In my early years as an activist, I thought social change was about exposing all the ways people in power were destroying the world. Finding my voice meant telling others what they were doing wrong, as loudly and self-righteously as possible.
I came of age in the mid-1990s, a time when the militant atmosphere bore deep similarities to that of today. I recognize the “tear down” energy of our moment, the critical-resist-defund-dismantle worldview.
I brought my own version of this attitude to a conference on religion and diversity in the late 1990s. I had come to seek the skin justice pledge on the line of religious radicals like Dorothy Day, Bayard Rustin and Malcolm X. Instead, I found old white theologians pontificating from panels.
I knew exactly what to do. I stood up, raised my fist and called them. “Where are the young people?” I screamed. “Where is the social action? Where is the real diversity?
There was polite applause from the audience. I guess they thought that would be the end of it. Often, the easiest way to dismiss young activists is to salute their critics.
An adult lingered and approached. “It sounds like you have a vision of an interfaith organization full of young people and focused on social action. It’s powerful. You should build this.
It stopped me in my tracks. Many adults had encouraged me to resist the diet, but very few had taken me seriously enough to help me articulate a vision for something new and then challenged me to build it.
I’ve spent the past 20 years doing just that. The institution I built, Interfaith America (founded as Interfaith Youth Core), aims to help the United States realize its potential as a religiously diverse democracy – with a true cross-section of young people playing a central role. . Over the past two decades, I have found myself building more than criticizing and collaborating more than opposing. My work is characterized more by an outstretched hand than by a raised fist.
I learned a lot along the way. It’s one thing to criticize those in power and it’s another to be in charge, responsible for the welfare of others. Do people’s lives get better when you’re in charge? Is there less violence, better education, higher wages, more happiness? This is the true test of effective activism.
Our world needs social change agents who recognize that if you take the pilot out of the cockpit, you better know how to fly the plane because many people are counting on you for a safe landing.
To paraphrase the advice George Washington gave to Alexander Hamilton in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical “Hamilton”: Defeating the old regime is easy; building the new system is difficult. Getting rid of bad things does not guarantee that better things will take their place. I am a religious person, so I truly believe there is a better system waiting in heaven. But it will not magically descend to earth if you destroy the current system. Surely the world has seen enough of Maximilien Robespierre and Ayatollah Khomeini to know that.
It is possible to protest against bad things, but if you want a good thing to exist, you have to build it.
Indeed, it is more difficult to organize a fair trial than to inflame a crowd; more difficult to run a successful school than to tell others that they are educating wrongly; more difficult to maintain alternatives to policing that ensure public safety than chanting slogans in the street. And yet, any decent society needs fair trials, good schools, and public safety, and this is only the beginning of the list of institutions and structures that must be erected and effectively run in a broad-based, diverse democracy. ladder.
As the American political analyst Yuval Levin writes in the book “A Time to Build”: Institutions are “the enduring forms of our common life. They are the frameworks and structures of what we do together. … The institution organizes its people into a particular purpose-driven form, characterized by a structure, defined by an ideal, and capable of certain functions.
The good society is defined by effective institutions networked towards a fair and inclusive vision.
Who will take responsibility for building these better institutions? And you?
After all, the goal of social change is not more fierce revolution; it is a more beautiful social order. We have to overcome the things we don’t like by building the things we do.
Eboo Patel is the founder and president of Interfaith America and the author of the new book “We Need To Build: Fieldnotes for Diverse Democracy”.