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