Murali Balaji, Ph.D., is a journalist, author, academic, and spiritual leader with nearly 20 years of experience in diversity leadership. Balaji has served as the education director for the Hindu American Foundation, where he was recognized as a national leader in cultural competency and religious literacy. He co-founded The Voice of Philadelphia, a non-profit geared to help high school dropouts (or pushouts) develop media literacy and citizen journalism skills. He has also been a professor at Temple University and Lincoln University, where he chaired the mass communication department and engaged in multi-method research. He is a certified anti-bias trainer through the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and serves on the national advisory board of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute.
Vennly: You’re vocal about “interfaith” conversations in America being mostly comprised of Christians, Jews, and Muslims, which fails to represent other traditions like Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Humanists, etc. How can we ensure that interfaith work becomes more inclusive?
Dr. Balaji: I think we need to start from the perspective of treating all groups on an equal footing. For so long, the idea of interfaith has been heavily skewed towards an Abrahamic-centric definition of dialogue. We need to work on leveling the playing field, and more importantly, address issues of pluralism in a more culturally and spiritually competent manner. We need to make sure representatives of traditions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Humanism, etc., are involved from the beginning of interfaith dialogues – not just added as tokens to conversations.
Vennly: As a professor of media studies and a former journalist, what are the diversity and inclusion topics that you wish were covered more frequently in the media?
Dr. Balaji: I wish we were able to address groups as nuanced and heterogeneous, not monoliths. We can’t rely upon a few self-appointed spokespeople for groups to be able to speak to and for experiences of diverse groups. We need to do more to examine and engaged diversity within diverse groups – this is something media organizations have consistently failed to do, because it’s hard going beyond certain tropes.
Vennly: In your current role as Hindu Chaplain at University of Pennsylvania, what are the types of spiritual and /or religious questions that are top of mind for your students?
Dr. Balaji: I think for Hindu students, their individual journeys are what present the greatest challenge and opportunity. This is the first time in their lives they are able to self-define, and the ways in which they connect with their faith in college can shape their identification with Hinduism and as Hindus for the rest of their lives. My goal is to listen first, but to also ensure they have a support system away from home as they seek to find their own answers.
Vennly: As we enter a new year, what are some of the things you’ll be working on and what are you talking about with your community?
Dr. Balaji: I think the most important things I’ll be working on will be curating platforms for social issues at some of the major temples. We need to work more on issues of mental health, domestic violence, the environment, and LGBT+ inclusiveness. These aren’t left or right issues – they are just issues that call upon Hindus to act dharmically for the common good. I’m excited by what this year has to offer.