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The Templeton Ideas Podcast is a show about the most awe-inspiring ideas in our world and the people who investigate them.

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Eboo Patel is a civic leader, author, and Founder of Interfaith America, the leading interfaith organization in the United States. Eboo served on President Obama’s Inaugural Faith Council, has given hundreds of keynote speeches, and has written several books. His most recent book, We Need to Build: Field Notes for Diverse Democracy, argues for the necessity of institution-building for those of us dedicated to refounding America as a just and inclusive democracy. Eboo joins the podcast to discuss the roots of his own love-based activism, how social change actually works, and why so many influential social activists have been people of faith. 

Tom: Eboo, welcome to the show.

Eboo: Great to be with you, Tom. Thanks for having me.

Tom: To start us off, in recently reading your memoir, you wrote that your father moved your family from India in the mid 1970s to complete his MBA at Notre Dame.

He and your mom came together. She studied to be a CPA and later became a professor. You and your brother grew up in the Chicago suburbs. Children of very high-achieving immigrants, I imagine with, with high expectations on the kinds of people that you’re going to become. You wrote that with your parents being successful professionals that you felt to a degree that you ,a bit had to go it alone. Um, and there was a very difficult adjustment growing up in this country in a community that’s where people look different from you, maybe have different expectations and whatnot. One of the things that really stood out to me is that in terms of looking for social acceptance of fitting in, that you really felt a strong connection when you participated in a local YMCA. Can you tell me about that experience of going there and what you found there?

Eboo: Yeah. So the Y, uh, comes into my life at a really important stage. So I’d gone to swimming lessons at the Elmhurst YMCA when I was, when I was a real little kid, but when my family moved to Glen Ellyn.

Didn’t have any friends, didn’t know anybody when I was 9 or 10 years old, and my mom started going to work full time. It was a tough adjustment to school, and the Y and its after school programs and its athletic programs and its summer camps was really the place where, like, I felt at home. The counselors were loving and friendly and were.. just really welcoming and accepting and one of the things I noticed was that kids acted different at school than they did at the Y. Basically they were meaner at school and nicer at the Y. And that always kind of struck me and I, I think it’s actually guided a lot of my life. In what kinds of spaces do people tend to be nice?

Eboo: And in what kinds of spaces do they tend to be mean? I’m sure that’s true for me also, like I was probably a better person at the Y than I was at school.

Tom: Does YMCA have some sort of… a secret sauce, something that they do there really well that maybe other organizations could learn from?

Eboo: Look, the Y is the second largest association in America after AAA, right? Which means there are just a ton of YMCAs across the country, well over a thousand. And I think that the thing that they do really well is the whole Y, YMCA triangle, mind, body, spirit.

I, they really believe that. The activities are in instantiation of that philosophy that we will will enrich your mind will lift your spirit will nurture your body, right? And that very clearly came out at the Y. M. C. A. where I was that there was an ethos that infused the place that the people that the Y hired embodied that ethos and that the activities were an instantiation of it and that you had to live up to that ethos as a kid, even as a kid. I thought that was powerful.

Tom: Growing up in a, in a Muslim family. I was, I was curious to explore some of your religious upbringing in a different culture. You wrote, it was very interesting to me, you said that religious rituals did not so much fade into the background in your childhood as it got elbowed aside by another faith, both glittering and suffocating.

What was that faith that you encountered that really pushed some of your family rituals to the side the longer that you were in your circumstances?

Eboo: Yeah, it was, it was American achievement. It was the meritocracy and I’m just being descriptive here. I’m not being judgmental, right? Like my dad was in advertising and he frequently had client meetings or had to travel on work.

And so the kind of daily prayers that we would do together in the evening, they happen less and less often. My brother and I started to have afterschool activities, whether it’s competitive sports or whether it’s kind of competitive academic activities. And so we start going less and less to Jamatkhana, which is the Ismaili house of worship.

I’m a particular kind of Muslim called an Ismaili Muslim. And so our house of worship is called the Jamatkhana. And, you know, my mom, when she became a professor starts teaching at night. And so again, that means the evening prayer ritual and the trips to Jamatkhana become less and less frequent. By the way, like I didn’t mind any of this, right?

Like I was, I was fully in on American achievement. It was a big part of my identity, but it was very clear that our faith life oriented around American achievement, not the other way around.

Tom: I’m going to pivot to your college experience. You wrote that at the University of Illinois, where you did your undergraduate studies, you really gravitated towards political activism. There’s a lot of different groups there, a lot of energy, a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of frustration, rage. But there’s a certain community people that you particularly gravitated to and admired. Can you tell me about who you, who you found there and who you found inspirational?

Eboo: Yeah. So, you know, my first couple of years as an activist were kind of in the angry activist category. I was initiated into activism by a kind of protest activism ethos.

And for a long time, A long time being something like 18 to 24 months. I thought that that was the only way of of social change, like basically shaking your fist in people’s faces and telling them everything that they were doing wrong. And it wasn’t until somebody told me about Dorothy Day and the Catholic worker movement that I realized that there was a very different approach to to social change.

And it’s the approach that I would like to think I follow now, although not in this kind of stark and radical form the way Dorothy Day did, which I admire a great deal. It’s just not my path. And the basic idea there is that God sets forth an ideal that we do our best to live up to. And you live a life and you build institutions to that ideal. And in Christianity, it’s, you know, the kingdom of heaven. right? And so Dorothy Day tried to build that through a network of Catholic worker houses that would always have a, a room open to Christ in the stranger’s guise. And I was just so inspired by this idea that, that you basically would love God and love people more than you hated the system. And you would seek to build a set of institutions to the ideal that God sets forth.

That’s really my first kind of adult and conscious steps towards the idea of kind of faith-inspired social change or institution-building. In retrospect, I realized I had learned a ton from my Ismaili upbringing about social change and institution building, but because it was kind of the water that I swam in.

I didn’t realize it at the time. It was only later that I realized, oh, there’s this kind of approach to, to social change and pluralism that is, is very much kind of been woven into me. And I hadn’t seen it until I, I grew up and I looked back and thought about how that was connected to everything else that I learned from.

Tom: So moving next to graduated from University of Illinois, you moved into the city of Chicago. And started working with minority high school dropouts, helping them work on their GEDs. You wrote that you and your roommate at the time hosted a potluck dinner and it led from one thing to another. Can you tell me about that instance in your life and, and how it snowballed?

Eboo: Yeah, look, I think the transition from college to the quote unquote real world is, is one of the biggest transitions that certainly many middle class kids will make and it was hard for me. It was, it was a tough transition. I had a very demanding job, right? And my roommate, John Shea and I, you know, we’re lonely and you know, one, I think it was February night, must’ve been 1997. We’re like, well, why don’t we just have a bunch of friends over? A bunch of friends was like six total and we’ll have everybody bring a dish. And it was awesome. And we were like, let’s do this next Tuesday night and 12 people showed up and it was awesome and we just kind of kept on doing it. And by the warmth of the spring, there were like 40, 50, 60 people there spilling out of this, you know, one-and-a-half-bedroom apartment into this front yard that we had.

And I looked at this and, you know, I love the idea of a potluck practically. It’s delicious food and great company, but I also love it as a metaphor. You know, everybody brings a dish. Everybody brings a dish, and they bring a dish that’s often connected to their identity. So there’s this diverse array of dishes, and people are constantly finding wonderful combinations.

That is kind of the metaphor for American democracy. And John and I, and a handful of other people, were like, Hey, you know what? What if we did this on a more permanent basis, and not just every Tuesday night? So we got our act together, and we actually formed an intentional community, kind of an artists and activists commune.

It lasted for 10, 12 years. I only lived there for a year. I went off to England for grad school afterwards, but it was, it was like my first like win in the real world, so to speak, my first sense of, boy, I can build something in the real world.

Tom: Tell me about then the next steps of going from this organic community started in Chicago to how this became geographically bigger and in terms of who could participate and where, where did it go next from that foundation in Chicago?

Eboo: Yeah, so there’s actually only kind of a dotted line from Stone Soup, the name of the intentional community to what becomes Interfaith Youth Corps and then ultimately Interfaith America. So basically what happens is, there’s a group of people at this intentional community who are interested in interfaith work.

A lot of us are active, are people who’ve kind of leaned into faith-based activism, even if it was faiths other than our own. So I’m Muslim, wasn’t particularly devoted at the time, but very inspired, as you know, by Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement, and had been reading in you know, Thich Nhat Hanh and Abraham Joshua Heschel and Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi, basically very taken by faith based activism across faiths. We find out about this thing called the Interfaith Movement, where we think that, you know, it’s basically gatherings of diverse faith-based activists who are kind of the next generation of Dorothy Days and Thich Nhat Hanhs. And we hear about this conference at Stanford University of the United Religions Initiative Global Summit.

And so we road trip out there. This is the summer of ‘98, and we show up at this conference, and it’s boring. And we’re in our early 20s, and we’re not afraid to tell people when something is boring. And so I stand up like in the middle of, you know, a plenary session and I’m like, this sucks. This is boring.

You people are boring. Like, where are the young people? Where’s the, where’s the vanguard energy? Where the radical spangles? Where’s the next generation of Dorothy Days and Malcolm X’s, you know, and where’s the social action? And after, like, that kind of call out moment, a woman approaches me, her name is Yolan Trevino, and she says, you know, it’s interesting what you just said, the notion of an interfaith initiative that would not, like, focus on panel discussions or whatever, it would focus on young people and social action, whatever, wider diversity, you should build that.

And that was the summer right before I was going off to graduate school, I had planned to go to India that summer. We had a wonderful audience with the Dalai Lama, where I told him about, like, this vision of this interfaith organization with young people and a wide array of religious diversity, and he basically said, you should build that.

And that, that was really the beginning. So, so what’s, we’re 2023, that’s 25, 26 years ago. So I’ve been doing this more than half my life, literally. After

Abby: You’re listening to the Templeton Ideas Podcast from the John Templeton Foundation. If you’re enjoying this episode, check out templeton.org/news for more awe-inspiring perspectives from scholars, journalists, and colleagues. You can sign up there to get our newsletter in your inbox, or follow us wherever you are on social media.

Abby: Now let’s get back to our conversation.

Tom: So let’s turn to your new book now. We Need to Build: Field Notes For a Diverse Democracy. I was wondering, tell me a little bit about the context of, of writing it when you did.

Eboo: I think there’s a couple of contexts for how I wrote this. One is I’d come to about 20 years at Interfaith Youth Corps — Interfaith America at the time that I was writing this.

And I would say, you know, if I had to name one American hero, across all of American history, it would probably be Jane Addams. And after 20 years at the Hull House, she wrote a book called 20 Years at a Hull House. And so I always think of that book as a model. Incidentally, after 20 more years at Hull House, she wrote another book 20 More Years at Hull House.

I mean, that that’s an institution builder for you, right? And the thing I love about Jane Addams is that she builds this very concrete institution called Hull House, which is about a mile and a half from where I sit, engages and solves a set of social problems at late 19th, early 20th century Chicago.

Juvenile delinquency, you know, labor issues, unsanitary, unhygienic conditions in cities, recreation, cultural connection between, you know, various immigrants from Europe, uh, including interfaith connections. She builds an institution that actually solves all of these things. And then spreads that through legislation and other policies throughout the country.

And so this notion of building an institution that would be able to run multiple activities was always something that, you know, kind of hovered above my head as something important to do. And what I realized in beginning Interfaith Youth Corps. We began with a couple of activities, a conference, a book, a course, a youth council.

That’s when we scraped together $100,000, you know, to run a couple of things. And over time, I realized that what an institution does is, is an institution is like a restaurant.

It doesn’t turn out one dish. It turns out a menu of dishes over and over again, and it has to kind of organize itself to be able to do that, right? You know, you can’t put all of your energy just into a single meal. You have to be able to set up the kitchen and set up your procurement and like hire the staff and set up the dining room so that you can do it over and over again.

And then if you’re a good restaurant, you have a seasonal menu, right? And you’re kind of changing your dishes all the time. And if you’re an exceptional restaurant, you kind of inspire other restaurants like yours. And as I became more sophisticated in running Interfaith Youth Corps, I started to think of it as a restaurant as, you know, what are our multiple dishes?

How does this kind of form a menu? How does the menu adapt with the time? How do we pay attention to the funding and the staffing for these kinds of things? And so it was no longer just, how do I facilitate a youth council conversation? Or how do I get you know, in the media or on the evening news as a one off, it was, how do I think of this as an ongoing institution that is constantly generating a pattern of activities or in the restaurant analogy, a menu?

Tom: I think that’s a great metaphor. I hadn’t never thought about. Considering institutions as restaurants, because I think it’s a term that’s hard to define. It’s a term that I think raises a lot of people’s hackles. It just sounds like a word that we should be critical of and negative against and leads to my next question. A lot of people are critical about the idea of institutions, they see their failings, but at the same time they’re very gung ho about social change. They want to see change. From your vantage point from your experience, how does social change work? Like when it happens? Not just talking about the need for it.

Eboo: Yeah, a couple of the key lines in We Need to Build, you know, social change is not about a more ferocious revolution. It’s about a more beautiful social order and you build a more beautiful social order by defeating the things you do not love by building the things you do. Okay. Defeat the things you do not love by building the things you do. So if you don’t like the way education is going, build a school and actually mean that, right?

That’s what a charter school is. You can create a school. It can actually be quite modest. You can implement a different model of how you do education. Or, you can just teach differently in your classroom. There’s lots of things that start out with, I’m just going to do different things differently in my classroom.

And what an institution does is it makes sure that those patterns of activity are routinized and regular and are scalable. That’s what social change is. Social change is a more beautiful social order and a social order is made up of institutions.

Tom: I think you gave a great case of, you see something that’s a problem, build something new in parallel to what’s going on with the status quo.

So I’m wondering then about the cases where someone might say in, in certain instances or, or certain kinds of problems, the existing institutions or the status quo is so, oppressive or dominant that it is preventing us from doing an alternative and we have to tear something down before we build something new.

Tom: Have you come into those conversations before and how do you respond to that?

Eboo: I say you are not a conscripted soldier in Russia. That’s what I say. There’s 8 billion plus people on the planet. I promise you, the vast majority of them have far less freedom and ability to make a positive social change than you do.

So, why not wake up in the morning and think to yourself,” Boy, I’m one of the luckiest human beings that has ever existed. I’m one of the luckiest people in human history. I’m gonna go out and do what I can to make the world better.” Look, there’s a lot, there’s less room to navigate if you’re in prison, and yet people make a positive difference in prison, right?

There’s less room to navigate if you’re poor, and yet people who are poor, there’s people who figure out how to make a positive difference. Many, many of them, right? So, you can tell yourself a story of all the things you can’t do, or you can tell a story of all the things you can do. I suggest you tell yourself the second story.

You know, right now, all the cultural cachet swirls around the critic. The person shaking his or her fist in your face, that’s viewed as intellectually sophisticated. I mean, I think the person who’s intellectually sophisticated is the person who’s figured out a better way of doing things and actually implements it.

Tom: I want to look forward now with the institution building you’re doing, your commitments, Interfaith America. I want to talk about, like, what is good interfaith work look like? And what do these communities look like when the work is done well and the work is successful? Like what should we be aiming for?

Eboo: Yeah. So I’m going to offer you two models and we do this very well at the organization. We kind of like run a bunch of activities and then try to distill things down into models. So one model is respect, relate, cooperate. That’s kind of our model of pluralism, a healthy interfaith activity, a healthy society.

You respect people of diverse identities, including people who have identities, you disagree with and dislike. I, you know, I like to say diversity is not just the differences you like. You respect people of diverse identities. You have relationships across lines of difference, and you cooperate on concrete projects for the common good.

So a good interfaith project has that element, right? It’s oftentimes an interfaith service project. Respect, relate, cooperate. And then you can evaluate that project by looking at people’s attitudes, knowledge, and relationships. We call it the interfaith triangle. You want an interfaith project to increase people’s appreciative knowledge of each other, to facilitate positive relationships, and to improve people’s attitudes.

So respect, relate, cooperate, relationships, knowledge, attitudes. Two models.

Tom: Another thing I’m wondering about too, in terms of interfaith work of working in a pluralistic society, one wants to have a big tent. There’s many different traditions, some ancient, some newer. Are there some boundaries then still though that one has to draw a kind of deciding what’s in and what’s out?

How do you kind of navigate kind of boundary issues of not being able to accommodate everyone and everything?

Eboo: Yeah. So there’s a couple of lines that we use frequently around diversity and diverse democracy. One is diversity is not just the differences you like, basically prepare for disagreement. And the second thing is, the only way to have a diverse democracy is to be able to disagree on some fundamental things and work together on other fundamental things, right?

So yeah. We do not suggest that people begin their interfaith conversation on what are going to likely be very divisive or polarizing issues, the Middle East, abortion, etc. Right? Like, begin your conversation elsewhere, and look for ways to work on things elsewhere. And, you know, think about like, nobody disagrees with feeding the hungry and the homeless, right?

And actually, food depositories in this country are massive interfaith operations. So don’t spend your time at first disagreeing on abortion or the Middle East, spend your time working with people on a food relief type of thing. So that, that’s our kind of approach which is, the goal is not agreement, the goal is civic cooperation.

The way you get to civic cooperation is you recognize you have to bracket some things. In order to work on other things and otherwise, it’s not diversity, right? Like if you agree with your interlocutor and everything, it’s not diversity. It’s homogeneity.

Tom: Why do you think so many of some of the most influential social activists have been people of faith?

Eboo: Faith is an enormously powerful thing because it, it shapes your idea of who you’re meant to be in the world, right? So, so knowing that, you know, as a Muslim, uh, we, my belief as a Muslim is we humans have been given the breath of God, and we have been made by God, his ‘abd and khalifa’, his servant and representative upon the planet, and that the characteristic that distinguishes us from the angels is the ability to flow with diversity.

And when the angels sought to deny our, our vaunted role, God vouched for our goodness. Like, everything I do begins with that, right? That is a deep, well, to draw from when times get hard, and I think that that’s one of the reasons that people of faith have made such a big difference in social action, by the way, it lots of different people have made a big difference in social action too, you don’t have to be a person of faith.

But I think it is easy to see that people and especially communities of faith. Have played an outsized role in social action and civic life and let’s speak about community for just a minute here, I mean something like half of our social capital in America is generated by faith communities. Why? Because not only do you have a vision and ideal you have to live up to right? The kingdom of God so to speak but you have a requirement for participation and a structure through which to do it And so in Islam, it’s zakat.

In Christianity, it’s tithing. And so the reason the Catholic Church has so many schools and hospitals is because you have the ideal of a church that is meant to do the works of mercy, and then you have an institution that structures people’s involvement and that guides their resources and that channels it into a new set of institutions, namely schools and hospitals.

You really can’t say that about any other identity. No other identity, race or gender or sexuality. Provides you with kind of a text-based ideal, like it is in the book and the book is sacred and then a structured — even required way for community gathering, which is regular and is supposed to be take place into eternity.

You’re supposed to do it week after week. For year after year, uh, generation after generation after generation. In fact, it is part of what is holy. That involvement is, is part of, of the sacrality of the community. That’s why.

Tom: My last question to wrap up here to take it full circle, if your childhood self were to look at who you are now, what you’re doing now, what might he think? What kind of impressions would he have? What would be surprising thoughts there?

Eboo: It’s a great question. I think that there are, there are obvious threads from especially my high school years to now, my, my closest friends in high school were people from different religions, a South Indian Hindu, a Cuban Jew, a Nigerian Evangelical. My girlfriend at the time was Mormon. She took her religion very seriously.

I was involved at a set of institutions, which really shaped my life from the public school that I went to, to the YMCA, to in a bit of a more distant way, but still powerful, the Jamatkhana and the Ismaili community. I’ve always fancied myself kind of a leader type and a speaker type. And so that’s the role that an executive director or president of an organization plays.

I’ve always been somebody who started things. So I started a bunch of clubs in both high school and college. I think that there are clear continuities. I think there are clear continuities.

Tom: Well, thanks for taking the time to talk to me today. It was a delightful conversation.

Eboo: Yeah, you all are the best. Thank you for, uh, thank you for having me.

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