The Muslims Down Under Podcast

Empowering Youth, Transforming Communities - With Tanja Hagedorn

March 21, 2024 Muslims Down Under Season 5 Episode 3
Empowering Youth, Transforming Communities - With Tanja Hagedorn
The Muslims Down Under Podcast
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The Muslims Down Under Podcast
Empowering Youth, Transforming Communities - With Tanja Hagedorn
Mar 21, 2024 Season 5 Episode 3
Muslims Down Under

In this insightful episode, we explore the power of education to combat societal norms and encourage critical thinking. Tanja Hagedorn, a leading voice in intercultural understanding, reveals her insights into building inclusive school communities and empowering young minds.

Listen to the full podcast episode below or read through an abridged transcript.

Muslims Down Under is a platform that aims to #ChangeTheNarrative one conversation at a time.
Join us, and help spread the word. Together we can do so much more!

Show Notes Transcript

In this insightful episode, we explore the power of education to combat societal norms and encourage critical thinking. Tanja Hagedorn, a leading voice in intercultural understanding, reveals her insights into building inclusive school communities and empowering young minds.

Listen to the full podcast episode below or read through an abridged transcript.

Muslims Down Under is a platform that aims to #ChangeTheNarrative one conversation at a time.
Join us, and help spread the word. Together we can do so much more!

 Bushra: Welcome back to another episode of the Muslims Down Under Podcast. Today, I have with me, Tanja Hagedorn from Together for Humanity. Together for Humanity is an inclusive educational organisation that works with school communities to foster intercultural understanding and help students learn how to deal with differences. Tanja is a Queensland Education Coordinator and has been working in the youth education space for more than 20 years. She has a wealth of experience and knowledge about challenging biases and societal norms, encouraging critical thinking and empowering people. So welcome to the podcast, Tanja. It's a pleasure to speak with you today. 

Tanja: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. 

Bushra: So, Tanja I first heard you speak at an international peace conference last year. And Tanja, I remember, you were the keynote speaker at this conference, and one thing that I took away from your talk, was not the theoretical or the broad-level concepts that we often talk about at conferences regarding peace-building, but in your speech, you talked about the more practical aspects of what you do, and you explained how the work you do actually impacts people in their everyday lives. So I'd like to start by asking you, if you could share for our listeners, firstly your role at Together for Humanity, but also the impact this is having and share some practical personal experiences or insights that showcase these impacts. 

Tanja: Sure. Thank you. Yeah, as you said in the introduction my role is the Queensland Education Coordinator, which means that within the the variety of projects and programmes that we run at Together for Humanity, I'm responsible for the school programmes. I usually see sort of the everyday running of our work. So most of it is done in metro areas, but we're also going to other areas of Queensland. 

So, we have a variety of programmes and presentations that are presented to students as well as teachers, and the aim very often is just to raise awareness, a lot of times it is about just awakening something that students realise, that they do carry bias, and they have brought into stereotypes, they have prejudice and that in itself is not a problem, but to recognise that, is really important. So we have a one-hour programme that we present at schools that just raises that kind of awareness, and then from there, it encourages conversation. 

So, what we encourage students to do is if they come to someone different from themselves, rather than tapping into their bias or tapping into the stereotypes that they carry, instead actually just meet that person with curiosity and interest, and ask really respectful and good questions. 

And so the way we do that is that we demonstrate that. I have a team of diverse presenters that come with me and we allow the students to ask us questions. So, we don't teach how to ask respectful questions or we don't teach how to respond, but we actually just let them have that experience. So for example, I'm a Christian, so I would introduce myself as a Christian. I would say, for example, that I see myself as a feminist, and then I'll have other people from other faiths and other ethnicities with me. So, just by introducing myself like that, I give them permission to ask me questions about my faith, about my interaction with people who are different from me, and then in the way I answer, I show also how we can answer respectfully. 

Basically, we engage with schools. I reach out to schools, whether through networks that I have, or a lot of times through chaplains or youth support workers, I reach out to them and the whole idea is that we come alongside the school. We try to not say that we'll do an incursion or we'll do a presentation, but we basically have a conversation with the school and we say, ‘What is going on the ground here?’ Whether that's a monoculture, middle-class school or whether that's a very diverse school, there's always something going on, so we try to get to the bottom of that initially. And then we say, well, let's approach the school, and and try to have a whole school sort of impact. So, we often will say, Let's see all the year seven, eights and nines and do a presentation and let's just raise their awareness. 

And then we offer longer programmes that run anything between 4 to 8 weeks in small groups, where for example, we'll do intercultural and interfaith dialogue, and we literally teach them about how to dialogue in a small group, which gives an opportunity to really hear what's going on in their minds. And then usually when I offer this to a school, I say well, let's book that with teacher professional development because if we work with their students, it’s also important that they know that they can have the same valuable conversations with their teachers, and also their teachers have that skills, and the awareness to engage with students around difficult topics. 

Bushra: So, in these schools that you're visiting and you know, reaching out to them to teach them about interfaith tolerance and acceptance and these kinds of things, do you feel like schools are more readily adopting these kinds of approaches to teaching young kids? Is it something that, schools want to do more of? Is there a need at this point? Or is it because we're seeing a rise in intolerance, discrimination and prejudice happening more in schools, and this is why schools are trying to approach organisations like yours? 

Tanja: Yeah, I think that's a very good question. I think it comes from a variety of areas. One is that the Australian curriculum is asking more and more for sort of an intercultural approach and embedding that kind of thing within the curriculum. So, then there's a bit of, ‘Oh we have to do this kind of approach’ (from the schools), but usually what I come across is that they just realised that there are conflicts on the ground. You know, anything from the classic bullying to real discrimination towards someone from a different faith, someone from a different ethnicity. And I think there's a realisation that the whole idea of just telling them not to do that doesn't work anymore. A suspension just doesn't change someone. So most schools have really strong policies. So if you make a racist remark, you will be suspended. Well, then what? And so I think they're realising that there's a bit of a revolving door with certain students, then they're just in and out of schools, they come back actually feeling quite proud about what they've achieved through suspension, or they come back and they were shamed and that's not really changing them either. 

It's very interesting. Some schools we started with came to us through having an incident on the ground, maybe a protest, and you see a slow shift where they basically just go, can you just do this programme and then that'll fix things. And well, that's not really true. And so over time, they realise let's get the teachers involved as well so that they can learn how to dialogue better. So, it's a really slow process to shifting from 'oh, we wish we didn't have this problem', to acknowledging that Australia is very diverse and is continually changing, so it's very difficult for us to adapt to change so fast. So, we will not have linear approaches, we won't have this one great policy and if we all adhere to that then we're not going to have conflict on the ground. So, it comes from a variety of angles. But I do see more and more not just in schools, but also in the education departments that there's a realisation that, ‘Oh my goodness, beyond educating students or teaching them material and curriculum, we need to really engage with them in such a way that they can function as good human beings’

Bushra: Yeah, almost like increasing awareness more so than just giving them things to read or informing them. Unless they're aware of what they're being educated about, it becomes difficult for them to practically follow through with what they're being taught in schools as well. So, why do you think it's important to focus on students, on youth? Why do we need to be teaching tolerance and interfaith understanding from a young age? 

Tanja: I was thinking about this one beforehand and you know, there's the obvious answer that they are impressionable, that they're still open-minded or they are already on the verge of not being open-minded because of other influences that they have. And so we want to get them young, we want to spend time with them, we want to build rapport with them. The other relatively obvious question is that there's often probably not enough time spent around these topics with them, so they are bombarded with social media, they hear snippets of news and they have opinions about that, but then they don't have the space to actually dialogue that or pick that and go, ‘am I allowed to be angry about this? Am I not allowed to be angry about this? What should I say?’ 

They know about being PC (politically correct), but they're cynical about that. And so the not-so-obvious answer to that is that we can learn from them because they actually know how they think. So, to create spaces where young people can say, look, ‘I'm actually really frustrated about this whole justice-driven movement. I'm actually really angry about, you know, the gender conversation’, and, ‘you know, are men still really that awful?’  And to actually go OK well, ‘What does that mean? How can we do this better? You know, how is your generation going to carry, these movements forward towards a hopefully better place in society? What's it going to look like if young people drive that?’

So, we can share from our experience, this is why we've arrived here, but we obviously have a long way to go. And, young people really appreciate that. So they are very aware that they are told that they have a voice, but they're not given a voice. So when we actually sit with them and we come back, and we sit with them again and we come back, and we sit with them again, that's when trust is built, and that's where they go, ‘hang on, these people actually do want to know what I think and why I think it’.

And, I've learned so much from young people, whether they are, 12-year-olds, you know not just seniors. And where I have an opportunity then to say, ‘Can you remember how you said that, and can you influence? Can you show that? Can you tap into your leadership abilities and share that? Because that's actually something that's been overlooked.’ So, I think that's where I get excited because all I have to do is just say, I can see the gold in you and can see those amazing things in you, show us more of that. 

Bushra: So, you know you've been doing this for 20 years. You've got a wealth of experience and I'm sure we can learn much more from you. But, for someone without experience, whether they're teachers or parents, elders in our communities, if they do come across someone they feel might benefit from having a conversation, how do we start that conversation? How do we talk to them about teaching dialogue, and what does that actually mean? What are some practical ways that we can actually initiate that kind of dialogue with younger children to increase that awareness and education? 

Tanja: It's a good question.  I mean one of the first things that we need to do is be aware of ourselves. 

So, before we engage with young people, friends, colleagues, grandparents, whoever, we need to know our own triggers and our own buttons, our own biases and all of those things. So, that's probably the first thing. Because a lot of times we're quite blind to our own biases. 

To spend a bit of time and go, you know, this is a sore point for me, I feel strongly about this because that in itself is not a problem. The problem is when you are confronted and you become angry, then you probably will say things in a way that is inflammatory rather than, peace-building in any way shape or form. So that's one of the first things. Be aware of when we speak to teachers, especially when we always say you know. It's so, you know, Have some grace for yourself as well. You know, give yourself space. You don't always have to drive this agenda, because we all have been around the dinner table when someone makes a joke which is completely wrong or completely racist or completely pushing all of our buttons. But we sort of know that this is not the time. But if we're prepared for that, maybe we have the capacity to look at that person and go, ‘That's interesting that you make a joke’, or something like that. So, that's one thing that I would recommend to people who are not always in this field, they're not always working like I have the privilege to always be in this, but to have little bits of like small interest of questions in the back of your mind just sitting there where you go, it still sounds authentically like me. 

So, the difference between dialogue and argumentation is that you're not trying to win anyone over, you are trying to understand the other. If the other person has opposing views to you or if they have similar views to you, it doesn't matter. 

Just try to understand the other person, and then if the other extends that same thing to you and they're trying to understand you, you have an opportunity to share. It's not about winning. I spend a lot of time teaching students this difference so that they don't get over into arguing very quickly. That's the other thing as well. Be aware. When you realise ‘OK, I'm starting to feel angry. I'm a bit frustrated that you're not thinking in the same way as I am,’ so pull back a little bit then.

As a parent, I have three kids, two of them are young adults and then a teenager. I just pay attention, so if they make comments, I just ask: ‘Oh interesting comment. Why did you say that? Why did you say that about women? Why did you say that about the conflict? Why did you say that? That sounds interesting to me’. Rather than saying ‘Hang on, let's not say that’. Rather than saying what they should be saying, I'm just interested in their thinking behind it. Like, that's the main point where we then open ourselves up to dialogue.

Bushra: Thank you. So you mentioned the word conflict just before, and I remember you talked about this in your keynote speech as well, about conflict resolution. If a conflict does occur, whether you’re a parent talking with your child, or a teacher talking with a student, or even children talking amongst each other as well, what is the best way to come towards a resolution, to come towards a mutual understanding? 


There isn't always a resolution. I think a lot of us are afraid of conflict and we want to avoid it. So that's the biggest shift I think we need to have, is to go ‘conflict is actually showing us something.’ You know, so finally it's out. To me, it was always there, but we didn't see it.  

And that's why I struggle a little bit with words like harmony, because what does that really mean? Are we really in sync? Which is what harmony means, you know, we're all singing together and it sounds beautiful. Or is it a lid? So conflict to me, is not a problem, the timing of it can be. So you have permission to say just say ‘Ohh, this is obviously making you guys really angry or I'm actually really getting angry, this is something that I feel strongly about, but you know, we have a math lesson coming up, can we have this conversation after?’ So it's OK to move the conflict along. It's not OK to just shut it down. I think that's the main thing because if we're afraid of conflict, we'll just suspend students and go ‘off you go, we don't want to see you. We condone that language so we don't want to have it here.’ Where the other perspective is like, 'OK, this is obviously something you feel strongly about, let me engage with you in that conversation.' 

Bushra: So it's almost like coming to a resolution when there is conflict, it is by enabling more dialogue. You know, having those difficult conversations that sometimes we just don't want to have because we don't want that confrontation, or to get into that kind of conversation with someone that we might be uncomfortable with. But I think you have to work through it with those people, to become more educated and hear what the other person has to say.

Tanja: That's a very good point. If you can hear as well, because we're not always right either, you know, and we may feel very strongly, maybe they pushed our buttons, but if you give them a bit of time to explain why they said what they said or did what they did. Maybe we can pull back and go actually, ‘that's that's really valid and I'm really grateful you explained that to me really well’, which then gives them the opportunity to next time maybe not do something so aggressive, but actually just come out with it and explain something rather than shout it out angrily. And I think this is what happens when we finally see conflict, we've missed 10 opportunities to do it well previously.

Bushra: So, you mentioned just before, the term ‘harmony’ and you know in Australia in March every year we celebrate Harmony Week during this month and different organisations, schools, community groups, we celebrate Harmony Day, you know with different interfaith multicultural programmes and sessions. And programs like this, like Harmony Day is just an opportunity to aim, to foster cohesion and celebrate our multicultural, multifaith communities across Australia. But like yourself, I've come across people who don't completely agree with this kind of idea or concept. So what is your take on Harmony Day or Harmony Week? And you know what more do you think needs to be done if this is not enough?

Tanja: I think about it a lot because it typically is a week where we get very busy, and we get a lot of phone calls and they ask: ‘Can you do a presentation for Harmony Week or Harmony Day’ and look I always say ‘Yes, we can do that, but only if we have follow up conversations’. Because what you were saying just before, you know, you said it can do two things, it can foster cohesion or it can celebrate diversity.

I think it can celebrate diversity, it can showcase and celebrate diversity. I don't think it necessarily fosters cohesion, because just because I see someone else's food or dance or song or flag doesn't mean I'm going to be OK spending time with them.

In fact, it could actually be confronting and I can say I don't like that food, but now I need to be all harmonious and I have to be kind because obviously this is what the school wants me to do. And so, you know, we s⁸mile all week long and we have a lovely time. And I was questioned ‘And then what?’ Because it's OK to have a lovely time, but harmony can also be a lid and, you know you've heard me say when I was speaking, my favourite quote is ‘peace cannot be kept by force, it can only be achieved by understanding’. And you know something like harmony, we can also feel like a force because students can feel forced to be nice when they have questions. They're not actually necessarily wanting to be horrible, but you know, kids are much deeper than we allow them to be and so if we follow one from harmony day, especially those that are riled up and they were like, ‘oh’ in the background going, you know ‘its harmony day again’, those are the kids who want to spend time with. And it's really valid what you said: ‘What could we do better? What else could we do?’ We should ask the students. 

In one school, I was given an opportunity to do that, to create a student voice group with students who were saying, ‘It's all not working’. We said ‘Ohh OK, it isn't, you're right, but what will work?’ And we had fantastic conversations over many many weeks as to what they thought was better. And to me, it always comes back to better dialogue and giving those spaces where we have permission to say, ‘Actually I don't like that. I find it really frustrating to be with people that are different from me’, because we would like to say ‘No, no, no, that's not good, that’s a good answer,’ but it's valid. And if we start by validating people, we'll probably end up having better cohesion than if we just put it as a layout. 

Bushra: Yeah, I agree. Thank you. And I think you've kind of put everything in a nutshell, explained it very well in terms of, where to from here and what more can be done and needs to be done continuously in this space. Thank you so much for your time. Is there anything else you'd like to add and share with our listeners today? 

Tanja: I think this is a great opportunity to just happen, And a few things are that I think being realistic that things take time, that we get it wrong, let me get it wrong a lot. I get it wrong a lot and I just say to people ‘Tell me if I get it wrong’ and then we need to apologise really well. I think that that should be part of it. 

That we just think we're not going to click over and suddenly be these fantastic ambassadors for peace, you know, and we'll just be wonderful. We won't. We'll get it wrong, but then we'll apologise and start again. And I think just to be more real and acknowledge that we're human. 

It's really important so that we don't have this pressure or performance pressure, and you know whether we're a teacher or a parent or a young person, take some of the pressure off and I think we'll probably have better results. 

But thank you very much for having me. It's really fantastic the work you do and hope that you continue reaching people through it. 

Bushra: This is exactly what my faith as a Muslim teaches me as well, to be continuously progressing, to recognising through self-reflection the things that we need to improve on or mistakes that we might be making. And then trying our best to grow, not only as an individual but also contributing towards the growth of society, towards more social justice. 

Thank you so much, Tanya. It's a pleasure to be able to have you on our podcast and speak with you today as well. Thank you. 

Tanja: You're welcome.