Meet eight people committed to making change


November 30, 2016

Editor’s note: This post was originally published by the White House on Medium on November 29. CHN is proud that our executive director Deborah Weinstein is featured in the post below as one of eight people committed to making change. 

Faith and Community Partnerships

Meet eight people who work with faith and community leaders across the country to bring real change to people’s lives.

Back when President Obama was a Senator, he made a commitment to develop partnerships between the White House and grassroots groups, both faith-based and secular, to serve others at home and abroad. Over the past eight years, he’s made good on that promise, using these collaborations with grassroots groups to tackle an incredible range of issues: from helping reduce family and chronic homelessness, to welcoming refugees into our communities, to giving more formerly incarcerated individuals second chances.

Of course, none of it could have happened without the power of individuals inspired to bring about this change. Meet eight people whose compassion and commitment to social change has helped carry out this work throughout the Administration.

Melissa Rogers

During his first term, President Obama appointed me to chair the first Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. In 2013, he asked me to serve as executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. It has been a great honor to build on the excellent foundation that my predecessor, Joshua DuBois, created for this office and a wonderful opportunity to engage in full-time public service for the first time.

Some of the most rewarding aspects of my job have been the opportunity to work for a boss who is brilliant, kind and compassionate and to partner with so many talented religious and community leaders who are committed to serving their neighbors. Working together, we have accomplished a great deal. Whether it is increasing educational and employment opportunities, reducing homelessness, combatting hunger and disease, providing second chances for the formerly incarcerated, or welcoming refugees and immigrants, this work has made an enormous difference to people across the country and around the world.

One treasured memory is the day His Holiness Pope Francis visited the White House. We had prepared for the day for months, building a policy and partnerships agenda that reflected some of the values these two leaders share and working with colleagues to organize the arrival ceremony and subsequent meetings at the White House. Guests began arriving at the White House in the dark, early morning hours. In addition to many Catholics, there were people of all faiths and none. All the guests knew they would be waiting on the South Lawn for hours, but they were patient and kind. Later that morning, it was exciting to see Pope Francis’s Fiat zip onto the White House grounds. The huge crowd was quiet and respectful throughout the arrival ceremony. Toward the end of the event, a choir sang a beautiful version of the song, “Total Praise,” which brought smiles to the faces of both the President and Pope Francis. Then, as the two leaders turned to exit the stage, someone yelled, “We love you, Pope Francis!” Everyone laughed and cheered. It was a great day.

Khadija Gurnah

My first job out of graduate school was working on Medicaid outreach in Connecticut. When I was in the field raising awareness about Medicaid eligibility, I met many people who fell into a gap where they earned too much to be on Medicaid but not enough to be able to afford health insurance premiums. It was heartbreaking hearing from people who had to make the choice between buying medicine or food. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) changed that for millions of people.

I reached out to the Muslim community across the country to ensure people knew what their options were under the ACA. When I started working on this, I was fortunate to be introduced to the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. They helped convene meetings where advocates from all faith communities to share ideas and strategies. This support was transformative to my work.

Often when one speaks of the federal government, one thinks of bureaucracies. But this hasn’t been my experience — time and time again, I’ve worked with individuals who are vested in our nation’s well-being.

Max Finberg

I have spent my career trying to ensure that hungry people have enough to eat. Working at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to expand access to our nutrition assistance programs is something I will never forget. One powerful example is through providing summer meals. During the school year, low-income kids can access school lunch and school breakfast, but during the summer, we only reach a fraction of those children and they are still hungry. When I first met Sister Norma Pimentel, director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas, she wasn’t serving any meals during the summer in some of the poorest communities in the country. We worked with her and other partners to ensure she could access the Summer Food Service Program. Last summer, she served more than 100,000 meals to hungry kids because of our partnership.

While working in the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, we launched Let’s Move! Faith and Communities with the First Lady to engage congregations in the good work of increasing access to healthy, affordable food. We hosted numerous events, calls and activities to promote community gardens and farmers markets, increase summer meals and nutrition assistance and the gleaning and rescue of fresh produce. All of those efforts contributed to expanded partnerships with existing and new partners that resulted in millions of children having better access to food they need to grow, learn and thrive.

Joshua DuBois

For as long as I can remember, I’ve believed in the power of government partnerships with real people to bring about change. The stories, songs and ideals of the civil rights movement were conveyed to me by grandparents and parents, and my heroes growing up were folks like Fannie Lou Hamer, C.T. Vivian, Bayard Rustin, Ella Baker and Dr. King. When I first heard about Barack Obama — watching his 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention — I saw him as a successor to that movement in many ways, and was inspired to work for him.

I am so proud of our work in the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, both in President Obama’s first term when I was director of the Office and in the tremendous work that has continued under its current director, my friend Melissa Rogers. From anti-human trafficking campaigns to the fatherhood initiative to job clubs for unemployed individuals and more, there is so much to be proud of, across every single one of the Centers for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships at federal agencies and the work in the White House as well.

In addition to our substantial programmatic work, I was moved and honored to help the President and country respond in times of tragedy, and delighted to begin the White House Easter Prayer Breakfast. Our office also coordinated ceremonial events like National Prayer Service at two Presidential Inaugurations; being with the President and First Lady for those moments are times I will always remember.

Gurwin Ahuja

The issue that I am proudest of working on is promoting religious pluralism and combating religious discrimination by forming the Know Your Neighbor coalition. Know Your Neighbor is a bipartisan coalition comprised of leading civil rights and faith-based organizations focused on fostering a nationwide dialogue on the country’s religious diversity and developing a general awareness of major faith traditions.

The basis for Know Your Neighbor came from my experience growing up as a Sikh-American. After 9/11 people were wary of me because I wore a turban. Often, people did not know I wore a turban because I was Sikh and that my turban was a symbol for my commitment to equality and justice. Although I often felt misunderstood, I knew by just having a conversation with someone it would lead us to realize we were more alike than different and any angst or weariness a person felt towards me could turn into friendship or at the very least an understanding of who I am. I felt like if we could replicate those conversations throughout the country, it would bring people closer together despite their differences.

The Know Your Neighbor coalition was launched at the White House in 2015 and has since worked with the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships and the Obama Administration to take important steps to combat religious discrimination. Through these efforts, the coalition and the White House was able to create better communication between the federal government and communities and afflicted by religious discrimination.

Brenda Girton-Mitchell

I was the first member of my family to go to college. I did not know how to begin the process of planning to go to college. I give credit to my church family and community groups for providing the guidance I needed for that part of my education journey. Part of my work at the Department of Education has allowed me to help make community connections for students to support them from cradle to college and career.

The Department of Education Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships began the Together for Tomorrow initiative, in an effort to lift up the President’s statement that education is a shared responsibility. With the White House and the Corporation for National and Community Service, we hosted convenings with faith-based and secular partners to identify and celebrate the good work going on in local communities to help improve outcomes in low-performing schools. We also worked with the National Center for Families Learning to improve student engagement and learning. These opportunities not only encouraged the local leaders but inspired other community organizations to join in the effort to share the responsibility of helping all students to succeed.

The President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge was one of my memorable experiences. We are living in a global society and must be intentional in working to respect our diversity and to be more inclusive as we work toward our goals. Our team had the honor of providing leadership to develop and implement the Challenge which was designed to engage college students of different faiths and belief systems in community service.

Deborah Weinstein

I’m the Executive Director of The Coalition on Human Needs, an alliance of more than 100 national organizations, including faith, service provider, civil rights, and other advocacy groups who come together to work at the federal level to meet the needs of low-income and vulnerable people. We have been very proud to work with the Obama Administration to increase nutrition assistance, tax credits for low-income working families, child care, unemployment insurance, subsidized housing, and many other programs of tremendous importance to low-income people. Many of these programs were expanded to meet needs during and after the Great Recession, and helped to reduce the extent of poverty at a time of high unemployment and hardship.

As a member of the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, I worked with the other Council members to make recommendations related to preventing lead poisoning in children in HUD-assisted housing, and to encourage finalizing new child support regulations. I appreciate the work of various federal agencies to take important steps forward to protect children and to help their families out of poverty.

Time and time again, it has been a privilege for me to see this Administration’s passionate commitment to reducing poverty, immigration reform, and increasing access to jobs with decent pay, among so many staff.

Carolyn Woo

I’m President and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, the official international humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States. CRS works in over 100 countries serving some of the poorest people on the planet, including many who have lost everything due to man-made or natural disasters.

In Haiti, for example, we built sturdy transitional shelters for 13,000 families while also taking up the challenges of education, sanitation, livelihoods, urban health care, rural agricultural improvements and community building to transform the lives of the Haitians we serve. During the Ebola crisis in West Africa, CRS reached out to the people of the affected countries through mass communication and door-to-door visits to educate them about proper care and prevention; established local clinics to enable access and triage; assisted in the re-opening of a major hospital, and facilitated safe and dignified burials, which were key to stopping the continued spread of the disease.

During the Ebola response, the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships facilitated our engagement with the White House, allowing us to highlight gaps in the support for the role of faith-based institutions on the ground. Those exchanges helped lay the groundwork for supporting “safe and dignified” burials, which was critical to controlling the disease. We also worked together to advance a shared agenda for welcoming refugees after the Paris bombing. The office brought together faith groups willing to take a strong stand against “demonizing the other.” CRS was proud to be a part of this effort.

child care
child poverty
community partnerships
Food and Nutrition
gun violence
immigration reform
Poverty and Income
unemployment insurance