A Candid Conversations interview with the One America Movement, featuring our chair emeritus, Afia Yunus, and our new Chair of the Board, Matthew Hawkins.
Read the full interview below.
Welcome to One America Movement’s Candid Conversations. My name is Andrew Hanauer, and I’m the CEO of the One America Movement. And I’m really excited to have you here with us today. At One America, we believe that our country can be better, that we can be the best version of ourselves, and that each of us in the groups that we are a member of can be the best version of ourselves because our country as a whole is going through a time right now where we feel divided, we feel like things aren’t working, we feel like things aren’t the way they should be.
And our organization is so excited to talk about how we can do things differently. One of the ways we do that is we have these conversations where we have folks who are doing that, who are living that share their perspective, share their experiences. And so, we’re super excited to have a platform to have some of those conversations with all of you.
Today, I have the joy of having a conversation with my former boss and my current boss, which is to say the former board chair of the One America Movement and current board member, Afia Yunus, and then the current board chair of our organization, Matt Hawkins. Thank you guys for being here today.
Happy to join you.
One of the things that’s really important about One America is that we’re trying to live the thing that we’re trying to do in the world. So we’re trying to make the country less divided, we’re trying to bring people together, but we can’t do that if we’re not doing it ourselves as an organization. And so, you all are part of a board of directors that represents a vast swath of America in terms of different perspectives, viewpoints, religions, race, gender, politics. And that’s pretty unique. Many Americans don’t have experiences like that to live or work in a place where they hear perspectives that are really different from theirs. Afia, what personal experiences led you to participate in this board? What is the background that you bring into that that got you involved in it?
I would say destiny and fate, first of all. I was born and raised in a really small town in the South. I am a Muslim woman. My parents are immigrants from Pakistan. So, the intersection of all those things presented unique experiences throughout my life. Specifically speaking, I’m an immigration attorney, and in 2016, President Trump passed the Muslim ban. That kind of spearheaded a new path for me to figure out a way to work with other communities to pool resources, create and facilitate understanding to push policy, and to drive advocacy for more impacted communities.
So, as an immigration attorney, I was able to work with people who weren’t directly impacted by the Muslim ban. It opened up a new world for me and pushed me to work on issues that may or may not directly affect me. Working with different communities led me to the One America Movement, a pioneer in their field in the sense that they use a different methodology than I had been accustomed to in doing this work. And not only did it help me in my personal life, but it also helped me in my career journey.
Awesome. Thanks. Matt?
I grew up in the state of West Virginia with parents from Maryland. I was raised in a Christian home and continue to follow that faith today. Later in life, I worked for a large church organization called the Southern Baptist Convention. A lot of the work I did for eight years was in Washington, DC, as part of the Public Policy Office of the Southern Baptist Convention. I worked in government relations on a host of issues about which Southern Baptists and American evangelicals care.
As part of that advocacy work, a great surprise blessing and enjoyable time was working with people from different faith backgrounds to advance the portfolio sphere of what they call international religious freedom.
We have a host of disagreements on religious freedoms here in the States. There’s probably more consensus than not, but domestic religious liberty disputes are pretty vivid and can be polarizing when you get Americans of different faiths together.
Around the world, there are communities where religious freedom and the religious persecution dynamics include murder and torture — situations that are far worse than they are here in the United States. When the situation is that dire, all of a sudden, we come to some pretty swift agreement on those things.
Once I left DC, the One America Movement reached out and allowed me to continue collaborating with a diverse group of folks who care about this country, the values that we hold, and are looking for places where we can agree in this great self-governance project. Even though I’m now living in Middle Tennessee–not an especially diverse area–my work at the One America Movement selfishly gives me a little bit of that fix.
Thanks, Matt. So, you serve on a board together, and obviously, there are religious differences and other differences around experiences and backgrounds. For many Americans, we’ve reached a point where we may think: “How do you even serve on the board together? You have many issues on which you might disagree. How does that even work?” What would you two say to folks who question how you do that? And what would you say is the thing that unites the two of you in wanting to do that work?
I will defer to Afia for a lengthy answer, but Afia is just a delight to work with, period. So, that’s part of the dynamic.
That’s so sweet. I want to speak specifically to Matt: I love you, Matt, and I love working with you, but generally, it’s been a project on self more than the board itself. I’ve had to start with awareness around what my fears are. I’ve grown tremendously as a person just being in a room filled with people who don’t necessarily agree with me on a lot and don’t look like me or don’t have the same identities as me.
However, I think the coolest thing is that we find, often surprisingly, that we can rally around the same core values and have a lot of similar beliefs around key issues that we’re facing as an American community today. People ask, “How do you do it?” I would say, question number one is, “What are you afraid of?” Ask yourself what prevents you from doing it in the first place? It’s often driven by fear. Once we can be open to the possibility, we can learn and grow so much from that. And if I’m blocking myself off from that simply because Matt may not be Muslim, or because he’s Christian and I’m Muslim, or he’s white, and I’m brown, then I’m preventing myself from growth. That is doing myself, my community, and America a disservice. That’s what I’ve learned.
Thank you. Matt, do you want to add anything to that?
That was beautiful. I hesitate to add anything except to say that the experience on the One America Movement board has been absolutely delightful. And Afia’s right to point out that it’s not always easy. We have to acknowledge some of our own fear and trepidation about getting into such a circle. But what I love about One America Movement board meetings is when Andrew Hanauer brings a taste of One America programming into the mix because it forces us to participate in what One America is rolling out across the country. Those board meetings are always a fruitful experience, and we have some great interactions.
When we get to converse with people from different walks of life, the board can live out what the One America Movement tries to project and teach other communities around the country. A couple of our board members have shared that they come from the same faith, but they’re in different parts of the country, so they assumed they didn’t have a lick in common. They started spending some time together at one of our recent board retreats and have since become good friends.
Touching on both of those points, I think we talk a lot about how the research and the science tell us that Americans feel more divided than we really are. In dealing with people who aren’t like us, we’re going to have misconceptions about what they believe, how extreme they are, or how monolithic they are. It may sound sort of corny to say, “Well, if you just get into a relationship, things can improve.” Still, often those conversations are what help break down those stereotypes or break down those misperceptions that we have nothing in common or that we’re on opposite teams.
One of the things that we hear a lot from folks, which I think is understandable, is, “Are you asking me to be a moderate, or are you asking me to be more like a centric? You want Democrats to be more like Republicans or Jews to be more like Christians.” And I think as an organization, our response is, “No, we want you to be the best version of the group that you’re a member of.” You can’t ultimately control what politicians do, what the media does, or what social media platforms do, but you do have control over how you respond to the environment and the world around you.
I love Afia said that sometimes being with other people from other groups is, in some ways, a project of self. I think that’s cool. To that end, I guess what I would ask next is related to specific policy issues. You each have strong beliefs around that topic, and sometimes those beliefs intersect, and sometimes they do not. What would you say to folks who say, “Well, I’m interested in this work. I want to be involved in bridging divides or in engaging with people who are different than me, but how do I do that and also hold true to the strongly-held convictions that I might have about specific policy issues or political issues”?
Matt, I’ll let you come back.
There are many ways I could come at this, and I’ll try to be brief. As a person of the Christian faith, I will try to root my ethical persuasion and counsel from principles of that faith. So, the second greatest commandment is to do unto others as you would have done unto you. We have to love one another. That’s a relatively active kind of mission. And it’s the second greatest commandment, according to Jesus.
Politics, for me, has to be rooted in doing unto others; if I want others to do unto me, I ought to do what I would prefer people do to me. Coming from the perspective of an American citizen who is a participant in this thing called self-governance, I want to tell people, “Look, whoever you identified as the political other, whoever you disagree within the public square, they’re not going anywhere.” American politics is not linear; it’s cyclical. And you might even get a run on the White House or on Congress, even in a historically unusual way, but that’s going to peter out and go away, and the other side, so to speak, is going to be ruling one day.
I’m a policy worker, so I think the government has a job to do, and it’s a thing to be done well. And I don’t think polarization is all that helpful if we’re trying to manage our gifts and blessings to this country in the form of self-governance and the electoral process, however complicated and disjointed and in need of reform we might believe it to be. I think we have a role to be not just voters but to be co-governors with our neighbors. And my neighbor is Afia, even though she lives in a different state and believes in different things. She’s no less of a citizen governor than I am. I don’t see how someone could get around that in this governing context.
My answer to people who ask me how I do this work is 1: soft front, strong back. Hold on to your core values; that’s your back. Don’t compromise. Don’t water yourself down. Hold onto your values, but balance that with a soft front. Allow yourself to be open and vulnerable to the exchange. I’m not going to compromise what I believe in in the exchange with Matt or with anyone else on the board, but I’m open to the possibility that we may be able to connect.
2. This is why I chose One America Movement when I was looking into different organizations and doing this type of work–OAM was the one organization that didn’t ask me to leave my values at the door. I could engage in the work and still be Afia. I could still bring everything that made me who I was but still do the work. And I think the common misconception is that if I’m going to do bridge-building, then I have to be like this vanilla ice cream so that we can get along. But no, I may be chocolate chip, and Matt may be strawberry, and we should come together and then figure out how we can do the work together as we are. And I think that’s what’s unique about OAM and why I fell in love with it.
That’s awesome. Thank you both. Those are really good answers. I think it’s interesting too, that we have this idea that we intellectualize, “How could one ever have a relationship with someone who X, Y, Z?” And I think that the problem with that, of course, is that we overestimate how many people are the most extreme form of disagreement with us that might make a relationship impossible. And we also overestimate what our neighbor’s differences with us are.
I remember when traveling back from a staff retreat and I stopped to get Chinese food, and my fortune cookie read, “The work will show you how to do it.” And I remember thinking, “Yes, that’s it!” To some degree, just show up and do this stuff. It works itself out. It’s not easy, and maybe it’s not always fun, but you constantly learn from it. I think that’s what I like the most–it challenges me all the time. I don’t know if you two found that as well.
We have a transition of power, not like Game of Thrones, which is great. But Afia, your tenure as board chair ended in July, and Matt, yours started in August. So, Afia, we want to ask you if you could pick out the most important lesson that you learned in your time as board chair? You took us from when we first became a standalone organization to where we are now. What would you share with Matt as you transition to him?
I feel like I’ve talked about this with Matt, but I think what I learned as the biggest lesson was two parts. First was balancing the various viewpoints and experiences on the board and those voices with my own. I also sought to create a balance between expressing how I felt and knowing when to just listen as a leader. As a Muslim woman, I had a huge issue with imposter syndrome as the board chair. I was like, “I’m not ready for this. I don’t know if I can do this.” But then I have strong views and opinions. So it’s about balancing your strong beliefs and opinions and your experiences with all these other experiences from different walks of life and finding that sweet spot. I think that was the lesson I learned the most.
So my advice to Matt is to trust yourself, trust your experience and your opinion, and balance that with listening to the experiences of others. I think that’s the mark of a true leader– hearing but also speaking up when necessary.
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Absolutely.
That’s a good word, Afia. Thank you.
Afia, you did a fantastic job. And ironically, a little religious humor here, but much like Jesus, you’re a master at answering a question with a question.
Thanks to yoga and Brené Brown.
A yoga mentor would never answer a question, so she’ll take the question and ask a question is response.
If you are the kind of person who gets anxiety attacks from the idea that your question will be answered with a question, don’t try to take my job as CEO of One America Movement. That’s the lesson here. Matt, as you come in as board chair, what’s your vision? We’re going into a divisive election year, which is kind of like a redundancy at this point. We’ve got a country that hopefully is emerging from COVID soon and all of the toll that it’s taken on us physically, emotionally, mentally. What is your vision as chair of the board of this organization?
That’s a big ball of questions there, Andrew Hanauer. I’m going to have to mark you up on your performance review. First of all, I just want to say, as the new chair, this is what I feel like having been handed the reins from Afia: If anyone has ridden or gone out boating for like the first time, and someone gives you the wheel of a boat that has already been built and navigated out of the dock and is well away from the shore and someone says, “Okay, now you can steer it.” All I have to do is not run it into the rocks and not hit the shore. That’s, in part, kind of how I feel after all the heavy lifting that Afia did in the early days of this organization. And I know you feel the same way, Andrew Hanauer, and many of our board members do as well.
As far as vision, I just want the One America Movement to run faster and jump higher. I think we have models that are proven that bear an impact in a local community. And I’d like to see that scale and see One America Movement get some national attention. Wouldn’t it be great? Our Over Zero partners would have to help us enunciate this, but what would it look like if a state or even a city showed some metrics of a little less polarization because of following the One America Movement’s work? I’d love to start seeing those kinds of results. I know it’s early, and that may seem a high bar for you, Andrew Hanauer, in the coming year, but I’m hopeful for America’s future. And I’m particularly optimistic because organizations like One America are using some pretty innovative strategies to help us with that.
Regarding a vision for the board, I think the board has been in a phase where the organization had to be established, right? We kind of had to hatch as an organization and grow to a sufficient level. And the fundraising has exceeded our expectations, thanks, in large part, to Andrew Hanauer and the work of other board members. And I think we’re now kind of in a season of, what does it look like to mature as a nonprofit board doing this kind of work? We’ll have some conversations moving forward about that. But I was encouraged by our last board meeting, where we had met for the first time post-pandemic. We did some hard work during that meeting, but we came away pretty unified after that. So I’m excited to see what the new year brings.
Awesome. Yeah, absolutely. As am I. Much of the work of fighting toxic polarization was brand new as recently as 2017/ 2018. When Afia joined as chair of the board, our organization had four or five staff members, and we now have 20, which is incredible. With that growth comes an enormous opportunity. We see 2022 as a year of reconnection. Coming out of COVID (hopefully), we’ve got to be in genuine solidarity with each other as Americans, supporting each other, fixing things that are broken, helping people who have been suffering or hurting over the last couple of years. And we need to be doing that work together with people who don’t think like us, vote like us, look like us, or worship like us. I feel we’re in a fantastic place to help be part of that as an organization thanks to both of you and thanks to the effort everyone has put in.
If you want to get involved in our work, you can do so. We’d love to have you join us. You can have unlikely friends. You can build relationships with people you never thought you could build relationships with. And you can be part of a movement.
Here at the One America Movement, we believe that we can be and do better. Please visit Www.oneamericamovement.org to learn more about our work. We’ve got events, public trainings, all sorts of opportunities to get involved.
Afia, Matt, thank you for joining us. Thanks for being part of this, and thanks for what you do.