Mar 29, 2022
Through the Prism with Uma Viswanathan
Uma Viswanathan is the Executive Director of the New Pluralists Collaborative, where she works with funders and field leaders to foster a culture of pluralism in America.
What is one of your earliest memories of the power of human connection?
I have a clear memory of playing outside while Amma, my mother, was cooking inside. I couldn’t have been older than two years old. It was a hot summer day, and Amma had filled up a set of metal bowls and pots with water, with spoons and with cups for me to splash around, to fill with water, make sounds and play with. I had this feeling that she was just inside if I needed her. And I felt a sense of freedom and independence to discover my own way into play. It was like there was this invisible string between her and me, and I didn’t need to see her to know she was there for me. I felt a deep message from my mother. I can trust my own instincts, I can be independent, the world is safe to play in…. and I can trust that love is always there for me, guiding me along.
What values guide your work?
I am guided by values of compassion, dispassion, and passion. Since I was quite young, I knew my life’s work would be about service. My parents, grandparents and other elders in my family were powerful models for me in that, showing me that a life well-led was not about accumulating material wealth and success, but about making life easier, freer, and more joyful for others. My passion to be useful to others guides my choices and channels the flow of my life. Passion is essential to be able to seek and find those things that light us up and fill us with purpose. It helps us make meaning from our life’s work, to overcome the challenges and barriers along the way with conviction. And it gives us the energy to work together with shared purpose.
My passion to serve is coupled with another value I hold dearly: compassion. Compassion enables us to be with another person, fully present, because we care to walk alongside them. It requires humility and a capacity to listen and see another, fully. Being compassionate asks us to hold our own life experiences and perspectives lightly, to see them as true to ourselves, and not necessarily universal. Compassion is what has led me to the work of equity, justice and healing - a sense that we are all missing out by limiting our beliefs about who matters in our society.
Finally, I am rooted in a belief that - in both life and work - the only certainty is that everything is changing. Our evolution as humans never ends. We are an unfinished project as individuals, families, communities, and civilizations. While it’s important to celebrate - with satisfaction - those moments when something feels completed or accomplished - those moments are fleeting. The next big goal is set, and the next set of activities takes over our minds and lives. The work of social change is never actually done. Structural and policy changes, things we can count and quantify, can seem so tangible and permanent - and yet, we’ve seen how easily these can be changed, for better or for worse. Progress isn’t linear. And yet we must continually renew, affirm and refine our promises to each other.
The ever-changing nature of life can be uncomfortable, particularly when we yearn to tell a neat and tidy story, or to control what the outcomes of our programs or philanthropic investments might be. Accepting that change is constant requires dispassion, a value that buoys me when the waves of change overwhelm me. Dispassion allows me to see that if everything is changing, anything is possible. It helps me hold things lightly and see new possibilities when it feels like things are falling apart.
What are you working on right now?
I’m the executive director of the New Pluralists Collaborative, a funder and field collaborative working to foster a culture of pluralism in America. We are a cross-ideological, cross-disciplinary collaborative of innovators, researchers, storytellers, practitioners, and funders, working together to foster a deep sense of belonging among people who live in the United States.
We are a collaborative that is pluralistic in our culture and design. We invite in different perspectives to sharpen our work, we commit to staying together across our differences, and we do this on purpose. It’s an incredibly beautiful and powerful vision for us to come together as funders, field leaders, and staff. We strive to model the type of collaboration across difference that we want to see in the world. And, when we get into actual work of making choices, that’s when the true test begins.
We each hold different perspectives on how change happens in the world and on what good looks like, which are rooted often in our unconscious assumptions and biases and beliefs. Our mental models can often be what generates our divergent convictions about what our priorities should be, or what approaches we should take. What does it mean to scale? Who should be involved? Who is our work for? Who gets to decide? Sometimes, we’re using the same words to mean completely different things. And sometimes we agree more than we think we do, and can get hung up on phrases and definitions. Moving from conceptual agreement to practical alignment on what to focus on and how we will do the work requires trust, patience and curiosity - with ourselves and with each other.
This spring, our collaborative is shaping and choosing two specific arenas where we hope to make a tangible impact on culture. The process of shaping these possibilities to focus has already begun to reveal the diversity of the mental models that we each hold. There’s not one right answer to what to focus on, nor the way New Pluralists should play our role supporting a field and catalyzing culture change. There are many possible paths to lots of different outcomes that could each contribute to the broader change we hope to see. We’re committed to emergent learning in the process. Trusting a messy, emergent process can be really challenging.
Like others, I find myself yearning for a simple story of what’s happening and what could become. But if our work is going to be a true reflection of what’s happening in America right now, the story will necessarily not be a clean and linear one. We can ask good questions and learn from reflecting on each action we take. But we can’t predict with perfect clarity what will happen next, or even now. By taking an inquiry-based approach to shaping strategy, we acknowledge that we’ll likely take a more winding road to get to where we’re going. But we’ll be learning from the realities on the way rather than convincing ourselves of things we believe to be true before we get there.
And we have to hold both the compassion to walk with each other and the dispassion to evolve in response to the realities that we’re witnessing. If we do our work well, over time, we will catalyze a culture of belonging - one where we treat each other with respect, curiosity, and care across our differences, solve problems productively, and stand up for each other’s dignity and wellbeing.
How has the experience of the pandemic affected you and your work?
You mean aside from the weight gain and the Zoom fatigue? In seriousness, building trusting relationships among a physically distant group of collaborators has left us with a deep yearning to be together. It’s sometimes hard for our work to not feel incredibly abstract - particularly when we’re not able to connect with one another in community. At the same time, the ease of virtual connection has made it possible to connect with lots and lots of many different kinds of people, which wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.
On a personal note, it’s definitely brought out the introvert in me! I’ve been spending more time in happy solitude, painting and being in nature, which are both deeply nourishing practices for me.
What's giving you joy right now? What are you hopeful about?
Seeing friends and family in person is such a deep and real joy. Physically being with people I love is so meaningful. It’s wonderful to feel those relationships coming back into wholeness in our ability to be together. I don’t think I’m alone in this. I think many of us are realizing how crucial human connection - in real life - is to us.
On a more philosophical note - I was so hopeful at the start of the pandemic that we might finally face our challenges head on and examine our priorities as a culture and society. My hope that positive transformation is still there, but I think it’s perhaps unfolding in its own way. It’s still a work in progress. As the conflict in Ukraine continues, as we become more aware of the mental health crises gripping youth and families across the nation, and as we see violence playing out across our communities, it’s clear there is great pain. While many want to “go back” to a Before Time, for most people, too much has been lost or changed to think about going back. There’s a yearning for peace and connection that I think a lot of people are carrying, and I’m hopeful will guide us to create a world we all want to live in.