at his office in DC. They talked about the wide variety of policy priorities Dubois works to advance and the values he shares with the president. Kristyn Komarnicki: For those of our readers who are unfamiliar with the work of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, can you give us an overview of what you do? Joshua Dubois: The White House Office of FaithBased and Neighborhood Partnerships is charged with ensuring that local faith-based and secular nonprofits are partnering with government to serve people in need. The way we do that practically is that out of the White House I manage 13 smaller faith-based and neighborhood partnerships across government. For example, we have an office at the Department of Labor that helps local churches set up job training programs. We have an office at the Department of Veterans Affairs that helps synagogues, mosques, churches, and secular nonprofits reach out to veterans in their communities with computer access so that veterans can apply for jobs. We have an office at the Department of Agriculture—their major project is impacting hunger, especially childhood hunger, with faith-based organizations through summer food programs, for example.
Human Capital An interview with Joshua Dubois In spite of the ongoing controversy over whether the US government should fund social programs via faith-based organizations (FBOs), President Obama expanded the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships that he inherited from the Bush administration. And he chose a bright, congenial young Christian to head the office. Joshua Dubois was only 26 when he took his place in Obama’s administration in 2009. Now three years into the job, he speaks passionately about the various ways his office seeks to connect the political and civic realms, all in the service of those most in need. A special assistant to the president, whose tasks include sending daily devotionals to the president’s Blackberry, Dubois grew up in Nashville and was in a leadership role at a Pentecostal church by the age of 18. After earning an undergraduate degree in political science from Boston University and a master’s in public affairs from Princeton, he joined Obama’s Senate office as an aide in 2005. ESA Public Policy Director Paul Alexander and PRISM Editor Kristyn Komarnicki met with Dubois in September
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Paul Alexander: Talk a little bit about what you do here in relationship to immigration and immigration reform.
Dubois: One of the other things our office does is ensure that religious voices are heard in regard to policy debates here in the House and across Washington, DC. So our role in the immigration debate is really channeling the energy, the voice, the work that’s going on in the faith community, ensuring that the president knows what they’re saying, what their priorities are. Recently the president and the secretary of homeland security made a major decision to prioritize violent offenders in terms of deportation proceedings, getting them out of the country and holding back on focusing on those who had not committed any crimes and are just productive members of our society. A motivating factor in that decision—I’m sure the president would say—were the voices from the faith community who were on the ground and were telling us what was happening in their communities and what our immigration focus should be. Our job is to make sure those voices are heard and to set up meetings with the president. He’s met with evangelical leaders, Catholic bishops, Muslim and Jewish leaders on immigration, and we set up those points of connection. Komarnicki: And you pushed the Dream Act, right?
Dubois: We pushed it as far as we could go last time, and we were really so disappointed. But we’re going to keep coming back to it.
Joshua DuBois looks on as President Obama signs the proclamation marking the first Thursday of May as the National Day of Prayer. (Photo by Pete Souza)
Komarnicki: The policy goals outlined by your office, or the key priorities you want to see faith-based and neighborhood partnerships engaged in, are (1) economic recovery; (2) supporting maternal and child health, including reducing both unintended pregnancies and the need for abortion; (3) promoting responsible fatherhood and strong communities; and (4) promoting interfaith dialogue and cooperation. How did you decide upon these issues? Dubois: When I sat down with the president and we talked about how this office would begin its work, we saw these as salient issues in our country today and also issues about which we had heard a lot from faith groups over the course of his campaign and his career in public life before that. I should say that while those are four overarching priorities, we actually have a broader set. As I said, we manage 13 additional faith-based offices all across government, and each one of them has an individual priority, and there’s some fascinating work going on. Alexander: You’re Pentecostal, as am I. What do you think we can do as American Pentecostals, as American evangelicals, to build relationships with Muslims and with Jews in order to help address the Israel/ Palestine situation but also to enhance interfaith dialogue here in the US? Dubois: Well, President Obama’s view is that while it’s easy to have conflict over theological issues—one’s view of heaven and hell, good and evil, etc.—it’s a lot harder to disagree about serving those around you. It’s a simple notion but one that he’s held for a very long time, dating back to his earliest days working with religious communities on the South Side of Chicago: that if we can use service and the common good as a magnet to bring people together from different religious backgrounds then we’ll build understanding and we’ll learn how to live with one another. We have really seen interfaith service—not interfaith dialogue—these are two distinctly different things—we’ve seen interfaith service as a
simple but powerful tool to address conflicts both here at home and around the globe. We just kicked off something called the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge. This is an effort to bring college students of different religious backgrounds together on campuses across the country for a year-long intentional service project. At colleges that are mostly single-faith, we’re encouraging them to partner with their local houses of worship for a service project. So maybe Campus Crusade for Christ would work with a local synagogue and mosque to turn around a failing school. Quite frankly, we were a little bit worried when we kicked this off—but maybe I shouldn’t say worried—hopeful, I should say hopeful!—about what the response would be from Christian colleges—and I say this as a Pentecostal, because interfaith is not something we often do—but it’s really been overwhelming. One institution that had a tremendous response was the Council of Christian Colleges and
where there are earthquakes and floods, and we’ve said to them, “As you continue to work on how you engage religious minorities, one of the positive things you can do is work with them to respond to the needs after a disaster.” Through that process they acknowledge President Obama reviews his genealogy, which was prepared for him by the Church of Latter Day Saints’ Family History that these Committee. From left: Senator Harry Reid, Joshua DuBois, LDS people exist, Church President Thomas Monson, and Elder Dallin Oaks in the Oval Office in July 2009. (Photo by Pete Souza) and they bring them into the fold and begin to work and have a conversation Universities—they were excited to get involved. The president has said from the beginning this is not about syncretism, it’s with them. It really speaks to the president’s trajectory on interfaith cooperation that is rooted in practical service that not about all of us somehow believing all the same things, but it’s about partnering together to heal the wounds of this meets human needs. We’ve found that to be the most effective route. world. So we have over 300 campuses that are engaged in Komarnicki: Which policy goal or initiative are you this thing, and we thought we might get 50! We had a personally most passionate about? huge convening here in Washington. You should see the projects they’ve started. In fact many of them used 9/11 Dubois: I’m passionate about all of them, but I spend as a kicking off point and were out feeding the hungry and a lot of time on the president’s work on responsible faserving the homeless on Saturday, September 10, to begin therhood and really doing something to close the father this year, so interfaith service is really where it’s at. Sometimes it’s more titillating to delve into theological issues, but absence gap in our country. It’s something that doesn’t get talked about a lot, but there is a generational shift in terms we’ve found it’s more effective to begin with service and of dads being active and involved participants both in their we’ve applied that to the international context as well. We are working around the globe consulting with foreign govern- family and in American life. It’s something that has impacted ments on how they can reduce conflict among and between the president personally, me personally, and a lot of folks in the administration as well. While we’re not going to change faiths, and one of the things we encourage them to do is the rates of father absence immediately, with the focused find a practical goal on which different religious groups can attention of the president and other leaders we can have a work together. longitudinal impact, so we spend a lot of time working on For example, something the United States does really that. well is disaster response. Our faith groups come together— The president’s broad sense is that we need to talk a Mormons work with Southern Baptists work with the United lot more about the importance of the family. He’s candid Church of Christ works with Jewish organizations work with about the sanctity of sexual relations and sees how the Islamic Relief to help people rebuild their homes after a flood or a tornado, and they’ve been doing it since the late coarsening of our culture is affecting young people. That impacts young men becoming fathers before they’re ready, ’70s. It’s really a fascinating and effective subculture that which makes them more likely to be uninvolved fathers and no one’s really looking at. We’ve talked with the Chinese also impacts the demand for abortion. government and with our friends in Pakistan and others
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Komarnicki: I’d be interested in hearing what it was about Barack Obama that appealed to you initially, especially on a personal level as a Christian. Dubois: Well, I did my undergraduate degree at Boston University and also became the associate pastor at a small Pentecostal church there. I went to policy school at Princeton, and I was doing a lot of praying about whether I wanted to go in a ministry direction or work in public policy. I felt passionate about progressive issues and about those who are kind of left out—my grandparents were in the civil rights movement, and I just had a sense that we could do more both privately and in the public sector to help those who have been marginalized. I was also deeply passionate about my faith, and I didn’t find too many progressives who were able to combine the two—who would talk both about the policy they cared about and how their values motivated those policies. I was doing an internship here in Washington, and it was at a restaurant that I first saw the then-State Senator Barack Obama give his 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention. He was talking about all the policies that I cared about, all the poverty-related things I cared about, but then he started talking about the awesome God that we could also serve in the blue states and the fact that you can be a progressive and still be motivated by your values and beliefs. So I thought, “I want to find out more about this guy.” I read his book, wrote him several letters, and eventually came in for a few interviews, and he brought me on in the early stages of his Senate office, so that was it. I didn’t have any type of connection or anything—just a lot of prayer. Komarnicki: Aside from direct cuts to federal funding for social programs, what other public policies may undermine faith-based partnerships, and what is the likely impact of cuts on the capacity of FBOs to be effective partners? Dubois: Well, the entire debate on Capitol Hill right now concerns me. I was talking with some Catholic friends the other day about how the Vatican sees what’s happening in the United States now, and the shift towards radical individualism is something that I think we haven’t seen in this country before. I mean the American people have always been a very independent people, but there’s also been a sense that we’re all in this together. The president believes that free markets have created more wealth than any other system in human history, and he believes strongly in the power of individuals to shape their own lives, but he also believes that government has a role to play and that we have a role to play in each other’s lives. But that sense of togetherness as a country appears to be eroding, based on some of the conversations we’re hearing on Capitol Hill. I think it’s one of the most threatening things to faith-
based partnerships and FBOs—some of my more conservative friends don’t see it this way yet, but when you look at the long run, this shift towards radical exclusionary individualism is a dangerous thing for faith-based partnerships. Komarnicki: What is one thing you love about our political system? And one thing you’d change if you could? Dubois: One of the things I love about our political system, about the White House, and, quite frankly, about both parties on Capitol Hill is that there are just some really good, well-meaning people who work at these positions. That sort of gets lost in the debate that we see on television, but the vast majority of folks who go into public service do it because they care about this country. It has been a pleasure for me to work in the White House and with this president. My colleagues and I don’t agree on everything, and there are vigorous debates, but folks come in every day thinking that they’re going to do some good for our country. So that human capital is something I love, that sense that people are motivated by and large by the right thing so that we’re not walking around here questioning everybody’s motives. As for what I’d like to do away with? The Joshua Dubois with Max Finberg (right), direcbureaucracy tor of the USDA Center for Faith-Based and around programs Neighborhood Partnerships, at a National Food Summit that focused on increasing and initiatives, access to nutrition assistance to the Latino Community. (Photo courtesy of US Dept of both in the Agriculture) executive branch and, quite frankly, in the Congress. A lot of bureaucracy is created by the laws that Congress sends us that we have to follow, which kind of slows things down. I think anybody will admit that it takes a while to start something new or change something that’s been there. I’m sure those are all for good reasons—checks and balances and so forth—but if you see something that’s not working it’s going to take a while to shift it, and that’s very frustrating sometimes. Komarnicki: My last question is about the abortion reduction campaign. How much of your work is emphasizing healthcare education and economic approaches?
And the president strongly believes in prevention. Now, he thinks it should be age-appropriate and that there should be parental engagement, but at the end of the day, he thinks that contraception is part of the solution here for those who choose to engage in sexual activity. We acknowledge that there’s going to be some disagreement there, but the president strongly believes in contraception as well. Alexander: Any parting thoughts?
Joshua Dubois with PRISM Editor Kristyn Komarnicki and ESA Public Policy Director Paul Alexander.
Dubois: There’s been a lot of activity—but much of it hasn’t gotten noticed, quite frankly—to support women and children and specifically to support pregnant women and reduce the factors that put women in that position in the first place. One of the most important things that we’ve done is in the healthcare field, in the Affordable Care Act that President Obama signed into law in March 2010. The Pregnancy Assistance Fund offers $250 million over 10 years with the explicit goal of supporting organizations that help pregnant women bring their pregnancies to term. That’s the first time that that’s happened, and it’s a significant accomplishment. Komarnicki: Why do you think we don’t hear about that in the media? Dubois: Well, it’s certainly “Man Bites Dog,” isn’t it? But it doesn’t fit the narrative about this president, and so for some reason people have not spoken about that as much. But it’s really significant work in terms of supporting pregnant women. The other thing that we’re really focusing on is our adoption system, ensuring that adoption and adoptive families are seen as just as valuable as any other family out there and really strengthening the institution of adoption so that it’s a viable choice for women. In order to make it easier, this president has increased the adoption tax credit, making it refundable. That means that, to a tune of around $14,000, if a family chooses to adopt, they can get a tax credit to help afford it. We’re also galvanizing faith communities and community organizations to step up to the plate and adopt kids, adopt them out of foster care. When you work on foster care adoption you improve the entire system of adoption, because in the public mind people see adoption as a valuable and valid option for anyone. This is something we’re really passionate about, and we’ve been working with organizations from across the spectrum—for example, faith organizations and women’s organizations, but also I recently sat down with Focus on the Family President Jim Daly and those folks to talk about how we can connect on adoption as well.
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Dubois: I’d like to say that this president, in many ways, has really tried to lead with his values—values around fatherhood, values around supporting pregnant women, but more broadly, too, as with the American Jobs Act that’s focused on gaining people jobs with dignity. He’s also passed the healthcare bill that prevents people with preexisting conditions from being discriminated against anymore, so fewer people will die because they don’t have access to healthcare. These aren’t just policy issues, they’re values issues for him, and they have been for a long time. Komarnicki: Those are pro-life issues. Dubois: Well, you said it, I didn’t! But correcting the record on some of these things is important. No matter what decision people make at the end of the day, they should at least make the decision on the basis of truth. I was talking the other day with some colleagues from the Bush administration and was thinking about all the negative stuff that came out about President Bush, and much of it was not true. You can have legitimate disagreements on issues, especially on foreign policy, but I think Bush did his best to work for this country. And I would say, in the same way, President Obama is not only doing his best but has also been able to do some important things for our country. I would hope Christians would look at the facts. Paul Alexander is professor of Christian ethics and public policy at Palmer Theological Seminary as well as director of public policy at the Sider Center on Ministry and Public Policy. Passionate about peace with justice, he is deeply involved in the Israel/Palestine situation. Kristyn Komarnicki is editor of PRISM Magazine and also coordinates ESA’s weekly ePistle and Christ & Culture blog. Her special interests include antipornography and trafficking education. Special thanks to Heidi Unruh and Sider Scholar Rebecca Hall for research help with this interview.
Learn more about the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships at WhiteHouse.gov/ administration/eop/OFBNP, where you can also download Partnerships for the Common Good, a toolkit for faith-based and neighborhood organizations.
Published on May 7, 2013