Our Building Strategy Lead Jon Gruber serves as a funder co-lead of New Pluralists along with Sarah Ruger, VP of Free Speech & Peace at Stand Together. In this role, Jon and Sarah work closely with the New Pluralists team, funders, and Field Builders across many facets of the collaborative. Jon and Sarah recently sat down together (in person!) to reflect on their partnership one year into the launch of New Pluralists. Below is an excerpt from the conversation.
Being in this work together
Jon Gruber: Sarah, we’ve been working closely together for over two years on New Pluralists. And we’ve known each other for five years. I think it’s fair to say that this is a bridging relationship. I’m curious to hear you reflect on what’s been rewarding about that and what’s been hard?
Sarah Ruger: We come from very different backgrounds, and we have some genuinely different ideological beliefs and different religious traditions. And everything about our lived experiences to date wouldn’t create a tremendous amount of common ground. Yet it’s felt incredibly productive and edifying in every way to work together.
Why is that? I think it’s because you’ve been in this work for so long, and you embody what is asked of people to be effective bridgers. I’m thinking about the ways in which you’ve asked me curious, open questions in areas where you expect there to be disagreement. And I know that when you’re asking them you are seeing me as a person, that you sincerely want to understand where I’m coming from.
For example, you remember spring 2021. It came with an intense focus on voting and elections. The narrative around a federal bill suggested anyone who raised policy concerns with parts of the legislation was either anti-democratic or against having a diversity of voices in the public square. But the issue is more complicated than that. You got that. And you recognized that Stand Together’s concerns were ripe for misunderstanding.
You engage in the conversation around challenges like that. And you go a step further. You’re solutions-focused. In this case, you recommended hosting a townhall where everyone involved in the New Pluralists community could come together and have a conversation about why they believe what they believe.
So we had a conversation. It touched on free speech and voting and how to best to structure the institutions of government to ensure that there’s diversity of voices in the public square. What came out of that? Confirmation that we’re all committed to ensuring civic engagement across all these lines of difference. But we have different ideas about how best to achieve that. And that was a learning moment for all of us – that we can share a long-term vision and still have such variance in our views, in how we all learn from each other in the process of that conversation. But it could have gone a very different way. And you played a big role in shaping the course.
Jon: Thanks, Sarah. That’s very kind. If I’m being honest, this experience of building a relationship with you, and us working in close partnership, is one of the first sustained, direct experiences I’ve had in bridging. It feels odd to say that because I’ve been steeped in this work, supporting great organizations who do it and studying, writing, and talking about it.
Yet, I’ve been in relatively homogenous circles my entire life. To actually engage in bridging is easier said than done. And yet it’s been one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had: to get to know you and learn from you and to do this work together. I think a lot about New Pluralists’ guiding principles that we helped shape together. One is about honoring human dignity, and it sounds obvious. Yet coming to see you as a thoughtful, caring, and smart person, and seeing the integrity with which you carry yourself, the courage of your convictions, and your courage in authentically answering the hard questions that others pose about your work and your institution – that has been illuminating and has helped create this foundation of trust that we continue to build on.
I still get skeptical questions from friends and people in my network who say, “that’s curious that you’re working with Stand Together on this; what’s up with that?” Yet we at Einhorn have strong conviction about who we are willing to partner with and not, and we have a commitment to building unlikely relationships, including across ideological divides. I now see firsthand how that serves the work and enriches our understanding of what it means to be in it.
Supporting and practicing pluralism
Sarah: I want to engage in conversations – not even, but especially, where we have points of disagreement. It’s the difficult discussions that help build a relationship where we can work towards the shared vision. I’m anxious about representing right-of-center positions and ideas effectively, and I feel like I’m the carrier of them in our co-lead and staff team and to some extent amongst the core funders. I’m afraid of letting down a canon of thought and a community of people that I’m sort of standing in for.
But I’m not alone is representing a distinct perspective. That’s the hallmark of New Pluralists. And we’re regularly hearing from Field Builders and funders that they want to see more diversity in every sense show up in the conversation, and that there’s a desire for more complexity and more challenge in the conversation. That gives me a lot of confidence and a sense of urgency about continuing to widen the circle.
Jon: I agree. When we reflect on the forms of difference that already exist in our community, across the funders and Field Builders, it’s imperfect but also quite varied. And we’ll continue to expand it.
Part of what’s made New Pluralists compelling to me is that we are all bringing not just a shared commitment to the vision but also a spirit of goodwill and curiosity. That spirit feels lacking in the wider world, and I get that there are lots of reasons why bridging doesn’t feel right or okay or worth the risk for some people. I think it’s been easier for us to be in this together because we’ve shaped these shared norms that we’re trying to practice every day.
From some of the conversations we’ve had in the New Pluralists community, it’s also clear that it’s almost as hard if not harder to be a voice of openness, self-reflection, or moderation in one’s own community as it is to engage in the hard work of bridging. It takes courage, and you get criticized by people on your side. You know that firsthand.
Sarah: Yes, it is fundamentally hard. If you had to boil down why you do this work, what would you say?
Jon: I have seen through the work of New Pluralists that it’s not only rewarding on a personal level to encounter and wrestle with ideas that are very different from my own. It also makes the thinking and the problem solving sharper and clearer. I’ve found that time and again, in meetings you and I have with Uma and Alison (the New Pluralists team) on a regular basis. I’ve seen it in our core funder meetings. I’ve seen it in strategy-oriented and community conversations with Field Builders.
And there’s research on this, that when you have diversity of viewpoints and backgrounds in a group of people, and with the right conditions that enable those views and identities to be fully expressed, it leads to more creative, more nuanced, and smarter thinking.
Sarah: This is probably a function of having been a college debater.… I’ll add that we have a John Stuart Mill conference room in our office, and one of his core ideas was that nothing but good will come from engaging with different perspectives in an open way. Either you’re wrong and you’re going to get exposed to truth, or you’re right and you’re going to learn how to better articulate your arguments. In most cases in life, it’s somewhere in between, and you’re going to learn how to live in the gray.
And the world is going to change around me; things are going to happen that I’m not prepared for and that I’m uncomfortable with. That is an inevitability in life. By interacting with people across lines of difference, I’m building the skills to thrive in that dynamic world. I’m building resilience. I’m building curiosity, empathy, and openness.
Jon: Yes, and I think that speaks to the power of pluralism not just in civic and democratic life, but also in our workplaces and communities, even in our families. The skills and mindsets of pluralism are applicable in so many contexts. I’m finding moments where I’m drawing on these muscles and ways of thinking in other facets of my life. I’ll be in a conversation with my wife or even my kids and it doesn’t necessarily need to be contentious, and I’ll find myself trying on a different perspective that I’m hearing when my default reaction might be to dismiss it or judge it. I don’t use the language of pluralism with my 6-year-old and 4-year-old! But there are definitely moments when we’re trying to find common ground or resolve a dispute, and I’m finding ways to make it a “good conflict.”
And our team at Einhorn has norms in our own culture around initiating courageous conversations, circling back with one another, giving and receiving feedback. I love that this is part of our culture. And a lot of the experiences I have through New Pluralists I’m able to channel in how I show up with colleagues. That’s been gratifying and practical in a lot of ways.
Sarah: New Pluralists has been personally fulfilling because this has been the first professional setting that I’ve experienced where you get to show up as you – as a human – not just as the avatar of your organization, or as a set of policy beliefs.
That’s been fulfilling in a way I’ve never experienced, and it has helped me learn to talk about my life and my story in a way that’s driven some growth. Those were very compartmentalized parts of myself.
One other note is that this work gets really hard, including the work of being an in-group moderate. Our relationship and the relationships we’re building with different members of this community do hold me on hard days. And going through a pandemic, there are some really hard days personally and professionally, and it’s been meaningful to just be in community together.
Jon: Yeah, I think about that a lot. We launched the design work for New Pluralists in April of 2020. Participating in that early phase with what was then four of us funders was, for me, a source of joy and purpose and progress in an otherwise really hard time. I also think that helped deepen our relationships even though we were fully virtual and hanging out only on Zoom.
Sarah: There is impact that’s going to come about from this work that is going to be hard to track back but really is a credit to New Pluralists. Our philanthropy at Stand Together has been improved, deepened, and more significantly resourced because of the learnings that I’ve been exposed to through New Pluralists; for example, related to theory of change and understanding audiences.
Our work was pretty ad hoc and experimental. We were going out and trying stuff and being in community with people, but learning about More in Common’s research and the Exhausted Majority, for example, and about approaches like emergent learning, we’ve really redesigned our strategy around that and it’s credible enough that our board is excited to continue growing the resources. That’s very much a function of the clarity of thinking that comes about from the collaborative.
What's next for New Pluralists
Jon: With New Pluralists, we are a year in since launch, and there’s a lot going on and it’s an exciting moment for the collaborative. What are you most focused on or excited about at this stage?
Sarah: What I’m most focused on and most excited about are kind of the same answer. It’s getting to that point of showing up in the world in a way that really invites other people in. I don’t want to fall into this trap of thinking that we weren’t doing anything until we started making major external grants, because there’s a tremendous amount of trust building and community building. And we’re learning all kinds of things that were critically important in the first year. Yet, what I’m really excited about is to go out there and model this and create an invitation in a way that just continues to grow the number of people who are rowing in the direction of this vision and exercising these norms.
So I’m excited to put out an RFP that meets the moment we’re in, and I’m excited to show up in philanthropic spaces with tools and ideas for how all these other organizations have so much to offer. I think the more we get out there, the better our learning and impact are going to be.
Jon: I agree. I think we’re also seeing that there’s a range of ways New Pluralists can have an impact and hopefully create value out in the field. As you noted, we’re going to ramp up grantmaking in a bigger way this year, which is exciting. We are already building relationships with a broader set of actors across this ecosystem. The conversations we’re having with peers in the philanthropic sector, not just about the substance of the work and what it looks like to fund it but also what it looks like to embrace it, are exciting too. And with this great community of funders and Field Builders we’ve already brought together, we are finding more robust ways to bring people in as co-creators.
Sarah: Yes, and we have an incredible gift in Uma and Alison, and one way for us to have an impact as co-leads is supporting the team to achieve these huge objectives. We’re focused on supporting the talent we already have and bringing in new team members and helping them successfully onboard.
Jon: Agreed that’s a major milestone for this year. The team is toggling across so many pieces of work, holding a lot of divergent perspectives, making sense of it, and moving us forward. It’s no small feat. It’ll be even more exciting as we grow the team and continue to grow the resources. That will only expand the kinds of opportunities we can pursue together.
Sarah: I so appreciate having this conversation with you and am grateful for our partnership.
Jon: It’s fully mutual. It’s great to be in relationship and to step back like this and reflect together.