This past year was very kind to Encounter. We started to see the benefits of changes we made in 2020 and 2021 – including to our organizational structure and hiring new staff – hoping to better meet the pressing need to educate people on religious literacy and to foster connections across difference. Sadly, this past year also demonstrated just how important addressing religious literacy is for our societies. Below, let me outline some things that stood out and share some plans for 2023…one of which will impact this blog very shortly.
The Need for Religious Literacy
The urgent need to address religious literacy shows up almost weekly in both small ways and big ones. Let me highlight three facts and the story they tell.
First, many of you know that antisemitism is surging. Antisemitism is becoming more normalized as celebrities like Ye (formerly Kanye West) and Kyrie Irving make hateful and ignorant conspiracy-laced comments. But it’s not just them. An exposé of the University of Toronto’s medical school revealed antisemitic comments made by respected medical professionals and academics. The latest hate crime data shows 2021 witnessed a record-breaking number of antisemitic incidents in Canada and the United States. Synagogues have been defaced, death threats made, and people assaulted in the streets. And it’s not just antisemitism – the latest Canadian data shows a record high for hate crime overall, with the key driver being a 67% surge in religious hate crimes.
Second are the facts from Stats Canada’s new demographic data on Canada’s religious makeup. In short: we have never been so diverse. The number of Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims have all doubled in the past 20 years. We have far more Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims than even the USA (from 2x to 12x as many!). This is a diverse country which brings many benefits. It also means we need to get to know one another.
Third is something that gives me optimism. Namely, more and more organizations are taking the above realities seriously. There is a growing willingness to talk about religious inclusion in our public discourse, our schools, and even in our workplaces. For this, I am grateful. Much remains to be done but there are more opportunities to open these conversations today than at any other time during my two decades at Encounter.
Encounter in 2022: Something Old and Something New
This past year was partly about reclamation. As our society emerged from lockdowns, Encounter was able to visit schools again and bring them to places of worship. In addition, we revived our Discovery Week which was an enormous relief to us. It is such a privilege to take people on that weeklong journey.
There was also much that was new. Our efforts to work with employers on religious literacy yielded real gains as we worked with many organizations from a local high-tech firm to a theoretical physics institute in the USA. One program for the federal government was our largest ever with nearly a thousand attendees. We’re grateful for the conversations we have had with our clients which have helped us further enhance our content based on the positive feedback from their teams.
The future is never known but 2023’s outlook is very promising. Here are some things we’re excited about.
Police Discovery Program – We are holding our first ever police three-day Discovery program. Modelled on the Discovery Week, this event for police officers and staff will have content tailored to their needs. Our police serve our communities – this program will help them understand those communities and their fellow officers better.
Discovery Week – Discovery Week has a new venue this year which will allow us to bring in more attendees. With spots for 55 participants, it will be our biggest Discovery Week yet.
University Discovery Program – Students from three American universities are coming to Toronto for a 5-day Discovery program in May. Kudos to the universities for supporting hands-on learning and experiential education to help nourish future leaders.
Corporate Diversity Training – We are developing valuable relationships with both public and private organizations. We are excited about an upcoming conversation with the CCDI (Canada’s leading equity and inclusion organization) as their CEO interviews Brian about religious literacy for their upcoming January podcast and, in March, Encounter will partner with Minnesota Multifaith Network to offer a unique full day program at America’s largest annual equity and inclusion conference held by the Forum on Workplace Inclusion.
Road Scholar – We work regularly now with Road Scholar, the world’s largest educational travel company. We do single talks and weeklong programs you can sign up for if you wish (e.g. Daoism Talk, World Religions Week).
Something New for this Blog! – Road Scholar is generously putting me (Brian) on one of their cruises for six weeks to teach about religions related to the ports the ship will be visiting (mostly the Arabian peninsula and Southeast Asia). I am excited about this opportunity to explore these amazing locations and to enhance my own learning while also developing new content and understandings to enhance our programs. I want to share this with you as well – so, from mid-January through to early March, I will use this blog to share some of what I learn and see. I hope you find it interesting! You can also follow along on social media where I will post photos and video:
Finally, a big thanks to all those who make Encounter a possibility! To all of you who have attended Encounter events over the years…thanks! For telling others about Encounter…thanks again! And of course, to all of you who donate, those resources are so very valuable!
Finally, my personal thank you list goes on forever but if I may mention four in particular: first, to Karen McKay, my partner in crime, whose talent and contributions to Encounter as our Managing Director cannot be measured. Second, Adriana Fierastrau, our admin person who has the herculean task of trying to keep me organized. Third, to Lew Shepherdson, our board chair whose generosity to me and to Encounter is endless. And, finally, to JW Windland, our founder. He left us eight years ago but his legacy lives on.
A happy 2023 to you all.
Congratulations Brian, oh the places you will go!