Heeding America's Warning: The Civil Society Fellowship

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by: Jonathan A. Greenblatt

August 17, 2020

In his recent piece “Beirut’s Blast Is a Warning for America” (op-ed, August 9) New York Times columnist Tom Friedman discusses the trend towards “everything becoming politics” in the United States. Friedman keenly delineates the destructive force this has within a democracy and on society as a whole. He provides familiar examples of the politicization of everything, from climate change to wearing masks, and the deep unpopularity of collaboration between Democrats and Republicans that all but bars productive discussion.  Friedman concludes that “reversing this trend is the most important project of our generation.”

It is undeniable that our nation, suffering from growing violence and extreme partisanship, is starved for healthy dialogue. We see it in places like Washington, D.C. where legislators refuse to speak with those from opposite parties. We see it in our own neighborhoods where hate crimes are on the rise and where divisions seem to prevail.

It is up to all of us to recognize and fight this challenge, but it will be on the shoulders of the next generation of leaders to catalyze change. The current leadership in the United States is too entrenched in a system that defines fellow Americans as friend or foe solely on the basis of political allegiance. This has led us to a place where leaders are uncomfortable engaging with dialectical thought on complex issues. Our greatest hope is in our future leaders to revitalize the notion of the common good.

In a comment to Friedman’s op-ed, a colleague of mine at ADL, Nike Irvin, pointed to a cohort of young people who are “uncomfortable with self-identifying with a political party when asked.” This group is the 80+ candidates for the next class of the Civil Society Fellowship, of which Nike is the Managing Director. She writes, “These nominees demonstrate greater political elasticity than current leadership, and through becoming proximate with people who think differently than them, this fellowship is one solution to the hyper-polarized, embittered politics of current times.”

Working in partnership, ADL and the Aspen Institute launched the Fellowship just last year. It was started with the understanding that ideological diversity would be critical to its success. The Fellowship brings together a mosaic of participants representing the breadth of our nation. Each class of Fellows are comprised of 20 to 23 of our nation’s next generation of community leaders and problem-solvers who reflect America’s range of attributes across race, religion, gender, national origin, geography, sexual orientation, ideology, and, when possible to define, political affiliation.

The core tenets of the program mirror those from the Aspen Institute’s successful Henry Crown Fellowship, which has developed a reputation as the premier leadership program for proven entrepreneurial leaders who want to apply their acumen to building a better society. By participating in this tradition and undertaking a common learning experience, Civil Society Fellows hone their leadership skills while building relationships beyond the issue areas and movements they have dedicated their careers to. Whether Fellows come from the business world or political sphere, a fundamental truth remains the same – true leadership requires the ability to substantively engage with differing viewpoints and willingness to extend a collaborative hand to achieve a common goal.

The Civil Society Fellowship provides the space for the meaningful and cross-ideological discourse that we sorely lack today. Fellows are encouraged and expected to approach all issues informed, ready to engage a multitude of perspectives, and above all able to challenge one another’s ideas respectfully. These discussions are set up for Fellows to not only learn how to productively engage with differing viewpoints but to do so in a way that ultimately leads to expanded thinking and the derivation of new, shared insights that can move our country forward.

This is the burden we ask of the next generation – to develop the leadership skills necessary to reverse the troubling rise of hate and violence in our nation, and to dismantle the hyper-partisanship in which these trends find their roots. Through the Civil Society Fellowship, we hope to help prepare the next generation of leaders to catalyze the paradigm shift our country so sorely needs.