Farah Anwar Pandith
Special Representative to Muslim Communities
Chicago, IL
October 25, 2009

Good afternoon. Thank you for the warm welcome, and thank you, Eboo, for inviting me here today. I am honored to be in the presence of so many young leaders who share my passion for service. Your commitment to building interfaith understanding through service, and for nurturing the respect that grows from that understanding, is a true testament to your leadership potential. You are forging a path for the next generation, and I am inspired to be among you.

As I look out into this room today, I know that you and I share common goals, and a common commitment: to demonstrate through our deeds what is in our hearts, and to bring others into our circle of service. I would like to share with you a bit about my own path into service. And then I would like to share my thoughts on how I believe we can establish new ways of engaging communities of all faiths by creating unconventional partnerships.

I arrived in Boston, Massachusetts with my mother from Srinagar on July 4, 1969. Growing up as a young Muslim immigrant, I walked the typical American road – I balanced my faith and my heritage and my love of my country. I grew up in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts—the same place where I earned my degrees, where I advanced up the corporate ladder, where I learned about Islam, and where I attended mosque in Quincy.

The tiny mosque in Quincy, in an area rich in immigrant history from Pilgrims to Irish to Vietnamese, is one of the oldest in America. It was founded by dock workers who originally came from Syria and Lebanon and needed a place to pray.

Over the years the community grew to include Muslims from dozens of different ethnicities and heritages. And like the story of our country, the diversity made the community even stronger, and like other immigrant stories, this ability to practice different faiths freely and share in traditions from far away lands, as well as adapt them to America, was very much a part of my American experience.

My mother raised my brother and me to constantly think about the gifts presented to us here: the freedoms to explore and create and discover, the luxury of the best education in the world, the richness of an environment that had every faith, creed, ethnicity and tradition, and the foundation of a country that gave every citizen --no matter what their religion or race or gender – equal rights under the law.

I grew up knowing the privilege of being American. I also grew up knowing there was no contradiction between being a Muslim and being an American. For me, it was simply normal. It is the American way.

Perhaps because I understood the gifts that had been given to me as an American, the idea of giving back has always been a part of me. This idea was imbedded not only into the fabric of my family, but also in each of the school I attended -- whether it was Milton or Smith or Fletcher. This concept – so American in nature -- that every problem must have a solution, every one of us can take responsibility, and there is no time like the present— has framed my worldview and has made it impossible for me to just watch from afar as the world grapples with some of the most pressing issues of our age.

So through working, volunteering, mentoring or joining a cause, I had the good fortune to see the world around me – things that I did not know, and people I would not normally meet. These experiences were challenging, but more importantly inspiring. Viewing and understanding the world through the eyes of others has allowed me to think more creatively about solutions to problems and to realize the potential of partners that aren’t always the most obvious.

The drive to seek to understand the world around us through a different lens, which we gain by service with and to people not exactly like us, is something I know most of you in this room have come to appreciate.

My journey into government service from college started -- way back in 1990 – when I gave a speech on the importance of respect and diversity as student body president at Smith College. I chose to talk about this important topic because at the time, all across the eastern seaboard horrifying incidents were taking place – a cross burning on the lawn of Amherst College, a racial incident at Yale and on my campus a vile note left on the door of a woman of color.

It was a terrible time reflecting the worst part of humanity – prejudice and hate. I knew that I wanted to start my senior year as Student Body President with outlining what it is that our college stood for and what the community must reflect. Thus, 20 years ago this fall I gave a speech about the importance of respect, dignity and diversity.

As life happens, one never knows what is coming around the corner or what a remark, an action or a gesture can do…it was a lesson that I learned then but is dear to me now.

In the audience was then First Lady Barbara Bush. She heard my words and liked what I had to say. The day after the speech the White House called and asked me if she could have a copy s she wanted to use the speech. And she did.

As I began my senior year of college, I had formed a special relationship with Barbara Bush. Her kindness upon graduation from college moved me into Washington and I got a chance to see our government in action. But I also got to see its limits. And I also understood how important it was to get other experiences.

I left the government to attend graduate school and work in the private sector where I not only jumped into the work for my firm, but I also jumped into the work of my community. I volunteered on boards, I set up initiatives, I persuaded others to join me in local efforts. I wanted to take part in the world around me not just watch from afar.

What I learned on school campuses was that small efforts can go far and make change – that each person, each individual, can make a difference in big and small ways. I also learned that people notice when good things happen around them.

As someone who at the time worked in the corporate sector, I saw how companies interfaced with foundations and NGOs on causes that made sense for a company’s world view or ethical make up. Whether it was an issue such as domestic violence or inter-faith or cancer awareness people within companies were interested in seeing how they could use the power of their know-how, influence, status or funding to help build an initiative or empower a foundation or cause.

Again, this was an important lesson for me and it has helped me from my perch in government even now. While I absolutely loved what I was doing in Boston, I felt called back to government service after 9/11. I wanted to serve my nation. I could not comprehend what had happened and how someone so far away who did not know my country and did not represent my religion could define them for a global audience. The tradition of pluralism and the rights afford to all of us by law in America were front and center in my mind and I recall thinking that Americans had to do more to take back the narrative.

In 2003 I returned to government service at the United States Agency for International Development, and I saw first hand how the U.S. could use its might for good through economic and humanitarian aid. I saw how NGOs on the ground were making a difference on a community level, and how the U.S. government worked in some of the most difficult parts of the world. I also had the honor of taking part in a very small way in the effort in Afghanistan in early 2004.

The two months I spent in Kabul were life changing for me. First, because I got to get to know the young men serving in the military there and second, because I worked with and got to know Afghans whose pride in their nation was as robust as mine was for our country.

Soon after my return I joined the staff of the National Security Council at the White House, where I worked on issues relating to Muslim engagement as well as countering violent Islamic extremist ideology, My job put me in touch with many American Muslims and their efforts to promote respect, understanding and pluralism. It was at this point that I first met Eboo Patel as a matter of fact.

I heard him on NPR on my way to the office one morning and when I got to work I googled him. I was fascinated and I wanted to learn more about the Inter Faith Youth Corps. I cold called him and asked him to come see me at the NSC. It was a great conversation and one that led to many more.

My time at the NSC gave me the exposure to how policy is really made. I was responsible for coordinating policy across every agency and department. This was tremendously important to the work I do now, because I saw first-hand how different departments and agencies across the government bring their own areas of expertise to bear on similar issues in different ways to achieve synergy.

I was still at the White House in 2007 when the Danish cartoon crisis happened. That was a pivotal moment in time for our nation. And for the world. How was it that something that happened in a Danish paper could cause the death of someone in Afghanistan? What was going on? What was happening in Europe?

Through this incident we realized, for the first time, that we had to do more to reach out to Muslim communities in Europe and do more than we had ever done before. How well did we know what was taking place with a very diverse group of 20 million Muslims in Western Europe? We realized we needed to get to know them and to build relationships with the next generation. We needed to take action to build relationships. We needed to get to know these important communities in a time of non crisis. How else do you build trusting relationships?

This was a turning point not only for the U.S. government, but also for me. For the next two years, I worked at the State Department interfacing on the ground with European Muslims and my counterparts in government. We began a different way of doing business. In the past, when spoke about engaging with Muslims, we used traditional methods such as educational and visitor exchange programs, speakers who came from America and talked about a book or a new program, or hosting iftar dinners in our embassies.

All of these things are really important and make an impact, but so much more could be done. I began to build teams with all sorts of partners on the ground----whether from our embassies, or a non-profit organization, or a faith-based group.

Because of my work in the private sector before returning to government, I knew the important role the private sector should play. I felt we had to reorganize our thinking to do business not just at a government-to-government level, but at a level that includes governments, the private sector, non-profits, academics, religious leaders, and philanthropists. It is not enough for the government to engage. We ALL must engage.

It was an incredibly profound two years for me professionally. It was also inspirational. I met people all over Europe who had amazing ideas and wanted help in meeting others who could help them turn their ideas into action. I saw how critical it was that we not just “listen” but “listen and then act.” We put people together, we moved ideas forward. We introduced individuals onto a bigger stage so that they could make a difference.

I had planned to leave the State Department to go to a think tank earlier this year and continue my work from a different perspective, but when I had the opportunity to brief Secretary Clinton on my work in Europe shortly after she arrived at the State Department, she saw the need for this type of engagement on a global level. She created the Office of the Special Representative to Muslim Communities, the first time in history such a position has been created by our government. I have been honored to step into this new role.

Under the leadership of Secretary Clinton and the President, we are now at a time when our engagement with communities of all faiths is being taken to a new level. As Secretary Clinton has said, “the President has led us to think outside the usual boundaries. He has launched a new era of engagement based on common interests, shared values, and mutual respect.”

The challenges being faced by Muslim communities today are very real. Some of the challenges – lack of opportunities, illiteracy, violent extremism, navigation of identity—and others, including women’s empowerment, are front and center of every conversation I have with Muslims in every corner of the globe.

We must be honest about the challenges that exist, but we also must seize this moment to build on the new vision Secretary Clinton and the President have outlined, and the new vision for how we will forge the way ahead.

Secretary Clinton said at the Council on Foreign Relations: “America shares interests and values with people and nations around the world. Going forward, we will advance those common interests through partnership, the power of our example, and the empowerment of people.”

And we will. Secretary Clinton has appointed me to this new position to do more on Muslim engagement than ever before. Through my office we are reaching out to the next generation, building networks of like-minded thinkers, and providing connectivity to diverse groups of partners.

We will do this by reaching beyond governments to work at a people-to-people level and use the power of partnerships with individuals, businesses, academia, philanthropies and more to move ideas forward that are from the bottom up, not the top down. We will use this approach as we tackle the wide range of challenges. Let me touch on a couple now.

One of the most serious issues facing Muslim young people is their struggle with identity issues. People a young person is difficult enough, but with the deafening voices online, on the street and in local neighborhoods, many Muslim youth are battling with which category they fit into.

There are endless questions that compound the normal questions of growing up: who am I, what are my values, what do I want to do when I grow up, how can I be both Muslim and modern, how should I should dress, what language I speak, or what is the difference between culture and religion? This is true of Muslims as minorities in a country as well as Muslims in Muslim majority nations.

Muslim young people I have talked to around the world ask to learn more about how American Muslims – who come from more than 80 different ethnic backgrounds and are very diverse -- have been able to navigate through some of these complex waters.

Learning more about pluralism and our civil rights has been profoundly important to these questions. Obviously, the work of Interfaith Youth Core has been so important here and I’d like to thank Eboo and his team for their partnership in our efforts.

I was sworn in a couple of weeks ago and during the Secretary’s remarks she talked about our need to do more with using 21st century tools to engage with communities around the world.

In this digital age, we have the opportunity to use social technology to boost these connections. We must create platforms for youth from around the world to engage with one another, and with religious leaders and others to help young people understand and balance their many identities.

Another issue we must seek to address is the unemployment and lack of economic development in many Muslim communities the world over.

I am working with the White House and other offices in the State Department to promote entrepreneurship education, enable access to funding for entrepreneurs of all kinds – traditional, social, and technology -- and encourage mentorships between business leaders and budding entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurship can unlock potential within communities and hinges on creative solutions, critical thinking, and ingenuity—all qualities that are vital for any community to succeed in today’s global economy.

A third issue is the substandard education leading to illiteracy and lack of leadership opportunities afforded to many Muslim girls and women.

We know low levels of literacy can impede economic development in a rapidly changing, technology-driven world. We envision leading technology entrepreneurs working together with women’s activists to create cutting-edge initiatives that increase literacy and promote education and leadership amongst women throughout Muslim communities.

There is a wonderful and healthy diversity among the world’s approximately 1.3 billion Muslims. Within these communities, though, there remains a reservoir of untapped potential for excellence. We must work to not only find talent, but to cultivate it, and especially look to the next generation to make positive changes in their communities.

We must do this with humility, recognizing that not one person has all the answers. So we will act as conveners and facilitators, and intellectual partners. We will help the best ideas from all communities to come to the forefront.

We will use 21st century tools to go beyond the government-to-government approach and facilitate productive partnerships between people.

Unconventional ideas and creativity can flourish by bringing people together who rarely convene —youth, elders and entrepreneurs; women and executives; scholars and activists. So we must create idea incubators to encourage people to come together to engage in thinking that transcends the challenges of their particular cohort and takes on the challenges of another with a new perspective.

It takes time to build action-networks of like-minded thinkers—within countries and across regions. But by bringing together people from diverse sectors—we will encourage collaboration that rarely occurs and creativity that may be unprecedented.

We will engage communities through our embassies around the world and use our convening power to get the right partners in the room. We will challenge them to be honest about obstacles and opportunities, and brainstorm together about actions they and we can take together.

Through my experiences I know that everyone can make a difference in big and small ways. Results are what matter, not about how much credit you get. Success is found not by having a project known by your name, but rather by the partnerships that endure after the project is completed. Success is getting to know people, listening to what is needed, taking action together, and seeding ideas that grow on their own.

This is not a quick process, but it is essential that we begin it now. We must reach across boundaries that transcend nations, background, and faiths. Because the people we engage today will become some of our strongest allies in the future.

As I close, I want to underscore that all that we do will do we will do with mutual interest and mutual respect and the belief that anything is possible. We will partner with and engage Muslim communities to achieve common good and to work together to solve some of the world’s more pressing problems.

All of us here today must work to build better relationships, increase understanding, and leverage opportunities for dialogue to solve challenging problems that we all face. This is the issue of our time, how we chose to engage will determine the future.