Eboo Patel Reflects on Twenty Years at Interfaith America
February 27, 2023
(The Art of Association) — As I noted in my last post, I have been working to start up a new nonprofit project.
In navigating the series of straits one encounters in launching such an enterprise, I have often found myself turning for guidance to books by a pair of Chicagoans who succeeded and then some in this challenging task roughly 100 years apart. The first is Jane Addams (1860-1935), whose Twenty Years at Hull House is a classic memoir by a civic exemplar I have long admired and learned from. My second guide–another admirer of Addams–is a contemporary, Eboo Patel, author of We Need To Build: Field Notes for Diverse Democracy.
Eboo’s book is a candid reflection on his journey as a social entrepreneur and civic leader over the past two decades as he founded and continues to lead Interfaith America. His book also conveys his insight into the connection between the health of civil society and democracy in America and the role that faith-based organizations play in sustaining both. I recently talked with Eboo to learn more about his organization’s work and how he has sought to lead and learn from it.
The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed for the sake of clarity.
Daniel: Can you describe Interfaith America’s mission for those who don’t know the organization?
Eboo: At Interfaith America, we believe that there are a set of great issues in American life. For example, environmental preservation, combating hate, women’s empowerment, racial equity – all of these are great issues. They each have one or more vital civic institutions dedicated to them, groups like the Sierra Club, the Anti-Defamation League, the National Organization for Women, the NAACP.
We believe religious diversity and interfaith cooperation are also great issues in American life. The way people who orient around religion differently engage one another across these differences is going to have massive implications for everything, from the strength of our civil society to the stability of our politics. Interfaith America seeks to be a vital civic institution leading on this great American theme. We believe religious diversity is one of America’s core strengths – it is a source of inspiration and ought to be a bridge of cooperation. But you need a vital civic institution engaging these issues positively and proactively for that to be the case.
Daniel: Would you say your mission is preventing bad things from happening as a result of this diversity, or realizing the potential good things that come with it?
Eboo: So there are a number of organizations–the Anti-Defamation League is the primary example–that are about fighting bias and hate. That is super important. At Interfaith America, we are principally about building up hope. And we’re principally about building the muscles of a religiously diverse democracy to accomplish great things together.
So, for example we are working with three of the nation’s largest and most vital civic institutions–the Y.M.C.A., Habitat for Humanity, and Catholic Charities–in an initiative we are calling A Nation of Bridge Builders. It will widen the welcome these institutions give to greater religious and other forms of diversity, and strengthen their capacity to build positive relationships between everybody from atheists to Zoroastrians who come to Y.M.C.A. summer camps, who participate in Habitat for Humanity builds, and who volunteer at Catholic Charity soup kitchens.
Daniel: You’ve mentioned a couple of times now “vital civic institutions.” What makes an institution civic and vital in your mind?
Eboo: A vital civic institution has the vision to think through the various complexities of the great issue it’s dealing with, it has the public’s trust, and it has the excellence and capacity to deliver. For example, when something horribly anti-semitic happens, you know the ADL is going to be on the scene, doing what needs to be done and saying what needs to be said.
Right now, Interfaith America is a 55-person organization with a $14 million annual budget and genuinely national scale. We have thought through religious pluralism and have active programs to support it in higher education, in health care, in the private sector, and with civic organizations. We are regularly in touch with the Biden Administration, as we were previously with the Obama and Bush administrations. We are building towards being the kind of institution that the public can trust on interfaith issues and that has the capacity to deliver excellence consistently
Daniel: So many different types of institutions in civil society are now feeling obliged to make statements or endorse them on issues that are publicly salient but not normally in their purview. That is not your approach. How do you resist this pressure?
Eboo: Part of what we have managed to build over the course of the last 20 years is an organization that knows what it is and that is extremely consistent in its aims and its activity. So, for example, we don’t make public statements. We have broken that rule once in 20 years, and that was after the brutal murder of George Floyd. But as a rule, we don’t make public statements. We write articles, but articles allow for more complexity and nuance than statements. We don’t sign petitions. We don’t take sides on controversial matters.
We’re doing a different kind of work. It’s civic in nature. This gets to what I write about in We Need to Build. John Courtney Murray had this great insight, that the challenge of a pluralist nation is to build spaces where people from diverse identities and diverse ideologies can cooperate. That is our work. Now other people may have other kinds of work. We get that. But our work is to strengthen civic spaces. Examples include a public library, a park district, a hospital, a school, a little league. This is actually the bread and butter of American society.
Most of our civic spaces are ones in which people generally agree on the goal and in which the activity guides positive relationships and cooperation. How do you have a diverse democracy if you don’t have spaces where people who have fundamental disagreements on politics and ideology and religious doctrine can come together and cooperate for something that they generally agree on? We have taken that question for granted for too long in America.
Daniel: At one point in your book you write that “civic pluralism is the highest ideal for a diverse democracy to nurture.” How do you define civic pluralism? Why is it so important?
Eboo: We have a very simple three-part framework for civic pluralism: Respect for diverse identities, relationships between different communities, and cooperation with people on common activities to serve the common good.
In the book I write about the city of Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina where, if there is a fire on the Catholic side of town, the Muslim fire department does not respond, and vice versa. That society is so segregated along ethnic and religious lines that there are even separate garbage trucks for Catholics and Muslims. It sounds funny to us, but that is actually the norm across human history. People of particular identity communities build institutions that serve only their identity communities–and that tend to cultivate hostility with other identity communities.
American society is remarkable because our civil society is made up largely of institutions founded by particular faith communities that serve people of all identities. I was just with the President of Catholic University in DC, and he was telling me about establishing a prayer space for Muslims. That’s normal to us in America. It is not around the world. I think we should recognize that as an achievement. We should appreciate it, and also recognize that it is in danger because of really ugly polarization and an ethic that says, well, if I disagree with you on one thing, I can’t do anything with you–and that actually views it as a badge of honor to find reasons and ways to not cooperate with people of other backgrounds.
That’s why I believe civic pluralism is the highest value for our democracy. I should know that, if I live in a diverse democracy, I am going to live with people who have different identities and different definitions of social justice. Then the number one question we face is, can we live together in peace? Number two, can we cooperate in areas where we agree?
Daniel: Say more about the connection you make between the health of our nonprofit and community-based or civic institutions as you describe them and the health of our democracy. Why and how do we need to be more attentive to this connection?
Eboo: Democracy is about voting and being informed and involved in the public discourse. But It is also about building civic institutions in which people from diverse identities and diverse ideologies can engage each other positively. There’s a lot of Walt Whitman here, a lot of Jane Addams here.
For centuries political philosophers believed religiously diverse democracies were impossible, because they felt religious identity could only ever express itself in institutions or politics that were tribal in nature and hostile to other tribes. What we have managed to do in American democracy is figure out how people could express their religious identity in ways that are both particular and universal. That’s what we do best in American civil society.
But you need vital civic institutions to constantly nurture that ethic. You need to train leaders to be able to do it, to be able to express their faith and identities in ways that are a source of inspiration and a bridge of cooperation. That’s the kind of institution we seek to be.
Daniel: Your book is a very powerful call to action. What changes need to be made in civil society to build up more such institutions?
Eboo: Social critics are important. I started out as one, as I note in my book. But you can’t have one hundred critics for every institution builder. Right now, we live in an era in which social criticism is centered. But social change is not brought about by a more ferocious revolution. It’s about the evolution of a more beautiful social order. If you are funding a revolution, if you are funding the weakening or the erosion of our current institutions without funding the creation of better ones, that leads to Thomas Hobbes’ world, where life is nasty, brutish and short.
I write a section of my book on James Baldwin in which the point is to be guided by a vision for something, and not of anger against something. In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin is very attracted to the anger of Elijah Muhammad and to his stark critique of white racism. But when he sits at Muhammad’s table on a sweltering summer day and he listens to what Muhammad wants for the nation, he thinks to himself, I understand your anger, but I don’t want to live in your world. Philanthropy needs to be funding institutions for the world we want to live in.
There’s lots of people now who talk about the system. If something is wrong, let’s blame the system, let’s change the system. I have a friend, Mike Strautmanis, who is now a senior official at the Obama Foundation. Before that he served in the Obama Administration. He jokes that when they first arrived at the White House they would say, “Let’s go find the guy who runs the system. Where’s that guy?” It turns out there’s not a person who runs the system. It’s not a key you turn on and turn off. There are 10 million moving pieces to it.
What you can do is look to build a new institution. You can ask, what’s a better way of doing public safety than the current ways of policing? You can build an institution that does that. And then people can copy and borrow from this better way in other places. That is my approach to social change.
Daniel: Last question. One of the things I like most about We Need to Build is how honest you are about your personal challenges, and your recurring need to improve, learn, and grow as a leader over the years. Looking back, which episode stretched you the most?
Eboo: Probably one from the late 1990s, which I recounted recently in The Chronicle of Philanthropy. I was just starting to network my way into seeing funders. I was getting meetings at all the big foundations and community trusts. Those people were polite, they listened, and they gave some pointers. Then they politely declined to fund my organization.
I was really angry at the time. I was in my mid-twenties then. I found the kind of progressive diversity language I had learned as an undergraduate coming out of my mouth. “This is white supremacy! This is colonialism! They just can’t see a young brown Muslim being a national leader! It’s their own racism holding them back, etc.” I was really mad.
What is interesting, looking back, is that none of the adult figures in my life gave that narrative the time of day. Even the college professors I was still in touch with, who had taught me some of that language, who had assigned me bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldua, and Paulo Friere. They did not let me use those theories as a guide. They viewed those theories as a useful critique but not as a paradigm for how to act in the world.
Instead, they said, listen–starting a nonprofit organization is really hard. Did you think this was going to be easy? If you are going to call a program officer who doesn’t fund you after the first meeting, after you have run maybe three projects, who is saying you need to have more of a track record–if you are going to call that person a white supremacist for not funding you, then you’re never going to make headway.
They encouraged me to follow the advice of the program officers. Lengthen our track record. Get more media attention. Do some evaluations to show that the program works. Then go back after 6 or 9 months. So I did that. It turns out that was really good advice!
To be honest, if I was starting an organization and had that same experience now, I wouldn’t get that same advice. I’d have people agreeing with me–yeah, what they are doing is white supremacy and colonialism. And I probably would have given up, thinking it was hopeless and never started building my organization.
Daniel: I am glad you stayed with it, Eboo. Our country is a better place for the work you have led over these past two decades. Thank you for this conversation.
This article was originally published in the “The Art of Association” blog. Sign up to receive news and updates on their site.
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