A Society Where Interfaith Cooperation is the Norm
IFYC is a national non-profit working towards an America where people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions can bridge differences and find common values to build a shared life together.
Look at American democracy today and you’ll see a society trying hard to live up to its ideals in the face of unprecedented diversity and difference. It’s not just in the news. In today’s America, we all navigate deep differences with others in our everyday lives. Especially when it comes to religion.
Whether or not our diversity is a good thing is entirely up to us. As a community, we can make it the thread that binds us closer. Otherwise, we allow apathy, tribalism, and voices of intolerance to define our futures.
Ask yourself: what it would look like if every American, regardless of their faith or worldview, was inspired and equipped to:
- Come together in a way that respects different religious identities?
- Build mutually inspiring relationships across difference?
- Engage in common action around issues of shared social concern?
That’s interfaith cooperation and it’s the key to transforming this religiously diverse society into a more just, kind, and pluralistic nation. IFYC is working to make it the norm, not the exception, in American life.
A Focus on Higher Education
Since then, we have made college and university campuses the center of our strategy; working where the minds and values of emerging leaders are shaped and conversations take place that steer broad cultural change. Campus is where students and educators engage the complex ideas that will shape our country’s future. It’s where young people learn to be citizens and leaders. It’s where issues of diversity and difference are explored intellectually and experienced personally and up-close. It’s an environment that can model the highest ideals of civil society alongside some of the most divisive conflicts that we’re grappling with as a nation.
Over the years we have expanded our programs to engage leaders across the campus environment - students, faculty, administrators - building a network of over 100,000 aspiring interfaith leaders on more than 600 U.S. college and university campuses. These partners come from wildly different faiths, worldviews, and institutions, but share IFYC’s vision. In the last decade, we have worked with them to make history; organizing hundreds of campus interfaith groups and service projects, convening and training thousands of students and educators, establishing a growing academic field of “Interfaith Studies”, and launching an IFYC Alumni Network for interfaith leadership post-college, and much more.
Today, IFYC and our partners continue writing the story of American interfaith cooperation, finding new ways to help people build bridges above dangerous currents of incivility and polarization.
The big idea for IFYC came to our founder, Eboo Patel, as the last millennium drew to a close. At a 1998 conference on interreligious engagement hosted by Stanford University, he and a small group of his peers looked around and suddenly realized that they were the only young people the room. As they reflected on that, they kept coming back to three nagging questions:
- Why do modern narratives about religion seem to always focus on conflict?
- Why do these stories constantly feature young people?
- In one of the most religiously diverse societies in world history, why isn’t there a movement of young people of different faiths and worldviews using their shared values as a bridge to connect and cooperate on shared concerns like poverty, human rights, or climate change?
The answer came in a moment of inspiration: build an interfaith youth movement using service to bring together people who might disagree on ultimate truths, but share a commitment to improve their world.
Like so many social movements before it, this started with a few students who had a big idea and practically no resources. IFYC began its work, quite literally, out of the trunk of Eboo’s car. From there it moved to a basement in the city of Chicago, where the founders built a tiny organization when they weren’t working their day jobs. One basement led to others - in churches, synagogues, and mosques where students increasingly turned up to learn about interfaith work. Soon it went from the basement to the streets in the form of the Chicago Youth Council, which brought together students from around the city for interfaith service projects and dialogue. As more students got involved, the movement that the founders envisioned in that room at Stanford began to take shape, and the idea proved to have the power to move people and change things.
Then the September 11th attacks happened.
IFYC incorporated as a 501(c)3 non-profit in 2002 in the wake of a national tragedy, and at a time when the very idea of interfaith cooperation felt more important yet harder to achieve than ever before. Backed by a $35,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, we moved out of the basement and into a modest office with a small staff and a few second hand computers. What we lacked in resources, we made up for in a committed team counseled by a wise and patient board of directors who recognized the potential of the organization despite its ragtag beginnings. With some early investment, we began to try new things and learn from our successes and failures. We created formal programs, launched campaigns, and convened national gatherings where hundreds showed up. We began to see signs of real success as more and more students got involved and the world took notice. Things began to move fast from there.
Between 2003 and 2011 IFYC tripled its staff and launched programs ranging from interfaith service around Chicago to dialogue initiatives in the Middle East, South Africa, and India. We partnered with the Clinton Global Initiative and Queen Rania of Jordan to create an international exchange program. We collaborated with the Tony Blair Faith Foundation to develop a fellows program that brought together young leaders to serve as interfaith ambassadors to the United Nations, focusing on malaria. Eboo was asked to speak at the 16th Nobel Peace Prize Forum and he and IFYC were profiled by major media outlets like the New York Times. During this time, IFYC also began to see unique breakthroughs on college and university campuses. This led to a breakthrough for us: campuses are laboratories for diverse civil society, and the perfect place for rising leaders to tackle the hardest questions of diversity and difference in the 21st century.