The Coexist Foundation is dedicated to building religious literacy and bringing people of different backgrounds together across divides. With headquarters in Washington, D.C., and London, England, Coexist operates internationally to help create cross-cultural understanding.
Coexist oversees a number of initiatives designed to work toward these goals. One example is its “Pause for Thought” radio program, the product of a partnership with the BBC. The show features people of different faiths offering their perspectives on a common theme. Coexist also organizes exhibits, film festivals, and concerts. Its newest initiative, the Coexist Campaign, is a model that excites Director Tarek Elgahwary. Through the making and selling of coffee and clothing, the initiative is designed to “actually measure coexistence.”
“We [the Coexist Campaign] sell products that are made by people who have come together over some sort of divide—be it religious, ethnic, racial, etc. They’re bound together by the process of creating this product,” he says. “We market it and sell it under our label and then we reinvest the profits from those products into the educational side of those communities. . . . For every bag of coffee that we sell, for instance, we’re able to put one kid in school for a week.”
At the organization’s core is promoting religious literacy, or understanding. To be an informed global citizen, says Elgawhary, you have to be “literate of religion.” “It’s very difficult to be a global citizen and claim ignorance of religion,” he says. “It’s about being literate, not about being religious. When someone says, ‘I’m Jewish or Christian or Buddhist or Muslim,’ how does that affect their life, their decisions, their morals?”
Coexist was founded in 2006 in the United Kingdom. The organization formed as a direct response to heightening tensions between religious and cultural groups across the world, as evidenced by a 2002 Gallup Poll of the Islamic world. As a result of the poll, Elgawhary says, “people got to see what opinions the Muslim world had of the outside world and the West, and also what people in Western countries thought of the Muslim world. There was a glaring disconnect of understanding and perceptions between the two.”
Since then, Coexist has expanded the nature of its work beyond relations between the Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—to address cultural diversity more broadly.
“The point is to invest in programs that help people to understand one another,” Elgawhary says.
Most Rewarding Part of the Program
Events like exhibitions and film screenings give the Coexist team the opportunity to grasp the impact of their work. For example, the “Three Faiths” exhibit at the New York Public Library in 2010-11 was the most-visited exhibition in the library’s history to date, even without a significant marketing campaign from Coexist.
The Coexist Campaign makes this impact even more tangible.
“Now with the Campaign, we can see the kids in the schools,” Elgawhary says. “We know we’re onto something because we know people are interested.”
Most Challenging Part of the Program
“Believe it or not, there are people out there who don’t believe in what we do,” Elgawhary says. “(But) those are the people that motivate us every day to continue. Sometimes it’s very hard to believe that there are people who disagree with the premise that we should understand one another.”
Other challenges stem from being a relatively young organization seeking to define the way it is perceived and at the same time inspire a widespread movement.
“We want to popularize what we’re doing,” Elgawhary says. “We’re trying to take a grass roots approach with the Campaign. That’s the challenge in and of itself: to actually make it popular. . . . Sometimes we fear that what we’re actually doing will get lost in translation because everyone has their own interpretation. Trying to attach a well-defined meaning to a word or a movement is very challenging.”
Coexist’s programs, particularly the Campaign, take cultural and historical geography into account every step of the way.
“The projects that we support are geographically very widespread,” Elgawhary says. “For example, with the coffee cooperative we support in Uganda, we actually know the geographic locations and the differences between the north and the south and the history of the region. Geography is very much a part of the context.”
Because of this geographic base, helping people become aware of regional differences is key to achieving the Campaign’s core goals.
“Geography, culture, language—all of these things affect the dynamic of what’s happening around the world,” Elgawhary says. “Part of what we do is to get people to understand that there are other people out there. We’re trying to bring the world to people through our products.”
To truly make the world a more tolerant and understanding place, the first step is to “recognize good” where it exists in the world, Elgawhary says. “We hope that people will share these stories with their children and their students to inspire them and help people start thinking of the world in a different way. We want to help people conquer the challenges they face as they grow up.”