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To narrow toxic divides, students build bridges between faiths

As part of the Interfaith Youth Core, students and educators from colleges around the nation are coming together to find common ground while respecting differences. Special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault sits down with founder and president Eboo Patel to examine how interfaith dialogue can be used to bridge racial divisions.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As part of our ongoing Race Matters Solutions series, tonight, special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault looks at how lessons from a successful interfaith effort may be used to bridge racial divisions as well.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Finding common ground while respecting differences is what brought these 450 college students and educators together from across the country. They're spending part of their summer vacation at this Chicago hotel, learning how to bridge the toxic divides in our society.

    The trainers are part of the Interfaith Youth Core, an organization aimed at helping people of all religions, ethnicities, and beliefs. The nonprofit was founded on the notion that the United States was the first country built on the promise of shared values, rather than shared heritages, and that a 21st century democracy can thrive only if its citizens have the skills to successfully navigate divides of all kinds.

    Eboo Patel is the founder and president of the organization, the largest of its kind in North America, started in 1998. Patel is Muslim, born in Mumbai, India, and raised in middle-class suburban Chicago.

    There are chapters on nearly 500 campuses now, focusing on service in the community, pressing issues on campus, and making meaningful cooperation with others a normal part of the college experience in and outside the classroom.

    Aminata Diallo of Susquehanna University is a student coach who helps jump-start these sometimes difficult conversations.

  • Aminata Diallo:

    In the training rooms, we are the eyes and ears of the trainers. If there are students who are just like, I'm stuck, I don't have a story, we're the ones to kind of like turn the engine and kind of…

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Get them going.

  • Aminata Diallo:

    Get them thinking, give them some ideas.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    During the conference, I sat down with Patel Eboo Patel to ask why, after studying sociology and religion as a Rhodes Scholar, he decided to set out on this challenging path.

    I want to go back with you a few years. You had just gotten your Ph.D. at Oxford. You came back to America, and you started this program.

    What caused you to do that?

  • Eboo Patel:

    Mandela, 1999, South Africa.

    I remember seeing him speak. And he begins by pointing out into the cape, and saying, I spent 27 years of my life on that island in prison. And I wouldn't be on this stage today if it wasn't for the interfaith movement in South Africa that brought down apartheid.

    And, at that time, if you had told me the word interfaith work, I might have kind of rolled my eyes. I didn't realize that people from different faith backgrounds coming together had built this stunning movement in South Africa.

    And so I thought to myself, now, going into the 21st century, are we going to forfeit our societies to religious extremists, or are we going to try to build an interfaith movement that helps all of us build diverse democracies where everyone can thrive?

    And I thought to myself, I want to be a part of the next chapter of history. So many powerful interfaith movements have been about articulating, reconciling language that undoes racism and that builds new societies.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    So then what did you start to do?

  • Eboo Patel:

    So, I was a big part of both the diversity and the service learning movements in college.

    And part of the intersection of that movement was the idea that you bring people from different racial and class and geographic backgrounds together to do service. So, the way Interfaith Youth Core gets its start is to say, why don't we bring young people from different religious backgrounds, each of whose religious traditions has an inspiration to serve?

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Did you find that there was a better age than another one to reach these young people? And what was your selling point for them?

  • Eboo Patel:

    American college campuses are a treasure of our civilization. It's where so many young people get a sense of their calling, their vocation.

    We thought to ourselves, let's partner with U.S. college campuses to educate and inspire a generation of college students to be interfaith leaders. The American ideal is deeply intertwined with interfaith cooperation. And we need a new generation of interfaith leaders to write the next chapter.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    How does the racial divide that we have today compare with when you were starting out?

  • Eboo Patel:

    We are living in an ugly time.

    Part of what interfaith work has to be about right now is calls for justice with reconciliation, building a new community where we can all thrive. And I think part of the power of religious language and the bridges that people from different faiths have built in the past in the civil rights movement, in the struggle against apartheid is, they did exactly that.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    One of the things I found interesting in your general session was the question, how many of you all talk to strangers? How many of you all talk to someone who doesn't share your politics?

    And I was just wondering where you were going with that? Do you work on that?

  • Eboo Patel:

    So, we have got this really thorny set of problems. And I think that one of the ways that we address it is with the kind of interfaith partnerships that create spaces where it's easier for people to cooperate.

    That doesn't mean we're going to agree on every election. That doesn't mean we're going to agree on economic policy, but we can start a baseball league together. We can help make the school play successful. We can participate in disaster relief efforts together.

    There's all kinds of things that are central to our civil society and our civic culture of the United States that I feel are now being shredded because of a poisonous political environment.

    If we're not willing to do the work of citizens with other citizens, you can't have a healthy, diverse democracy. Having said that, we can't paper over the problems of marginalization. We can't paper over historic, ugly injustice, especially around race.

    So how do we address that without making some group of people feel like the enemy? Because I think that the great lesson of Lincoln and Jane Addams and King and Mandela is, for every stitch of hate or distrust that you put into the fabric now, you're going to have to unstitch at a later point.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    That all sounds really wonderful. And yet we look at college campuses that are very distressing to me, where you have such hostile racial divisions.

    How do you account for that? And what do you do about it?

  • Eboo Patel:

    I'm on 25 college campuses a year. I have probably visited something like 130 in the past eight or 10 years.

    It's not like things don't ever get tense, but what I read about in the news on college campuses is foreign to me, right, which is to say it is by definition sensational.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    So, are you, in the end, optimistic about our country now and its future?

  • Eboo Patel:

    How am I not going to be optimistic, really? Right?

    I mean, I feel like, if I wasn't optimistic, I would be ungrateful to the work that Martin Luther King Jr. did to bring me into this country. And I'm serious about that.

    The beautiful thing is, there's lots of us that feel this way. There's this whole growing network of college student interfaith leaders on American campuses basically saying, where's the divide? Let me bridge it.

    That's the future of America, or we have no future at all.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Eboo Patel, thank you for joining us.

  • Eboo Patel:

    It's a pleasure to be with you. Thank you so much.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And this note: Eboo Patel has also just released a book titled "Out of Many Faiths: Religious Diversity and the American Promise."

    You can find more about that work, along with six additional books he recommends for people wanting to better understand or find faith.

    All of that is online at PBS.org/NewsHour.

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