At Interfaith America, we just finished a very full three days of training for the inaugural Team Up cohort in Chicago.
Catholic Charities USA, Habitat for Humanity International and the YMCA of the USA each chose 10 pairs of staff from sites in 26 states nationwide to support and strengthen bridgebuilding work within a program. Each pair receives a modest grant, 10 months of a cohort with fellow grantees, and the training and resources of four national organizations. Our core belief is that the nation will benefit from the groundwork they do, the models and resources they develop that can be shared widely, and the stories of everyday cooperation that bolster our ability to achieve our nation – and, in the long term, we hope this work can scale and grow across our partners’ massive civic networks.
It started with a phone call. The Biden-Harris administration was planning the White House’s United We Stand Summit and reached out to Interfaith America to ask which national organizations were advancing unity work on the local level. Because of our existing partnerships with Habitat for Humanity International and the YMCA of the USA, we knew the opportunity was ripe to set an ambitious aspiration around the President’s unity agenda. Jonathan Reckford, CEO of Habitat, and Suzanne McCormick, CEO of the Y, enthusiastically responded to the opportunity, understanding the nation’s deep need.
On Sept. 22, 2022, when President Biden announced this exciting initiative in his remarks at the United We Stand Summit. Sister Donna Markham, CEO of Catholic Charities then made a call. Catholic Charities USA knew that they wanted to be part of this nascent civic partnership and of course the partners were eager for our ranks to grow. Each of these four leaders of national organizations saw the ways that polarization is threatening the health of our diverse democracy – our ability to live together, participate in self-governance, and address the pressing needs of our communities. Each of these four leaders envisioned a way to undercut that polarization, anchored in social science research and existing infrastructure.
This partnership is now called Team Up. The Team Up partner organizations began planning earnestly to make good on their public commitment to train 10,000 bridgebuilders. A few lead team members from each organization – each with full-time responsibilities before this commitment – started meeting, refining the vision, planning the programs, and articulating anew how this major initiative enabled each organization to not only achieve its mission more fully but also do something together that none of them could do alone.
The elegance of this partnership is in its simplicity. Together, CC, H4HI, and the YMCA reach nearly every corner of the nation. In communities across the country, 2,600 YMCAs, 3,500 Catholic Charities sites and 1,100 Habitat for Humanity communities are meeting the very material (food, shelter), social (service, shared identity, place of belonging) and health (whole person health, violence reduction) needs of millions of American in incredible ways. Each is doing the work of fostering spaces where it is easier to be kind to one another. Each is extending invitations for people who would otherwise not be in a relationship to do so. As the nation’s leading interfaith organization, Interfaith America in inspiring, equipping, and connecting individuals and institutions to engage across deep differences for the common good. There is so much opportunity to expand and grow in the years to come, anchored in the learning of this inaugural year.
So now we’re here – grantees just completed the training, and are returning to their communities, continuing to lead their major civic institutions with some new language, knowledge, confidence in skills, a network, and support. They also have the full support of their national leadership. The closing panel of the training was a dialogue between Eboo, Jonathan, Suzanne and Sister Donna and their deep commitment to this partnership shined through their words. Each shared an ambitious and shared vision grounded in the individual missions of their unique organizations. Eboo closed out the conversation with the insight that a model as audacious as ours – four national organizations partnering together to truly create and implement a model for bridgebuilding work – can continue to grow when we follow the “deep power in the gentleness at the heart of our religious traditions. We can have major ambitions and still be gentle as to what this means at the local level.”
There is a deep power in the gentleness at the heart of our religious traditions. We can have major ambitions and still be gentle as to what this means at the local level.
Every person in the training room had a story about how the Y, Habitat, Catholic Charities, or a faith community shaped them as a person – that is how foundational these institutions are to the fabric of the nation. I bet you have one too. The first time I participated in a Habitat for Humanity Build was as a teenager at a Women’s Build with my mom and sister in Green Bay, WI. I felt so strong and powerful, working alongside these women I didn’t know, but felt deeply connected to by virtue of our showing up together. People I loved and total strangers together. We were contributing a little something to a home for someone who did not have one, receiving the gift of being of service to another. After that building, I returned to my home with the fervor of an enthusiastic novice. I tried to build a tree fort in the backyard and got halfway to completing it. I would climb around the roof of our two-story house inspecting tiles, to my parents’ chagrin. I kept all my enthusiasm but without the guidance and expertise of the skilled builders on our Habitat site. In the end, my half tree fort was an eyesore and a health hazard. But my civic spirit was full.
One of the brilliant design features of this Team Up partnership is that leaders at local Catholic Charities, Habitat for Humanity, and YMCA sites have opportunities to apply bridge-building skills every day. This inaugural Team Up cohort has financial resources, ongoing support from their national agencies, and a cohort of 30 site leaders for support and community as they lead their programs. Jonathan Reckford shared in the training’s closing panel that research shows most people show up to volunteer because someone invited them. So here is your invitation. Find a way to Team Up with others to address a need in your community, and to build a relationship where there wasn’t one before.