SALT LAKE CITY — Tina Ramirez's religious freedom work has taken her to the halls of power around the world. She's worked with policymakers in Congress and government officials in the Middle East, helping craft high-level responses to religious violence.
But her favorite place to work these days is far removed from Capitol Hill. She's focused on children's classrooms and whether it's possible to end religious conflict a few group activities at a time.
"Children are being radicalized. … They're being taught to be intolerant of certain beliefs," she said. "We have to address generational biases, misconceptions and hatred towards other people."
Five years ago, Ramirez founded an organization to counter extremism in kids. Hardwired Global trains teachers to help students better understand religious freedom and other human rights, planting the seeds of a more peaceful future.
On July 25, Hardwired will release a report outlining key takeaways from pilot programs in Iraq, Lebanon and Morocco, which were funded by the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The organization trained 56 teachers in 46 schools, helping more than 1,100 students learn to respond to religious difference in new ways.
Initial results showed that "educators in various settings can play a significant role in preparing youth for a diverse and pluralistic world," Hardwired reported.
Programs like Hardwired are essential at a time when religious intolerance is on the rise, said Kristen Looney, director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum Institute, which helps facilitate religious literacy education in U.S. schools.
Religion-related conflict "is one of the biggest issues tearing apart our communities right now," she said.
Nurturing a passion for religious freedom in young people is different than making a case for this human right to adults, wrote Brian Grim, president of the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation, in an email. Adults respond well to theological or pragmatic arguments, while kids benefit from imaginative activities.
"With younger children, stories of people overcoming differences and being friends are more important" than lectures on how religious freedom boosts a country's gross domestic product, he said.
Hardwired trains teachers to create group activities that show the value of mutual respect. They want kids to understand and embrace religious freedom, but successful programs may never mention that phrase.
In "Sanctuary Island," one of Hardwired's sample activities, participants pretend to be a type of fruit and create a story about what members of this fruit group believe and do. The teacher then explains that members of the fruit group have been stranded on an island with members of an enemy fruit group. Different types of fruit have to debate the ground rules for life on the island and ensure that everyone has the space to believe and do the things that make them unique.
"We get to the concepts of religion and belief through analogies and activities and simulations that help children walk through the best approaches to living together in peace," Ramirez said.
Teachers have the freedom to develop an analogy and simulated conflict that fits their students' personalities and cultures, said Lena Smith, Hardwired's program officer. Participants in the pilot program used images like picnics, colorful birds and rainbows.
"One of the values of our program is that it's adaptable to every context and every setting, not just country by country, but school by school," she said.
The unifying end goal is for students to see their classmates in a new light and to understand that religious differences shouldn't be viewed as a threat, Ramirez said.
"The program doesn't just impact their views of people of different religious beliefs. It changes their view of the human person," she said.
Children benefit from lessons on religious freedom and other human rights whether war is part of their daily lives or something they see on the evening news, according to education experts. As the future leaders of a diverse world, they need to know how to interact with people who are different than themselves.
"We want them to grow up and understand their communities and be able to deal with challenges," Looney said.
Young people want that, too, said David Callaway, who also works at the Religious Freedom Center and has taught world religions and ethics classes for high school students. They're aware of religion-related tension and violence and want to do their part to encourage peace.
"Students are very tuned into the world. … They know there are challenges around this topic," he said.
Smith remembers hearing reports about fighting in Darfur while she was growing up and recognizing that people were dying because of their beliefs. She may not have been able to offer a textbook definition of religious freedom, but she instinctively knew that allowing people to live their beliefs could save lives.
"I think growing up and hearing news stories in passing, even if you're not seeking this information out, you hear about issues that are directly or indirectly related to this right," Smith said.
For this reason, organizations that want to lead religious literacy programs or discussions on human rights in schools rarely worry about drumming up interest among students.
"Students want to talk about religion respectfully," Callaway said.
Instead, these organizations must focus on clearing administrative and societal hurdles, which are difficult to navigate in the United States and around the world.
In America, teachers and school administrators worry about angering parents by mentioning religion in the classroom. They fear awkward questions and lawsuits, Looney said.
"We're hearing from some superintendents that they don't want to deal with religion at all," she said.
In the Middle East and North Africa, where Hardwired conducted its pilot program, school officials and government leaders worry about undermining traditional religious practices or encouraging secularism, Grim said.
"At the most fundamental level, there is a common misconception that religious freedom is something that would hurt the traditional and important place of the majority faith, either leading to religious conflict or to a society that loses its ethical foundation," he said.
Although many governments in the region are considering religion-related education reform, few have been able to implement meaningful changes, according to the Hardwired report.
"Most countries in the Middle East and North Africa are concerned about the radicalization of their children," Ramirez said. "But efforts to change religious education classes have hit a lot of resistance."
Hardwired's work in Morocco, Lebanon and Iraq was made possible, in part, by the organization's unique approach to human rights education. The organization focused on creating better citizens and neighbors, not debating theology and politics.
The program "doesn't change students' religion. It just helps change how they see each other," Ramirez said.
As organization leaders negotiated with government leaders in the Middle East and North Africa, they emphasized their interest in allowing faith groups to flourish.
"What Hardwired does is to nurture a respect for the deep religious values that people in these countries hold while also helping (participants) see how to model greater respect for others," Ramirez said.
Although she and her team have spent years researching educational tools and advocating for religious freedom, they were willing to defer to local teachers' knowledge of their students and culture, empowering them to put their own spin on the organization's suggested lesson plans.
"The way an imam in Iraq teaches a lesson may be very different than the way a Moroccan teacher in a human rights club after school does," Smith said.
Acknowledging cultural context is crucial in efforts to resolve long-term tensions, said Najeeba Syeed, an associate professor of interreligious education at Claremont School of Theology who has led peace-building projects in schools around the world. Students need to recognize themselves in the hypothetical situations presented.
"A strong curriculum is one that can articulate universal human rights and also respond to contextual conflicts," she said.
Hardwired is still a young organization. In November, it will celebrate five years since its launch.
But its initial work in Morocco, Lebanon and Iraq seemed to make a big difference for participants. Teachers observed and surveys showed "significant movement toward greater respect and acceptance of people of different religion and beliefs," Hardwired reported.
"Within a short period of time, teachers were able to really affect change and development in their students," Smith said.15 comments on this story
Over the next few years, Hardwired hopes to expand to other countries in the Middle East and increase its domestic impact. Ramirez is currently discussing programming options with officials in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the U.S.
Moving forward, the organization will continue to be guided by the belief that teaching young people to embrace religious freedom will create a less violent world, Ramirez said.
"If we don't get to the hearts and minds of young people in societies that hold deep-seated biases, how are we going create real change?" she said.