The Hopeful Buds of Pluralism in the Garden of Democracy
Few moments of natural beauty can rival the glory of spring, the buds of lilac, cherry, and tulip breaking forth to greet the world with so much sweetness. The bleeding heart in my garden leaves me feeling dumbstruck. A relic of the previous owner, its reemergence each spring from winter’s seemingly barren soil finds me breathless. This time of year, even the entrenched skeptic can’t help but lean towards optimism and hope.
Our culture of hyper-individualism is remarkably good at persuading us to see our achievements as personal, undeniably self-derived. Yet as I have committed to working in a more collaborative and deeply connected way, I have come to see that the accomplishments of the collective cannot be so easily attributed to any one individual or even one individual action. Instead, they emerge, like the blooms of spring, drawn forth by the concert of sun, rain, wind, bees, and of course, attentive gardening that creates an ecosystem that enables flourishing.
This month, I am filled with prideful joy to see new shoots of pluralism popping up in the gardens of democracy. Though I am only one of many gardeners who have dutifully tended this small patch of earth, I cannot keep from smiling at the blooms preparing to burst forth, including New Pluralists, a new funder collaborative seeking to support the growing field of pluralism in America. With the aim of investing $100 million in this broad and diverse field over the next 10 years, we have joined together with 10 peer funders and 40 field leaders to address America’s crisis of division, distrust, dehumanization, and disconnection.
It has been a long and winding road, a journey that deserves its own story.
For the past several years, I have been obsessed with the challenge of shifting philanthropy from a distant and, at times, dysfunctional revenue stream into a more deliberate and deeply engaged partner. In our first decade, with our funding focused squarely on “helping people get along better,” we certainly didn’t get everything right, but we were avidly committed to building healthy, trusting relationships with our grantee partners forged by mutuality and respect. We took extra effort to ensure everyone we worked with and supported felt seen, heard, and valued in our shared work together.
Then came the 2016 election. Amidst so much vitriol and divisiveness, we couldn’t help but wonder: how well were our “getting along” efforts doing? In the days after the election, I received dozens of phone calls from peers and grantee partners, and even people who tangentially knew of our work: they wanted to know what the "empathy funder" (how many informally referred to us) was going to do in this moment of profound fracture. My first response was paralysis, unclear what to do next, but through deep connection and reflection in each of those conversations, those who knew us best helped me realize that we also had the capacity to do some good.
In January 2017, we opened a response fund to help heal and bridge divides in America. While this diverged from the large, multi-year grantmaking we had historically done, the moment called for something drastically different, and fast. We put out a call for nominations and ideas from a broad network and quickly made grants to promising efforts that were helping people of different beliefs and backgrounds come together, talk to and listen to one another, and build positive relationships that foster empathy, trust, connection, and community.
From civic gatherings and potluck dinners to interfaith social action projects, story exchanges, and community listening trainings, people from every corner of this country emerged with innovative and well-tested ideas to bring people together in ways that help open both hearts and minds, in community and with each other. These efforts helped increase people’s openness to those who they had previously seen as “other,” forging authentic relationships that, at the outset, they wouldn’t have thought were possible. Over the course of nine months, we supported 37 organizations with a total of $6 million.
Around the same time, we launched a strategic review of our past decade to refine our grantmaking strategy. More than getting along, we came to see our work as curbing the crisis of connection, in which more and more Americans were living in isolation, loneliness, anxiety, and fear—eroding faith in our institutions and each other. Fostering a more relational and pluralist culture would become a key pillar of our new approach.
We also uncovered that both what we do and how we do it are intentionally and inextricably linked, every action guided by the principles and practice of collaboration and mutuality. If we want to help others build stronger relationships, embrace our differences, and rediscover our shared humanity, as a foundation, we also needed to find ways to listen to and embrace the views and perspectives of a wider range of actors.
As a growing number of funders began to investigate how they too could contribute to repairing America’s divides, we began to realize how important it would be for funders to “walk the talk”: if we want to help build a more socially cohesive society, one where people connect and work together across lines of difference, then we in philanthropy have to do the same.
The moment was ripe to explore the possibility of building a purposefully cross-ideological funder collaborative. Together, we wondered: what if a group of funders with different vantage points and different core priorities worked together—with pooled resources and shared decision-making—to support pluralism and bridgebuilding in America?
Following a first exploratory meeting of interested funders in February 2020, we joined with the Charles Koch Institute, Fetzer Institute, and Hewlett Foundation in a commitment to a year-long, co-creative design process to explore the idea. We also engaged many field leaders along the way, including our initial group of Builders, to understand the gaps and possibilities they saw, to pressure test our emerging strategic direction, and to design what it would look like to work collaboratively—funders and field leaders—to advance a larger collective vision seeking to strengthen a more pluralist culture in America.
When the pandemic hit, we realized our work would only get harder. But we kept going anyway. Over the last 16 months, we’ve learned a great deal about each other as both human beings and the institutions we represent, and how wonderful and difficult it is to work in a truly collaborative way. And we’ve learned that, even in a virtual community, intentional co-creation yields trust, appreciation, respect, and results.
As I wrote about last fall, the thoughtful guidance and creative actions of our partner grantees taught us that “helping people get along better” underestimates what it takes to address the deeply entrenched and overlapping challenges we face as a nation. People don’t get along unless they feel seen, heard, and valued, which requires a depth of trust in relationships that enables us to be our whole and best selves, individually and together.
The funders and Field Builders who have joined together in this effort are vital allies and collaborators in strengthening and expanding this growing field in service to a profound culture shift in America. Our organizations and approaches to social change cut across many lines of difference—and there are many things on which we disagree. However, we all remain unwaveringly committed to leaning into this work in a deeply relational way. We recognize that solutions to the challenges we face as a nation will be aided by the healthy friction that comes from our diversity of views as much as from the camaraderie and friendships that have developed through our shared work together. As Field Builder Rev. Jen Bailey brilliantly reminds us: “Social change happens at the speed of relationships. And relationships move at the speed of trust.”
It is my hope that this funder collaborative will enshrine and perpetuate a new way of being, as individuals, as a sector, and as a society. New Pluralists is an early seed of a larger vision for culture change, both within the field of philanthropy and in America. To truly realize our nation’s founding promise, we must reckon with the wounds of our past and repair the fractures of the present to discover what’s possible when we come together across our differences to see our shared humanity.
I am also thrilled to introduce New Pluralists’ new Executive Director, Uma Viswanathan, who comes to this effort wholeheartedly, carrying both the intellectual and emotional capacity to hold this work with both hands. This work will take time, intentionality, and resources. There is no doubt that, individually and institutionally, we will make progress, and we will make mistakes. Yet, missteps and disagreements—as well as how we repair, learn, and grow—are also integral to our efforts. Because pluralism isn’t actually about just getting along. Rather, it’s the deep, up-close relational work of discovering the beauty and humanity in each other when we deeply disagree, and even still, finding our way forward, together.
Amidst the blush of spring petals, I am filled with optimism and hope for all the good work and healing struggle that lies ahead. A garden is made more beautiful by the complementary and contrasting colors, shapes, and textures of its vibrant diversity. May we all revel in its bounty.
Jenn Hoos Rothberg leads Einhorn Collaborative. You can learn more about our work here and more about Jenn here. Sign up here to receive our monthly newsletter and be the first to read Jenn's blog posts.