Eboo Patel believes in institutions.
Patel, as founder and president of Interfaith America (formerly Interfaith Youth Core), has spent decades working to influence institutions — including churches, colleges, and civic institutions — to embrace interfaith work as crucial to democracy.
In that work, Patel said he came to realize the importance of great institutions, and how previous generations built “institutions that were a step forward for their time and that attempted to serve the needs of the society in the moment.” This left him asking: What are we going to build?
In his new book, We Need to Build, Patel seeks to inspire others to build with him instead of just criticizing policies and structures they dislike. The book draws on Patel’s work with Interfaith America and considers what we can learn from good (and bad) institutions across the globe.
Patel talked with Sojourners’ Mitchell Atencio about trust in institutions, alternative communities, and the strengths of interfaith advocacy.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Mitchell Atencio, Sojourners: When did you start working on this book? What was your initial vision behind it?
Eboo Patel: This has been a project of the last four to five years. The big vision is basically: What should social change be about? What should it be guided by? And particularly social change work that seeks to strengthen diverse democracy.
What I came to is: Social change work cannot principally be about resistance or a more ferocious revolution. Social change work has to be about building a better order, and strengthening a diverse democracy is actually really hard.
The United States is the world’s first attempt at multiethnic, multiracial, interfaith democracy. If it was easy, lots of people would’ve done it over the years.
Why do you think younger Americans have less trust in institutions? And what would it take to restore that trust in institutions, particularly for young people?
Look, I think we take a lot for granted. I grew up going back to India where I saw a place with absolute, destitute poverty, and a place whose institutions couldn’t do basic governance like indoor plumbing for many hundreds of millions of people. I love India, so this is not to cast aspersions, it’s simply to say that when you see a society that cannot do basic things, you don’t take it for granted.
We have come to a place in American society where many things — including the institutions that support pluralism — are taken for granted. I don’t think that’s a good thing. This book is meant to be an inspiring call to strengthen and improve. This book is not about complacency or a message that everything is great. The book is a message that we need to make things better, but that requires serious skills, serious commitment, and serious orientation toward improvement. It requires us to defeat the things we do not love by building the things we do.
And incidentally if one were to go through one’s life and ask the questions, “Where did I learn how to read? Where did I learn how to swim? Where did I play baseball? Who do I call if there’s a fire?” Every one of those is an institution.
But if that’s the case, why do we take a lot for granted? What’s driving young people — or all of us, generally speaking — to take institutions for granted?
I don’t know if the attitudes of late millennials and early Gen Zers are permanent. I don’t know how long this [distrust in institutions] is going to last.
I will say this: When good institutions are not there — when you call the fire department and it does not show up, when you go to the school and it is closed, when you realize there’s no place where kids can learn how to swim — you really start to appreciate institutions and have a sense of what your role might be in building and upholding them.
I hope I am being very clear: That is not to come across as a scold; it is to come across as an inspiring vision.
When we say we want the government to welcome and resettle more refugees, who does the actual resettlement? It’s refugee resettlement agencies that have been founded by faith communities. The government contracts with those agencies, and if those agencies didn’t exist, the government literally couldn’t resettle refugees.
Do you think that there are unique strengths that interfaith groups have compared to other solidarity groups?
One of [the strengths] is bridging social capital. The largest source of social capital in our society — the wellspring of associational life and our institutions — are religious groups. Methodist hospitals, Catholic universities, Jewish philanthropy, Muslim social service agencies, et cetera, et cetera. The fact is that religious communities contribute to a ton of this. Interfaith work has the opportunity to bridge and grow that social capital.
The second [strength] is inspiring moral language like “city on a hill,” “beloved community,” “better angels of our nature.”
A third distinction is that diversity is not just the differences you like. A diverse democracy is a place where people from different identities and divergent ideologies learn to work together. They’re building things together, they’re able to disagree on some fundamental things without violence, and they’re able to work on other fundamental things amid their disagreements.
Diverse religions have very important disagreements around doctrine, around theology, around a variety of things; interfaith cooperation is a demonstration that diverse democracy is possible. You think to yourself, “The Jews and the Christians disagree on the nature of Jesus — and yet look at them working together to resettle refugees.”
In the book you wrote, “Zones for identity communities to thrive are positive. But barriers between identity groups are not.” What are the differences between zones that create the possibilities for identity communities to thrive and those that create barriers?
I write about this image of a potluck: The people who are vegan hang out together because they have something in common, but they’re not fighting with the people who eat chicken. There’s a convening identity being vegan, and there’s conversations happening across lines of “food identity.” I think that’s a good way to think about civil society.
[These zones] go really wrong in an identity-based civil war. That’s where identity becomes a bludgeon — not just a barrier, but a bludgeon. But I think strong barriers between identity groups are bad also, and I use the example of fire departments in the city of Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Do you want a society where if there’s a fire in a neighborhood with largely Arab Muslims, a fire department of largely Latino Pentecostals doesn’t respond?
Part of what I’m trying to convey is that there are a lot of societies on Earth that are like that, and we should not take for granted the civic structure of our pluralistic democracy — we should appreciate what we have.
I grew up in very conservative, fundamentalist, Christian communities. I know those communities oppose gay marriage or trans people adopting children because they believe that’s better for society and they believe that there are unique harms done to a society that tolerates and embraces those things. What does it look like for these two groups to come to pluralistic agreement? How does a toleration of conservative Christian ethics, communities, and ideals without a compromise on equality and access for LGBTQ people operate?
Honestly, the truth is we do [come to pluralistic agreement] in our society all of the time. I’ll give you a concrete example of this.
A couple of years ago, I was in Oregon, enjoying a family vacation and I’m re-reading an article on the fire departments of Mostar not responding to the fires of different ethnic and religious communities. And I’m realizing there are fires on three sides of me. This is summertime in the West in the early 21st century. There’s wildfires everywhere. Do you think that there is ideological agreement between [people like me] — Whole Foods, Chicago, nonprofit executives — and people fighting fires?
No. And I take seriously the point that there are things we can come together to do that don’t require us to agree. But then there are serious areas where we have to come to some sort of conclusion. If Texas state agencies are deciding who can foster and adopt children, someone has to decide whether trans parents are included in that.
The key to this in a diverse democracy is that you have to work with people with whom you disagree, and you have to live with people whom you defeat.
I am progressive on a range of things. I’m based pretty comfortably in the “Obama position,” about two inches left of center. I have progressive views on things like LGBTQ rights. I realized that the people fighting the fires in Oregon may well disagree with me on important things and yet we do important things for each other.
So if one of their kids is in the college class that I’m teaching, I am not hounding that identity. I might disagree with it, but there are other things we are doing together. In a diverse democracy, we have to work with the people we disagree with and live with the people we defeat.
How do you think about the difference between institutions that should be seized, changed, and worked alongside of and institutions that should be abolished?
Slavery needed to be abolished, right? Apartheid needed to be abolished. I don’t know if we have anything analogous to that right now. I don’t think we do.
The U.S. prison system?
If you take the pilot out of the cockpit, you better be able to fly the plane.
I am a big believer in a reasonable criminal justice reform. My wife was a civil rights attorney for 15 years, trying multiple police misconduct cases. And public safety is a real thing every day. Yesterday, another set of kids killed each other in the streets of Chicago. Public safety is a real thing.
I just think the approach of “let’s dismantle,” that way does not lie paradise; that way lies chaos. A big part of social change is that the people who say they’re social change agents are taking extra responsibility for running a better social order. They are standing up and saying: “You can entrust me. Your life will be safer, happier, and more fulfilled if I’m in charge. You can trust me with public safety, you can trust me with education, you can trust me with health and welfare.”
Right now, I’m not sure that we have too little critique in the world. We don’t have enough people, energy, thinking, or action around a better social order. We have plenty of revolutionaries.
Is your challenge, regarding building institutions, that people should prove what they can do, and persuade others that they can do what they say they will?
Totally. If you’re going to say the school does not treat its diverse populations right, by all means, run a better school. The criminal justice system is not working? By all means, build an alternative — please. The Harlem Children’s Zone, Partners in Health, these are excellent examples.
Those of us interested in social change, and I’m on the progressive side, we inherit a legacy of people building institutions that moved things forward. And the question for this moment in American history is: Can we be the ones who do that? Because social change can not just be telling other people what to do.
So the call — I wouldn’t say this is a challenge, because there’s nothing negative here — is: If you are a social change agent, please envision a more beautiful social order and develop the vision, quality, and skill to run that.
John Lewis didn’t just tear down segregation, he introduced the legislation for the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Bob Moses didn’t just tear down segregation, he built The Algebra Project. Geoffrey Canada didn’t just shake his fist at poverty, he built the Harlem Children’s Zone. Twentieth century American civic institutions, and no small number of government agencies too, emerge from Jane Addams’ Hull-House.
What is Hull House for the 21st century? That’s what I think we need.
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