Initial Introductions: Leo Taylor

Published May 12, 2024

Dear Friends,

My name is Leo and I am the Woolf Institute’s new Public Engagement Coordinator. Hailing originally from Norwich, I now live in Hendon and commute to Cambridge three days a week.

My journey to the Woolf Institute began in 2021 when I embarked on an MA in Religion, Politics and Society at the University of Birmingham. In the summer term I took a module in interfaith issues and relations and then went to an interfaith summer school at Dev Sanskriti Vishwavidyalaya in Haridwar, India. That involved learning rudimentary Hindi, doing Yoga, scriptural reasoning and visiting various Ashrams around Uttarakhand. Despite being rather bad at Yoga and Hindi – habits I did not inculcate – it was overall a great experience and piqued my interest in interfaith activity.

After the submission of my dissertation, I randomly entered ‘interfaith’ into Google and stumbled across the Inter Faith Network for the UK (IFN), an umbrella body which linked in membership: faith communities; educational and academic bodies; and local and national interfaith organisations. I had managed to get part-time work at Gresham College, a charity that provides free academic lectures to the general public, but alongside that I volunteered at IFN, before subsequently joining the team as an Intern and then a Project Assistant. I really enjoyed working at IFN and was fortunate to work on a number of projects and areas of work such as: Inter Faith Week; publications such as the Local Interfaith Guide; fundraising; and local interfaith support.

Unfortunately, in February of this year, it was announced that IFN would be closing after almost four decades of activity. You can read more about the background of that on IFN’s website here. My final two months there were spent sorting through IFN’s files from the past 35 years, in preparation for the archiving of this material for the University of Cambridge. Although at times this could be quite boring, I was quite lucky in the sense that I got a unique education on faith in public life across the past 35 years. What was probably most sobering was the fact that many of the tensions we face in today’s society have existed for decades.

Following the closure of IFN, I am fortunate to be able to work at the Woolf Institute. The one thing that was missing from my time at IFN was interfaith work within an academic setting and this Public Engagement role provides a unique opportunity to do this. Academia is often thought of being removed from real life and as having limited impacts on normal people’s lives. Public engagement seeks to rectify this issue by actively involving the public in Universities’ work and research. That may be through a range of instruments such as public dialogues and consultations, but what unifies these practices is an emphasis on listening to and involving local communities. In other words, public engagement is mutually beneficial. Working for the Woolf Institute allows me to continue working with local faith and interfaith communities – like at IFN – but also through an academic lens. I look forward to working on the Woolf’s public engagement areas which currently include Schools and Teachers; Hospices and Carers; Local and National Government; and Faith Communities.

Beyond a fascination with interfaith activity, I love watching films. It is clear how the religious are portrayed in film has a huge effect on how wider society perceives religions. For example, Muslims have been portrayed in films in a particularly bad light since 9/11 and although there is greater opportunity for positive representation such as through the first International Muslim Film Festival in 2024, the lack of representation is still pervasive. The most recent example is in the film adaption of Frank Herbert’s Dune where the itinerant people, the Fremen, are partly motivated by Islamic concepts in the book, but this is consciously ignored in the film. That poses the question as whether it’s better to not be represented at all or badly. However, for this introduction I’ve been thinking about films which have elements of faith and spirituality that I could recommend. A particularly strange film that I’d suggest watching was the recent Samsara by Ron Fricke which explores the cycle of re-birth from the perspective of a Lao woman who is dying and, in preparation for that, is read the Tibetan Book of the Dead. When she eventually dies, you are told to close your eyes and experience her spiritual journey, involving various flashing lights and portentous sounds. She is eventually re-born as a goat in Zanzibar, Tanzania – as I said, very odd.

I’ve also recently re-read the book of Job and Elie Wiesel’s Night and decided to watch a few films which explored agonism with God in relation to God’s silence in response to suffering. Most worth watching is Martin Scorsese’s Silence, an adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s novel of the same name. This explores the persecution of a Jesuit missionary in Japan in the 17th century and is gruelling, but very compelling. Besides film, my interests include Norwich City Football Club, Scrabble (I am a member of the London Scrabble League) and reading fiction.

Returning to the Woolf Institute, everyone has been incredibly kind to me since arriving here and I can see myself comfortably fitting in!

Kind regards,

Leo Taylor

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