Interview: Eboo Patel on promoting religious plurality in America
Growing up Muslim in Chicago, Eboo Patel was familiar with faith-based tension from an early age, and has watched as jihad entered the cultural lexicon and Islam became synonymous with terrorism. He longed to reconcile differences between religions as a means of creating a more just and peaceful world, and knew young adults would have to lead the charge. And so in 1998 Patel founded Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) to promote religious pluralism by bringing together college-age leaders from different faiths. In 2009, Patel was one of 25 advisors selected for President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. That same year, U.S. News & World Report named Patel one of America’s best leaders. Here Patel talks about how to build religious pluralism.
Dowser: What urgent problem are you trying to solve?
Patel: I am trying to solve the problem of how religiously-diverse people around the world are going to engage each other. We live in a time when people of different religious backgrounds are interacting with greater frequency and intensity than ever before. And there are all these forces out there that are nurturing this interaction towards violence and extremism and we want to nurture that interaction towards cooperation and understanding.
Is there a theory of change that guides your work?
Absolutely. The theory is that religious pluralism is going to be at the heart of peace and stability in world affairs and that young people’s leadership is absolutely central to building religious pluralism.
What are the obstacles that stand in the way of IFYC achieving its goals?
I think that some people view an organization with a name like The Interfaith Youth Core as doing sweet things with kids, and their response to us is, ‘You know, why don’t you just have a lemonade stand to raise your budget?’ And my response to that is, ‘Do you think Osama bin Laden built Al Qaeda on bake sales?’ We are engaging in the same territory as religious extremists are, which is effectively how religious identity is going to play out in the 21st century. This is an issue of the utmost importance in everything from domestic policy to foreign affairs and it should be taken very seriously.
Were there any challenging times or experiences in your childhood that shaped your outlook on life and actions since then?
Growing up as an Indian Muslim kid in the western suburbs of Chicago, I had my share of challenges. One of the early questions I had to ask was how was I going to respond to that stuff? And you can either respond by acting destructive in the face of destructiveness or by trying to be constructive. The first few pages of every chapter of my life are filled with destructiveness, and then after that it’s figuring out how to be constructive within a challenging situation.
This is in some ways what my book [Acts of Faith] is about: standing at the crossroads of inheritance and discovery, looking both ways at once.
What are the strengths of your organization?
One of the biggest strengths is our excellent staff. I learned from Bill Drayton and the folks at Ashoka that if you are running a social entrepreneurship organization you have to hire social entrepreneurs.
I also think that we are audacious here. When we found out in 2007 that Tony Blair was starting his Faith Foundation, our question was, ‘How do we build a partnership with those people?’ Well, you make the phone calls and send the emails and keep trying to make your pitch to those people. And you figure out whatever door or window you need to get inside that house.
Can organizations get by on audacity alone?
Audacity will only take you to the doorstep of opportunity. Once you’re there, if you don’t deliver, then you are not going to get those opportunities any longer and, frankly, you shouldn’t.
In Acts of Faith you mention the importance of finding a number two – who for you is April Kunze Mendez, vice president of programs at IFYC – that ‘complements your skills and whom you would trust with your child.’ How does that relationship work?
My wife says to me frequently, ‘You know, you only do one thing well,’ and that’s actually true. What I do well is communicate the idea and the urgency of the Interfaith Youth Core, and mostly I do everything else not that well. April does everything else: she hires good people, she’s a good manager, she puts together budgets. I think she understands that same thing that my wife understands about me, which is: Eboo does most things badly and one thing well so just have him do what he does well, and put him in a position where he can do that as much as possible.
Part of what makes someone a social entrepreneur, I think, is they only do a couple things well but they are so focused on those things and they move the ball so far on those. That’s why they are who they are.
Where do you envision your work in five or 10 years’ time?
I view the Interfaith Youth Core in some ways as being the Ashoka of a new movement – Ashoka being the first institution in the space of social entrepreneurship. We are, in many ways, the first institution in the space of interfaith youth engagement. What we would like to do is catalyze, resource and network a broader movement. In a similar way to how Ashoka networks the best social entrepreneurs, we want to network the best interfaith social entrepreneurs.
Do you feel you have made sacrifices – financial or otherwise – to do this work?
I’m sure I have, but I don’t really think about it that way. Walking into work every day is almost like walking into a candy store because I basically do exactly what I want to do. The people I email and the people I call in my day-to-day work are the people I want to email and I want to call. But I also get to do it in the service of this really big idea that I believe in. Sometimes it feels like too much, when I’m going to Atlanta and having five meetings a day and then doing an evening talk. But I’d rather have too much of what I love than a whole lot of what I dislike or too little of what I love.
What advice would you offer a person who aspires to a career of impact?
Find how what you love to do and how you can add value to the world – where those two lines intersect. Whatever it is, just figure out how to give that away.
Also, remember this: The world is built by people who have crazy dreams and try to make them happen.
This interview was edited and condensed.
Photo: Nubar Alexanian