WSU alumna's interfaith dialogue places her on Obama's Advisory Council
"What's the point of interfaith dialogue?"
Aziza Hasan, Wichita State University alumna, says that this is a question she is frequently asked in her line of work.
As the first WSU alumna appointed to the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, Hasan is excited to be able to address this question with people from all different backgrounds. The council’s newest members, who were announced by President Obama in September, include leaders and experts from various fields who will come together to address the needs of different low-income communities.
“It’s people offering something of value to the people around them,” says Hasan, who works to resolve conflict through the organization she co-founded, NewGround: The Muslim Jewish Partnership for Change.
The organization, founded in 2006, seeks to inspire people not to shy away from conflict, but to embrace hard conversations with curiosity and questions.
“We were founded on being able to have these really difficult conversations and being able to hear each other out,” Hasan says.
Hasan has a passion for resolving conflict that stems from being a member of a multicultural, multi-faith family. Despite the fact that her parents came from two different backgrounds, they made sure their home was a place of calm and love and connection, regardless of what was going on in the world outside. Hasan attributes her desire to face confrontation to her family life.
“It’s something I had to learn over and over and over again,” Hasan says. “It was necessary to survival to hear, see and respond in ways that nurtured family.”
With the 10-year anniversary of her company approaching, Hasan reflects on what her favorite aspect of NewGround is: Change-Makers.
Change-Makers is one of the core components of NewGround; a fellowship program for emerging leaders of the Jewish and Muslim faiths. The fellowship consists of 20 young professionals who meet over the course of 10 months to develop conflict resolution and communication skills, addressing difficult issues such as Israel and Palestine, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.
“People are literally putting their faith into action,” says Hasan about the program. “It’s taking these words and identities and putting them into action to help the community.”
The fellowship allows Muslims and Jews to eliminate common stereotypes and biases, enabling them to break down barriers. These authentic relationships allow individuals to train a new generation of leaders in the community.
When Hasan founded NewGround, she says that skepticism was very strong. It was an organization that directly addressed two groups of people who historically did not get along.
“Things would fall apart (in the Middle East) and people wouldn’t be able to look at each other in the eyes,” Hasan says. “It hurt businesses and it hurt progress.”
The organization’s success is partly a result of a change in attitude from the culture as a whole.
“More and more people are starting to see the importance of embracing diversity as a strength,” Hasan says.
Diversity is one of the things Hasan calls to mind when she reflects on her time at WSU, where she spent two years studying for her master’s degree. She recalls the many speakers flown in who addressed tough subjects.
“They would talk about things that weren’t easy to talk about, and they would make people laugh,” Hasan says.
She remembers Wichita State as a place that nurtured diversity and community, and says graduate school helped her think critically and look at the world in a different way.
“Graduate school is all about tearing down different ideas and developing new ones,” Hasan says.
Deborah Gordon, associate professor in women’s studies and religion, remembers Hasan’s time at WSU well.
“She already had experience and interest in interfaith organizing, but her thesis helped her to develop a nationally visible career,” Gordon says. “I’ve watched her become an institution-builder and am not surprised by the President’s Advisory Council seeking out her expertise and leadership.”