• Coexist Foundation
    The Coexist Foundation works globally to build religious literacy and encourage cross-cultural understanding.

    Photograph courtesy Coexist Foundation

    The World at Your Fingertips
    “Geography, culture, language—all of these things affect the dynamic of what’s happening around the world. Part of what we do is to get people to understand that there are other people out there. We’re trying to bring the world to people through our products.”
    —Dr. Tarek Elgawhary, Coexist Foundation
    By Ryan Schleeter

    Tuesday, September 17, 2013

    The Coexist Foundation is dedicated to building religious literacy and bringing people of different backgrounds together across divides. With headquarters in Washington, D.C., and London, England, Coexist operates internationally to help create cross-cultural understanding. 
     
    PROGRAM
     
    Coexist oversees a number of initiatives designed to work toward these goals. One example is its “Pause for Thought” radio program, the product of a partnership with the BBC. The show features people of different faiths offering their perspectives on a common theme. Coexist also organizes exhibits, film festivals, and concerts. Its newest initiative, the Coexist Campaign, is a model that excites Director Tarek Elgahwary. Through the making and selling of coffee and clothing, the initiative is designed to “actually measure coexistence.”
     
    “We [the Coexist Campaign] sell products that are made by people who have come together over some sort of divide—be it religious, ethnic, racial, etc. They’re bound together by the process of creating this product,” he says. “We market it and sell it under our label and then we reinvest the profits from those products into the educational side of those communities. . . . For every bag of coffee that we sell, for instance, we’re able to put one kid in school for a week.” 
     
    At the organization’s core is promoting religious literacy, or understanding. To be an informed global citizen, says Elgawhary, you have to be “literate of religion.”
     
    “It’s very difficult to be a global citizen and claim ignorance of religion,” he says. “. . . It’s about being literate, not about being religious. When someone says, ‘I’m Jewish or Christian or Buddhist or Muslim,’ how does that affect their life, their decisions, their morals?”
     
    HISTORY
     
    Coexist was founded in 2006 in the United Kingdom. The organization formed as a direct response to heightening tensions between religious and cultural groups across the world, as evidenced by a 2002 Gallup Poll of the Islamic world. As a result of the poll, Elgawhary says, “people got to see what opinions the Muslim world had of the outside world and the West, and also what people in Western countries thought of the Muslim world. There was a glaring disconnect of understanding and perceptions between the two.”
     
    Since then, Coexist has expanded the nature of its work beyond relations between the Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—to address cultural diversity more broadly. 
     
    “The point is to invest in programs that help people to understand one another,” Elgawhary says.
     
    MOST REWARDING PART OF THE PROGRAM
     
    Events like exhibitions and film screenings give the Coexist team the opportunity to grasp the impact of their work. For example, the “Three Faiths” exhibit at the New York Public Library in 2010-11 was the most-visited exhibition in the library’s history to date, even without a significant marketing campaign from Coexist. 
     
    The Coexist Campaign makes this impact even more tangible
     
    “Now with the Campaign, we can see the kids in the schools,” Elgawhary says. “We know we’re onto something because we know people are interested.”
     
    MOST CHALLENGING PART OF THE PROGRAM
     
    “Believe it or not, there are people out there who don’t believe in what we do,” Elgawhary says. “(But) those are the people that motivate us every day to continue. Sometimes it’s very hard to believe that there are people who disagree with the premise that we should understand one another.”
     
    Other challenges stem from being a relatively young organization seeking to define the way it is perceived and at the same time inspire a widespread movement. 
     
    “We want to popularize what we’re doing,” Elgawhary says. “We’re trying to take a grass roots approach with the Campaign. That’s the challenge in and of itself: to actually make it popular. . . . Sometimes we fear that what we’re actually doing will get lost in translation because everyone has their own interpretation. Trying to attach a well-defined meaning to a word or a movement is very challenging.”
     
    GEO-CONNECTION
     
    Coexist’s programs, particularly the Campaign, take cultural and historical geography into account every step of the way. 
     
    “The projects that we support are geographically very widespread,” Elgawhary says. “For example, with the coffee cooperative we support in Uganda, we actually know the geographic locations and the differences between the north and the south and the history of the region. Geography is very much a part of the context.”
     
    Because of this geographic base, helping people become aware of regional differences is key to achieving the Campaign’s core goals. 
     
    “Geography, culture, language—all of these things affect the dynamic of what’s happening around the world,” Elgawhary says. “Part of what we do is to get people to understand that there are other people out there. We’re trying to bring the world to people through our products.”
     
    GET INVOLVED
     
    To truly make the world a more tolerant and understanding place, the first step is to “recognize good” where it exists in the world, Elgawhary says. 
     
    “We hope that people will share these stories with their children and their students to inspire them and help people start thinking of the world in a different way. We want to help people conquer the challenges they face as they grow up.” 
  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    Abrahamic religions Plural Noun

    faiths that trace their origins to the Jewish patriarch Abraham: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

    BBC adjective, noun

    (British Broadcasting Corporation) semi-autonomous British public-service broadcaster.

    Buddhist Noun

    person who follows the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha).

    Christian Noun

    people and culture focused on the teachings of Jesus and his followers.

    citizenship Noun

    behavior of a person in terms of their community.

    context Noun

    set of facts having to do with a specific event or situation.

    cooperative Noun

    business owned and operated by a small group of people for their own benefit. Also called a co-op.

    diversity Noun

    difference.

    exhibit Noun

    display, often in a museum.

    geography Noun

    study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.

    Encyclopedic Entry: geography
    global citizen Noun

    person who recognizes the rights and responsibilities, according to the UN Global Education First Initiative, "associated with the interconnected global challenges that call for far-reaching changes in how we think and act for the dignity of fellow human beings." 

    grass roots Adjective

    made up of people who are not socially or economically elite and do not represent the government.

    headquarters Noun

    place where an organization or project is chiefly located.

    initiative Noun

    first step or move in a plan.

    interpretation Noun

    way of understanding an event or set of facts.

    invest Verb

    to contribute time or money.

    Jewish Adjective

    having to do with the religion or culture of people tracing their ancestry to the ancient Middle East and the spiritual leaders Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

    literacy Noun

    ability to read and write.

    marketing Noun

    art and science of selling a product.

    moral Noun

    principle or habit influenced by a person or community's sense of justice, righteousness, or good.

    motivate Verb

    to inspire or cause.

    motivation Noun

    process or desire to act in a certain way, or toward a specific goal.

    Muslim Adjective

    having to do with Islam, the religion based on the words and philosophy of the prophet Mohammed.

    perceive Verb

    to understand, especially by viewing.

    perception Noun

    understanding or point of view.

    premise Noun

    assumption or supporting idea.

    profit Noun

    money earned after production costs and taxes are subtracted.

    religion Noun

    a system of spiritual or supernatural belief.

    significant Adjective

    important or impressive.

    tangible Adjective

    able to be touched or felt.

    tension Noun

    uncomfortable relationship between two people or groups.

    tolerant Adjective

    interested and respectful of people and culture whose ideas, opinions, and practices differ from one's own.

    United Kingdom Noun

    nation made of the countries of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.

    valid adjective, noun

    legitimate, fair, or logical.

    West Noun

    having to do with the developed nations of Europe and North America.

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