Is centering Black love and joy the key to building a better society?

Leading social entrepreneur Trabian Shorters says you cannot build equity by denigrating those at the center of the equity conversation.

Trabian Shorters, founder of the BMe Community, challenges us to rethink the power of narrative. He advocates for asset-framing — finding solutions that begin with people’s contributions — and warns against centering whiteness when solving social problems. “Centering somebody else in your own narrative is spiritual death,” he tells Eboo. “How do we help build upon Black people’s love to make a better society for everyone?”

Eboo’s Interfaith Podcast – Click to listen to the podcast

Eboo Patel: This is the Interfaith America podcast, and I’m Eboo Patel. 

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Patel: American democracy cannot be its best self unless people of all identities and communities thrive. How do people thrive? My friend Trabian Shorters will offer a view in this podcast about thriving through viewing ourselves as contributors, as full of assets and aspirations. That, says Trabian, is what racial equity work is all about, and it is grounded in the spirit world, which is, as Trabian will share, the real world. Trabian Shorters is the CEO of BMe Community, an award-winning network of innovators, leaders, and champions who invest in aspiring communities. He is an author, one of the leading advocates of a view called asset framing in the DEI movement. 

Somebody who has been at the highest levels of business, philanthropy, and civic leadership. A friend that I have known for nearly 20 years, one of the most acute in beautiful minds in American life. I’m thrilled to introduce you to my friend, Trabian Shorters. Friend, let’s start with this. I love this line, “You cannot lift people up by putting them down.” It feels like in some ways, that’s your whole approach in a nutshell. It’s your line by the way and I use it all the time and properly cite you. Unpack it for us, “You cannot lift people up by putting them down.” 

Trabian Shorters: I appreciate that. Actually, where that got popularized, it’s the headline to an article that appeared in The Chronicle of Philanthropy, I want to say three or four years ago. I really should credit Stacy Palmer who edited that piece and runs the Chronicle but the concept, human beings are much more narrative-driven than we give ourselves credit to be. Whichever way you introduce somebody or someplace or something, frames the way that your brain categorizes them. You literally can’t lift someone up by putting them down. 

If you introduce someone by either threat or challenge or problem or whatever, your brain categorizes them as potentially harmful. Even if they’re not harmful now potentially harmful, like a spider or rat, or something that could pose a danger to you is the way you could categorize. 

Patel: What’s language that we use for human beings that we think is helpful, but which our brain categorizes as harmful or potentially harmful? 

Shorters: Oh, there’s a ton of them. Really common terms like homeless, disadvantaged, underserved, at risk, high poverty, bottom of the pyramid. Basically, any of the bottom, unders, exes, all those defined in contrast with the deficit-oriented ways of engaging people, your brain basically does two things immediately when it encounters anything, really is it reads for familiar and it reads for potential threat. If something is familiar, you treat it like it’s basically safe, and if something is not familiar, then it’s treated as potentially harmful. All those terms, essentially literally dehumanize. 

Patel: This language that is increasingly standard in the world of positive social change, I’m thinking marginalized, oppressed. 

Shorters: There you go. 

Patel: That if you go to college, and you are interested in social change, you will learn that language is the standard language. That actually is the language that our brains categorize as threat language. 

Shorters: Yes. Probably the better way to understand it is, obviously people use this language because it’s trying to draw attention to the problems that they think need to be fixed. The motivations are all good and that’s what I’m saying. We underappreciate the power of narrative, and we under-appreciate that the ways that we introduce something, the ways that we tell that story, triggers so many of our responses that we believe that the way to draw attention to problems is to dramatize the center of the problem. 

In centering the problem, yes, you draw attention to it, because we are hardwired to respond to threats, but right now, the way these associations work is when you use that language over and over and over again, by the way FrameWorks Institute, which studies this stuff, has done reports on what I’m about to share with you. When you use that language over and over and over again you make compound associations with any group, that every time you say the name of that group, all those associations come with it. If the only associations that get heavily repeated are negative ones, then this group becomes something or someone that you are literally physiologically hardwired to want to either avoid, control, or kill. 

You have your threat response. That’s the problem, we’re trying to do good things because we don’t understand the power of mental narrative. We do it by stigmatizing the people at the center of the question, such that even if you win the resource you’re trying to attract, and you can think of any groups, you fill in the blank. You dramatize whatever it is around whatever group it is, and you win your campaign against their marginalization, against their oppression, whatever, you win. Just recognize you’ve won by writing them into the public narrative as a problem. That’s the way they will always be referenced when the name comes up. 

Patel: There’s a science behind this, and you use the language of science; framework, mental narrative, brain chemistry. Explain the science behind this. 

Shorters: Started doing this work when I was at the Knight Foundation, started this company BMe Community and it was based on research into culture change. What we came to realize is narrative change is called to change meaning. Literally, the stories we tell each other create the world that we see, literally. Studying the work of Dr. Daniel Kahneman and Daniel Tversky and others, we came to appreciate what I said to you before. They were far more narrative-driven than we realize. The main sciences that we employ or invoke are: cognitive science, social science, and it’s something I call cultural psychology. 

The main tenants there in are this belief that human beings are rational decision-makers is a cognitive illusion, we are not. We don’t have the capacity to be rational decision-makers. There are too many variables to track to be rational decision-makers. Anytime you give a human being a complex question, we instantly do this thing called substitution which means you ask someone who’s the right person to be President of the United States? How are they supposed to know, what goes into the job of being president? There are too many things to consider. Instead, you instantly subconsciously substitute the question you can answer. Who do I like the most? 

“Oh, okay. I like this one. I like that.” Now we got our answer. That inductive process happens instantly, and then what we tend to do is we then find the facts to fit our inductive conclusion. That’s why you can see people who encounter a situation had two entirely different responses to it, is because one person is operating from one narrative, the other person is operating from a different narrative, and they will lean on the facts that sit with their intuition has told them to see. That’s why when you’re priming people’s intuition with negative association, you’re going to lose before you begin. You cannot build equity by denigrating those at the center of the equity conversation. 

Patel: Part of what I think is really interesting, and also challenging about this social change movement, is that some of the people who we’re talking about are insisting on that language, and sometimes insist on applying it to others. There are not a few times when I as an Ismaili Muslim, brown-skinned male will walk into a room, and somebody will say, “I want the oppressed person to speak,” and they’ll look at me. I’m like, “I’m a Rhodes scholar with a doctorate.” I’m like,” In what world am I an oppressed person?” Just as a matter of the other dimensions of my identity. Even if I wasn’t, I’m just very uncomfortable with that label, but that individual who is offering me that label thinks that she’s doing me a favor, and she insists on it for herself. 

I find this really challenging because you want to call people what they want to be called. Muhammad Ali should be called Muhammad Ali not Cassius Clay and at the same time, you are offering us a different approach based on science. As we get involved in this interview, I want to talk about the sacredness of this also. I’m curious what you do in a concrete situation when somebody says, “As an oppressed person, X, Y, Z.” 

Shorters: Let’s be clear about a couple of things. Number one, you and I grew up in the era of basically post-civil rights and so the recognition of the oppression, the recognition of the injustice, and the disparity that was one of the successes of the movement to say that you can’t just say, “Oh, that’s just the way it is we’re going to leave it.” Pointing out the disparity was a success. Pointing out the gaps of the injustice or the unfairness that was success 50 years ago. Let’s be clear that’s progress, it’s not a bad thing. In terms of making the arguments, though, and making the cases, the cases have now become dependent upon identifying the disparity, the oppression, the blah, blah, blah. People who operate out of that narrative, they are trying to do something constructive, we recognize that. What they may not realize is 50 years of relating to people as though they don’t have aspirations, they don’t make contributions. What I mean by that is, when you talk about the oppressed, you talk about the underserved whatever, it’s pretty normal to totally ignore any expressions of what their actual aspirations are, or to ignore any expressions what their actual contributions are. Their value statement is not part of the identity you make for them. In the current way of arguing these cases, the identity, which is also your agency, is based on your disparity, and even folks who are in those groups learn to tell their story by the disparity because that’s what gives you agency. 

Right now, the culture says, if you want to be seen, then you have to point out what’s messed up, and then I can identify you. I want to recognize we’ve taken something that was a successful play 50, 60, 70 years ago and we’ve made it super normed, to the point where we are over-emphasizing the negative aspects of someone’s experience, totally erasing the aspirational, contributory, valuable aspects of their narratives. In doing so, you’ve created a stereotype, you’ve created a stick figure. It’s not a well-rounded narrative about anyone. All we’re saying when we think about asset framing is, you don’t have to ignore any of the disparities, they’re all real. 

We’re not saying ignore any of that stuff. We’re saying that is not what defines a people, note any people, even someone who is living homeless, that’s not what defines them. They don’t get up in the morning aspiring or seeking to advance homelessness in their life, right? Poor people don’t get up thinking my ambition in life is to walk through the world as a poor person. These are not defining characteristics, but we’ve come to treat them. Like you said, you come into a room, someone sees your brown skin, they go, “Oh, the oppressed.” I’m like, “Is it?” I mean, is it? Like you said before, even if you might fit the description some other way, is that what defines you? 

Let’s say you did fit whatever somebody’s mental image is. I sincerely believe that it makes more sense to define people by their aspirations and their contributions. By the way, not ignoring the challenges at all. The good way to get into it is everybody’s trying to do something good, and we inherited a methodology that says, “Put them down, so you can pick them up.” That’s what we’ve inherited. Now, the consequence of that methodology is, even when you win you’ve done so by writing people into the narrative as a problem, as I’ve said, and the people whom you label that way, don’t like you for labeling like– By and large, all these institutions, all these organizations that organize on behalf of the poor and the oppressed, when the poor and the oppressed self-organize, they don’t like any of them people. 

They’re not excited by people who are constantly putting them down and see them as threats and problems and literally stigmatize them. This method that we’ve inherited, it’s run its course. It’s tired, everyone is exhausted by it actually, on all sides, people are worn the hell out. What we’re offering with asset framing is when you’re willing to introduce people by the aspirations, contributions, still never ignoring the challenges, you present a fuller picture of who’s in front of you, you give your brain fuller narratives to draw from, you’re more likely to see people’s actual value because you’ve named their value, right? 

The way we do it right now, we literally describe people without that. We don’t name their value in the way that we think about them, right? Unsurprisingly, when you’re willing to speak to people or define people by their aspirations, and by their contributions, and then engage them to remove the things that are blocking those aspirations, and blocking those then, of course, they dig you more. They will learn to rock with you better, right? They don’t feel offended by the way that you introduce or think of them, and you become less of an ass in terms of the way that you carry yourself in this company. 

Patel: I appreciate that so much. Speaking of the brown skin thing, one of the things that just occurs to me in listening to you is, I don’t think I’m oppressed because I have brown skin. It’s not that it was easy to have brown skin growing up in Glen Ellyn, Illinois in the 1980s, right? I would tell my mom “Come home” and be like, “This is what these kids are calling me because of my skin color.” It hurt and my mom would say, “Your beautiful brown skin, the skin color that those people fly to Greece and Italy to sit in the sun to get?” She couldn’t understand it and it’s not because she was dim or stupid, it’s because she was seeing a different part of reality more fully. 

Those people want your skin tone. They actually go to huge lengths to get it. I don’t even think of this as certain parts of my identity, education, etcetera, are more salient, and then I accept that other parts of my identity have had the label oppressed attached to them. I definitely don’t accept this about Islam or my religion. I think to myself that I have what I believe is the final prophet and the final revelation, and a belief system that says that God picks up a lump of clay and gives it his breath and thereby creates the first human being, and gives him this vaunted position. Makes him his abd and khalifa, his servant and representative and why wouldn’t I live into that possibility, that reign? 

Part of what I want to talk to you about is you speak so fluently about the science of narrative and framing, but really underlying everything is the sacredness. In one of your interviews, you say, look, to our great detriment, we have taken the spirit and the sacred out of social change work and somehow, King’s Beloved Community, which is infused with God and Spirit becomes the big tent. You’re the one who actually said to me, “Why don’t we talk about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and not Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr?” Just let’s begin this kind of turn to what is the sacred that underlies your work with BMe Community, with asset framing, with the Black love campaign? What is the sacred? 

Shorters: Yes, because all of us get born into these physical forms that we hold, and then, of course, we’re immediately in the streams of the history that we’re born into. All that circumstantial stuff, that’s acknowledged, that happens, we don’t have any control over that. From my experience, I was born in a little factory town. My mom was a teenager when I was born. I spent a lot of time in my early years with my grandparents living in their household and they were these simple Southern Christians. When I said simple, what I mean is, they didn’t bother to be sophisticated, right? They didn’t need to be, God’s love it simple. 

You don’t have to get degrees to understand God’s love. Their whole attitude was literally, my grandfather taught us that being a Christian means you have to seek to love people the way that God loves you. Be willing to give them what they need, be willing to show them love, be willing to sacrifice on behalf of their well-being. Do love, like Grandpa particularly like, “Well, that’s Christianity. Try to live in the world manifesting God’s love, just try to.” You’re going to fail but the thing where you can give others, forgive yourself, grace is a hugely important concept, like the idea that you can’t really earn God’s love. Just accept it, give it, be it. 

That’s how I was raised, but I was also raised in the hood. I was also raised in a place where it was just violent and unpredictable, and people were desperate. The contrast between my grandparents’ home and everything outside the doors was stark. My grandfather’s idea of the real world was always the spirit world, was always what’s going on in your spirit life because to him that’s the eternal part, but that’s got to be more real than anything that is not eternal. 

Patel: I just think just to pause and underscore this. My grandfather’s definition of the real world was the spirit world. I just think that is so simple and beautiful, and culture-shifting. The real world is the spirit world. 

Shorters: Yes, and to your point, he used that word “simple,” that’s what I mean but then it was all simple. Just do right by people. I believe in love doctrine. I’m not a particularly– I don’t think I’m a great Christian. I’m not going to church every week, and I’m not about into the Scripture and the like, but the Christians who raised me, said that I have to love people the way that God loves people and that I do strive to do at all times. It’s energizing. It’s an enriching way of looking at the world and it doesn’t require me to be pollyannish. It doesn’t require me to ignore all the horrible realities that I experienced and witnessed as a child, but what it does do is it means that none of that stuff defines me. 

Let’s go back to this piece about aspiration and spirit. I want to draw that connection. When I was putting together the logic for asset framing, the science says what it says. It says we’re narrative driven. If you want to change someone the way they show up in the world, someone’s culture, their personal culture, both the science and the sacred say that you must speak to their aspirational identity. By that I mean, you have to speak life to who they aspire to be, who they see themselves as, who they hope to be, ultimately define the sacred. In order to move the spirit, you have to speak life. You have to breathe just like you said the metaphor. 

You have to breathe into the clay. Asset framing says we’re going to define people by their aspirations and contributions before noting their challenges. That’s the cognitive tool. The root of the cognitive tool is to engage people first by their aspirations. The word aspiration very intentionally has the word spirit baked into it. Like what is the spirit that is moving that person? When we think about asset framing to begin your relationship with someone based on the positive spirit that is moving in them. That by the way is the connection to King’s idea of the Beloved Community, and the love doctrine like it all flows together. 

What I found is when you come at people from a spiritual religious angle, all kinds of associations pop up and wall– people just get very, very tight. If you come at them from a Nobel Laureate and research psychologist, and just to talk about defining cognition, people are, “We’re okay with that.” I mean that makes sense. The fact that you are flip sides of the same coin, when that’s discovered people are far more comfortable with the knowledge. 

Patel: Trabian would your grandfather call what you’re doing a ministry? 

Shorters: Oh, yes. No, he was clear about it. 

Patel: Do you see what you’re doing as a ministry? 

Shorters: Oh, totally. To be fair, living is a ministry, to be fair, it’s all ministry really. Again, because if you believe that the spirit world is the real world and how you manifest is your ministry, and ministry itself is just caring, feeding of spirits, right? Yes, it’s a ministry but it’s our ministry. Even my grandparent’s marriage was totally a ministry. 

Patel: Part of what’s striking me in the course of this conversation is you saying and me agreeing with you right that the science is important, and that people understand science. You’re like, “Look, I read Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky,” I think you call them Daniel Tversky earlier, but I think it’s Amos Tversky. 

Shorters: It is, correct. 

Patel: We use language like cognition and mental frameworks and narratives. That is the lingua franca of not only foundations, but also of nonprofit organizations. It is actually quite different than where we come from. My grandmother, my mama, she would call this saver work. “Oh, you’re doing saver.” I would say, “No, no. I’m starting a nonprofit organization, NGO. She’d listen to me, and then she would say, “Yes saver.” I just wonder why not walk into the Knight Foundation and say, “Trabian and Eboo are starting a ministry together whose purpose is to integrate an asset framing approach to racial equity and religious pluralism.” 

Shorters: Yes, but I think as a practical response to that which is it’s okay to speak the language that people understand. Just as in the example of how the beloved community becomes the big tent, it is translation so long as the translator is still alive. Then when the translator goes away and it flattens out, that’s where the danger comes in. The point is to speak to people in the language they understand. I used to say, “when in Rome, put a sash on you and call it a toga.” No matter, it’d be more colorful, but it’s all good. 

One reason is just practical. I just think it’s okay to reach people on the frequency that they’re on. One thing I respect and love about you is you see things in multiple dimensions, and you can synthesize. You’re tremendous at that and you do it quickly, you do it skillfully, but the point is if they’re not able to see in all those colors then give it to them in the color they can see it, and it’s okay. 

Patel: Part of what strikes me about what you’re doing is you insist on talking about your grandparents, and you insist on talking about them having coffee with God every morning. You insist on talking about the love doctrine and the love ministry. Part of what I’m curious about is, what does it mean to inherit that story and not be an exponent of it in its entire form? It’s ritual, it’s church going. You are living out this narrative and you’re not doing all the things your grandparents did. I’m curious how you think about that. 

Shorters: Yes. Well, remember my grandfather– My grandmother, too, but she did identify with it more my grandfather’s at one point. Remember my grandfather said that it’s not about pushing people, it’s about living a certain way. I don’t have to try to evangelize anyone, I don’t have to try to indoctrinate anyone. What I have to do is practice, do the doing. My grandfather by the way he did consider himself an evangelist, but he wasn’t– It was the love doctrine evangelist which means instead of browbeating people into submission, you live a certain way. He would literally say this to us. 

Live a certain way and when people ask you why your life is so good, then you tell them. Then you tell them about your God, you tell them about your– That’s when people are more willing to receive it anyway, but the point being, the way I was raised it was never about the ritual it was always about the relationship. Sometimes one comes with the other and that’s fine, but no one needs to ordain my relationship with God. No practice determines whether I am or whether I’m not. Again, you can’t earn it, you can’t earn God’s love. No particular practice determines what you can and you can’t, but the relationship is what matters. 

If they’re having coffee with God every morning it’s because they have a very close relationship with the Creator, so that’s why I learned. I don’t feel I’m being inconsistent actually. I feel like my way of practicing takes into account some of the metaphors and some of the rituals that they inherited I don’t necessarily agree with. It’s not my job to figure out what’s the best practice or the worst practice. It’s my job to try to practice as best I can. I guess that’s my loophole but– 

Patel: I think it’s a beautiful explanation that there’s– and thank you for that. I mean I’ve known you for 20 years and I’ve learned something in that, in that there’s an essence that you’re carrying on and the expressions matter but they change. 

Shorters: Yes, that’s it. 

Patel: Here’s something I learned about you. I think at Sushi Samba in South Beach about eight years ago which is a delicious place to learn something new about a friend by the way. 

Trabian: You have a great memory, man. 

Shorters: I remember things about you. I remember things about you. I had assumed wrongly that your entire formation and your significant life experience had been lived in entirely Christian context, and you gave me this look. You’re like, “My wife was raised in a household with significant Muslim influence.” I think it was one of her parents was Muslim. 

Shorters: Yes, she’s Muslim. 

Patel: You say every morning she wakes up and says the Fatiha. That is in my house. That’s a lot of people these days that you will live in a household with multiple religious influences. I’m curious how has that Muslim presence, increasingly common in interfaith America, how has that impacted your understanding of the love doctrine, your understanding of asset framing, your understanding of coffee with God, and how that guides you every morning? 

Shorters: Yes. Look, maybe the first place to start with that is from my upbringing and I think need to share this. We haven’t talked about it exactly this way, but from my upbringing it’s deemed arrogant to say that you know the mind of God, that you know– That you have to get close but there’s just respect that none of us has whole knowledge. For that reason, once again the concept of grace ends up being transformative because my mother is doctrinal. She’s like, “There’s one true religion and it’s ours.” Yetunde’s mom is I think more flexible but absolutely devout Muslim, she’s not judgmental, but she’s definitely devout. 

When it was time to bring our families together for the wedding they were like, “We gonna have to tell some people they can’t come. Let’s just figure it out right now.” We decided that we’re just going to invite our loved ones. Of course, the wedding was beautiful and there’s never been any friction between either side. What that has illustrated to me is that at the end of the day when love is at the center of the relationship then people are willing to admit, they don’t know. We can disagree but act as if my perspective is the right and yours is the wrong, just feels foolish in the face of love. When people are loving each other it’s like, “What am I supposed to do now?” 

I’m supposed to break the vibe, break the harmony, break the joy, break the peace, for what? It’s like how do you justify it in the face of love? All I can say our faith practices, we both acknowledge the Creator, we both acknowledge the divinity of the Creator, we both acknowledge the oneness of the Creator. We have these daughters that we created, twin girls that we created who are the embodiment of all that. They are our faith and they are our spirits and they are our love and their names are American and Nigerian and– 

Patel: What are their names? 

Shorters: There’s Tennin Olaoluwa Kehinde Shorters, and then there’s Athena Ifeoluwa Taiwo Shorters. It’s a lot of names, but the point is those are our daughters and we called them by their U.S. names when we’re in the U.S. We call them by other names when we’re other places. They answer to both. They speak Yoruba. They speak English. Grandma calls one Banji and the other one Filowa, which is the name she gave them. I’m just saying the cultural fluency they’re just getting it because that’s the household they live in. Similarly, when I think about Yetunde and I, in terms of our faith beliefs, it’s the same type of fluency. I don’t know how to describe it. 

Patel: I am feeling you. I appreciate that. Tell us about BMe Community. Tell us about the Black Love Campaign. One of the things I want to highlight here is, there are people who say, “Let me tell you what you’re doing wrong.” You are offering a different way of doing things and you’re modeling it. I just appreciate that. We defeat the things we do not love by building the things we do. Tell us what you built. 

Shorters: Maybe again, a central idea to start the conversation is, you can’t dispel an idea by repeating it. To say that you don’t want poverty is to focus on poverty. To say that you don’t want crime is to focus on crime. You don’t want injustice to focus on injustice. What you feed has power. No matter how you pay attention to it, you give energy to those things you focus on. Currently, if you’re Black or if you’re someone who focuses, thinks about Black progress or whatever, currently, we’re all taught to focus on what is broken and threatening and dangerous and wrong. That’s generally when you speak about Black people, it’s super consistent to attach those negative terms. 

I think for instance, why is it that it feels uncomfortable to so many people to just say something generically positive about Black males without any caveat? Black men are the most engaged fathers in America. Why does that feel like an incomplete sentence? 

Patel: That’s true. You have data that shows Black men are the most engaged fathers in America. 

Shorters: Yes, so the Center for Disease Control and Preventions has done studies that showed it in terms of day-to-day interactions with the children and combing hair, reading, whatever, or week-to-week depending on what your circumstance is. The point is, Black males, regardless of marital status, spend the most time-actively engaged with their children. I raise, not to get caught in these difficult points, but to raise the broader point which is, right now, Black leaders and their allies are taught to denigrate Black people in the name of helping them. That culture of denigration is an artifact of our aspiration. This aspiration identity piece that culture is an artifact of our aspiration to be seen and validated or rewarded by white folks, essentially. 

The way this culture is established, we center white folks in nearly everything, and then we compare ourselves and the ranking always has to be where the white folks are on top just as a cultural reflex. Putting yourself down to point out your disparity or distance from them, has become the way that you engage from their resources or other people’s resources or whatever. BMe, we recognize that insisting on denigrating yourself and insisting on centering somebody else in your own narrative, is spiritual death. Even when you win, you lose. You have to speak life to people’s actual aspirations. 

By the way, we don’t limit this to Black people, I’m just saying in BMe generally, but certainly for Black people the idea is a simple one. What if every reference to Black people didn’t begin with something denigrated? What if we developed a different model? What if your first thought of a Black person actually included their known aspirations, their known contributions? Then your mind and your behaviors and everything else would adjust accordingly. Ultimately, that’s the objective. By the way I want to be clear, BMe Community is not about changing other people’s minds about Black people. 

That we started it, that wasn’t the objective. The objective is to get Black people to change their orientation to themselves. That’s the core objective because it doesn’t matter what other people call you, it only matters what you answer to. Currently, we answer to, at risk, low-income, blah, blah, blah. 

Patel: Hold on, damn. It doesn’t matter what people call you. It only matters what you answer to. Damn, I have one sentence for you and you will think on it for the rest of your life. It doesn’t matter what people call you, it only matters what you answer to. 

Shorters: Yes. 

Patel: Thank you for that. 

Shorters: BMe’s thing is getting us to answer to something else. We are people who aspire to live, own, vote and excel. That’s the agenda for Black Love and the campaign. We did a study again, we pulled together Black leaders who are proximate in their various communities, and we asked them what they would put in that agenda if it was up to them to create the Black agenda. The fun thing about it is, the things that they bucketed for cultural priorities, economic priorities and political priorities ended up bucketing into four big categories. Most of the cultural stuff was around having a certain type of life. We’re free to live, we’re free to celebrate our cultures, across multiple different expressions, but to celebrate our cultures and to be healthy. 

That was one big bucket. That’s the “live” bucket. The “own” bucket was the ability to acquire wealth, transfer wealth, like normal objectives. The “vote” bucket of course, is obvious around, there’s always been movements for Black voting rights and those continue. Then the “excel” is around Black joy, like recognizing the creativity, the brilliance, the resilience, but not the pain resilience, the joy resilience that Black folks have always expressed. Just acknowledging that we are a people who create the ability to live on vote and excel, and we aspire to live on vote and excel. BMe’s relationship to Black people is, how do we help build upon Black people’s love to make a better society for everyone? 

We can do that and the great thing about it is, yes, it centers us in our narrative, but in our narrative, we exist to make a better world. We’re not actually kicking anybody out of the frame. Anybody who wants to live on vote and excel, I’m down for that. I want you to be successful. I want to do well. I just want you to want that for me too. If we can both do that, let’s rock and roll because we are one spirit at that point. 

Patel: I’m just smiling throughout this whole thing. One of the reasons I’m smiling is, when you came to our Racial Equity Working Group at Interfaith America a few days ago, one of the comments that somebody said was, “I understand where this organization comes from.” Meaning Interfaith America. Like “You and Eboo have been friends for a long time. This is the language Eboo speaks. Eboo talks about loving Islam more than you hate Islamophobia.” 

Shorters: There you go. 

Patel: It’s about a deep embracing of the positive things in your life, your own aspirations and contributions, the narratives you come from, the recognition of the structural racism et cetera, as a barrier to that contribution. 

Shorters: That’s right. 

Patel: That’s not the heart of your identity. Hating Islamophobia is not the heart of my identity. Living out Islam is the heart of my identity. I want to be honest about the barriers to that. Islamophobia is a barrier to that, but it is not an identity. It actually integrates with one of the chief metaphors at IFYC, which is, potluck nation. The big idea here is, America’s not a melting pot, It’s a potluck. A melting pot melts your identities away. A potluck recognizes people’s different identities because you need them to contribute their delicious dish to the national feast. You are expecting their contribution. You are relying on their ability to make a delicious dish. 

Shorters: I love that. 

Patel: It would be stupid to erect a barrier to that, but you don’t tell people, “I am sure you are too oppressed to contribute a dish.” You tell people, “I know the deliciousness that’s happening in your kitchen. I’m going to reduce the barriers so that you can offer your contribution,” because otherwise how does the whole nation feast? 

Shorters: That’s right. I love that. Great metaphor. I totally agree. 

Patel: I’m looking forward to our ministry together and looking forward to this integration of religious pluralism and racial equity work-based on your definition of equity, which is, we all have value. We all have value. I appreciate you a ton, Trabian Shorters. I love you and thank you for being a gift in my life, to the organization as a board member, to the nation and to the world. There’s a phrase in the Quran, Rahmatul lil Alameen, “a special mercy upon all the worlds.” That’s how I feel about you. 

Shorters: Love that. Thank you. You know I love you back, brother. Glad to be a part of Interfaith America now, and thanks for having me on your show. 

Patel: Thank you. 

[music] 

Patel: There is so much in this interview. I love the way that Trabian weaves in the science of things and the spirituality of things. I love the way that he insists that there is within all of us a best-self and helps us become it and see it in others. I love this line. It doesn’t matter what people call you, it only matters what you answer to. To read more about this conversation, and to find resources and stories about bridge building in our religiously diverse democracy, visit our website, InterfaithAmerica.org. I’m Eboo Patel.