To Eboo Patel, diversity is the great strength of this nation, but the term should not stand only for race and ethnicity. It must also include America’s vast religious mix, he writes in his fifth book, We Need to Build: Field Notes for a Diverse Democracy (Beacon, May). The former faith adviser to President Obama was a Muslim American activist in his college years and then moved into community organizing 20 years ago by launching the Interfaith Youth Core. Now, IFYC has become Interfaith America, with a 50-person professional staff and a $15 million budget. Patel’s goal, he writes, is for Interfaith America to be as significant in politics, culture, and society as the ACLU is to civil liberties and the NAACP is to racial equity.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How has your work changed since launching the IFYC?
I used to go project to project, grant to grant. I used to think being a leader mean giving great speeches. Now, I want to build something that will last. I look to three models for this. Religions are a model because they have a vision for what the good is, what justice and pluralism are, and they build according to that vision, with places to worship, hospitals, schools and the like. Universities are a model: They can last a thousand years. Civil institutions like the National Conference of Christians and Jews are a model: The NCCJ introduced the idea of a Judeo-Christian nation as an answer to anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism. But we’re more than that now. I want Iterfaith America to help [the country] see itself differently.
What about protests and marches? Don’t they help drive change?
We need a political and cultural conversation about social change that emphasizes not what people oppose but what they could build that is better. I write in the book, the goal has not been to put a million people in the street or for me to give the highest-profile speech imaginable; it has been to help institutionalize interfaith cooperation, first in the sector of higher education and then in adjacent spaces like religious communities, civil society organizations, public health, and for-profit companies.
You devote 17 chapters to “cautions and considerations” such as a warning against assuming you know someone’s politics, just by their group identity, or acting for others instead of empowering them. Why?
I want to help leaders build trust and wield power in a way that improves peoples’ lives. I am not calling these “dos and don’ts.” I don’t think of them as hard-and-fast rules, but more like the signs that warn you about a winding road up ahead, or ice on the bridge. If you seek to be in charge, it’s good to have a sense of when you might need to slow down or when things are likely to get slippery.
Your book weaves in the ways you deal with hate, ignorance, and insulting microaggressions. What keeps you going?
I try to give people the benefit of the doubt. In our vision of America, everyone wins. Look, I’m not buying a brownie at a KKK bake sale. But I do want to engage positively with everyone else. I really hope most people want that.