Sharif Azami at US Capitol

Sharif Azami at the US Capitol


Recently we met with Senior Program Officer Sharif Azami to talk about his work leading the Fetzer Institute’s democracy initiative, about its progress over the past five years and the fruit it is beginning to bear.

There is a lot of work out there focusing on democracy. What is Fetzer’s part in this work?
This work is about activating love in our democracy—that’s pretty unique! Fetzer's part in this work is focused on the cultural aspect of democracy, on strengthening the social fabric of our country. This is meant to complement the other hard work so many are doing, the classic democracy work that is caused-based, policy-based, that focuses on elections, redistricting, voting, how Congress makes laws.

What has surprised you about this work?
Amidst a growing polarization, an eye-opener for me was that the people doing this work can often feel vulnerable and alone. They are taking risks, and sometimes in their own communities and social circles they can be seen as sellouts or naïve. At its heart, though, this is spiritual work that requires sacrifice and vulnerability. Addressing othering, segregation and isolation offers us the best hope for our own flourishing and that of our families, communities, and world.

Is there one thing from the past year that you’re especially proud of?
This bridge-building space is becoming a mature field. When Fetzer started the Healing the Heart of Democracy initiative in 2016, not many saw this as a field, as an actual area of inquiry and practice. Today, due to innovative efforts of bridge-builders and strategic investments by philanthropic institutions, there is a growing ecosystem addressing polarization and testing new ways to heal and repair the wounds wrought by our political tribalism, economic marginalization, and systemic barriers to flourishing.

For instance, 

  • Braver Angels, a citizens' organization uniting red and blue Americans to depolarize America has 10k+ members.
  • StoryCorps’ One Small Step initiative is launched and anchored by a solid, researched methodology.
  • The Listen First coalition has hundreds of organizations as members, all aimed at bringing people together across differences.

Organizations on the frontlines of this work are getting noticed in the media and gaining the attention of other funders. And the emergence of funder collaboratives like the New Pluralists, which seeks to mobilize $100m in 10 years to support this type of work, also underscores the importance of this growing ecosystem.

What is your hope for this work?
I hope it will help us all transcend false binaries of “us” and “them” and help us build capacities for navigating nuance and complexity. So, for example, I can be a Muslim, an Afghan, and an American and be comfortable in holding and cherishing these identities. This is about understanding deep difference and still being able to cherish one another. It’s about an all-encompassing circle of belonging, about the possibility of creating a beloved community.

How can people get involved?
Research has shown that associating with someone across differences increases our attraction to not only that person, but their entire identity group. Become a bridger! Get involved with bridge-building work at the local level; learn about other traditions and other ways of being; and make friends with people from different backgrounds—this can help us heal the divides that threaten to undermine us and will also give us a new sense of appreciation for our own heritage and culture.

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