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.