President's Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge

Note: This article originally appeared in the January 2018 edition of the Newsletter of Global Peace Services USA.

The President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge—What I Learned

Kenneth Bedell

On February 5, 2009 one of Barack Obama’s first acts as president was to amend and reissue President G. W. Bush’s faith-based executive order by creating the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships in the White House, and Faith -based and Neighborhood Partnerships Centers in thirteen federal agencies. The revised executive order also created the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

The Advisory Council delivered its report to the president in March 2010. Included in the 164-page report was a recommendation that “The President should allocate already appropriated funds within the Department of Education or Department of Health & Human Services, to provide the necessary financial incentive to stimulate campus/community partnerships through service projects that bring people together across different religious and secular lines.”

As a Senior Advisor in the Department of Education’s Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships Center, I was privileged to be part of the initial conversations about how to implement the Advisory Council recommendation. The president wanted to move forward, but there were a number of hurdles as a specific plan was worked out.

The first hurdle was that the recommendation suggested “financial incentives.” Although there was general support for the concept at the Department of Education, no one had a proposal for how to use “already appropriated funds.” The project didn’t fit into the existing budget and the same was true at Health and Human Services.

Dropping financial incentives from the project turned out to be an excellent decision. As we discovered later, a federal project that includes money is immediately turned over to the development office at most institutions. By taking money out of the equation, the individuals who responded at each institution were highly motivated because of the nature of the project and not because there was federal funding. While financial resources are often important in supporting community level nonviolent action to promote change, having a project that connects with what people want to do is a critical component in designing a program to support community activism.

A second hurdle that almost defeated the planning group was the Paperwork Reduction Act. This law is designed to protect American citizens and institutions from excessive government requests for information. Everyone was in a hurry to kick off the project, so going through the lengthy process required for the Department of Education to collect data from colleges and universities about interfaith/community service work was carefully investigated and then dismissed. The answer to the data collection problem evolved over the next six years.

The first solution that the lawyers came up with was to have the Department of Education keep a list of those who “accepted the challenge.” A loophole in the law allowed the White House to invite those institutions to submit reports on their work to the White House Faith-based Office. Almost of necessity the title of the project became The President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge.

Over the life of the project the two-step process worked well. By making the entry into the program extremely easy, we encouraged participation from institutions at all levels of interfaith/community service program development. The first year, 278 schools accepted the challenge. Of those, 180 completed an extensive reporting process of describing plans, providing a progress report and a final report. The reporting was so detailed that it overwhelmed the small staff in the White House Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships Office. Extensive reporting also overwhelmed the participating institutions. An important learning was that when planning a project to support local action, careful attention needs to be given to what feedback is required for the success of the project.

The Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) was part of the initial planning and continued to be the federal agency partner with the White House and the Department of Education. Starting in 2013, a category of interfaith was added to the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll. The application for the Honor Roll was a legal way to collect data. By this time, we had learned that an important reason to collect data was to be able to recognize and reward people for their local efforts. The Honor Roll provided national recognition for exemplary programs at institutions of higher education. CNCS participation also added a dimension of non-partisanship. The Honor Roll, itself, was instituted by President George W. Bush in 2006.

President Obama believed that acts of goodwill and assistance (community service) combined with public education (interfaith engagement) at institutions of higher education would promote understanding across differences. These are two of the methods Dr. Krishna Kumar describes in “Community Level Nonviolent Actions to Promote Change” (GPS Newsletter of March 2014 [ Vol. 15, No. 1] ). The response to the president’s sponsorship convinced me that projects that are designed to support local actions benefit from having a celebrity or highly respected organization as a promoter or sponsor.

At the Department of Education, we prepared a mailing list of all the institutions of higher education where students are eligible to participate in student loans and other federal programs. This included public and private colleges and universities, professional schools, junior colleges, and for-profit institutions. In 2011, the president sent a letter through the mail addressed to the presidents of these institutions. In that letter, he challenged them to either establish or expand opportunities for students and staff to participate in community service projects that included a component of interfaith engagement.

For the next five years, email from a variety of federal officials including the Secretary of Education, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, the CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service and the Director of the White House Faith -based and Neighborhood Partnerships Office encouraged participation. By the end of the Obama Administration, the program had grown to impacting more than 500 institutions. Participation grew to include 12 percent of American students attending colleges or universities with student populations greater than 1,000.

Initial conversations and planning sessions that I was part of never mentioned the potential of the initiative to foster non-violent actions to promote change. As the schools developed programs, examples of peace building cropped up. A good example of this is when a large menorah erected by a group of Jewish students to celebrate Chanukah was vandalized on the Amherst College campus. Relationships that had been forged in the Campus Challenge program resulted in students from various faith tradition coming together to non-violently respond to the incident.

This peace building potential of the program was recognized by White House staff. In early 2015, I was invited to a White House meeting and asked, “With the success of the challenge, could the United States bring leadership to an international movement to build peace through supporting community service/interfaith projects on campuses around the world?” Participating institutions, funders, and federal partners including the State Department helped identify 70 people from 24 countries who attended the Fifth Annual President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge gathering in 2015, held at Howard University in Washington, DC. At the Sixth Annual President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge in 2016, we had 60 international guests representing 31 countries joining nearly 600 faculty, staff, students, and college presidents from across the country at Gallaudet University, also in Washington, DC.

While the President’s Campus Challenge was initiated by President Obama, the important impact was on college and university campuses. In the end, what mattered was the peace building experienced by students. President Trump has discontinued the Challenge. But many of the programs initiated by schools are ongoing. Through organizations such as the Interfaith Youth Core and Campus Compact, institutions continue to initiate and expand programs. And across the globe, relationships developed because of the Campus Challenge are fostering discussions about interfaith community service.

Below I suggest four characteristics of the initiative that I believe can be applied in other situations to promote peace building. These might include engagement with philanthropic organizations, interfaith organizations, local governmental units, as well as high schools, colleges and universities.

Community Planning and Ownership was Essential

Unlike most federal programs where there are very strict requirements for participation, this challenge asked each institution to create its own program. The only requirement was that they conduct community service with a component of interfaith engagement. Community service was defined as activity that meets a need in the community. Community service becomes interfaith when there is an intentional component of interfaith engagement. It is possible for the service itself to include interfaith engagement. For example, a group of Christian students might work with immigrant families who are Buddhist, as students at the University of the Incarnate Word did in San Antonio, Texas.

Sometimes the interfaith engagement was the result of a college partnering with a community organization on a community service project. For example, Trinity Christian College, outside of Chicago, worked with a mosque to clear an abandoned path. Following the work, they shared a meal and conversation. The result of not prescribing what campus administration and leaders should do, resulted in programs that were relevant to the possibilities of each institution.

Support from Beyond the Community was Useful

While the planning was essential at the local level, there were a number of government agencies and non- profit organizations that supported work at the schools. In 2002, Eboo Patel founded Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC). He was part of the initial planning for the Challenge and remained involved until the end. With years of experience of working with colleges and universities on interfaith programs, his organization was invaluable in providing free resources to schools to help them with interfaith engagement. Today, with a staff of over 30 people, IFYC continues to contract with institutions of higher education to support interfaith engagement.

Campus Compact (compact.org ) also provided resources. It is a national coalition of more than 1,000 colleges and universities that focuses on student engagement in service learning. Their mission statement says that “Campus Compact envisions colleges and universities as vital agents and architects of a diverse democracy” They continue to be an important resource for institutions.

Other national organizations that provided training, program resources, and consulting were Hillel International, Project Interfaith, Secular Student Alliance, and 9/11 Unity Walk. The Department of Education Faith- based Center conducted webinars where resources were shared. A website at the department also served as a source of information about outside resources. This gave campuses a variety of high quality resources. The multiplicity of resources contributed to the quality of program at individual campuses.

Networking Across Communities was Helpful

While resources from “experts” were useful, the ideas and experiences of peers were extremely helpful to participating schools. Of course, some of this was informal exchanges of information. But the Department of Education encouraged sharing in several ways. A Facebook group was established where participants could share experiences and ask for suggestions from other schools. Each year, an annual gathering was held in the early fall where for three days plenary sessions and breakout sessions featured the interfaith/community service work of individual schools. The White House and the Department of Education hosted regional meetings where colleges and universities were invited to come and share their experiences. And a bi-annual report was prepared that not only summarized all the work, but it also provided brief descriptions of the programs at every participating school. This helped schools see what others were doing. The result of these efforts was the creation of a community of learning.

Combining the nonviolent methods of community service and education is an effective way to enhance the effectiveness of both methods.

The most important learning for me from my experience with the President’s Challenge is that at a community level, sharing in a service project and including intentional interfaith engagement is an excellent strategy for building a foundation for nonviolent action to promote change. President Obama’s initiative was very focused on encouraging colleges and universities to use community service (assistance) and interfaith engagement (public education) to create an environment of peace. The result was that students developed a foundation for their commitment to cooperation across differences and an appreciation for non-violent cooperation to accomplish shared goals.

I believe that the strategy of using community service as the starting point for an education program that addresses differences could be effective in many situations.


Dr. Bedell has been involved with peace, interfaith, and civil rights movements his entire life. His most recent book is Realizing the Civil Rights Dream: Diagnosing and Treating American Racism (Praeger, 2017). Dr. Bedell is ordained in The United Methodist Church and led congregations for 16 years in New York, Maryland, and Ohio. He has taught at the junior high, high school, college, and theological school levels. In his capacity as executive secretary of the International Association of Methodist Schools, Colleges, and Universities, Dr. Bedell visited schools and colleges in Argentina, Brazil, Korea, Mozambique, Kenya, and Zimbabwe. Dr. Bedell earned his PhD in sociology from Temple University.  

Global Peace Services USA is a non-governmental organization, now in its 20th year, focusing on innovative approaches to peacebuilding/peacemaking and conflict resolution both in the United States and internationally. GPS, through its publications, workshops, conferences and panels, works to inform and catalyze peacebuilding efforts in widely diverse settings. GPS seeks to increase public awareness of the range of effective alternative approaches for nonviolent resolution and prevention of conflict (www.globalpeaceservices.org).