Coming Together in Times of Populist-Nationalism in the US

24th October 2019 by Sam Worthington and Mike Fox

“What is the identity of my country and who are we as a people?” is a question that has shaped America’s unique idealism across generations of immigrants. It is also a question that can be used to stoke fear and division. Racism and nativism reside close to the heart of the wave of populist-nationalism that the United States is currently confronting. While all these trends, in addition to the related sentiment of isolationism, have a long history in both US politics and in official government policy, we have rarely faced them all in combination, wielded by a President and his allies. An initiative we call The Together Project, has been at the heart of InterAction’s response to these forces that try to divide people. It draws on and reinforces our community’s solidarity to advance a more compassionate and diverse form of American identity.

Root causes, ‘retrotopianism’ and racism

America’s current wave of populist-nationalism is rooted in racial resentment and a history of grievances that is endemic to US society. As our country becomes more and more multi-ethnic and diverse, a subset of the country’s dominant majority has not seen themselves reflected in America’s emerging identity and progress. Systematic economic inequality has also led to high levels of frustration, particularly in rural areas, that feed resentment and amplify a nationalist narrative among citizens who previously had a sense of power. They now blame others, immigrants or people who do not look like them, for their economic circumstances. Populist narratives have drawn on this racial anxiety and economic frustration by promising a return to a past – remodelling it as an idealised ‘- when their supporters felt more culturally, if not economically, dominant. A past where America First was the norm. President Trump has amplified these feelings through what many see as public racism.

The optimism within (civil) society

Internationally-focused NGOs and our supporters belong to a segment of society that view the constant changing and growth of American identity with optimism.  , seeing participation by different groups in a changing society as something that makes us all stronger. We believe that different elements have contributed over generations to a shared narrative that reinforces our values and collective, yet diverse, identity. Unfortunately, the division between an open and inclusive country, and building walls and promoting exclusion, often splits down political lines. As a result, there’s not much space for nuance in the public conversation.

Reflecting as a community: The need to come Together

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, InterAction hosted our annual CEO Retreat, and – during an exercise that emphasizes honest reflection among our community – a Muslim-American leader shared their fear for themselves, their organization, and their family in the face of growing public racism. A Jewish-American colleague found common ground in sharing their emotions over having lost their grandparents during the Holocaust. The idea that we all have a responsibility to stand in solidarity with vulnerable colleagues gained immediate traction. The conversation evolved towards a shared understanding that those of us in the room, as civil society leaders, had a responsibility to look out for each other and foster a better dialogue in our country. The blend of personal backgrounds, shared values and experiences across different cultural and faith identities further inspired launching the Together Project in 2017.

Building community through trust

Whilst the initial leadership for the Together Project came from our Muslim faith-based member NGOs, it could only become a community-wide initiative due to trust among individuals and organizations across the sector, tapping into a shared safe space at InterAction. Trust and creation of safe spaces for dialogue are essential not just at the micro-, programmatic level, but also at the macro-level for society at large. These two dynamics create opportunity for agreements on how to strategically combat populist-nationalism, while not resorting to a simple adversarial or victimhood narrative, either of which can alienate potential allies. Adversarial or victimhood narratives can often feed the very social divisions wielded by populist demagogues through emphasizing division and differences, as opposed to a sense of shared, values and identity.

Creating a shared national narrative

For the United States to ultimately overcome this current populist-nationalism wave, and its associated racism, nativism, and isolationism, it will be essential to create a shared national narrative. We need an agenda of common action, mutual benefit, and agreement on values. These principles may be as simple as being kind to our neighbors and believing the dignity of all people, whether in this country or overseas. The moment we exclude someone, we tear a country from its pursuit of an ideal future, and start focusing on destruction as opposed to positive change and an inclusive future for everyone. These ideal values cut across faith and political beliefs but are found in the overlapping spheres of our civil society, which can bridge the current, dualistic fight over power in political institutions.

The Together Project is one example of how civil society can come together to preserve space for all by ensuring that no one person or institution is removed from our country’s identity.

Yes, it is often essential to loudly pushback against injustice, but any effort should not be at the cost of pushing someone else out of your country’s future. Otherwise, they will fall back on the politics and an identity of division and fear.

Sam Worthington

CEO

InterAction

Sam Worthington is Chief Executive Officer of InterAction, leading the U.S. NGO sector’s engagement with the UN, governments, and civil society groups around the world. He testifies before the U.S. Congress, routinely consults with the administration, speaks to boards and at universities, and is a regular contributor on numerous national and international media outlets.

Mike Fox

Manager, Strategic Initiatives

InterAction

Mike Fox is the Manager for Strategic Initiatives at InterAction, leading cross-organization projects that help the alliance increase its impact, organizational effectiveness, and institutional reach. He also supports the CEO with policy and communications related research, analysis, writing, and editing.

Reflections on Working Together as a Coalition

24th October 2019 by Princess Bazley-Bethea

What is the “value added” of being a coalition?

How do we best support targeted organizations during a disinformation attack?

What techniques can we use to move the needle on constricting regulations due to operating principles or religious faith?

These guiding questions are examples of conversations that led to launching the Together Project in the US in 2017, and are ongoing ‘North Stars’ to navigate dialogue and decision-making with our coalition, as our initiative continues to develop.

A model of collaborative thought leadership

Successful coalitions depend on the ability of representatives from independent organizations to work almost as if they belonged to the same company. InterAction values coalition work and is committed to be a platform for alliances to foster. As the oldest and largest coalition of U.S.-based, international NGOs, InterAction draws on our – nearly 200 – organizational member and partner community to think and act collectively, while serving the world’s poor and vulnerable. Through the Together Project, InterAction has designed a model of collaborative thought leadership and brings NGOs together in service to a stronger, more inclusive civil society voice and posture within the United States.

The exponential effect of a united front

Behind the core Together Project Coalition of five founding organizations (American Relief Agency for the Horn of Africa (ARAHA), Helping Hand for Relief & Development, Islamic Relief USA, United Mission for Relief and Development (UMR) and Zakat Foundation of America), there is a large support network of more than 75 organizations, of various faiths and none, and with leverage and ‘voice’ to influential audiences. The Together Project’s Interfaith Connections builds upon the effective on-the-ground partnerships of both non-secular and secular InterAction members to strategically engage in supportive solidarity across a variety of issues at home in the United States. The exponential effect of displaying a united front when organizations are attacked is often beyond coming to the aid of a specific organization but lends to a deepening of the public morale and posture for the entire sector domestically and aboard.

A strong foundation and commitment to solidarity

For this kind of collaboration to occur, the Together Project has established an agreed commonmission, goals, outcome, scope, agenda and work plan to strategically guide our activities. This, in turn, has created a clear understanding of the initiative’s joint priorities, while providing autonomy for each partner’s organizational structure, policies and procedures, and culture and norms. The coalition is better able to operate, make decisions, allocate resources, share information, and expand our alliance further, such as our affiliation with the Charity & Security Network to address several comparable issues together as partners. Likewise, the Together Project joined the World Bank Stakeholder Dialogue on De-risking to elevate the impact of the issue on our coalition members. A strong foundation and commitment to solidarity within the Together Project has positioned the initiative to engage as both a participant and a leader with other like-minded coalitions and alliances.

Compromise and deference

The keys to an effective coalition of this nature are mutual trust and respect for each other’s strengths. Organizations may be asked to compromise or defer to a partner’s judgment in decision-making to move towards the greater common goal. The vulnerability felt in these sometimes direct and challenging moments is a healthy part of becoming an alliance dependent on one other to succeed together. Sharing on the answers to earlier guiding questions helps the Together Project remain focused on our principles

‘One for all and all for one’

Essentially, solidarity is vital to the Together Project. The driving force behind the initiative is the word “together” and a core belief that no one organization should have to fight disinformation and discrimination fueled by populist-nationalism alone. Countering the effects of restrictive, discriminatory government regulations that are viewed as vital to national security and defending against disinformation campaigns are not easy topics to broach in the current political climate. Fortunately, organizations do not have to quietly confront these issues alone. For those that do not have the capacity to address these difficult issues, the coalition offers a foundation to stand on and participate in through working groups, activities, and events at a level that best meets their ability. Likewise, for organizations that believe these issues do not affect their operations or are not current priorities, the Together Project highlights the interconnectedness of the work and the broader ramifications of how various aspects play out in different parts of the world. The backing of InterAction members and stakeholders across the sector helps to amplify the voice of the Together Project to advocate for change.

Princess Bazley-Bethea

Manager, Together Project

InterAction

Princess Bazley-Bethea is the Manager of the Together Project at InterAction. Princess’ leadership enables the project to bring attention to issues affecting the ability of coalition members to function, educate relevant policy-makers and officials, convene conversations where potential solutions can be found, connect InterAction’s members to each other, and build solidarity broadly when needed in response to the shrinking civil society space experienced by project members.