On September 22, 2022, The Religion & Society Program gathered with partners, colleagues, network members, and friends to celebrate ten years of work in building religious pluralism. Several leaders offered remarks and reflections on the last decade and offered insight as to what the future might hold.
Simran Jeet Singh is the Executive Director of the Aspen Institute’s Religion and Society Program. His remarks at the ten-year anniversary event, “Religion & Society: The First Decade” are presented here.
Good afternoon, everyone. It’s great to be with you, as we celebrate ten years of the Religion & Society Program here at the Aspen Institute.
I’m Simran Jeet Singh, the Executive Director and I’m so grateful to all of you for being here with us today. I wish I could take credit for all of our work over the years, and you’re more than welcome to compliment on it. I’ll take any compliment these days, so feel free.
But the truth is, I am standing on the shoulders of giants. Our team is standing on the shoulders of giants. I joined this organization nine months ago, with the understanding that what was built here was a powerful foundation with high quality people. That’s the luxury and the privilege I have to be a part of this organization.
Since I joined, people have been asking me, “What’s your vision? What do you want to change?” And the remarkable thing about my opportunity is to be able to say, actually, nothing. I love what we do. I love what’s been built here. The founding and the vision of this organization, the strength of the research is fantastic. I know that as an outsider, as a scholar. All I want to do is make this bigger. All I want is for everyone to know what we’re up to. The shift isn’t actually in substance or even approach. The shift is in seeing the potential and saying we have something special here. We can be more ambitious.
You’ve heard from a few of our champions already: our President Dan Porterfield and our colleague and friend, Brie Loskota. You’ll have the opportunity to hear from two of my predecessors who helped build this organization: Meryl Chertoff and Zeenat Rahman.
But what we’re hoping to do as we reflect where we are as an organization, and as a country, is to look back at where we came from, look at where we are today, and look to where we’re heading. In a way, our vision is really simple: we want to create a world where everyone can thrive, where everyone wins.
I have two young daughters who are barely out of diapers. They get that vision – it’s not a complicated promise. The challenge, as we heard from Brie, is: how do we get there in a world that we have made so complicated for ourselves? That’s the work of our time.
What I’d like us to think about as we move into the next hour of our session, of our time together. Liberty and justice for all? Not yet. But maybe tomorrow, if we work together, if we’re intentional. That’s why I’m so grateful to be in this room with you all today. This work doesn’t happen by accident and it doesn’t happen alone. It’s our journey together.
Thank you all for being here with us today, and thank you for being on this journey with us.
Executive Director’s Reflection:
I’d like to add a word about my own entry point into this work. As many of you know, I grew up in South Texas in a Sikh family. There were all sorts of challenges growing up there, looking like this. I don’t need to rehash those stories for you all. I was a senior in high school when 9/11 happened, and the intensity of racism really shaped the trajectory of my life. I began to care about school, I began to care about people I didn’t know. I really committed myself to understanding, “What is happening in my life, and to my family, with regard to religion and racism?” That’s what I wanted to know. How do I make sure we’re all safe?
I went on to pursue these studies in high school and college, I went on to graduate school at NYU and ended up doing my Ph.D. on these issues, all the while engaged in what we would call social justice. I worked in classrooms teaching kids as a volunteer, I worked with social justice organizations on hate crime legislation as a volunteer, I worked with racial justice groups as a volunteer. I was writing articles, working with media and journalists. I was doing all kinds of things that made sense to me based on what my community needed to survive. But then when people asked me, “What do you do?” – I don’t know how to explain it. There’s no category for this. But I knew that this is what I, and my community, needed.
In 2018, I received an email from Allison K. Ralph, for an invitation to join a summit here at the Aspen Institute. I hadn’t heard of the Inclusive America Project at the time. I didn’t know what they did. I knew I wasn’t supposed to say no to the Aspen Institute, so I said yes. I think it might have been in this room. I remember looking at the slides, when they were describing pluralism, and I’m a scholar of religion. I know what pluralism is at this point. I had never heard someone talk about how you do pluralism. How do you create pluralism? As the slides went on about the different areas of work that this team identified, I thought, “Woah – that’s exactly what I’ve been doing my whole life.” It’s not just that I didn’t have language for it – I didn’t understand, myself, what I was trying to do.
I knew what I was doing, but I couldn’t explain it to anyone. This was a revelation moment for me. It indicates a possibility. If I, as a scholar of religion who’s doing this work and understands the need for it, don’t even know how to talk about it, think about all of the people around this country who know, who care, who want to do better, but don’t know how. What is that first step? What are the different areas of work? How do the pieces fit together? To me, that’s the metaphor. There’s all these puzzle pieces – Allison calls them “systems of work.” Different areas that contribute to religious pluralism. So often we’ll just pick one: religious literacy, let’s educate people, let’s create awareness. Let’s improve how media covers religion. Let’s make interfaith relations stronger. All of those things fit together. Those of us in this work know that.
For the first time, I had found people who could tell me and show me how to do that. That’s the promise of this work, here, and that’s why I’m so proud to be part of this group.
I want to say one more thing, and that is: in my tradition, the teaching is “what motivates your actions is as important as the actions themselves.” The inspiration, the motivation, the ethics – that matters. That’s what I’m most proud of about this team. The commitment, the desire to live by these values that we are sharing with the world – that’s who we are. And it’s how I hope we’ll continue to be.
Simran Jeet Singh is the Executive Director of the Aspen Institute’s Religion and Society Program and the bestselling author of The Light We Give: How Sikh Wisdom Can Transform Your Life. Simran is a well-known scholar and champion of religious pluralism who is committed to driving civic change through disrupting bias and building empathy. He is an Atlantic Fellow for Racial Equity, a Soros Equality Fellow with the Open Society Foundations, a Senior Adviser on Equity and Inclusion for YSC Consulting, and a Visiting Lecturer at Union Seminary.