The Beauty and Benefits of Multicultural Education by Sarah Ahrens, DRE

As part of my ongoing professional development as a religious educator, I have the opportunity to take a variety of classes in topics critical to my work. Recently, I had the pleasure of taking a module in Multicultural Religious Education.  I found the content to be deeply profound and highly applicable to the times in which we are living. I am eager to incorporate these learnings into our Religious Exploration programs, and so I felt that it was important to share the core components with the congregation.

As an introduction, multicultural education is about establishing programs which make space for multiple perspectives. It seeks to bring groups which have been on the margins into the center our focus, and it encourages those who identify with the dominant culture to challenge systems of oppression. James A. Banks, a primary theorist in multicultural education, notes that “The goal of multicultural education is an education for freedom that is essential in today’s ethnically polarized and troubled world. It promotes the freedom, abilities, and skills to cross ethnic and cultural boundaries to participate in other cultures and groups. It should help people to develop the knowledge, attitudes, and skills to participate in a democratic and free society. In a word, multicultural education is education for social justice.”

Multicultural education’s core aim is to eradicate racial, cultural, and religious stereotypes in an effort to make our society more just and humane. It is a method for showing and teaching participants in our religious education programs to do the same. By presenting and honoring the experiences and perspectives of many different kinds of people, it welcomes everyone’s stories and embraces all attributes of identity and culture, including race, gender, sexual orientation, physical and mental ability, socioeconomic status, age or stage in life, family structure, and national origin or native language. Ultimately, it is a philosophy of faith formation that should encompass the whole RE program, and indeed the entire congregation, all the time.

Ours is a multicultural society, but for centuries people who belong to culturally dominant groups have defined the language and “norms” we share and have controlled access to opportunity and power. Multicultural education will help us build societies where ALL individuals enjoy equal access to opportunities for achievement and are free to work toward individual accomplishment, unhampered by others’ biases about age, race, gender, socioeconomic status, or perceived capabilities. It provides the spiritual grounding and practical skills to help people internalize a justice-oriented lens so they may seek ways to live together in a world that values respect and equity, upholding our sixth UU Principle.

Our seventh Principle talks about an interdependent web. If we believe we are each accountable to the whole, then the diversity in our communities, nation, and world demands we address the reality and embrace the possibilities of multiculturalism. As Unitarian Universalists, we believe “revelation is not sealed.” This is a theological mandate to seek out and listen to voices from the margins of the world we think we know. The cross-cultural interaction that multicultural education promotes is fertile ground for personal, community, and world spiritual growth.  It prepares us to live flexibly and productively in an increasingly multicultural world by broadening our perspectives beyond our own experiences. Whether or not our children and youth live in communities that are diverse, they will need the ability to make authentic connections across cultural and identity differences.

Finally, our first Principle calls us to respect the inherent worth and dignity of every person. To acknowledge and honor each person’s uniqueness is a religious act. Multicultural education demonstrates and strengthens the spirit of Unitarian Universalist beloved community.  It builds an awareness of diversity and a culture of inclusion which will help all families feel comfortable in our congregations. It promotes an atmosphere in which we come together to celebrate the gifts of individuals from all backgrounds and work for the changes that will benefit us all.

I am deeply committed to bringing this lens of multicultural education to our Religious Exploration programs. In 2018, I will be working with the RE Committee to evaluate our current curriculum and make the changes necessary to shift our programs toward a multicultural focus. I welcome the gifts of feedback, insights, and inquiries from the congregation as we undertake this worthy endeavor together.

Sarah Ahrens, DRE