Mary Ellen Giess -

Jun 29, 2023

Inspiration to Bridge Differences

Team Up inaugural training. A participant is speaking in front of the room.

“What we’re doing here is unprecedented.”   

The comment was repeated to me over and over again at the Team Up inaugural training in Chicago several weeks ago. Team Up, a national collaboration between Catholic Charities USA, Habitat for Humanity International, YMCA of the USA, and Interfaith America (where I work), aims to spread bridge-building practices across each of the partner’s impressive national civic networks.  

Team Up was conceptualized around the White House-hosted United We Stand Summit, organized last September to combat hate-based violence and promote national unity. When President Biden announced the initiative in his remarks that day, the Team Up partners cheered, then we got to work.  Our partner CEOs were animated by a lofty vision in which civic institutions can lead the charge to build connection across America and counter the divisive national climate of polarization. After setting an early strategy and securing the necessary support, our organizations quickly developed the rapport and trust to build together for the short and long term. 

While some early supporters have been enthusiastic about the potential for scale, what was more striking to Team Up participants was the collaboration among leading national organizations that chose to work together, rather than independently, to strengthen our nation. As happens so many times in bridge-building work, I was reminded of the catalytic power of people choosing to work together, in spite of and across lines of difference.  

In early May, our shared work became real at the first official Team Up gathering, where we convened 32 local organizations (equally distributed from the Catholic Charities USA, Habitat for Humanity International, and YMCA networks) for a networking and training event. Selected as our inaugural cohort, each local organization would undertake a bridge-building project in their community in line with their organizational missions and existing programs. The training provided an opportunity to build skills, connect with other local leaders, and hear directly from national leaders about the aspirational vision for this initiative.   

During the gathering, I was struck by the integrity and servant leadership of the participants: A Latina leader stepping out of the training to deal with legal issues related to an immigrant community she serves; a white Christian staffer speaking about the difficulties navigating conflicts between religiously diverse communities in her city; an African American pastor sharing his experiences of addressing gang violence through bodily intervention.

Coming from different backgrounds, these 32 local leaders enjoyed the opportunity to learn about each other’s identities, beliefs, and worldviews and what inspired them to bridge deep differences. They embraced the practices around listening and conflict navigation presented in the sessions, noting how much we need skill-building in these areas and how counter-cultural applying those skills can often be. I was also delighted to see that the intensive conversations that unfolded in the Team Up sessions mirrored the simultaneous conversations in the Chronicle of Philanthropy on the limits and possibilities of bridging divides in a time where systemic change is deeply needed.

Although these conversations can often feel contentious, they give people a chance to grapple with the complicated and diverging approaches to building a better, more connected nation, without dismissing or turning their backs on each other.

While the animating idea behind Team Up is simple – shared service can bridge divides – the substance of the work is complex, and a challenge that constantly evolves depending on the context. But what is important about the opportunity to wrestle with these ideas is exactly what compels so many about Team Up: we chose to do this work together, in community.

In my experience, the best bridge-building spaces provide clarity of purpose, an inspiring and hopeful vision, and concrete tools that get us there. These same bridge-building spaces also create opportunities for wrestling with the multiplicity of solutions and for trusting and empowering leaders to apply transformative ideas within their context.

I’m honored to be a part of Team Up. We are doing something unprecedented, with our eyes on the horizon, and we’re doing it in community – one we hope will grow, and include you. If you want to learn more about Team Up and how we can collaborate, please reach out to me at I hope to hear from you.

Mary Ellen Giess is the Chief Innovation Officer at Interfaith America where she oversees innovative and collaborative program opportunities with a focus on policy and bridge-building initiatives. Mary Ellen has served in various programmatic and strategic roles since joining IA in 2008, including managing our program partnership with the Obama White House, stewarding its five-year research partnership (IDEALS), and co-editing Educating about Religious Diversity: A Handbook for Student Affairs.