Eboo Patel: Leadership Means Doing the Hard Work of Building Up Institutions

Welcome to our latest exploration of moral leadership, a principle increasingly vital in today’s diverse and rapidly changing world. In a fascinating conversation with Eboo Patel, the President and Founder of Interfaith America, we delve deep into the intersections of faith, diversity, and leadership. Patel’s journey from an optimistic activist to a leader in promoting interfaith cooperation offers invaluable lessons for aspiring moral leaders.

The Foundation of Interfaith America

Interfaith America, initially known as the Interfaith Youth Core, embodies the mission to harness the power of faith and diversity in building a more inclusive society. Eboo Patel’s journey, from his academic pursuits to his role in President Obama’s inaugural faith council, underscores a commitment to leveraging religious diversity as a cornerstone for moral leadership. The organization’s evolution from facilitating youth service projects to aiming for a robust national ethos of pluralism showcases a strategic shift towards institutional building and the promotion of civic cooperation.

The Essence of Moral Leadership in a Diverse Democracy

Moral leadership, as Eboo Patel articulates, transcends religious and non-religious boundaries. It is not inherently tied to one’s faith but is a reflection of one’s ability to inspire and unite people across a spectrum of beliefs and backgrounds. Moral leaders are distinguished by their vision, knowledge, and skills in fostering environments of respect, relationship-building, and cooperative action. This form of leadership is crucial in a society marked by increasing diversity and divisiveness, offering a blueprint for creating spaces where differences are not just tolerated but celebrated.

Challenges and Opportunities in Fostering Interfaith Dialogue

The dialogue also touches upon the challenges facing faith in modern America, from the decline in religious affiliation to the polarization exacerbated by social media. Yet, in these challenges lie opportunities for moral leadership. The concept of a “potluck dinner” metaphorically represents the ideal of American diversity—a space where everyone brings their unique contributions to the table, resulting in a richer, more harmonious community.

The Role of Faith and Religious Diversity in Democracy

Patel highlights the foundational role of religious freedom and diversity in American democracy, emphasizing the contributions of various faiths to the nation’s civic infrastructure. This perspective is a call to action for leaders to bridge social capital among diverse religious communities, thereby strengthening the nation’s social cohesion and resilience.

Conclusion: The Path Forward

As we navigate the complexities of the 21st century, the conversation with Eboo Patel serves as a reminder of the transformative potential of moral leadership rooted in interfaith cooperation. It encourages leaders across sectors to embrace diversity, engage in meaningful dialogue, and build institutions that reflect our shared values of respect and unity. The journey towards a more inclusive and empathetic society is ongoing, but through the efforts of organizations like Interfaith America and the guidance of moral leaders, we move closer to realizing the vision of a diverse democracy that thrives on cooperation and mutual understanding.

In a world eager for hope and healing, the principles discussed in this conversation offer a roadmap for cultivating moral leadership that can navigate the challenges of diversity with grace and purpose. Let us embrace these insights as we strive to build a future where every individual, irrespective of their faith or background, can contribute to a society marked by peace, understanding, and mutual respect.

Read the Transcript

Dana: Well, welcome to another HOW Conversation on moral leadership. Welcome to each of you, our listeners, and welcome back to those of you who are following along with our HOW Conversations on moral leadership. Today we’re very blessed to have with us Eboo Patel. Eboo, I just want to say welcome and give you a chance to say hi, so our listeners know and feel your presence here today.

Eboo: I am thrilled to be with you, Dana. Thank you. I just want to say how much I admire the HOW Institute and how proud I am to be a part of this podcast. And how much I believe in the significant overlaps between the mission of the HOW Institute, which really seeks to lift up, advance, and build the muscles of moral leaders, and the work that we do at Interfaith America around cooperation across differences.

Dana: So let’s jump right into it because you already brought up the fact that you are the president and founder of Interfaith America, and we’re going to dig into that a little bit. It was previously known as Interfaith Youth Core, the IFYC. And your background fascinates me. And we’re going to dig into that a little bit. You are a Muslim of Indian heritage and did your undergraduate degree in sociology from the University of Illinois, and then your doctorate in sociology of religion from Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. You served on President Obama’s inaugural faith council, named as one of America’s best leaders by the US News and World Report, and the author of many books. I love “Acts of Faith” and your more recent book, which I just finished, called “We Need to Build: Field Notes for Diverse Democracy”. We need to build, and that’s a theme that’s going to come out in our conversation. So, Eboo, if we can, I’m going to start in a very deep place. And I know you’re willing to go there, even though I’ve just met you because we had an initial conversation about moral leadership and how important that is. Who are you? And how has your background led you to found this incredible organization that’s really creating waves of moral leadership called Interfaith America? Tell us a bit about your upbringing, people’s experiences, who’s influenced you, and who has created the kind of person you are being and becoming?

Eboo: Well, that is a very deep question. I’m happy to answer it. There’s a great line by the Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who says, “I cannot tell you who I am or what I’m going to do until I tell you the story or stories of which I am a part.” And the older I get, the more that I feel connected to the ancient traditions of which I’m a part. One of those traditions is Islam, particularly the Ismaili interpretation of Islam. And I interpret Islam as a tradition that says we are meant to be a special mercy upon all the worlds. The Quran has a line that God made us different nations and tribes that we may come to know one another. So actually, diversity is sacred in Islam, and bringing people together in positive ways is sacred. So this notion of really lifting up pluralism and building institutions, I think, is core to my heritage. I also think of that as a major part of America. So, in the best tradition of America, we are a nation that brings people from the four corners of the earth, speaking different languages and praying in different ways together to a patch of land to build up a nation. And we are a nation that does that largely through its civic institutions. That’s the great kind of Tocquevillian, Putnam-like approach to the world.

Dana: As beautifully said, and building up organizations and creating pluralism and bringing people together, you know, you stood up this organization in 2002, now called Interfaith America. And I’m just kind of curious if you would share with our listeners why you started that organization. And maybe take the platform here to share a little bit about the mission and purpose of Interfaith America and how you’re achieving the mission. What are your measures of merit?

Eboo: So the idea for Interfaith, the mayor, Interfaith Youth Core, which is what it was known as at the time, really comes out of my involvement in social justice and diversity work when I was at the University of Illinois. And I kind of got initiated into the social change movement as an angry activist. But the truth is, I’m not angry by nature. And I’m actually an optimist by nature, and I look for things that are positive in the world, and I seek to build on those things. But I was kind of in this circle of people at the time that was always pointing out the negative and kind of thought the negative was inevitable, and frankly, wanted that because it allowed them to make a case for their ideology, and I needed an off-ramp. And it turned out that that off-ramp was a path of faith, it was actually a different faith than my own at the time. I was in my early 20s, I had been a part of a lot of service work in high school and in college. And the idea emerged, why not bring young people from different religions together to do service and then to talk about how their faith inspires them to engage in service and a love-based approach to social change. And then over the course of the past 25 years, right, so the idea actually emerges in 1998. We don’t get our first grant until 2002. But it’s been about 25 years that I’ve been at this, it’s over half of my life. And it’s become kind of larger and more sophisticated. And we talk about service as a method, but really civic institutions as the end goal, and to build an ethos of pluralism in a whole nation, which can be kind of easily defined as respect, relate, cooperate.

Dana: There really is a common cause here. I love your message of leading with love. And also, it’s about service and thinking about how in pluralism, you know, we kind of create this wave as Simon talks about together, and you as well. And I want to talk about your most recent book. I know over my shoulder, you have Dove’s book of how and how matters, and I and your book as well, your most recent book, “We Need to Build: Field Notes for Diverse Democracy”. And in that, you write a quote here: “People are generally wary of turning away from a system that they know, that is, it might be if they do not believe that something better can be built. And in order to trust that something better can be built, people need to have faith in the leaders doing the building.” Let’s explore that a little bit together. Because at a time when, you know, we watched the Edelman trust index right plummet in terms of politicians, justice, even the military media, I think the only two that are going up right now might be government a little bit through the pandemic, but also business because of some of the ESG and taking on some social issues. But you know, where do we even begin? How can leaders start to build the faith, part of what has…

Eboo: Happened in the world of social change over the last decade or so is its approach that looks to tear things down. And I just don’t think that that’s the right way to go. You can’t just tell other people what they’re doing wrong. You can’t just chant dismantle, defund, decolonize; you have to build something better. The kind of logic of too much social change, this isn’t all of it, but too much of it, right, and particularly, the part that’s gotten a lot of attention is, if I tear the things I don’t like down, something better will magically appear. And that’s just not how earth works, right? You have to build those things. And building an institution is painstaking, brick by brick, hand over hand, day by day work, right? Anybody who runs a YMCA, anybody who’s the principal of a school, anybody who runs an athletic team, you know that what you have to do is show up every day and take and move a half an inch forward.
Dana: So for our listeners, what is it that we can provide in terms of how to bring people back into having reasonable discourse? Because, you know, I know a lot of people are challenged with these opposing, you know, extremes. And how do you have it be a negotiated conversation as opposed to a fight?

Eboo: So I think one is, is I think we have to, like, have an image in our minds that the people who are fighting are, it’s very small groups of people who are using technological platforms to sound loud and look bigger than they actually are. So like, I want to look at people who are combatants in the cultural war and say, “You are a very small minority of people demographically, and I am not going to get caught in your web. I am not getting caught in the web.” I look around my neighborhood, and I see kids from different backgrounds. Right now, it’s really important to know, you know, that I see. June, I see people of Israeli and Jewish heritage, coming together with people of Palestinian heritage in Little League games, and I can’t say how important that is, right? What happens if two Little League coaches decide that they disagree so much on the Middle East that they’re not going to coach a Little League team together? That is the nightmare scenario in America. And I have to tell you, it’s not unfathomable.

Dana: I guess that leads me to a question, you know, with you as the founder and the president of Interfaith America, you know, why is faith and religious diversity important to our democracy and kind of supporting and defending democracy?
Eboo: So I think there’s a couple of things. One is I think it’s really important to remember that religious identity is the dimension of diversity that our European founders came close to getting right. It’s really important to remember that there’s a lot of conversation about how the European founders of the 76th generation, the mistakes, omissions, and sins when it came to race, gender, and sexuality, I think all of that is fair game and it should be talked about, absolutely right. But we shouldn’t forget the work of our European founders that we’re actually really grateful for. We should be grateful for George Washington writing a letter to a Jewish community, saying that his government will give to bigotry no sanction and to persecution no assistance. We should be grateful that Thomas Jefferson respectfully owned the Koran. We should be grateful that James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams wrote and talked about a nation that would welcome people from all kinds of different faiths, give them freedom of religion, and expect them to cooperate. So religion plays an important founding role in the country, it plays an important symbolic role in the country, it is also, read Robert Putnam’s work, it’s like half of American social capital in our civic infrastructure. And I would say that, you know, to use Robert Putnam language, if we are able to bridge that social capital between Muslim and Catholic and Jewish and Buddhist and yes, humanist institutions have, we’re able to bridge that social capital, we are able to strengthen the civic infrastructure of the country, and we’re able to really strengthen our social cohesion. And I think that that’s really important. And I think it’s leaders who do that, right. Bridges don’t fall from the sky or rise from the ground; leaders build them.

Dana: Thank you for making that connection to leadership. And that’s kind of where I want to go next is building upon the role of leadership and faith. And, you know, the HOW Institute for society’s mission, you know, very well, is to build and nurture a culture of moral leadership. So I would like to talk about that intersection if we can have leadership and faith, you know, Can faith make us better leaders? And how?

Eboo: You know, I’ve known Zoroastrian people, I’ve known people who are Zoroastrian, who are inspired by their faith to be moral leaders, and to engage in a positive way with all people. And I’ve known atheists who have done the exact same thing. I’ve known people of both backgrounds. So I’m like, “You are not a moral leader, whatever your identity is, you’re not moral.” Right. And so I don’t think faith necessarily makes people better or worse leaders. I think that the question you have to find is, What’s your inspiration, and it can be humanism, and it can be Islam, and it can be Judaism, and it can be Methodism, a variety of things that your inspiration can be, but you have to realize you are engaging in a religiously diverse world. People from atheists to Zoroastrian, and so whatever your anchor and your inspiration is, you have to be prepared to positively and constructively engage people with all kinds of inspirations, all kinds of identities, all kinds of ideologies. And the question for the moral leader is, do you have the vision, the knowledge base, and the skill set to bring people together in a way characterized by respect, relationships, and cooperation?

Dana: Excellent. You know, I want to dig into a little bit of research with you now because we’ve talked about faith, we got into some capitalism, but people are losing religion now, so to speak. You know, earlier this year, the Public Religion Research Institute gave a report that only 16% of Americans say that religion is the most important thing in their life, and 36% say religion is among many important things. But back not long ago, right. 2013 those numbers were 20%, saying religion was most important, and 43% said it was one of the many important things so that’s a big drop. And what is your theory about why this might be happening?

Eboo: So one theory is that we’re a society in which people don’t join things anymore. So this is, I think, in part, an issue of believing, but it’s largely an issue of belonging. So, you know, sociologists of religion have a framework where they talk about religion as believing, behaving, and belonging. I think that this is a crisis of belonging, and the crisis of belonging is related to the crisis of loneliness. It’s related to the crisis of social capital, but it’s people who, you know, would rather sit on their phones than go to church on a Sunday morning, and I understand that like, I’m, you know, in some ways, I’m that person too, right, like the way that technology has reshaped our lives in that way. So the fewer people you have involved in religious institutions, the more that our faith-based civic infrastructure erodes, and the largest social service organizations in America are the Salvation Army and Catholic Charities. So I think we’re about to hit a real crisis when it comes to things like refugee resettlement and disaster relief.

Dana: I’m curious in terms of wrestling with some of the, as the HOW Institute for society, frames it as when. How do leaders decide which social issues to lean into? Because taking a stand can have profound consequences, right? Yeah. First of all, professional, financial. So as you think about your framework for deciding when to stand up, speak out, act, what is that framework for our listeners?

Eboo: We have a longstanding practice here at Interfaith America; we do not make organizational statements on anything. We have broken that once in 25 years around the brutal murder of George Floyd. But otherwise, we don’t make organizational statements. And I will tell you why. Because once you start making organizational statements on some things, there are interest groups out there who will push you to make an organizational statement on the thing that they care about. I think it’s a good thing to say we never do this. We never do this. And here’s what we do do. When whatever it is, you do do, like if you’re a fire station, you fight fires, okay? If you’re a football team, you play football, and that actually doing that well, actually has a really positive public effect. So I just wrote a piece for USA Today. Where, you know, I said, like, look, look, America cannot come apart in the middle of this terrible war in the Middle East. America cannot come apart. Right. And I cite the example of the Denzel Washington movie. Remember, the Titans were where Denzel Washington plays coach Herman Boone of an integrated high school football team at a time of deep racial tension in Alexandria, Virginia, and he has this quote, he says, “Listen, I’m not Martin Luther King Jr., Jesus Christ, or the Easter Bunny. I, my job is not racial healing across America, I’m a football coach.” And as that integrated football team played together, it had an ameliorating impact on racial divisions in the city. And that’s what we say at Interfaith America, we are going to strengthen the muscles of people coming, built of people building bridges, who want to build bridges, across identities and ideologies. That’s what we’re going to focus on. And that is going to have an impact on the broader society.

Dana: How is it that as you think about your own moral leadership journey, staying the course, we talk about at the HOW Institute, pausing, and the importance of taking a pause to create space where you can reflect on what you’re doing, reconnect to what the values are for you personally, also the organization and understand how to make better choices and reimagine a better future? Share with our listeners and with me, if you don’t mind. You know, how do you pause? What is it? To recharge,

Eboo: I mean, so there’s actually a lot of things I’ll say all these, right. So I pray every day like I wake up early in the morning, and I say my Ismaili Muslim prayers, and my family prays together every night, and I have teenage boys, and I’m actually really proud of that, right. So we are, we don’t, it we are we should be more involved in our faith community than we are. But that is a commitment of ours. Commitment of mine, to me, say my prayers, quietly, alone, early morning, every day, and for my family to say our prayers together as a family every night. Okay, so that’s one thing. A second thing is, I have days that I am not traveling, and I only travel, I travel once a week for one or two nights. That’s it. And on days that I’m not traveling, I’m home at six o’clock. And it’s just, it’s just my deal with my family. Well,

Dana: You are a great friend of the HOW Institute. And last year, we were thrilled to have you as part of our House Summit on moral leadership. And you spoke a lot about hope there. And I want to give a quote for our listeners about what you said and kind of round out our conversation here. There are times when diversity work feels full of hope. And there are times when diversity work actually feels super tense. It feels like a battle between the wicked and the wounded. What does it look like when your diversity work is filled with hope and guided by a strategy of hope?

Eboo: So it feels like a potluck dinner. And that’s actually my metaphor for the country. We’re not a melting pot. We don’t want people to melt their identities down. We’re not a battleground. We’re a potluck dinner, where you want people to bring their best dish inspired by their identity. And you want those best dishes to mix and combine in really interesting, creative, delicious ways. And you want a space where people can have enriching conversations. So, when diversity work feels hopeful, inspiring, and productive, it feels like a potluck dinner—that like a melting pot, not like a battleground.

Dana: Eboo Patel, thank you so much for sharing your passion and your purpose with us and for continuing to make waves in moral leadership. Your messages are very clear, and I hope our listeners have enjoyed this time. We salute you, we thank you, and we wish you all the best. Let’s go make some more waves together.

Eboo: Dana, thank you so much. I appreciate the HOW Institute. I appreciate you. I’m grateful for my friendship with Dove. We have work to do, and I’m proud to be doing it together with you.

Dana: Outstanding. Thank you.

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