I've been to enough policy briefings in DC to know that moments of inspiration are few and far between. Earlier this week, I was lucky enough to witness an exception.
At the final meeting of the President's Faith Council, the Reverend Otis Moss Jr, one of the lions of the civil rights movement, remarked: "On this very day fifty years ago, a group of young people gathered to launch the student sit-in movement in Atlanta. Martin Luther King brought his voice and his person, and he went to jail with us. With our idealism and our action, this group of citizens changed the nation and the world."
Reverend Moss paused to let his words sink in, looked around the table at his fellow Faith Council members and the senior administration officials who had gathered to be briefed on our final report, and then continued: "Fifty years from now, people will look back at this work that we were a part of, a group of citizens from diverse faith backgrounds working together for the common good. This, too, could change the nation and the world."
What a remarkable arc of history Reverend Moss has both witnessed and shaped. A half century ago, he demanded that a U.S. President give people of his skin color basic civil rights. And today, he finished his formal service on a high-profile advisory council, where he was appointed by the first black President. The work he did a half-century ago involved being arrested on the streets of Atlanta. The work he was doing today involved shaking hands with the President in the West Wing. But Reverend Moss was more interested in identifying the common spirit between the two pieces of work, the spirit he believed was at the core of American democracy - participation and partnership.
President Obama, in our meeting with him in the Roosevelt Room, echoed the same sentiment. He spoke of the crucial role that faith-based and community organizations play in American civil society, and the important expertise they can bring to the policy table. "Change happens from the ground up, from the places you see and the communities you work in."
He talked about America being at the beginning of a new era of partnerships. "The days when government can create programs to address every social ill are long gone. The future is going to be about how government, the private sector and civil society can form partnerships and work together to solve problems and make our nation stronger"
The President also sounded the call of history. "I suspect that someday in the future, whether it's four years from now or ten years, we'll look back at this Faith Council and the final report you've submitted as a model of how things should be done."
The sixty-some recommendations contained in the final report are all about building partnerships - across faith-based and secular organizations, and between such organizations and the federal government. The process of putting the recommendations together helped build enough actual partnerships and launch enough partnership ideas to give us a sense of great possibility.
Nancy Ratzan, President of the National Council of Jewish Women, had an 'Aha' moment during her service on the Fatherhood and Healthy Families Task Force: women's organizations who are committed to healthy families should be working more closely with fatherhood organizations. She is committed to being that bridge.
Dalia Mogahed, who recently launched a service initiative called "Muslim Americans Answer the Call", and Reverend Joel Hunter, an Evangelical pastor in Florida, had a similar revelation. They discovered that both their faith traditions called them to serve the poor. They decided to put that value into action, and formed an initiative called Project Downtown that brings local Muslims and Christians together to do precisely that.
During our policy briefing, it was clear that senior Obama administration officials were also looking for creative partnership opportunities between government and faith-based and community organizations. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius pointed out that the government does a pretty good job of feeding poor children throughout the course of the school year through its free breakfast and lunch program, but a terrible job during the summer. "That's where your organizations can come in - we need to partner together to make sure kids get fed," she told us.
USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah was one of a number of Obama administration officials who made it clear that he wasn't looking for partnerships where faith-based and community organizations would simply be service delivery vehicles, but also viewing us as colleagues who can offer expertise on policy issues. He pointed to the changes he intended to make at USAID - using more outcome-based success metrics, building partnerships that genuinely leveraged the expertise of various groups, making sure development projects were both sustainable and enhancing local capacity - and highlighted his interest in being in further discussion with Faith Council members as he moved forward with these improvements.
Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, "The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice." I felt this momentum in the room that day.
But we have a lot of work to do to get there - and we have to do it together.
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