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A Vision for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships

Executive Director Joshua Dubois delivered a speech at the Brookings Institution on the work and vision of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Friends, Joshua DuBois delivered a speech at the Brookings Institution earlier today on the broad vision of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, as well as our work over this first year.  I thought you would like to read the speech; it’s included below, as prepared for delivery.

A Vision for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships: Speech to the Brookings Institution

Joshua DuBois, Executive Director, White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships

Good morning!
It’s really a pleasure to be here this morning.
Thank you, E.J. and Melissa, for that wonderful introduction.  It has been an honor to work with and learn from you for quite a while now, and I’m deeply appreciative of your leadership in this critical arena of faith and public life.  
I also want to thank members of our staff at the White House and across the federal agency Centers that have joined us today, especially our core team in the White House of Mara Vanderslice, Ben O’Dell and Michael Wear.  I want to thank members of our Presidential Advisory Council and other key leaders who will participate in panels throughout the rest of the day.  It promises to be a fascinating series of conversations, and I’m so glad the Brookings Institute put this together.  

And finally, on behalf of President Obama, I want to thank all of you.  I want to thank you for being here today, but more importantly for your interest in helping the federal government navigate the fascinating, important and sometimes fraught currents of religion and American life.
Through your work in nonprofit organizations, through your scholarly efforts, through your reporting and blogging and advocacy and litigation, you are partaking in the difficult but rewarding task of finding an appropriate intersection between personal faith and public affairs.  

That journey – that search for the right balance between religion and politics in America – is one President Obama has been on for quite a long time.  And for a number of years, I’ve been honored to walk that road with him.   I am going to spend most of my time talking about our Office today, and the road ahead.  But first I’d like to tell you a bit about how this all started.  
My first foray into the mix of religion and politics with this President was in the late Summer and Fall of 2005.  The President was, of course, the junior Senator from Illinois at the time, working hard on behalf of the good folks of Chicago, downstate Illinois and points in between.
And I was a very young Senate staffer for him, fresh out of a graduate degree in public affairs and some brief time on the Hill, still affiliated as an associate pastor with a small church in Cambridge, MA.
The President’s Christian faith was very important to him, as it is today.  And as not only a Christian but also a Constitutional scholar, then-Senator Obama had strong beliefs about how religion and the government could responsibly connect, and where those two forces should diverge as well.    
But he had never put all of this together in one speech before, one message to the people of Illinois and the American people, as well.  Senator Obama had not yet in a public forum shared his views on how we all can reconcile our private values with our public lives, nor had he spoken of the ways that he seeks to do this every day.  
So one day he called me in his office.  I was joined by folks who remain good friends and mentors to this day, Pete Rouse and Michael Strautmanis.  And he said (and I’m paraphrasing), ‘guys, I want to give a major address about religion in America.  About my faith, but also about the ways that all Americans live out their values in the public square.’
But before he gave the speech, Senator Obama said that he wanted to start by learning more about how religious organizations were impacting society in communities across the country.  He wanted his address to be informed by the work of groups on the ground, meeting human needs, and he wanted us to go out and learn about and from those groups in advance of his speech.  
So as the most junior person in that room by at least 20 years, that task was of course assigned to me.  And over the next few weeks, which grew into months, I believe I pestered every religious group in Washington, and a good many across the country.
I sat down with the Friends Committee and learned about their efforts around peace.  I talked with Catholic Charities about SCHIP, and went to my Mainline Protestant friends on Maryland Avenue to learn more about Church World Service.  I called Evangelical pastors around the country, and connected with a young man named Eboo Patel about interfaith service.  I used my vacation time to attend annual conventions of historically Black denominations, and began pestering Rabbi David Saperstein at the RAC and Nathan Diament at the Orthodox Union, an activity that persists to this day.  From coffee with church state experts to meetings with Buddhist friends, I worked to expand my own knowledge of the religious and community-based landscape in our country, knowledge which had been limited to life as a “preacher’s kid,” classroom study, and time in service to my own church.  
And the main question I had during this search was: how were these organizations and individuals impacting the world around them?  What role, if any, should the government play in supporting that good work?  And finally, what were the opportunities for navigating religious difference and the contours of pluralism – which includes nonbelievers as well – in order to find common purpose on the most difficult issues we face as a nation?  
And after hundreds of conversations and coffees and conventions – I reported back to the President on what I’d learned.  And he took that information and subsequent conversations in, and combined it with his own rich history living and working at the intersection of faith and public life.  He then wove all of this together in a major address at Rev. Jim Wallis’ Call to Renewal Conference in the early summer of 2006.
The President’s Call to Renewal speech is perhaps his most important address on religion, one that is often overlooked but I believe is deeply illuminating of our work today.  In fact, one of the sponsors of today’s event, our good friend E.J. Dionne, said at the time that then-Senator Obama’s speech “may be the most important pronouncement by a Democrat on faith and politics since John F. Kennedy's Houston speech in 1960...”
In this speech, the President talked about his own Christian walk.  He also spoke to the fissures that too often divide people of faith and religious and secular America, and proposed some basic principles for, as he said, joining “a serious debate about how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy.”   It was a speech with a number of key messages, and a candid personal account as well.  But I believe one of the core ‘bottom lines’ was this: faith and values can be tremendous forces for good in the world, and government can enable some of that good work, but only when we have an eye on our core constitutional commitments, and when we can disagree without being disagreeable, and seek out common ground wherever we can.  
The President of course said it much more eloquently than I just did, but it’s that belief that motivates our work to this day.
President Obama announced the formation of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships on February 5, 2009 and placed it strategically within the Domestic Policy Council.  However, our work with this Office in fact started months before that announcement.  With the help of some good friends deeply invested in these issues, including Melody Barnes, the head of the DPC and Mark Linton, who is the director of our HUD Center today, we spent the time between Election Day and the Office’s announcement examining what worked in the previous effort, what didn’t work, and developing the framework for the Office. That effort helped us identify both some real opportunities and formidable challenges.
On the opportunities side, the first and most important asset left behind by the previous Administration was the structure of the Office itself.  It is unique in the federal government in that we have one White House Office with a coordinating relationship with multiple agency Centers across government.  Each of these Centers is tasked with connecting their own federal agency to local faith-based and other nonprofit organizations.  This interagency structure is really an enormous benefit: it means that across bureaucratic lines we can collaborate immediately on issues that impact local organizations, in a way that few other offices can.  This structure itself is a testimony to the foresight of some good folks in the previous Administration, including President Bush himself.  
However, during the transition period, we found some real challenges as well. Most immediately, while there were some high-performing agency Centers that built specific policy initiatives – workforce development at the Department of Labor and the mentoring children of prisoner’s program at the Department of Health and Human Services stand out – many of these Centers left behind uncertain evidence of their impact.  In fact, outside of the great work of a few Centers, many of these smaller Centers appeared to focus almost exclusively on distributing announcements about federal grants, if that.  
We also found that legal and constitutional issues confronted the initiative.  Issues like helping grantees appropriately segment their funds and insuring the protection of beneficiary rights were left unattended without a specific plan for addressing these crucial topics.  
And finally, the public perception of the faith-based initiative was at best erroneous and at worst deeply negative. This perception deserves further explanation.
Dating back to my time in the Senate, and certainly throughout the 2008 campaign, there was one overarching view that I recall so many others having of the faith-based initiative: it was all about money.
From storefront churches in South Carolina to huge congregations in the Midwest, everyone from religious leaders to civil libertarians had the perception that the faith-based office consisted of a big pot of money in the White House – dollars everyone knew about, but only a politically-connected few had access to.
Now to be fair, this perception may not have reflected the reality of the initiative – it is an often misunderstood point that there is absolutely no dedicated funding stream specifically for faith-based groups, and the White House faith-based office and affiliated agency Centers have no role in decisions about federal grants.   But the perception existed nonetheless, and was reinforced by the day-to-day work of the Office and its affiliated Centers, which had the appearance of measuring their success based on the dollar amounts that flowed to faith-based groups.  
And it is this fundamental issue, this dollar-driven mission, that we knew we had to tackle in President Obama’s iteration of the faith-based Office.  
We had to tackle it because at the end of the day, President Obama knows that the relationship between the federal government and religious organizations must not be about money alone.  Many faith-based groups do not want to receive federal funds, because of the various restrictions attached to those dollars.  Many others should not receive federal grants, because they’re either unable or unwilling to separate those funds and use them through appropriate means.
So we must find a way to work with the vast majority of those faith-based organizations who will not receive money from the government, while insuring of course that those who wish to apply for and receive federal support do so in a way that respects both their rights and responsibilities.
So if we’re turning the corner from this dollar-focused perception, if it’s not all about money, what’s the whole thing about now?  How are shifting our core measurement of success? What’s the guiding vision of President Obama’s Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships?
Well, our guiding vision is this: to connect with faith-based and other neighborhood organizations on specific challenges confronting our communities, and partner with those groups to strengthen their good work.  Critically, this support may not always be through federal grants.  We do not measure our success based on how many dollars flow to faith-based organizations.  Instead, we measure our success based on the impact that our partnerships with faith-based and other neighborhood groups have on individuals, families and communities across the country.
This is a fundamental shift, one that does not necessarily lend itself to a sound-bite but is critical to the future of the faith-based initiative nonetheless.  By serving as a convener, by sharing critical information, by building organizational capacity, by catalyzing private support, and still – where appropriate – informing organizations of grants they may apply for, we seek to be a nimble, creative and flexible supporter of faith-based and secular nonprofit organizations around the country.  It’s no longer about just dollars and cents.  Instead, it’s about impacts on individuals, families and communities.  
Let me give you a few concrete examples of how this shift has borne itself out over the past year.
This year at our Partnerships Center at the Department of Health and Human Services, we spent a tremendous amount of time working with local houses of worship and other nonprofits on developing and tapping into their existing public health infrastructure.  We used the challenge of the H1N1 crisis to create a toolkit for faith-based groups and community leaders to help them respond to the virus, and now we’re working with these same organizations to make sure that when future public health challenges come, they have the ability to keep their own congregations safe and be havens for their community.  This effort did not involve a transfer of money to faith-based organizations.  Instead, it involved a collaborative sharing and receiving of knowledge that helped to protect families across the country.  And if we build on our success in the public health arena, and create lasting connections that work not just for H1N1 but future public health challenges as well, then our efforts will help make communities across the country healthier and safer.  This is a critical new partnership, enabled by the vision of our Office.
Another example is our work around fatherhood.   For years, President Obama has been deeply concerned with the challenge of father absence in America, particularly in communities where the rates of father involvement are historically low.  In response to this, we’ve led the Administration’s approach to fatherhood issues and launched a National Conversation on Fatherhood around the country.  We convened local groups for regional efforts on fatherhood, and by the end of next month we will have engaged five Cabinet Secretaries in that work.  We’re learning from these very same organizations about what works and what doesn’t, and we used that knowledge to help lead a policy process with HHS that culminated in the President’s budget proposal for a new Fatherhood, Marriage and Family Innovation Fund that puts community impacts first.  
This work as convener has also been expressed in the mentoring field.  Prior to a major event we sponsored with the President, we brought mentoring organizations like MENTOR Inc. together with corporations like Viacom, in a partnership that led to Viacom’s sponsoring of mentoring programs at corporate offices around the country.   This is a new way of doing things.
The list of partnerships on key issues goes on.  We worked with groups to sponsor over 4,000 interfaith service projects during the Administration’s United We Serve campaign.  We launched a new “Feed a Neighborhood” anti-hunger initiative.  We’re working with the broader Domestic Policy Council and White House Council on Women and Girls on a common ground agenda around unintended pregnancy and reducing the need for abortion, an effort that has engaged many of our Council members.  And we joined the National Security Council, State Department and others on the President’s address in Cairo and ensuring that the State Department could ably follow-up on that speech to engage to engage religious and civic communities abroad.  
These partnerships with local organizations are not about money alone.  They’re not about picking winners and losers.  Instead, they’re about partnering with groups and sectors to have an impact on real world problems.   That is how we’ll measure our success.  And that’s how, slowly but surely, we’re turning the perception and reality of the faith-based initiative around.  
We have some help in this effort, including a first-of-its kind Presidential Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. This body was established to provide advice to the President and our Office on how the federal government can more effectively partner with faith-based and other nonprofit organizations.  This is a wonderfully diverse group – progressives and conservatives, from different religious and nonreligious backgrounds, folks who may agree with the President on many issues and those who don’t.  This reflects the broader approach of our office; we’re making sure people know that no matter what background you’re from, whether you are religious or secular, and regardless of your political perspective, your views are welcome in this Office and on our Council.
And although the Council’s first year of work has not yet concluded, they’ve done a terrific job so far. They’re focusing on 6 core areas where the government might improve its partnerships with local faith-based and neighborhood organizations: partnerships related to the economic recovery and domestic poverty, environmental issues, fatherhood and healthy families, interreligious dialogue, global poverty, and the reform of the faith-based office itself.  They are approaching consensus on the vast majority of their recommendations – across religious, partisan and ideological lines.   And even when they disagree, they’ve done so with civility and respect.   We are very much looking forward to their final report and to receiving their recommendations for how the government and local groups can better serve American families.
The other thing that helps us is a new focus on the legal and constitutional footing of our Office.  We intentionally tasked the Advisory Council with formulating recommendations to improve this footing.  When their final report is released it will include key advice on issues like developing easily accessible guidance for faith-based organizations that equally emphasize separation requirements as well as protections for religion identity; higher standards for transparency of federally-funded partnerships; and assuring that the rights of beneficiaries of federally-funded social services are protected.  We also continue to work with our colleagues in government to take a clear-eyed approach to other difficult issues, including religious hiring.  We know that there is a tremendous desire for finality on this topic, but we also know that due to its importance, decisions must be made carefully and with all due diligence.   That’s a process we are in, and one we take very seriously.  
Now, back to the big picture.  It’s important to note that there are some downsides to this new focus on partnerships instead of dollars alone.  While these partnerships are deeply important and I believe far more impactful for everyday Americans, they may not always be front page news, and some have deemed them less substantial than other guiding visions.  
Fights over dollars and cents and quibbles about religious politics are far more attractive to both our friends in the media and partisans on both sides than helping faith-based organizations respond to disasters, strengthen fathers and families, ensure that at-risk young folks have mentors, and promote interfaith cooperation abroad.  That criticism comes with the territory, and I imagine it will persist.  But it makes the work no less important, and in fact I believe that work is far more important than the majority of controversies discussed about this Office.  
Another challenge is, if you’re going to do partnerships thoughtfully and measure your work, it takes time.  In just a year of operation, and much less for some of our Centers, I am deeply proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish.
But we’re setting up for so much more in the years ahead.  For example, our Advisory Council has not yet even concluded the process of making its important recommendations.   We are working to form a new Interagency Working Group on Nonprofit Capacity Building to develop a strategic plan for streamlining capacity building efforts across government.  For the first time, we’re convening an interagency effort on religion and global affairs with the National Security Council, which will soon begin its work.  We’ll spend the next year forming new partnerships to close the mentoring gap, ensure that nonprofits are a part of our continued economic recovery, and work with local faith-based and neighborhood organizations on critical environmental issues.  
These and other efforts will take time, as will the broader process of helping to shift how the public views the faith-based initiative.  They also do not easily lend themselves to the brief analysis of a news cycle.  So I imagine that as this work proceeds, we’ll take some bumps and bruises.  But we will keep going – with a focus on our long range vision of impacting American communities through innovative, measurable and Constitutional partnerships.
As I conclude this speech and as we continue our work, I think back to two of the very first groups I visited upon entering this position.  I wanted to get out of the building a bit, so I went to visit two outstanding local organizations in Washington, D.C.: Covenant House, and Life Pieces to Masterpieces.  
Now Covenant House is the local branch of a national faith-based organization that does great work with young people experiencing homelessness.  The Executive Director of the organization took me around to meet some of the young folks who were working on their resumes at computer terminals, learning new skills through their tremendous “Off the Block Artisans” vocational job training program, and helping young parents connect with their families.  
I then went over to Life Pieces.  I met Mary Brown, the Executive Director of the organization, and she told about Life Piece’s work as an afterschool and summer program for some of the most at-risk boys and young men in the District.  In fact, many of these guys had experienced extreme violence in their homes, often the murder or assault of a parent or loved one.
And Life Pieces takes an innovative approach to helping these young men find a path to a better life.  They use art.  All of the boys – whether they’re 6 years old or 26 – work together to paint “masterpieces,”  beautiful collaborative paintings, stirring pictures that depict both the challenges of their lives and the hope they see ahead.   Many of these paintings were visually stunning, and literally stopped me in my tracks.
Now this was a moving experience for me and an innovative mode of service, but more importantly – it’s working.  Life Pieces’ work with these young men after school and in the summers is having a measurable impact on their rates of high school completion, on how they view themselves, and how they navigate the world around them.
And I decided that I want this Office to be a resource for groups like Life Pieces.  Sometimes that may be financial partnerships, making sure that they can compete on an equal basis for the federal grants that they are eligible for.  But other times it may be civic partnerships: using our convening power to bring them together with likeminded organizations; helping bring private resources to the table where appropriate; sitting down with them and listening and learning, so that their good work can shape public policy.  
We have to be flexible, we have to listen more than we talk, and we have to both expand our vision of partnerships while at the same time tightening it around core Constitutional principles.  
And if we can do that, I believe we can move this faith-based initiative forward.  And maybe, just maybe, we can contribute to the work that then-Senator Obama challenged all of us to do in his Call to Renewal address years ago: the work of “reconciling the beliefs of each…with the good of all.”