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Millennial Interfaith Action

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What does it mean to "mobilize" a movement for social justice in the Internet Age? The word "mobilization" has strong associations for the Boomer Generation, when organizing hundreds to march, rally or take part in a sit-in was the visible manifestation of social justice activism.

But to the Millennial Generation (often thought of as those born since 1981), which grew up immersed in new technologies, it might mean something quite different -- even if the impact is every bit as significant.

Mobilizing Millennials might not mean getting 1,000 people together for a march or rally. It might not mean organizing 50 in-person meetings with elected officials. It might instead mean getting 100,000 people to click a button online and show with credibility the manifold response that would take place if a key change did not happen -- and happen quickly.

This question of mobilization for social justice causes was of key interest at a recent gathering about inter-generational collaboration on interfaith social justice causes at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Highlighting social justice visionaries of the Boomer Generation, including Rabbi David Saperstein, the Rev. Julie Johnson Staples and Dr. Azizah al-Hibri, it sought to draw from the pivotal interfaith social justice efforts of one generation to inform the actions of the next.

What emerged in the course of conversation was a display of continuity in causes and profound change in the methods of engaging those causes.

When asked what the most pressing social justice issue of our time was, Rev. Staples responded that it was equality for women, Dr. al-Hibri replied that it was the basic understanding of human equality, and Rabbi Saperstein highlighted global warming, the proliferation of unconventional weapons, and wealth disparities.

One would be hard-pressed to find socially minded Millennials who do not care about these causes. There is clear overlap in the focus of social justice leaders across generations. The difference, however, may lie in how Millennials organize around these causes and effectuate change.

To take but one prominent example of online social justice mobilization, the "It Gets Better" project was created to counter isolation and bullying that young LGBT people far too often experience. Rather than organizing a rally or in-person event, it created an online movement and inspired "50,000 user-created videos, viewed more than 50 million times."

Initiated by prominent author Dan Savage (who, interestingly, is not himself a Millennial but actively engages with and finds much of his audience among Millennials), it capitalized on Internet technology to advance a key social justice cause -- namely, support for young LGBT people.

Of significance, the project describes itself not merely as a campaign, but also as a "place," in much the same way that a rally or gathering would have been considered a place of mobilization for the Boomer Generation:

ItGetsBetter.org is a place where young people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender can see how love and happiness can be a reality in their future. It's a place where our straight allies can visit and support their friends and family members. It's a place where people can share their stories, take the It Gets Better Project pledge and watch videos of love and support.

By bringing a campaign intended for Millennials online, it amplified its impact and created a presence more enduring and numerically significant than would have been possible in-person. Though the space it created was online, its impact on young LGBT people and their families and allies was personal.

There is a fundamental shift afoot in the way social justice causes are pursued. As the three panelists made clear, organizations from across the spectrum of religious and ethical traditions can and should play a critical role in guiding social change and mobilizing people in support of it.

But as the gap between thought and action narrows, such that a Facebook "like" can mean participation, a blog post mobilization, and a YouTube video leadership in a social justice movement, the means by which social justice will be realized in the world are changing rapidly.

Thankfully, this change is not without precedent within many of our religious and ethical traditions. For me, it is somewhat reminiscent of the classic rabbinical debate captured in Kiddushin 40b of the Babylonian Talmud. The question raised is whether study or action is greater. On the one hand, study without action might be frivolous. On the other, action without study might be misguided. The rabbis ultimately conclude that study is more important for it inherently leads to action.

For Millennials, study -- and meaningful interchanges that lead to learning in all of its many forms -- is perceived to more rapidly lead to action than it may have been for other generations. Interconnected and mutually inspired, they may join social justice causes, and interfaith coalitions that pursue them, through online spaces in which to connect, learn, and act with others. For Millennials who grew up with new technology, these three discreet steps are more readily coming to resemble a single one. It is in this merged step that the future of interfaith action for social justice causes may reside.

The program was brought to you by the Nelson Mandela Center at the Museum for African Art and is in part made possible by a generous grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. The event was hosted by leaders of the Milstein Center for Interreligious Dialogue at the Jewish Theological Seminary, which also provided the video for this article.