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EPISODE 7 | December 20, 2022

Faith at Work

With Eboo Patel and Isabel Wong


Isabel Wong (Hong Kong) will lead the conversation with Eboo Patel, Founder and President of Interfaith America to address understanding and embracing different religious identities in the workplace, and how people and organizations can be more inclusive and supportive of diverse religions around the globe.


Episode Transcript

Isabel Wong [00:00:00] Hi, I'm Isabel Wong with Edelman, currently based in Hong Kong. Now for this episode we are going to have a deep dive into the topics of religious acceptance, best practices in the workplace for interfaith dialog, and how religious identities are very much part of the broader diversity and inclusion conversation. And joining me for this conversation is Eboo Patel, founder and president of Interfaith America. Eboo is also a former faith advisor to President Barack Obama. So, Eboo, thank you so much for joining us from Chicago. It's great to have you with us on the show.  

Eboo Patel [00:00:40] Isabel, it's great to be with you. Thank you for having me.  

Isabel Wong [00:00:43] Thanks for joining us. Now, before we kick start the deep dive conversation, in order to set the scene right, I would like to have you help us understand and give us a brief introduction to our international audience about the work that you do at Interfaith America.  

Eboo Patel [00:01:01] Sure. So about 25 years ago, I founded an organization called Interfaith Youth Core. Actually founded it when I was a graduate student at Oxford University. And we ran programs all over the world. And the big idea was that, we should, it was going to strengthen the global fabric to bring young people from different religious identities together, to discuss the shared values between their faiths and to act on those positive values like compassion and hospitality and service. As the organization developed, we rooted it in the country in which I'm a citizen of the United States, even though I was born in India and educated in part at Oxford. I'm an American citizen. I've grown up here. I feel most comfortable in this culture and the organization as we would have here in the big idea of the organization whose name is now Interfaith America, but which started as Interfaith Youth Core, is that religious diversity can be a great strength of a nation in a world if faith is a bridge of cooperation and not a barrier of division or a bludgeon of domination. That's the case at city level, at the national level, and certainly also at the company level. And I'm excited to talk to you, Isabelle, about how positively and proactively engaging religious diversity can strengthen the fabric at both Edelman and for Edelman's clients.  

Isabel Wong [00:02:27] Mm hmm. Yeah, I do very much look forward to our discussion as well. And I know that for this conversation, we are going to touch on the concept of religious diversity and also religious acceptance. So I just want to get your help to help our audience understand the concept of religious acceptance as well. And why is this so important?  

Eboo Patel [00:02:48] Sure. So so religious diversity is just a fact of our world and a fact of most nations in the world. Meaning that there are people from different religious identities who are living in close quarters together, whether that's in the United States or in India or Brazil or Australia or the United Kingdom or Morocco or South Africa. Anywhere in the world you have people from different religions living together, working together, studying together, playing on sports leagues together, etc.. We don't talk about religious acceptance at Interfaith America because we don't ask people from one religion to accept the doctrine of another religion. It's not about acceptance. It's about cooperation. The idea is not that that Muslims who believe that Jesus is a prophet of God, but not the son of God, should accept the Christian doctrine about Jesus. The idea is that Muslims and Christians should cooperate positively. So we speak of religious diversity, should give rise to interfaith cooperation where faith is a bridge and not a barrier.  

Isabel Wong [00:03:58] Yeah, I do very much agree with that as well. And the very foundation of it is also fostering a sense of, you know, ability to appreciate spiritual values, beliefs and faith based practices. You know, there are different from opposed by removing prejudices and stereotypes, which is very much the kind of work that you do also. And it requires mutual respect. Now, I would like to take a deeper dive into embracing religious diversity at work, because obviously when it comes to this topic, a lot of people would just be thinking, how can we really do that? And for authentic 365 this podcast, the kind of conversations that we create, are all about how can one really bring oneself authentically to work. And in our view, one must also feel comfortable to show all sides of himself or herself that includes one's religious identity, because religion is very much an essential part of personal and community identity. So. Eboo, from your perspective, should we speak about our religion, our faith at work? And if so, what is an authentic way to approach it?  

Eboo Patel [00:05:10] Sure. So, Isabel, I'm in a slightly adapt the question, and I'm going to say that I think it's important for any company, for for employees to feel like they can bring their best professional self to work and that that company is able to serve its clients and its customers and the community in which it is and in the best possible way. So the question for me is not can you bring your authentic self to work? I appreciate that. That's the question of this podcast. That's not my principle question. The principle question is, can you do your best work at work? And if you are Jewish and keep kosher and there is always a mixing of meat and cheese and there's never any kosher food available, you might not be able to do your best work if you are Hindu and are vegetarian, and there is meat in every dish at the cafeteria at work. You might not be able to do your best work if you are Muslim and you don't drink alcohol on account of your faith. In every social event at work involves copious quantities of alcohol, you might not be able to do your best work. And this is why it's important for a company to positively and proactively engage religious identity when it comes to their employees. To ask the question, can employees from different faiths do their best work here? Are there are we do we have an environment that is respectful of people's diverse religious identities? The framework we use that at my organization, Interfaith America is respect, relate, cooperate. Do you have an environment that respects the identities of diverse people, that encourages positive relationships between them, and that facilitates cooperation on common projects? The beautiful thing about companies is that the common projects are obvious, right? The client work that you're doing, the creative work that you're doing, the initiatives and campaigns that you're working on at Edelman, those are obvious. And so you have a shared project to encourage cooperation. And I think this is one of the reasons that companies can really be leaders in interfaith cooperation efforts, because you naturally have employees from diverse religions present. You naturally facilitate positive relationships through a close environment, and you have shared projects in which to encourage cooperation. There are many parts of who we are which are totally legitimate but but are probably not the best fit for the workplace. And what comes to religious diversity? A good example of this is conversion. It's perfectly legitimate for Christians or Muslims or somebody from a different religious identity or in fact a philosophical worldview like atheist who seeks to bring other people to their faith or worldview. It's a perfectly legitimate activity, but that's not what you want happening at a workplace. The question is how do you engage religious diversity in a way that encourages people to bring their best professional self to work again? People should be able to wear clothes that are appropriate for their religious identities. People should be able to eat the food that is required by their religious identity. People should have a place to pray. If they need to pray, they should have the appropriate days off if they need to take days off for religious holidays, etc. That's a positive and proactive engagement of religious diversity at work that encourages people to bring their best professional self without inviting dimensions of their identity, which are perfectly legitimate in other spaces and churches or mosques or temples, but not appropriate at work. So I would I would offer a framework that is different from authentic self or wholesale. I would offer best professional self.  

Isabel Wong [00:08:51] Mm hmm. Yeah. I really like how you mentioned that. And essentially, religious beliefs inform a person's identity, way of life and everyday activities and behaviors. And religious diversity can essentially make a workplace really inclusive in the sense of allowing opportunities for everyone to, you know, work through biases. And then essentially it will come into this positive impact that would result in diversity of thoughts, freedom of choice of beliefs and expressions. Now, obviously, when it comes to introducing and creating a safe space for religious diversity, it it has its challenges. So through the years that you work in this space, what are some of the common challenges that you've seen when there are multiple and diverse faiths represented in the workplace?  

Eboo Patel [00:09:41] I think the first thing to say is that in virtually every workplace, when we're talking about the corporate environment, particularly in multinationals like Edelman and the kind of companies that that our clients development, you're going to have religious diversity naturally. You're going to have Muslims and Jews and Christians and Hindus and six and behind and Buddhists and atheists. You are naturally going to have religious diversity. And those people from different religions have important disagreements. They have disagreements a doctrine like the nature of Jesus and the disagreements and ritual practice, like what is permissible to eat. Many Hindus don't eat meat at all. At all. And of course, many especially don't eat beef because of that, the role that cows play in the Hindu faith. Muslims, on the other hand, not only eat meat quite regularly, but actually do it as an important part of several of our rituals, including Eve. That is a simple that is a simple fact that that's a disagreement, pure and simple. The important thing about religious diversity and other dimensions of diversity is to not pretend that differences and disagreements don't exist. Of course they exist. It's to say that those disagreements and differences are not going to prevent us from working on other important projects. I think a company has this opportunity, the ability for people to disagree on some fundamental things like doctrine and ritual practice, and yet work together on other fundamental things like campaigns, initiatives and projects that are essential to the mission and success of the company.  

Isabel Wong [00:11:20] Mm hmm. Yeah. And I like how you just mentioned there that disagreements could be expected in different forms, and they don't have to be viewed negatively. Now, obviously, in light of the recent events that put anti-Semitism in the spotlight, the Wilders remind you that religious intolerance and ignorance can cause great harm. So I want to get your perspectives on, you know, how should businesses act around these conversations, right? Should they be taking a stand? And if so, how can they do this more strategically?  

Eboo Patel [00:11:56] So you want your you want your employees to feel safe and welcome. Right. And when there is a very public and ugly rise in anti-black racism, as in the case of the murder of George Floyd or anti-Semitism, as has recently happened in the United States with comments by Kanye West and others, it very naturally makes some people, people of that particular identity feel hurt and marginalized and upset. And so that is not good for a company. I also think that companies. Should, generally speaking, not be taking stances on everything. You just can't do that because the world is a place of 8 billion people and there are always going to be conflicts and there's always going to be injustices. And you can't be in a position of of fielding a thousand different petitions a day and deciding which ones you're going to send a tweet out about or send a statement out about. I think that a company ought to decide which items impact its employees, its customers and its mission. So if an anti-Semite is one of your clients, unless you are a law firm defending their First Amendment right, you should think very hard about what you want to do about that. If that person is proactively spreading an ugliness and a bigotry that hurts lots of people, including your employees and your other customers. Again, if you're if you are in the free expression business, I think that the I think that that question might be fielded a bit differently. But broadly speaking, bigotry is a bad thing for business. It's a bad thing for society. It's a bad thing for your employees. It's a bad thing for your customers. Companies should steer clear of that and do it in a way that doesn't that doesn't sign you up for making a statement about every issue on the planet.  

Isabel Wong [00:14:20] Hmm. Now I want to get your perspectives and insights into some of the best practices, because you previously served as a former faith advisor for US President Obama. Can you talk about some inclusive faith practices that you shared with Mr. President or other global leaders that you've worked with? You must navigate leading complex social structures and human landscapes that could include religious beliefs.  

Eboo Patel [00:14:48] Sure. So I'd like to talk with President Obama and everybody from people who lead local churches to two people who lead global multinationals. I like to tell them that that we should think about diversity, work through the metaphor of a potluck supper. A potluck supper is is an event in which the food is not provided by the host. The host instead provides a space where people bring their own dish. And the thing that I love about a potluck is that a potluck only exists if people make a contribution, if people bring their dish. Right. And so you want this at work. You want your employees to come to work as if it's a potluck. You want them to make a contribution, their gifts and their talents and their efforts of their energy and their labor. That's what makes a workplace work, is when people bring their talents, bring their dish. You don't want everybody to bring the same dish. You don't want to you don't want a potluck of only biryani or only months off or only tacos or only casseroles. You want a diversity of dishes? That's what makes a potluck delicious and interesting and flavorful. And actually, it's not just the array of dishes that help a potluck be wonderful. It's the combinations between them. It's when somebody is crusty. Bread recipe from Eastern Europe goes just perfectly with somebody else's spicy dip from the Middle East. And so a company works well when it is inviting the contributions of diverse people and creating a space where creative combinations can exist. A company ought to be aware of the barriers to some people's contributions. Sexism, racism. Homophobia, Islamophobia. Anti-Semitism. These are bad because they are not only violations of individual dignity, but they are also barriers to people's contributions. There's anti-Semitism in your workplace. Jews are unlikely to be able to bring their best dish if there's Islamophobia in your workplace. Muslims are unlikely to be able to bring their best dish. So reducing barriers to people's contributions is a good thing. And the other thing is you want people to take responsibility for the whole space. The host can't do all the work and a potluck can't do the setup and the clean up and be responsible for getting the conversation going. The community has to do some of that work. Some people have to show up early to do the setup. Some people have to stay late to do the cleanup. Everybody's got to take responsibility for making sure that that the safest space, the space is safe and that the conversation is healthy. So I like to use the metaphor of a potluck supper when talking about diversity work, including religious diversity.  

Isabel Wong [00:17:35] Right. And a follow up question for that is, you know, when it comes to this interfaith. I look right. People with different religious backgrounds, like you mentioned just now. I expected to bring their dishes to the table. Do you think atheists and agnostics should join these conversations? Should they be bringing the dishes to the table as well?  

Eboo Patel [00:17:54] Oh, of course. Of course. I mean, that's not even that that's not even, you know, a controversy or a moment of pause. People of all faiths and philosophical worldviews are welcome. You absolutely want people who are atheist or agnostic or spiritual seekers or in between religions or whatever it might be to feel like they can do their best work for you at work. You want to be able to have clients from Zoroastrians to atheists, so to speak. And so, you know, we, we tend to call issues about religious diversity. We tend to use the language diverse orientations around religion, which means everything from the different kinds of Muslims in the world, Sunnis and Shias and Sufis, for example, to to people who who don't have religious belief at all and orient around religion as nonbelievers. So that's our kind of formulation that that we believe is more inclusive of atheists as diverse orientations around religion.  

Isabel Wong [00:18:57] Yeah. Indeed. The conversation is all about, you know, trying to understand each other, not really to challenge or dispute. So that's a very important mind set that we should all remember. Now, I would like to take a slightly reflective lens on, you know, the work that you've done over the years and ask about your experience, you know, working in spaces inclusive of all faiths, you know, how has that that work really impacted your faith and your connection with others and vice versa? For example, how did those connections inform the work that you do over the years? Has it evolved?  

Eboo Patel [00:19:33] Yeah, that's a great question, Isabel. So I've been doing interfaith work for 25 years, 20 of them professionally. In fact, my organization had just celebrated its 20th anniversary. And and I do interfaith work in part out of my own commitment as a smiling Muslim. The Koran says that God made us diverse nations and tribes, that we may come to know one another. There are many examples in the life of the Prophet Muhammad made the peace and blessings of God be upon Him, where he had positive partnerships with people of diverse faiths. In fact, he invited Christians to pray in his mosque, for example. And so there is a muslim inspiration for me to do interfaith work. And absolutely, the people that I engage with from different religions, I learn from their faith. I'm inspired by by their by their faith and their commitment to their faith, even when I don't fully agree with their doctrine. And so the word interfaith actually encapsulates much of the meaning of our effort here. Inter means the interaction between people from different traditions. Faith means one's own relationship with one's religious tradition. And so interfaith is about how our faith guides us to have better interactions with people from other religions and how those interactions with people from other religions actually strengthen our faith, our our relationship with our own religion.  

Isabel Wong [00:21:01] And I know that you run your own podcast and on your show you like to answer the question, how does our religious understanding of the world inform how we live and work together? Would you please answer that question for us today?  

Eboo Patel [00:21:15] Sure. So I think that the center of Islam is about mercy and monotheism. It's about believing in one God and that that God creates all of us. And our common ancestor is is Adam prophet. Adam, who who is the the the father of us all. And so there is kind of a human family feeling in that. And so that's a really important part of my of of my faith is the idea that that I am inspired by my faith to positively engage with diversity and do interfaith work.  

Isabel Wong [00:21:50] And I know that you are an author of multiple books, and this year you also launched a new book. Congratulations, by the way. And it's titled It's We Need to Build Phenix for Diverse Democracy. Can you speak to what the book is about and what readers can take away from it, obviously, without giving away too much?  

Eboo Patel [00:22:08] Sure. Well, I do hope that I appreciate you asking about my book, We Need to Build, and I hope that your audience here is interested in it. So a lot of my book is about a positive and constructive engagement with diversity. It's about how our societies can feel like potluck suppers that welcome the distinctive contributions of diverse people and in in facilitate creative combinations and enriching conversations. I don't like the melting pot. Hot metaphor for diversity. And I don't like the battlefield metaphor for diversity. I much prefer a potluck supper. I write about that a lot in my book, and I write about constructive approaches to social change. Social change is not about a more ferocious revolution. Social change is about building a more beautiful social order. And we need to defeat the things we do not love by building the things that we do. And one of the things that I admire about the private sector is, is the manner in which you you do and have the opportunity to build strong institutions which elevate people, both your employees and your customers, and hopefully the communities and societies that you live within. And so there there are lots of examples in my book about how nonprofit institutions do this because I'm part of the nonprofit world. And I also believe that companies have the opportunity to do this as well.  

Isabel Wong [00:23:34] And finally, to wrap up this conversation, we normally ask every single guest of ours on authentic 365 this one question, Eboo, how do you define authenticity?  

Eboo Patel [00:23:48] Well, for me, it's it is being honest with myself about what inspires me and trying to live that inspiration out in the world. And I'm inspired by diversity work and I'm inspired by constructive approaches to social change. I'm inspired by religion, and I'm inspired by my own faith. And I'm inspired by improving people's lives. And so and so that for me is is my authenticity. And I'm proud to I feel very blessed that I'm able to live out much of that in my life and inspired by my kids and my wife and my family and and having a balanced life between work and family and faith and community and recreation, that's that's also part of an authentic life for me.  

Isabel Wong [00:24:31] Yeah, definitely. If we want to be inclusive, diverse and comprehend how we relate to each other, we need to continue to expand our understanding of different cultures values, and that includes various religions, beliefs and practices. That was a fascinating conversation. Thank you so much for sharing your time and insights with us. Eboo, It was a pleasure.  

Eboo Patel [00:24:53] Thank you so much, Isabel.