The Way We Make Change: A Reflection on the President’s Challenge Gathering

by Clare Stern

I heard these words last year spoken by UNF Interfaith Week Keynote Speaker, Valurie Kaur. These words echoed in my mind as I sat in a room of students, community leaders, academics, and White House officials for The Fourth Annual President’s Interfaith Community Service and Campus Challenge (President’s Challenge Conference). It is here where all people from different walks of life come together and talk best practices, challenges, and my personal favorite the shared stories and relationships that are formed. The stories that were shared connected us in our humanity and our desire and vision to see a more respectful and understanding world.

clare 2 (Left To right: Casey Roth, Me, Tyler Toomey, Adah, Shair)

As many of you know, the Better Together at UNF campaign has decided to answer the President’s Challenge by leading efforts to humanize homelessness. The conference in D.C. gave us insight into how to use resources given to us more effectively and efficiently in order to run a more successful campaign. It was all about the collective and the “WE” and how the manifestation of interfaith movement looking different everywhere you go; however at the root of it all there is a voice of respect, a foundation of relationships and partnerships, and commitment to common good.

Despite attending the conference last year, I was a bit concerned about again this year. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to have a good “take-back” to the UNF campus. I was hoping to have some ideas on programs that could be implement into our Better Together campaign and President’s Challenge Campaign on homelessness, but wasn’t really expecting to have an “aha” moment. All that to say, I broke a Safe Space Guideline statement, “Check Presumptions at the Door.” I kept thinking I was going to listen about how to apply for the Honor Roll and other things that did not pertain to my role as a student ambassador.

Oh, how I was wrong. Every person that was in attendance had a critical piece of information to share or some act that would benefit another conference attendee.

Melissa Rogers, Executive Director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships began the opening session by saying, “ Daily news reminds us of our divisions, but here it is different, our work toward the common good that brings us together across difference, is an American treasure.” I was then reminded of why I came to the conference. In that one statement I knew I was meant to hear those words, to feel empowered again, and to have purpose on my interfaith activism once again. Sometimes I wonder how do I keep that intention and purpose strong in my everyday actions, how do I explain that to someone who doesn’t know what “The Interfaith Movement” is about? My answer shortly came after Ms. Roger’s statement.

(Left to right) Dale McGowan, Trishla Jain, Eric Fingerhut, James Winkler, Najeeba Syeed-Miller, and Dr. David Campell
(Left to right) Dale McGowan, Trishla Jain, Eric Fingerhut, James Winkler, Najeeba Syeed-Miller, and Dr. David Campell

Storytelling – stories – are a place of healing and connection in our humanity. That was the answer I was given. It is often so easy to forget when we are program planning, marketing, and thinking about how to get certain numbers for one thing or another to really remember, “(t)he way we make change is just as important as the change we make.” As a member of the human race, I connect to the stories of my neighbor, teachers, friends, and loved ones more than I do to lifeless numbers, or stale charts. Yet stories, stories are ebbing and flowing while breathing life into the community and are exchanged in daily life. This is how we make change. We make it personal; we make it intentional.

Adah and I in the airport
Adah and I in the airport

While on the trip, I was reflecting with another member of my delegation and current IFYC Coach, Adah Shair and telling her after hearing such beautiful stories and wonderful happenings in the interfaith community that I was at a complete loss as to what my interfaith story was, or at least how to articulate it. She then asked me why being an Episcopalian meant something to me. I was reminded of the slogan of the Episcopal Church and it says, “ All are welcome.” This is why I as a Spiritual-Episcopalian have become involved with interfaith activism. I have grown up more or less in a community that promotes “coming as who you are, where every you are on your spiritual journey, and you will be met with kindness and friendship.”

U.S. Sec. Of Education, Arne Duncan
U.S. Sec. Of Education, Arne Duncan

This experience was transformational, the true embodiment of UNF’s theme of “No one like you. No place like this.” I am like know one else, I have my own identity and story and I was in a place where it’s never going to be the same, I am apart of an ever growing interfaith movement. Having this experience, I am able to couple these new insights and use them to direct a better campaign against homelessness and begin to create a stronger interfaith community. While at the President’s Challenge Conference, I learned that an individual story inspires collective action. Collective action inspires social change, and I am proud to be a part of the change.

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