A weekend interview with Rabbi Michael Torop of Faith and Action for Strength Together
Last week a coalition of Pinellas County religious organizations called Faith and Action for Strength Together decided to make education a top priority. Rabbi Michael Torop, the group's secretary, spoke with Times correspondent Sylvia Lim about the coalition's efforts.
Tell us a little bit about FAST and how your select your causes.
FAST was founded in 2004, and has been a growing from an initial gathering of 800 people from diverse backgrounds, from different faith communities. In a large event called Nehemiah Action on April 2010, we had over 2,700. From a few founding congregations, we now have over 40 congregations. Those 40 congregations represent total membership 60,000 members in our member congregations. Each year, we ask members of our faith communities to gather in small groups to talk to each other about the issues that concern them. We ultimately glean a couple of issues to work on each year. …In terms of education, we have worked on education for a couple of years and our focus at that point was the suspension rates in public schools and the kind of discipline programs or policies that were or not in place. Working together with school board and school district administration, we were able to identify a couple of different schoolwide discipline programs that were piloted in a number of high schools and middle schools. Last year, 37 schools in the district have implemented a schoolwide discipline program. We’re excited that after three years of working on the issue, the school district made a commitment that starting this school year (2010-11), there will be training in every school on this research-based program. (It) has documented impact on decreasing the number of suspensions and…creating an environment that learning in schools are more likely to take place.
Why did FAST pick education to focus on this year?
The reason why I think it’s resurfaced is essentially our education committee completed its initial task and identified school discipline as focal point as to where we can have an impact. Having achieved our goals, we have essentially moved to focus our attention on new issues. In the last two months, in all of the congregations, we have been engaged in a listening process, we have been asking people to tell us their stories, the issues troubling them, their neighbors and their communities. The issue that rose to the top of the list was education. There were lots of different kinds of concerns.
What were some of them?
Among the African American community, they are concerned about high dropout rates among African American young men. They are not finishing high school and they are trying to find their ways in the world. Stories we heard were of low graduation rates and low reading scores. There were also lots of concern about the disparity of performance between the Caucasian population and all minorities in the county. Everybody is very tuned in to bullying. And they are concerned about what appears to be inadequate allocation of funds for special education and the bureaucracy parents have to navigate to get support for students with special needs. Then, there are those who are concerned about students who aren’t keeping up or getting support from home, where do they go for additional support? Teachers were concerned about parental involvement. We heard from the both the teachers’ side as well as the parents’ side.
Would the focus be on public schools or religious-based schools?
The focus, I believe, would clearly be on public education. As a multi-faith organization drawing from a broad section of the community, I don’t think it would be appropriate for us to try to involve ourselves in the private education endeavor, either in the faith-based community or other private schools. Our organization has a lot of people from a lot of different congregations from the community who have a shared concern. The only way which we can do our part is to create a just and equitable community to live in, and we look at what can be changed locally and work together to find solutions that can be reasonably implemented. We start with those board swaths of concern and we now have chosen education as our new area of focus. It’s going to take a lot of narrowing down …that will develop in dialogue and a series of meetings with stakeholders and key decision makers in the local system. We have a history of a very good relationship with the school board.
Do you see any conflicts of interest between FAST, being a coalition of faith-based organizations, and its efforts to change policies or be involved in local politics?
We are quite clearly and emphatically non partisan and non political. We neither endorse nor advice any particular candidates. When it comes to a particular election, we look to find allies and partners in government entities who want to solve the same problems we want to solve, and with whom we can find agreement on the kind of solutions that are the most appropriate and achievable. We are very careful to be non political in that sense. We operate as an interfaith community because our faith traditions, whether Jewish, Catholic, Islam or Christian, all share a vision of the community we want to live in. We all share a sense that our God expects and commands us to be actively engaged in a more just society: that to be more active in our community to achieve equity and fairness and equality are commonly held values. My experience is that, it is rare that any decision makers don’t agree that our issue is not an important issue. As an example, take jobs and unemployment. Not a single county commissioner, city council member or city manager is not concerned about the high unemployment rates in county and in creating more opportunities for people to be employed.
Where does FAST go from here?
Now we have chosen a new issue, the strategy committee will meet and try to figure out how to focus on the issue, what research needs to be done and what resources are available in the community to help us analyze this issue. In December, our network and a team of members from each congregation will hear what we have figured out so far and we invite people to participate in the research meetings. Over the next few months, as our congregations prepare for the large gathering in spring, the education committee will continue to meet to sharpen the focus. …Ultimately, what we call ‘A Big Holy Audacious Goal’ is to have enough people involved, enough individuals committed to creating systemic change.