Religious Leadership, Civil Discourse and Democracy in the Public Square

  • The Religious Leadership and Civic Engagement Project aims to harness the power of university students, religious leaders and their congregations across the United States and the World to rejuvenate commitment to civic dialogue, civic engagement, and democracy.
  • Utilizing a proven set of trainings, convenings , teaching modules and workshops. The project aims to demonstrate how students, seminarians, clergy and their congregations — confronting religious, political, and other social divisions — can use the tools of civic engagement and dialogue to heal.
  • Offer university students, seminarians and religious youth leaders the opportunity to be trained as activists engaged in the public sphere. 

Yasmine ali

Yasmine Ali's experience is in program management and homeless and housing policy. Prior to starting at Wagner, Yasmine worked with non profits, state and local government and Veterans Affairs on issues surrounding homelessness in the state of Connecticut, and with the Protestant Welfare Agency in New York City on development work and member services.

Most recently, Yasmine served as the outreach coordinator at the Islamic Center at NYU and liaison to the New York City Commission on Human rights. Her work focused on developing policy and training for City agencies, non profits and faith based communities, in an effort to combat Islamophobia.

Yasmine has co lectured the Multi Faith Leadership in the 21st Century course, at NYU Wagner with Rabbi Yehuda Sarna and Imam Khalid Latif, since September 2016. This course seeks to prepare students to become aware of faith traditions other than their own, with a strong emphasis on learning techniques and theories of how to engage others.


Yasmine can be reached via email at




The Rev. Noelle Damico is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Public Service of NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. She is also a Senior Fellow at the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, in New York City.  She has worked side by side with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) organizing institutional and grassroots involvement in the CIW’s Campaign for Fair Food since 2001 and is a member of the board of directors of the Fair Food Standards Council that monitors the CIW's internationally recognized and award winning Fair Food Program.   

An expert in the field of forced labor, human rights, and corporate accountability, Noelle lectures widely at universities, institutions and conferences including keynotes at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe High Level Conference on Human Trafficking, the US Department of Justice’s National Human Trafficking Conference, and the NGO Working Group on Food and Hunger Policy at the UN.   

For twelve years Noelle served as national spokesperson for the two million member denomination’s commitment to fair food, organizing thousands of congregations across the country to join farmworkers in successful rights advocacy and defining the denomination’s human rights based approach to human trafficking.  Prior to that she directed the UCC’s legislative advocacy network on Capitol Hill, served as a pastor of congregations on Long Island and in New Jersey, a campus minister at SUNY Stony Brook, and worked in the field of software design.  She started Shalom Interfaith Partnership in 1996, a non-profit that pools resources from 13 congregations of different faiths in order to meet emergency needs and address root causes of poverty with people who have been made poor in Suffolk County Long Island.

Noelle is deeply involved in efforts for justice and collective well-being in Westchester County.  She is the Co-Chair of the Westchester Women’s Agenda (, the co-founder of Interfaith Clergy for Social Action(, on the planning team of #KeepWestchesterThriving a super-coalition of non-profits, community organizations representing environmental, human services, faith, the arts, and housing rights to ensure county financing and support for the common good, and a founding member of the Stewards of Cranberry Lake Preserve (  She and her elementary-aged son have led a grassroots district-wide effort in White Plains to reform recess practices in all five elementary schools.  This effort is bearing fruit in changed practices, funding commitments and anticipates a district-wide roll-out of child-centered rights based recess practices in 2017.

Noelle holds a B.A. with high honors from Swarthmore College in religion, politics and economics, an M.Div. in philosophical theology and a Th.M. in aesthetic philosophy and liturgy from Princeton Theological Seminary.  She resides in White Plains, NY.

Noelle can be reached via email at

David Elcott

DAVID ELCOTT (Co- Director)

David Elcott has spent the last twenty-five years at the intersection of community building, the search for a theory of cross-boundary engagement, and interfaith and ethnic organizing and activism. Trained in political psychology and Middle East affairs at Columbia University and Judaic studies at the American Jewish University, Dr. Elcott is the Taub Professor of Practice in Public Service and Leadership at the Wagner School of Public Service at NYU and associate faculty at the Research Center for Leadership in Action.  He also co-directs the Dual Degree Program in Jewish Studies and Wagner. Over the past four years, Dr. Elcott has worked to build a robust training program of community organizing and advocacy campaigns housed in Wagner and attended by students from across the university. We have focused on supporting changes in criminal justice procedures, food justice and immigration reform and, this year, challenging regulations that affect reentry of parolees in NYC housing.  His goal is to offer year-round opportunities for NYU students to learn the skills, tools and theories of social justice transformation.

He was formally the Vice-President of the National Center for Learning and Leadership, a think-tank tasked with training community leaders to rethink the nature of contemporary community and civic obligation. As Interreligious Affairs Director of the American Jewish Committee and as the Executive Director of the Israel Policy Forum, David has addressed a wide array of public policy issues, building interfaith and interethnic coalitions to address Middle East peace, immigration reform, civil liberties and workers rights. He has mediated conflicts between and among religious communities in the U.S. and around the world,  finding collaborations and solutions on issues as diverse as posthumous Mormon Baptisms, financing the World Lutheran Federation’s hospital in Jerusalem, the conflicts over The Passion of the Christ and Israeli-Palestinian issues with many members of the National Council of Churches.  He led a major event at the Arizona-Mexican border and helped organize national demonstrations for immigration reform.

His present research is focused in two areas: With a Ford Foundation grant, Dr. Elcott addresses how religious leaders affect civil discourse and democracy, searching for pathways for constructive religious involvement in civic affairs. With grants from the Meyerhoff and Taub Foundations, he seeks to mobilize the baby-boomer cohort for encore professional and volunteer careers in public service. He has written A Sacred Journey: The Jewish Quest for a Perfect World and numerous articles and monographs on power and war, minority civic engagement, and cross-cultural pluralism. He has represented the Jewish community in interfaith settings in Europe, South America and Asia.

In 2013, Dr. Elcott received NYU’s Martin Luther King Faculty Award.

David can be reached via email at 

STEVE GUTOW (Co- Director)

Rabbi Steve Gutow is a Visiting Scholar at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. He brings a powerful depth and richness of expertise in organizing, advocacy and reaching across the divisions that have undermined the sense of shared obligation and fate in America and beyond.

He served as President and CEO of the Jewish Council of Public Affairs (JCPA) from 2005 until 2015. The JCPA has been for eighty years the umbrella organization for both 120 local community relations councils throughout the country and 16 national organizations including all the major Jewish religious movements as well as the ADL, the AJC, the NJCW and others.  Steve initiated a campaign to address poverty in the U.S. that implemented several efforts that have led to an increased national commitment to reduce poverty, efforts such as the "food stamp challenge” and Fighting Poverty with Faith. Under Steve’s leadership the JCPA undertook in 2013 an "Immigration Nation" campaign to demonstrate Jewish community support for comprehensive immigration reform and a campaign to end gun violence, inspired by the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary. Under Rabbi Gutow’s auspices the JCPA initiated a civility in the public square campaign that serves as a model for faith communities around the world. Also, importantly, as a part of the JCPA, Steve served as a leader of the principal environmental advocacy organization in the Jewish community, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL).

In 2015 Gutow was appointed to the President’s Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and was accepted as a New York member of the Council on Foreign Relations. In addition, he serves as chair of the board of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, which is a partnership of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Association of Evangelicals, the National Council of Churches and the JCPA.

He also served as chair from 2008 to 2009 of the Save Darfur Coalition, a U.S.-based advocacy group calling for international intervention in Sudan to try and stop the genocidal conflict there. He served on the Board of the Washington, D.C. based Faith in Public Life, an organization founded following the 2004 presidential election to help shape public debates and advance faith as a positive and unifying force for justice, compassion and the common good.

Steve, a Texas native, served in many leadership roles in Texas including the state board of the Texas Civil Liberties Union, as well as many other roles in local and state organizations.

Steve attended the University of Texas at Austin where he earned an undergraduate degree in History in 1970 and his Juris Doctorate in 1977. He received his rabbinical degree from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 2003.

In May of 2016, Gutow gave the commencement address at Gratz College where he was awarded an honorary doctorate.

He has won many awards and written many articles. When Newsweek rated American rabbis Gutow was repeatedly recognized as one of the nation’s most influential rabbis in 2009, 2010, and 2012. He has also been recognized as one of the nation’s top Jewish leaders by The Forward. In 2001, Gutow was awarded both the Reconstructionist Student Association Prize for Social Action within the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and the Rabbi Devora Bartnoff Memorial Prize for Spiritually Motivated Social Action.

Steve can be reached via email at




Juanita Lewis  is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Public Service of NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. She was born and raised in Saint Paul, MN. She graduated from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities with a B.A. in History and Political Science, and with her Masters of Advocacy and Political Leadership Degree from the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

She began her work as a community organizer with the Minnesota chapter of ACORN. Since 2004, she has worked on numerous electoral campaigns at the city, state and federal level in different staffing capacities.

She currently is the Hudson Valley Organizing Director, for Community Voices Heard.  Community Voices Heard (CVH) is a member-led multi-racial organization, principally women of color and low-income families in New York State that builds power to secure social, economic and racial justice for all.  Juanita develops community members into leaders that work on strategic issue based campaigns that bring the issues of low-income people to the forefront.

Juanita can be reached via email at



Simran Jeet Singh is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Religion at Trinity University and Senior Religion Fellow for the Sikh Coalition. Simran holds graduate degrees from Harvard University and Columbia University, and for the 2017-2018 academic year will be the Henry R. Luce Post-doctoral Fellow of Religion and International Affairs at the NYU Center for Religion and Media. He also currently serves as a Truman National Security Fellow for the Truman National Security Project.


Simran is a prolific writer who contributes frequently to various news outlets and digital platforms. He has become a consistent expert for reporters and news outlets around the world in television, radio, and print media. Singh also serves on the board for the Religion Newswriters Association, the premiere organization for religion journalists in the country.

Simran’s academic expertise focuses on the history of religious communities in South Asia, and he has taught at Columbia University and Trinity University on Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, and Sikh traditions. Simran’s recent scholarship and public engagement examines xenophobia, racial profiling and hate violence in post 9/11 America. He is currently working on two books for publication – one explores the intersections of race and religion in modern Islamophobia, and the other historicizes the formation of the Sikh tradition around the earliest memories of its founder, Guru Nanak.

In addition to his academic and media commitments, Simran speaks regularly on a variety of topics related to diversity, inclusion, civil rights, religion, and hate violence. His thought leadership extends to a number of audiences, including educational institutions, religious communities, and public venues like the White House and Pentagon.

Born and raised in San Antonio, Texas, Simran is a diehard Spurs fan and avid marathon runner. He currently lives with his wife and daughter in Manhattan, New York, where his wife, Gunisha Kaur, teaches and works as an anesthesiologist specializing in global health at Weill Cornell Medical College.

Simran can be reached via email at


  • The goals of the Religious Leadership and Civic Engagement project are to:

  1. Mobilize university students, seminarians and faith communities to address common concerns
  2. Break through barriers of understanding and identity, finding paths to work together
  3. Equip seminarians, university students and religious leaders with advocacy and organizing skills to influence policies and standards of key concern to their constituents and wider society
  4. To assist community advocates who have a deep and profound calling for service rooted in the religious identity to organize and effect real change within their community


We are happy to offer the complete training modules  through both our website and youtube. The videos are an interactive tools meant to be used in a group setting. 

Please use the link below to view the videos


Amid increased grassroots protests nationwide since the 2016 elections, about 400 students and others came together for a 90-minute training on nonviolent action hosted by NYU Wagner and the school's Taub Professor of Practice in Public Service and Leadership, David Elcott.

Flexibility in American religious life: an exploration of loyalty and purity

Religion News Service: After 50 years, clergy work together again in San Antonio, for affordable housing


  • Accomplishments:

    The project developed a highly effective curriculum and set of training modules designed to teach religious leaders how to foster and promote constructive civic discourse. These video resources developed are being used in seminaries, churches and synagogues across the country.  

On Going Projects: 

The Religious Leader and Civic Engagement (RLCE) Program

RLCE seeks to recruit religious leaders in cities across the country, who feel an urgent need to act because their communities are at risk due to growing tensions in the United States. We seek to create interfaith coalitions that will collaboratively engage in local advocacy as a scalable model from which we hope to impact constructive religious engagement across America.

The engaged religious leaders will work together to select an issue impacting their community, which might include, for instance, policies or programs relating to poverty and power distribution, race and ethnic tensions, climate change, housing, or education.

The project will take place over the course of three years, with city partnerships added on a rolling basis. New cities will be engaged at approximately four-month intervals with initial coalitions continuing to be monitored and receiving advice as recruitment begins in the next city.

For each coalition of religious leaders, RLCE will supply infrastructure support, training, background research, advice, access to communal influentials, and connections to social justice and policy communities. Participants will acquire skills for collaborating across differences, learning about each other’s traditions and gaining understanding of religious fault lines. At the same time they will gain experience in community organizing and advocacy, including relevant laws and policies, and skills such as persuasive writing (including letters and public appeals), leadership, stakeholder mapping and framing, and media for advocacy.   


Over the past decade and in light of the conflicts that ignite ever more terrifying violence, we have invested in mediation and and promoting civic engagement across the globe from Ethiopia to Indonesia, South Africa to Latin America.  In particular, we have helped to facilitate gatherings between Palestinians and Israelis and Mormons and Jews as they tried to address the issues that divide them.  These past years, we have facilitated gatherings of German Christians, Israeli Jews and Palestinians to find ways to work toward peace and created a conference of faith leaders from across the globe – Western and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and the United States – to consider how to address the attacks on democracy. With the rise of alt-right nationalism and illiberal democracy on each continent, the need to ratchet up the ways we mobilize faith leaders is ever more critical.

Our efforts to support religious leaders who can promote civil discourse and democracy in their countries that are increasingly polarized by identities—religion, race, ethnicity, nationality, and sexual identity, language—and by political views. Central to many of these debates is what civil society and democracy should look like in this decade of the 21st century. So much of this is new even if rooted in old and even ancient debates.

At this juncture, the market for violent rhetoric and hostile political engagement seems to drive us further apart and silence so many of us who would seek alternative ways of coming together to address all that separates us. We need healers and we turn to religious leaders to once again play that role, to fulfill the opening words of Psalm 133, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers and sisters to dwell together in unity!” The key is helping these leaders find an authentic religious voice from within their own tradition to challenge the violent rhetoric and xenophobia that could well strangle the moves toward greater democracy around the world.

We have nurtured relationships that bring us to this moment – with the National Council of Churches and the US Conference of Bishops, the Evangelical Church of Germany and the Lutheran Bishop of Jerusalem and the Holy Land, The White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, the International Conference of Christians and Jews and the Pontificio Istituto Biblico in Rome, a Bishop from the evangelical Covenant of God Church and rabbis from Cuba and Argentina as well as the Jewish chair of Yerus-Shalem An Inclusive Jerusalem. And our active core of advisors now includes key Muslim leaders from across North America. With this remarkable network and the respect we have generated these past decades, we have a unique opportunity to bring to NYU Wagner these senior Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Muslim leaders from around the world to develop powerful religious voices to together explore the political and cultural issues that so divide, develop the religious language and theological strength to combat the rise of nationalist xenophobia and support democratic and cross-divide civic engagement toward solving rather than exacerbating the conflicts their countries face.

Our convening of religious activists would take place in the fall of 2018 with smaller initial convenings in Europe, the Middle East and the United States to prepare as well as committing the participants to engage as a community over the next twelve months and conceive and author ways to communicate to their home constituents in the most effective manner.

There is a rabbinic dictum, “It is not ours to complete the task, yet we are not freed to walk away.” This is an unparalleled opportunity to gather in one place powerful leaders and forces that will speak to their religious communities and create programs and projects to heal the hemorrhaging that so undermines civil society and project of expanding and solidifying liberal democracy in the world.




It is with great excitement and hope that we have launched what we feel is both an innovative and painfully timely project. Along with many vulnerable populations in the United States, NYU experienced the threat to so many in our community – students, faculty and administrators whose status in America was suddenly in question or their identities under verbal and in some cases physical assault.  As a result, we at Wagner brainstormed as to how we could best create an activist community committed to civic engagement and democratic values that reach across political and social identity divides.


For many years, education for the white male elite was dedicated to nurturing and sending out gentlemen citizens committed to civic engagement to better the world.  While we certainly have expanded access to higher education, we also may well have lost our commitment to train students to be leaders engaged in civic affairs. We are convinced now is certainly a time for educated and activist civic engagement.  And it is a time when so many passionate individuals and groups in the local community want the skills and motivation and knowledge to be engaged. At the center of an NYU community of over 100,000 souls that is dedicated to nurturing effective activists engaged in the critical issues of the day, we have developed and ran a range of projects and programs for for the University community on How To Be An Effective Activist that began with a university-wide program drew over 800 students, faculty, administrators and friends and hundreds more streaming the program.  We followed this with training programs for those even more interested. This year, in concert with 12 other NYU school and programs, we returned to the theme and again filled the Law School hall and streamed to hundreds more.  Beyond the success of the events themselves is that a number of schools at NYU are now joining together to work on instilling an activist spirit of human and civil rights and social justice. It is this effort that we want to advance.

Together as a nucleus involving Wagner with Prof. David Elcott, the Center on Race, Inequality and the Law at the Law School with Executive Director Vincent Sutherland, Professor Carol Anne Spreen at Steinhardt, Stephen Duncombe of the Gallatain School of Individualized Study, Dr. Linda Lausell-Bryant of the Silver School of Social Work and Prof. Andy Teirstein at Tisch, we imagine a novel program that would combine academic training with hands on organizing and advocacy. The result is a new program at the University, Advocacy and Political Action, committed to engage and train across the University students, staff and faculty to enhance their civic engagement at a crucial time in American and world history.  Our hope is to harness their passion for doing good and motivate them to be organizers, issue advocates, campaign managers and even potential political candidates -- and yes, we are open to all points of view.

The program has many elements – to encourage, track and publicize courses focused on organizing and advocacy in theory and practice and others that address the many issues we face – such as climate change, women’s health, political campaigns, strategic communication for social justice impact, equal education, law and society and migration.  We want to host events that bring agitprop artists and international activists to NYU, ways to use song and dance and theater as effective responses to hate. And we want to launch NYUTakeAction to reach out to our community, offering networking and placement and opportunities for learning and action.

This is a dramatic time in which we believe the University community cannot simply offer classes to get “the job” and earn a good wage.  And we have students, faculty and administration professionals, both domestic and international, passionate and ready to engage in the critical issues facing our nation and other nations as well.  Prior generations rose to effect significant and durable changes in our society. The university community was often powerful agents for change. Millennials are critiqued for being complacent, fearful of change and the future. We believe that this project is an antidote that can change lives here and change conditions in the world.  We are ready to launch and we hope that we can find foundations that share our passion and belief that training a new generation of activist leaders is one critical arena that is of the utmost urgency.



contact us

For more information on this project or if you would like to get involved,  please contact us by email at  or by phone at (212)992- 6518


The Puck Building
295 Lafayette Street
Second Floor
New York, NY 10012-9604
(southeast corner of Lafayette St. and Houston St.