‘We Need to Build’ Excerpt
May 6, 2022
This article was adapted from Eboo Patel’s new book, “We Need to Build: Field Notes for Diverse Democracy.”
Here is what diversity looks like in the city of Mostar, located in Bosnia and Herzegovina. If you work for the Croat Catholic fire department, you don’t respond to the burning buildings of Bosnian Muslims, even if you happen to be closer. And if you work for the Bosnian Muslim fire department, you let the flames engulf Croat Catholic homes. They have their own fire department.
If you are Catholic, you go to school from 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. If you are Muslim, you study in those same buildings starting at 2 p.m. Catholics go to a nightclub called Pink Panther; Muslims go to a nightclub called Art. There are two soccer teams, two garbage collection companies, two hospitals. The entire city is divided along ethno-religious groups.
The way diversity is engaged in the town of Willmar, Minnesota, where half of the nearly twenty-one thousand residents are recent immigrants, is very different. The differences, first of all, aren’t an occasion for division; they are an opportunity for everyone to be seen, celebrated, and enlarged. The best illustration of this is the big, beautiful world map in the front lobby of the high school with pins marking the national backgrounds of the student body. Over thirty nations are represented.
Wilmar’s diversity is recognized as the future business and civic talent of the city. Fifty local businesses donated $1,000 each to start an entrepreneurship program in the school system. The student participants develop and pitch businesses plans; the most promising ones get financial backing.
A leading insurance company, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, funded a Good Ideas program in which Willmar citizens hold dinners in their homes and houses of worship (with traditional meals provided by the hosts) to discuss ways to strengthen and improve the city. Sarah Senseman, the community integration director at BCBS Minnesota, noted, “The town of Willmar looks like what the rest of greater Minnesota is going to look like in the next ten years.” BCBS was invested in the health of Wilmar, and they recognized that nurturing a positive pluralism was vital for collective thriving.
It’s important to note that it’s not just the long-time white Christian residents doing the leading, or the adapting. Abdirahman Ahmed is the Somali Muslim executive director of the Community Integration Center. The center’s programs focus on helping Somalis integrate into Willmar and to help people from Willmar learn about Somali culture. They have English classes for Somali adults and Somali classes for non-Somalis. And they have sessions for everybody where people are encouraged to ask blunt questions about the cultural patterns of other groups.
The Significance of the Civic in a Diverse Democracy
The United States is the most religiously diverse nation in human history, and it is on the brink of becoming majority-minority ethnically and racially. Will our future look more like Mostar or Willmar? In Mostar, a network of institutions and civic space create de facto segregation. In Willmar, the same institutions and civic spaces—schools, businesses, youth programs—create pluralism.
Diversity, as Harvard professor Diana Eck writes, is simply the fact of people with diverse identities living together in close quarters. Pluralism, on the other hand, is the proactive and positive engagement of difference. Here is how I define civic pluralism: people from America, the People’s Potluck different identities coming together in shared spaces and institutions, engaging in shared activities that promote general well-being and are marked by cooperative relationships.
The institutions that nurture pluralism do not fall from the sky or rise from the ground. People build them. It was a civic leader, high school principal Paul Schmitz, who decided to put that big, beautiful map of the world in the lobby. It was civic leaders who started the Community Integration Center.
In the previous section, I wrote about the process of becoming a builder and offered lessons from the frontlines of institution building.
In this section I employ a somewhat wider lens and offer a vision of what it looks like to build a healthy diverse democracy. This chapter focuses on the importance of building a network of institutions into a strong social infrastructure. In the next chapter, I write in more detail about the power of narrative for a diverse democracy. And in the third chapter of this section, I focus on religion as an exemplar institution.
All of these chapters hold up civic pluralism as the highest ideal for a diverse democracy to nurture. Athletic leagues, parks, community theaters, volunteer programs, social services, educational institutions, hospitals, even barbershops and hair salons—these are what make up “the civic.” A Walmart, a McDonald’s, a Starbucks, run right, counts as well.
The civic either builds on a consensus or builds toward one, meaning that most people are in general agreement about the broad purpose of the institution. That’s one of the reasons that civic spaces are so crucial in a diverse democracy—people with different identities and opposing views are willing to enter them and participate in their activities together. If the civic space is effective, it builds bridges between diverse people and a bridge to a better future. As Kwame Anthony Appiah says, “Democracy is not about majorities winning and minorities losing; it’s supposed to be a system in which each of us take responsibility for our common welfare. . . . What makes us a people, ultimately, is our everyday commitment to governing a common life together.”
Effective civic leaders recognize that diversity is not just the differences you like. Civic institutions don’t flatten identity or demand uniformity; rather, they highlight the power of what the participants have in common and create a space where disagreements can be discussed without violence.
Jeffrey Stout says that managing disagreement is the defining quality of a diverse democracy. He writes, “Democracy takes for granted that reasonable people will differ in their conceptions of piety, in their grounds for hope, in their ultimate concerns, and in their speculations about salvation. Yet it holds that people who differ on such matters can still exchange reasons with one another, and do both of these things without compromising their integrity.”
Constitutional principles need to be upheld and the right government structures need to be in place for the above to be accomplished, but Stout emphasizes that diverse democracy happens as much in his neighborhood soccer league as in the Supreme Court.
John Courtney Murray defines a civilization as people living together and talking together. In his view, conversation is civilization. A pluralistic civilization is especially challenging to build because it requires the ability to have a conversation between people with very different identities and experiences. Murray writes, “By pluralism here I mean the coexistence within the one political community of groups who hold divergent and incompatible views . . . Pluralism therefore implies disagreement and dissension within the community. But it also implies a community within which there must be agreement and consensus.” There are many dimensions to this underlying community that must have the strength to hold together diverse groups and divergent views. There is the political dimension, which includes things like rule of law, balance of powers, and minority rights. There is the symbolic dimension, which includes things like shared myths and commonly held symbols. And there is the civic dimension, which the sociologist Eric Klinenberg emphasizes.
In his book Palaces for the People, Klinenberg asks the question: “What conditions in the places we inhabit make it more likely that people will develop strong or supportive relationships, and what conditions make it more likely that people will grow isolated and alone?” The answer, he says, has everything to do with what he calls our social infrastructure, the civic spaces and institutions that facilitate healthy interaction. Social infrastructure plays a central but largely invisible role in connecting diverse people, protecting vulnerable communities, and healing alienated individuals. Sometimes it can make the difference between life and death. During the Chicago heat wave of 1995, Klinenberg showed that people who lived in neighborhoods with a strong social infrastructure survived; people who lived in neighborhoods without comparable associations, institutions and networks too often did not.
America’s social infrastructure includes everything from institutions like Harvard to the civic space of a local school bus. In all of these there are inspiring stories like those of Willmar, Minnesota, and cautionary tales like in the town of Worthington, also located in Minnesota, about a hundred miles away.
Worthington has also experienced high levels of immigration in recent years. Don Brink drives a school bus in Worthington, and he uses this seat of power to make his views about the new arrivals known. “I say ‘good morning’ to the kids who will respond to me. But this year there are a lot of strange kids I don’t recognize.” The children he greets are the sons and daughters of the white farmers he knows. The children he ignores are the ones with darker skin and broken English. A school bus is a civic space. It can be organized in a way that brings people with different identities together, or that drives them apart. As the leader of the civic space, Don Brink is creating an environment that is the antithesis of pluralism—he does not welcome some identities, he does not foster relationships between different groups, he does not advance a sense of the school bus as a common good that everyone has a right to and a stake in.
Tom Friedman, who wrote the New York Times piece about Willmar, calls the town a successful American melting pot. I don’t think that’s the right metaphor, and metaphors matter. As Walter Lippman said, “The way the world is imagined will determine at any given moment what men will do.”
Willmar is not thriving because its recently arrived Hondurans and Burmese are melting away their distinctive identities. It’s thriving because they are bringing those identities to the community in ways that make a contribution to the whole. After all, as Friedman himself notes, the lunch spots with the best Yelp reviews in Willmar are the Somali Star and the Azteca Mexican Restaurant.
A better metaphor for the kind of pluralism we see in Willmar—and that we should want to build across the country—is a potluck supper, not a melting pot. (Mostar can probably best be described as a separate-pots model of diversity).
I know a thing or two about potlucks. As I discussed in chapter 1, after college I moved to Chicago and took a job teaching in an alternative high school where urban minority youth came to get their GEDs. It was fulfilling but exhausting work, and I was lonely and longing for the kind of community that I had found at the University of Illinois. I had a couple of friends in the same general situation. I lived in a modest apartment that had a small front yard and plenty of street parking. And I knew how to cook exactly one dish—my mom’s famous masala potatoes (made famous by her, not me).
In the dead of winter in early 1997, I told my handful of friends that I’d cook up a large batch, clean up the kitchen and living room, and put out whatever plates and silverware I had. I asked each of them to bring a dish and a friend.
From that one winter Tuesday night, the potluck grew and grew and grew. In the spring, we held a solemn ceremony commemorating the passing of the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. By the summer, well over fifty people were regularly gathering, bringing not just food but guitars, drums, big ideas, and more plates and silverware. A handful of people started coming early to help me prepare the space, and a different crew volunteered to stay late for cleanup duty. It all happened quite naturally—people taking responsibility for their part in the upkeep of the whole.
Somewhere along the way someone said that we should create a 24/7 container for the spirit we shared at Tuesday night potlucks. And thus, the idea for the Stone Soup Cooperative (remember the name Stone Soup—I’ll return to it soon) was born. In September, we took over the lease at Our Lady of Lourdes Convent on North Ashland Avenue in the Uptown neighborhood and moved in. The Tuesday evening potluck tradition continued on in that space for some twenty years. Literally thousands of diverse people have come through—artists, activists, writers, CEOs, priests—to socialize around food and share dreams for a better world.
It’s this experience that got me thinking that a potluck supper is about the best symbol there is for a diverse democracy. Potlucks are civic spaces that both embody and celebrate pluralism. They rely on the contributions of a diverse community. If people don’t bring an offering, the potluck doesn’t exist. If everyone brings the same thing, the potluck is boring. And what a nightmare it would be if you brought your best dish to a potluck and you were met at the door with a giant machine that melted it into the same bland goo as everybody else’s best dish. The whole point of a potluck is the diversity of dishes.
Potlucks respect diverse identities by enthusiastically welcoming the gifts of the people who gather. They facilitate relationships between people by creating a space for eating and socializing and surprise connections. And they cultivate in people the importance of not just the individual parts and the connections between them, but the health of the whole as well. Everybody benefits from a clean kitchen, enough dishes and silverware, and a safe and open place to eat and socialize. When it comes to a potluck, these are the structures of the common good. Everybody plays a role in their upkeep.
And while there is no one-to-one connection between people’s ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds and the dishes they bring, it’s probably the case that a potluck with mostly South Asians is going to have a somewhat different spread than a potluck with mostly South Americans.
Ideally, you’d have both South Asians and South Americans—and people from North Africa, the Middle East, the West Indies, and all sorts of points beyond and in between, bringing all sorts of dishes, everything from recipes they learned from their grandmothers to things they just made up. Because actually, the point of a potluck is not just the different identities in one place, but the connections between them. The way things click. I mean, how great is it if you bring your amazing dip, a centuries-old recipe, and someone else has brought their awesome home-baked crusty bread.
Sometimes these things are prearranged, and sometimes they just happen. The best potlucks are like that—a little bit planned, a little bit haphazard.
A potluck is sensitive to identities, but in a pragmatic rather than an ideological way. As the demographics of the group change, the dishes on the table are likely to reflect those changes. Moreover, people have to be generally aware of what the gathering does and does not eat. If there are plenty of people coming who don’t eat pork for religious reasons, probably you choose to bring a different dish. If there are people who don’t eat dairy or gluten, you make sure to carefully label those items. Some of these dynamics might guide how the gathering at a potluck takes shape. Maybe the gluten-free folks find themselves hanging out with one another, at least at first, because they’ve gathered around the same dishes. Zones for identity communities to thrive are positive. But barriers between identity groups are not. At a good potluck, there is plenty of free flow that facilitates people from different identities meeting one another.
A potluck is the ultimate civic form. No mayor or general or governor commands people to potluck. People do it themselves. In fact, the genius of a potluck is the perfect illustration of civil society in a democracy—it is an activity that turns what might otherwise have been a random collection of people into a community because of what they do together.
People tend to bring their best dishes to potlucks—the format encourages this. Also, you don’t look for reasons to exclude people from a potluck, or to cancel the event. In fact, you hope that the nature of the activity actually helps you like people who you might otherwise dislike. Dorothy Day spoke about the Catholic Worker Movement as a space where it is easier to be good. The potluck is a space where it is easier for people to cooperate.
Stone Soup Leadership
Potlucks build communities; communities sustain potlucks. It is a beautiful, virtuous circle. But everything starts with a leader. In the case of a potluck, the leader is the person or group who hosts. This doesn’t take a genius or a superstar. In my case, it was just an individual lonely enough to risk trying something new.
Whoever you are, you can learn a lesson from the greatest potluck leader of all time—the central figure of the Stone Soup story.
Perhaps you remember the Stone Soup story from kindergarten or Sunday school. It’s mostly known as a children’s story, but like a lot of stories meant for kids that have been passed down generation to generation, it offers deep wisdom about building a vibrant civilization. Allow me to tell it with my own interfaith, multicultural, civil society–building twist.
The story takes place in a village. The inhabitants are isolated from one another, and starving. They close their blinds, and they lock their doors. I imagine a father telling his family that he doesn’t like the family across the street because they speak English with an accent. The mother from across the street tells her kids that she doesn’t like the family around the corner because they call God a name she doesn’t recognize.
Into this village comes a traveler, a woman with a pack on her back. She strolls into the town square, builds a fire, and carefully takes out the items she is carrying. A stone, a ladle, a cauldron. She takes the cauldron to the river and fills it with water, returns, and places the cauldron on the fire. She picks up the ladle and begins, slowly, to stir.
Something else in the village is stirring—the children. It seems like all the children in all the houses have sensed the presence of this traveler. They peek through the blinds. They whisper to their siblings. Finally, they can’t take it anymore. Locks are snapped back, doors are flung open, and kids from across this village come flying through their doors into the town square.
They gather around the woman, a little scared at first, but feeling more and more comfortable as the minutes go by. Soon enough, some adults emerge. They pretend that they are just there to look after the children, but the truth is they are a little curious too.
Finally, one of the kids asks, “What are you doing?”
The woman looks up from stirring the pot, smiles, and says, “Why, I’m making stone soup.” She picks up the stone that has been lying by her side and places it in the cauldron.
It takes a few minutes for one of the teenagers to work up the courage to say, “Listen, we’re all hungry. Is it going to be done soon?”
The woman smiles and says, “Yes, of course. It’s almost there. It just needs some carrots.”
One of the adults pipes up, “We’ve got carrots.” Everybody turns to stare. There’s food in the village after all? The man has surprised himself with how quickly and publicly he made his announcement. He stands up and walks toward his home, locates the carrots where he has hidden them away, and returns.
The woman chops up the carrots, slides them into the stone soup, and keeps stirring.
Soon enough someone else asks, “Well, is it ready now?”
“Mmmmm,” she says, “almost. Just needs some potatoes.”
“We’ve got potatoes!” says a voice from the crowd.
The pattern repeats itself. The soup is not quite done until every household in the village has made a contribution. Turns out that the inhabitants had more than they knew—some people had vegetables, others had bread. Silverware and dishes appeared, as did tables and chairs.
Soon enough, the village is feasting—with the resources that they had all along. And none of it would have happened without the traveler.
So what did she do that was so remarkable?
Well, the first thing she did was have a vision. She saw a starving village and imagined a community. Marcel Proust says, “The true journey of discovery is not in seeing new landscapes but in developing new eyes.”
The second thing she did was to see people’s assets, not their deficits. She just had a feeling that every inhabitant in the village had a contribution to make, and that, if the space was right, those contributions might go well together.
Finally, she organized a concrete activity that created the right space. Note the central importance of the activity. She didn’t simply roll into the village and shout, “Hey you idiots, don’t you know that if you figured out a way to share the food you’re each hiding you could create a feast and you wouldn’t be starving?” Instead, she created what amounted to a game to nudge each of them to bring their offering, contribute to a collective feast, and create a sense of community.
Right now, America is like that divided village. People are isolated, scared of one another, either refusing to listen or unable to find the words to communicate.
Truth be told, our diversity is likely contributing to this division. In his paper “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-First Century,” Robert Putnam reported that an increase in diversity in a community leads to a decrease in social trust. Diversity, he pointed out, needs to be positively and proactively engaged for it to build community. That’s why leaders who have the vision, knowledge, and skills to build the kind of spaces represented by the Stone Soup story are so crucial. We need more such people: Leaders who know that, with the right format and activity, people can be nudged to deemphasize their disagreements and center the things they have in common. Leaders who have the courage to take the initiative and create those activities.
In a diverse democracy, if the people don’t contribute, the community doesn’t feast.
Real-life versions of this mythical potluck actually exist in contemporary America. In a previous chapter, I wrote about the People’s Supper, created by Lennon Flowers and Jen Bailey. But I also love the model created by Questlove, the drummer for The Roots. He calls his version “mixtape potlucks.” Using his proclivities as a musician, he sends out a song to each of the people he’s inviting and asks them to bring a dish that the song inspires. In an NPR interview about these gatherings, Questlove describes himself as a loner by nature (“Rapunzel with an afro,” is his memorable turn of phrase) who discovered an inner potluck host that he didn’t previously know existed.
Jane Addams: Civic Institutions and Social Change
Can civic institutions at the local level lead to social change at the national level? It has happened before, in an era with remarkable similarities to ours.
I refer to the turn of the twentieth century. Immigration was profoundly changing the ethnic and religious makeup of the nation. A massive economic shift was taking place as industrialization overtook the agrarian economy. Great wealth was being made in some quarters and there was devastating poverty in others, creating an ugly income inequality. Cities grew rapidly and were, for many people, horribly unsanitary and dangerous places to live. Labor conditions were even worse. A communications revolution was underway, with the invention of both the radio and the telephone, and racist hate groups were on the rise.
Into this maelstrom Jane Addams came with an ethic not unlike the one that drove Jen and Lennon in the People’s Supper. In 1889, she started an institution called Hull House on the near West Side of Chicago whose initial purpose was to meet the immediate needs of, and create community among, the diverse array of immigrants in the Nineteenth Ward. She died there nearly a half century later, having built what many consider the best example of democracy in action that America has ever seen.
She started by making concrete and positive improvements for the local community. Hull House leaders—almost all women—were pioneers in urban sociology. Their research mapped the ethnic makeup of the Nineteenth Ward of Chicago and highlighted many of the problems there as well. They learned that there were seven thousand school age children in the ward, but only three thousand seats in the local public school. So Hull House organized classes and activities for kids. There were hundreds of residents in the blocks west of Hull House, but only three bathtubs. So Hull House built public baths.
For virtually every problem that they discovered in Chicago, they modeled a concrete solution. Many of these initiatives flew in the face of conventional wisdom, otherwise known as the prejudices of the time.
Think that young people are simply ticking time bombs of trouble waiting to explode? Come see the Boy Scout group and other youth leadership programs at Hull House.
You think that saloons are the only place that people will gather? Come hang out at the coffee shop we built at Hull House.
You feel that high culture and advanced education should only be reserved for certain ethnic groups and social classes? Come participate in the book groups, art workshops, and college extension courses at Hull House.
You think tensions between Protestants, Catholics, and Jews are inevitable? Well, Hull House is a self-consciously interfaith space organized around “the fellowship of the deed.” Come see how well things turn out when people from different religions work together.
You think that diversity requires separation? Come see how tasty the food is at the public kitchen at Hull House, where people from different nations share traditional recipes and prepare delicious meals.
You don’t believe that women have the intellectual ability to vote? Well, come see who runs things at Hull House.
Hull House was democracy in action. John Dewey visited, often. His daughter later said that these visits profoundly deepened his understanding of the possibility of America, an influence that found its way into Dewey’s writings about democracy.
Another great pragmatist philosopher, William James, once wrote Jane Addams a letter with the line: “The fact is, Madam, that you are not like the rest of us, who seek the truth and try to express it. You inhabit reality; and when you open your mouth truth can’t help being uttered.”
But while Jane Addams might have started with building concrete solutions to local problems, she didn’t end there. Instead, she used Hull House as a model for remarkable citywide and national reform movements. Walter Isaacson once said that Steve Jobs transformed seven industries—personal computing, animated movies, retail, music, phones, digital publishing, and tablets. Jane Addams transformed at least as many areas of American democracy.
From her base at Hull House, she fought for women’s suffrage, protested against war, helped found the NAACP, and was a key leader of the ACLU. She recognized the power and possibility of the newly emerging category of adolescence. She wrote articles against lynching and was friends with the famed Black feminist Ida B. Wells-Barnett.
She stood up for the politically unpopular while still working with politicians, was seen as fair-minded enough by both CEOs and union leaders to mediate labor disputes, and launched investigations into diseases that led to new laws and government agencies that dramatically improved public health.
Jane Addams expanded the definition of American democracy and of American citizenship. Racist movements tried to keep new immigrants out. Jane Addams looked at them, and American democracy, differently. These new arrivals were necessary contributors, not strangers. Indeed, America wasn’t truly a democracy if it would not dignify the identities and invite the contributions of all its varied people. She wrote: “The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.”
That included people with views and identities different from your own. Addams wrote, “We know instinctively that if we grow contemptuous of our fellows and consciously limit our intercourse to certain kinds of people whom we have previously decided to respect, we not only circumscribe our range of life but limit the scope of our ethics.”
All of this might seem obvious now, but it wasn’t at the time, and that is part of Jane Addams’s achievement. She built a full layer of American democracy that we now take entirely for granted.
Jane Addams was clearly willing to critique when she felt the circumstances called for it—she very publicly opposed World War I—but she didn’t put much stock in being ideologically pure. In the best pragmatist tradition, she did the right thing according to the circumstance and the evidence, always with the twin purpose of helping the most vulnerable people in the here and now and strengthening American democracy over the long haul.
In other words, she was a builder.
We know a great deal about Jane Addams’s personal journey. And lo and behold, it has profound similarities to the path that a lot of young social change agents walk today.
Books and travel expanded her horizons, but they didn’t answer the deeper existential questions. She fell into a depression, a condition that doctors at the time referred to as neurasthenia.
What brought her out of it? She found what she wanted to build.
On a visit to the East End of London, she witnessed a scene that made a profound impression upon her. A man stood in the midst of a crowd of poor people, holding aloft rotting vegetables, contemptuously inviting the laborers to bid on a meager dinner. When one worker gave his day’s wages for a cabbage, it was flung at him. Jane Addams watched as the famished man sat on the ground and tore into the spoiled vegetable, unwashed and uncooked.
The moment reminded Jane Addams of a dream that she had as a little girl: the world needed saving and she wanted to play her role, so she built a wagon wheel.
What could she build now that she was a college-educated young woman witnessing firsthand the suffering so many were enduring at a time of tectonic social and economic change, while herself experiencing a kind of aimlessness that had descended into depression?
The answer to that turned out to be Hull House. It started off as a way to meet the needs of recent immigrant laborers and their children in a part of the city that people like Jane Addams were not supposed to go. It turned into a way to renew American democracy.
Frederick Buechner has a classic line about vocation. He uses religious language: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
For Jane Addams that place had an address—800 South Halsted. She lived there from 1889 until her death in 1935. That’s finding your calling.
And she started off, as she later wrote in Twenty Years at Hull House, as a young person seeking, “To construct the world anew and conform it to (my) own ideals.”
This article was adapted from Eboo Patel’s new book, “We Need to Build: Field Notes for Diverse Democracy.”
American Civic Life
Eboo Patel is the founder and president of Interfaith America and the author of Acts of Faith and Sacred Ground. He was a member of President Obama’s inaugural faith council, is a regular contributor to The Washington Post, Huffington Post, CNN, and public radio, and speaks frequently about interfaith cooperation on college campuses. He lives in Chicago with his wife and two boys.