal evaluator function as a resident anthropologist in every program. In dealing with the myriad problems that arise in a program that necessarily makes the details of so many private lives issues of public concern — matters of halal and kosher food, of prayer time for those so obligated, of restricted travel on holy days, and so on — the "executive" branch has little opportunity on the ground to reflect on its concrete decisions and their implications. To learn what works and what does not — indeed, just to keep one's finger on the pulse of the program as it develops during those intense two weeks — it is critical to have someone present whose only job is to observe, question, and record the significant events of the day. Hard data are much more reliable than anecdotal recollections in answering questions such as the following: Did people of different communities eat together, or did they stay with their own countrymen? How did most of the fellows react to the challenging meeting with the gay and lesbian community in the Birmingham church? Did certain groups feel excluded from one or another activity — or, alternatively, coerced into participating in one? As an evaluating tool, this reflective practice helps us assess the learning outcomes. Every year the internal evaluator produces a long, detailed report that enables staff and organizers to learn from their mistakes, as well as showing the staff how fellows responded to the programming. Each year this process allows staff to create and integrate new aspects into the programming after they reflect on the data collected. We discuss the importance and insights of such a reflective practice much more in chapters 3 and 4.

Finally, we discovered — often the hard way — that the group needed to be by itself at times, to form itself sometimes in opposition to staff and organizers, and to have time and space to construct its own intimate spaces of trust and shared difference. So we encouraged the development of small facilitation groups of five or six fellows, without staff supervision, as a vehicle for trust building and shared experience. The challenge that fellows then immediately faced was mediating between their membership in these small groups and that of the whole group of thirty fellows. It took a good deal of time to comprehend these processes and to recognize their importance.

After over a decade of trial and error — holding daily staff meetings during the schools, debriefing following them, and poring over evaluation reports — we have produced a body of knowledge and a methodology, as well as a comprehensive pedagogy that is universally applicable and which those trained in it can adopt to operate their own programs. It is this pedagogy that we present here.


On Tuesday, July 12, 2005, the tenth day of the two-week program, we boarded our bus just after breakfast to visit the Palestinian village of Anata. It is only four miles from the center of Jerusalem to Anata, but as the bus slowly moved through traffic toward the West Bank, the transition was palpable. Soon enough the main road became a smaller street, and the architecture changed from apartment buildings to one-story houses. We found ourselves in a small town set on a winding road on an arid-looking hill, trying to find the house of the mother of the Palestinian Authority's deputy chief of security, whom we were scheduled to meet. As our bus driver navigated the narrow street, we looked at the small stores whose merchandise overflowed onto the street. The houses in Anata were large, multifamily structures that opened onto the street through long, glassed-in verandas. Wasserfall took note of the blues and the greens of the verandas interspersed with the white of the stones and the strong light of this dry, Middle Eastern day. As we finally arrived at the house and climbed the few steps to the veranda, we were welcomed by a ten-year-old, who fetched drinks for the group. Nobody else was there, and the house felt eerily empty. We finally learned that the deputy chief had been dragged from his car and beaten senseless by Hamas activists while en route to meet us. The initial response of the Israeli Jews in our group to his nonappearance was, in essence, that once again there was "no one to speak to," that Palestinians "are not interested in meeting; they are ignoring us; they are refusing us recognition." Once we had ascertained the reason, however, the Israeli Palestinians began to air their taken-for-granted assumptions: "Why didn't you find someone else? Our voice is never heard." (As can be imagined, it had taken months and months to arrange this meeting, and it was simply not possible to turn on a dime and find someone else to replace the deputy minister.)

* * *

After a long day under the hot July sun in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, we were all happy to reconvene in the air-conditioned room at the university. The atmosphere was pleasant, with people joking, when staff introduced a quandary to the group. Staff had not been able to decide among themselves if the group should or should not attend an Orthodox ritual that happens once a year in Plovdiv. Because people had been late boarding our bus the previous Sunday, we had missed worship at the Bulgarian Orthodox church in Velingrad-Kamenitza. Staff felt that this situation was not acceptable, since our tardiness had prevented our Orthodox fellows from participating in a mass. The local host had explained to the staff that there would be a special event happening the following Saturday night, just one day before the end of the program: a special liturgy read only once a year at the end of a long service. Some staff thought that this would be a wonderful opportunity for our Orthodox fellows. The caveat was that only baptized Orthodox individuals could attend this part of the liturgy, and that the church's metropolitan, being a highly traditional person, would not allow others in the church at this time. Staff were afraid that the metropolitan would single out people who were obviously not Orthodox, such as people of color or those wearing the hijab, and worried that some of our fellows might not be able to attend the whole service, although it would start with a public procession that everyone could watch. Unable to agree on the importance of the visit for our program, the staff brought it to the fellows to negotiate among themselves. The atmosphere in the room changed as we learned about this possibility. One black African fellow (a priest, actually) said, "And do not tell me that it is not because of my skin color that I will not be invited in. I will not believe you." He feared that he and his friends would be singled out because of their race. In the case of the Muslim women, it was their religion that would bar their entry. In the discussion that followed, a Bulgarian Orthodox man asked one of the Muslim women why she could not remove her hijab, saying, "For God's sake, you were not born with it!" The room exploded. Some fellows were appalled; others clapped in agreement. The noise actually drowned the second part of what he said: "And if you are asked to leave, even if I do not really understand that hijab thing, I will leave with you, as an act of solidarity."

* * *

The Metropolitan Church in Birmingham, England, is in a hardscrabble area of town, close to the railroad overpass and off some deserted streets. Its marginal status reflects that of the gay and lesbian community it serves. It is not surprising, then, that when confronted with close to forty foreign visitors from Israel, Palestine, Belarus, Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Kyrgyzstan, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa, Uzbekistan, and the United States, the congregants wanted to make the visitors feel welcome and accepted. To that end they invited each member of the group to take a flower from the central table, meditate on it, return it to the table, and then take the flower of another person who had done the same. Somewhere in the middle of the proceedings it was announced that all were partaking in the "Flower Communion," a ritual recognized by the Unitarian Universalist Church. We can still see the faces of the two Muslim women (with heads covered) and one Jewish woman when the word communion was uttered. Flowers in hand, they were at a total loss — not knowing what to do or how to retreat from this ritual, which was after all Christian and so not theirs, but also not wanting to offend their hosts. We recall the chagrin of one of our Protestant fellows at the violation of boundaries between communities that sharing a communion implied (for him). The irony was that the English organizing team had feared that fellows from the Balkans, Middle East, and Far East might have trouble with the homosexuality of the church members, which turned out not to be the case at all; rather, the problems revolved around boundaries and the feeling of violation, perhaps even subtle religious coercion, that some experienced that day.

* * *

Incidents like these three happen every year, in every school, regardless of the formal topic. They are where the real learning of the school takes place. The daily lectures, facilitation work in small groups, and site visits (to which all these stories pertain) are the structure, or scaffolding, upon which the real learning of the group, as a group, takes place. The process of sharing an experience, sorting out just what was and was not shared, and then constructing a common story of what happened is one of the school's prime learning tools. Real knowledge begins to emerge on the morning following the church visit in Birmingham, or the visit to the village of Anata, or the ceremony in the church in Plovdiv, when the group dissects the experience, begins to understand what happened, and sees how individuals with different group identities experienced what appeared to be a shared event differently. Christians taking part in the ritual came to see that the Muslims and Jews could not participate in the Flower Communion as they did. Some even came to appreciate the distance that at least one Protestant participant felt from a ritual that included all and, hence, seemed to belie the very purpose of ritual action. White participants could begin to understand the feelings of the Zimbabwean priest on being told he might be asked to leave the Orthodox church, and Israelis and Palestinians began to see how their own previous experiences made it virtually impossible to understand the plain meaning of the day's unfolding events (the deputy chief's absence).

This type of learning can take place only over time, after repeated meetings, as participants build a certain amount of trust in one another. To learn from shared experience, they must not only share the experience but also process it, give it form and language, and turn it into a story that they can tell others and, in so doing, make part of their common memory. The cognitive (academic, lecture-oriented) sessions of the school and the facilitation groups of five or six fellows (who remain a group throughout the program and share thoughts among themselves in response to questions posed by staff and related to school themes) — which are discussed in greater length in chapter 3 — are all necessary tools to help formulate and validate what participants go through together.

While the situations described in the three vignettes occur in every school, usually more than once or twice in a program, they are not the stuff of everyday life there but only one aspect of it. For participants, daily routine at the school is, after all, a bustle of getting to class on time, or finding the buses taking them on the daily trips, or figuring out what staff meant in today's facilitation question ("Relate a time when you were uncomfortable in a sacred space, whether sacred to your community of belonging or to that of another group"), or managing not to be last in the lunch line — or, perhaps most important, figuring out just who all these other fellows are and what the program is really about.

The daily lectures are (mostly) very interesting, though some lecturers are clearly more skilled than others. Being in a foreign country with so many unfamiliar people is, of course, fascinating. The daily trips too are both enjoyable and informative. Yet participants develop the sense early on that the trips are not simply that, but are actually connected in some way — not only to the lectures but also to some other aspect of the program that has not yet made itself felt. From the second or third day, fellows begin to feel that something is being asked or expected of them that is not in the advertised program — something other than absorbing information and processing new knowledge of the history or sociology or theology of the places they are living in or visiting.

Usually by the beginning of the second week, this inchoate sense begins slowly to find form: something is going on that has nothing to do with the lectures, or the trips, or even the small facilitation groups. What is going on is, in fact, the gradual restructuring of possibilities, the opening of new ways of thinking and interacting with others, and the emergence of new understandings understandings of self in such interactions. Accepted definitions of self and other are challenged; long-established borders, or the lack thereof, are renegotiated; and a new sense, not only of difference, but also of the possibility of being "together apart," begins to dawn. Participants recognize that it is not necessary to tell themselves a story either of sameness or of converging interests in order to share a world with others. These modes of mutuality and civility, rooted in either a market model of social life (interests) or a more communitarian view of shared or common visions, are not the only options possible. Fellows can, in fact — and they learn this in fits and starts, over the course of the program — "live together differently" without conformity. Slowly — though every year is different in its rhythm, cadences, and the extent to which group processes are articulated openly — a group of difference is formed and a new form of solidarity tested.


Excerpted from Living with Difference by Adam B. Seligman, Rahel R. Wasserfall, David W. Montgomery. Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. The Story of Practice
2. A Pedagogy of Community
3. A Community of Pedagogy
4. Ethnographies of Difference
5. Living with Difference
6. On Boundaries, Difference, and Shared Worlds

Appendix A. Signposts for Organizers
Appendix B. Guide for Evaluators
Appendix C. Study Questions for Discussion
Appendix D. Further Readings

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