Jonathan Gruber -

May 12, 2021

Centering Field Leaders in Field Building

Public health, a term that’s ever-present these days, is in fact a relatively new field. As disease prevention and health promotion at the population level gained traction in the late 19th century, the contours of a new field began to take shape. Over time, the distinct disciplines and roles that make up public health also emerged: epidemiology, biostatistics, environmental health sciences, sanitation, health policy, vaccine development, health communication, and so on. Work in each of these areas is vital. Yet one of the main advances in the development of public health as a field has been the integration of these varied domains and the collaboration that happens across them. From the bench scientist to the bioethicist, the surgeon general to the local health commissioner, many actors with unique strengths continue to push the frontiers of discovery and progress.

Over the past year, working closely with peer funders to shape New Pluralists, a funder collaborative focused on strengthening a culture of pluralism in America, I found public health to be a helpful analogue. I’ve had the chance to get to know many social entrepreneurs, nonprofit leaders, storytellers, and scholars working in distinctive ways to help people see our common humanity, embrace our differences, and work together across divides. Just like the varied disciplines within public health, these people can appear to be in different “lines of business”—political bridge-building, interfaith engagement, racial healing, immigrant inclusion, intergenerational connection, peacebuilding, and collaborative problem solving to name a few. Yet they are actually part of a larger shared project, exploring similar questions that grow more urgent by the day. How do we truly see and hear one another? How do we widen our circle of concern? How do we coexist amidst our differences? How do we transcend conflict to solve hard problems? How can we be clear-eyed and responsive about the obstacles we face?

In identifying the kinds of research, practices, and narratives that power a culture of pluralism, it felt crucial not only to think expansively but also to listen to field leaders from the outset. We gathered input from many people working in different corners of this vibrant ecosystem. Their insights informed our decision to pursue a field building strategy through New Pluralists—to invest in relationships, collaboration, case-making, infrastructure, research, and learning across the pluralism field. Early engagement with field leaders also helped us see the power of partnering closely with a group of them through the actual work of the collaborative. We decided early in the design process that we would bring together and support a Field Builder community as a defining feature of the New Pluralists strategy.

The motivation was multifaceted. First, the complementary strengths and kindred aspirations across many actors in this ecosystem had yet to convert into a broader sense of shared identity and common cause—a key ingredient for a field to cohere. This was not surprising, as many of these organizations already identify with other fields including democracy, racial equity, faith and spirituality, education, immigration—and until recently, most funders didn’t see pluralism and bridging divides as first-order priorities or areas of focus. Some still don’t, and one of our goals with New Pluralists is to elevate the case for this work to other funders and, in turn, attract more philanthropic support to this under-resourced field.

Second, there’s no one solution or clear blueprint for shifting the norms, values, and skills that shape the way we see and relate to each other across our differences—at the interpersonal and intergroup levels—amidst a culture of distrust, contempt, and othering. Experimentation and emergent learning are essential. We know that we’ll pose sharper questions, make smarter investments, and generate deeper insights if we engage co-creatively with those doing the work.

Finally, we heard from field leaders that New Pluralists could help spark fruitful collaboration by enabling cross-pollination and by providing catalytic funding for joint efforts. As we know from pluralism work, relationship building can precede shared action, but it can also happen by doing things together.

In curating the group, we sought out a breadth of capabilities and perspectives in this burgeoning field while ensuring it’d be small enough to be a relational, intimate community. We were committed to nurturing a diverse community—across race, ethnicity, ideology, geography—and to including people doing on-the-ground work in various domains, researchers bringing complementary lenses (e.g., psychology, political science, neuroscience, public opinion), and thought leaders and storytellers reaching different audiences. We hoped this would not only spark creative thinking and novel collaboration, but also advance new pluralism in ways that speak authentically to the historic challenges we face as a country.

"We hoped this would not only spark creative thinking and novel collaboration, but also advance new pluralism in ways that speak authentically to the historic challenges we face as a country."

—Jonathan Gruber, Einhorn Collaborative

The balance across all these dimensions is far from perfect. We also know that this initial group of 40 Field Builders is a subset of the larger group of people doing extraordinary work to strengthen pluralism in a range of ways.

As the work of New Pluralists unfolds, we will seek opportunities to partner with and support a broader set of leaders and efforts beyond the Field Builders, figuring out where and how we can make distinctive contributions as one actor in a larger ecosystem. That includes finding ways to connect with and support practitioners on the ground in local communities across the country, recognizing that most of the Field Builders lead national organizations. As with the diverse group of funders that have joined New Pluralists, it is our hope that the diversity of the Field Builders will also enable this community to build its own culture of pluralism—to practice the norms and values we’re trying to spread.

The Field Builder community is not a typical design element of most funder collaboratives. While it is an experiment in that sense, we’re channeling relationships and insights from a pilot that Einhorn Collaborative undertook last year in our “Builders” initiative. As we were participating in the design of New Pluralists, our team at Einhorn Collaborative engaged a group of 20 field leaders from varied domains who are amplifying the science, stories, and tools that elevate human connection and our shared humanity. Over the course of nine months, we engaged the group in various ways to foster learning, relationship building, and mutual support. Many of the participants from the Builders are now part of the New Pluralists Field Builder community, which is twice the size and, admittedly, much more diverse. Many lessons from the Builders initiative—what worked, what didn’t, what to do differently—inform the design of this new community.

In our pilot, for example, we weren’t explicit about community guidelines, which we learned was a mistake. There was lots of rich discussion and exchange of ideas, which even led to new offline collaborations. Yet, there was little constructive rumbling or debate, and divergent views often went unspoken.

In shaping the Field Builder community, with pluralism as the animating frame and a range of perspectives and backgrounds across the group, we’ve been deliberate in collectively naming the norms that Field Builders and funders alike will embrace and hold each other to. And we know that naming these intentions is just the start. As one Field Builder put it, living up to norms around curiosity and goodwill, shared purpose and healthy conflict, grace and forgiveness is easier said than done. It requires ongoing practice.

We’ll no doubt learn a lot and collectively refine the approach as we go, with the Field Builders shaping this experience in ways that are generative for them. The hope and aspiration is that this community will be, among other things, an example of what’s possible when we put pluralism into action.

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged the field of public health in unprecedented ways and has also made vivid the varied contributions of people working in every corner of that field. As we confront a growing crisis of division and dehumanization in America, now is the time to support the multifaceted field of pluralism as a path toward healing.

Jon Gruber leads Einhorn Collaborative’s Building strategy. Learn more about our work in Building and more about Jon. Sign up to receive our monthly newsletter and be the first to read Jon’s blog posts.