An Interview with Anne Snyder

Anne Snyder is the Editor-in-Chief of Comment Magazine and the host of Breaking Ground, a collaborative web commons created in 2020 to try to inspire a dynamic cross-section of thinkers and practitioners to respond to the major crises of this year with wisdom, hope, and courage.

Read more about her work and philosophies below in an interview between Anne Snyder and PACH Director Crystal Clarke.


Crystal Clarke: Tell me more about the work you do in your own words.

Anne Snyder: I run a magazine called “Comment,” and as of this year a second magazine called “Breaking Ground,” which is purely online and more of a multimedia platform. Home base is Comment Magazine and I’m Editor-in-Chief, which I fundamentally think of as sort of a hosting role. I don’t know if every Editor-in-Chief thinks of their role that way, but something about… Well, maybe it’s just a vocational strand or a theme in my life. I just feel like my job is to be conductor behind the scenes. Sometimes composer; the musical metaphor just works well for me, slash food metaphors. So I think of every print issue as a meal of trying to get different dishes and different people around the table that would sort of converse well with one another — even if they’re coming from sometimes widely different backgrounds and perspectives. But my job is to think, ‘What is the common good?’ ‘How can we serve that?’ both in our style of conversation but also the sorts of perspectives we’re bringing to the table. I really just am trying to keep an open ear to, what are the deep pain points in our culture right now? Also, where are there pockets of hope and how do we name what that is and then allow sometimes a discordant but animated choir, quote unquote, to address questions around tribalism, or love and fear or, I mean fairly meta, large themes [including] history and whose history gets told.


“‘What is the common good?’ ‘How can we serve that?’ both in our style of conversation but also the sorts of perspectives we’re bringing to the table.”


A: I also really love highlighting doers on the ground. Here are these voices you may never have encountered that you’re just going to kind of eavesdrop on their thoughts, on their photos, or their art, or their poetry. And hopefully it gives you a context within which to feel less alone in your own cultural questions you’re asking.

C: Beautiful. It sounds like it’s really the work of providing a platform for having these conversations or sharing these narratives that allow people to connect. Could you talk more about how you believe your work fosters connections or a sense of common humanity or brings people together?

A: Sure. I’d say I’m still a student of that question.That’s probably my number one goal, but it doesn’t always feel obvious how you do that. Especially through something like a vehicle, like a print magazine that’s also online — the people on our pages aren’t necessarily meeting one another. But there’s sort of a technique-y way to answer that question and then a more philosophical way. With technique, I have always thought of the magazine period as at its best an aspirational community. And one thing we do, we have a little bookmark in each issue that’s two-sided and we come up with four to six discussion prompts. It’s called ‘Comment Suppers.’ And we’re trying to encourage readers or subscribers to get together with six to eight people either in their neighborhood or in their city or town or rural community and encourage them to read the issue but then really ask [themselves] how do these questions touch their lives, what did they really find disturbing even. And we include a recipe that we recommend and we have a Spotify playlist. So we’re trying to bring [the magazine] to life in a really concrete way, at a grassroots level and just encourage little cell groups to build a more structured conversation that’s deeper and hopefully more grace-filled than how they would engage on Twitter or something, so that’s one practical way. So there’s something about this particular magazine that is at once deep in the way it views reality and the way it views the future, but also refreshing. That’s a word that a lot of people use. We don’t get pigeonholed very easily ideologically, we surprise people across left and right. I think because the publication is rooted in a certain set of theological beliefs about God and the nature of humanity and human flourishing that shared first principles maybe ironically or counterintuitively allows for a mosaic and debate in our pages.


“It’s coherence amidst diversity that yields a gentleness when people approach an argument they really disagree with.”


A: So I think people enjoy feeling like they can trust the goodwill inherent in people’s search for truth and search for — because it’s oriented towards the common good, there’s an assumption that even some of the most hard-hitting truth-telling is oriented in getting into a more honest place. I think people somehow like the sense that we are trying to hue towards some standards that have to do with ultimate truths or ultimate goodness or ultimate beauty. And yet we need so many different people’s life experiences to speak into that, and different expertise to speak into that. So it’s coherence amidst diversity that yields a gentleness when people approach an argument they really disagree with. It just feels different than our politics, I would say.

C: I love the idea of a mosaic creating a common humanity because of the orientation towards a common good. A lot of times when we talk about common humanity or bringing people together, it’s oftentimes very easy to lose the diversity of thoughts and experiences and histories that create the mosaic, as you said. So I really love that thought.

C: Could you share what specific strategies your work calls on that bring people together across differences or social divides?

A: Yeah, again, in the magazine context I try to bring someone that’s well-respected in say the academic context as a Jonathan Height, or Mark Lilla, or as Willie James Jennings, who’s an amazing Black theologian and religious historian at Yale. I like to bring the scholastic, cerebral minds together with those who work with undocumented immigrants who are handicapped and who really only have a very profound and very practical wisdom. We really try to work with those practitioners who allow them to feel confident that they also have some story to tell that’s actually going to enlighten those of us who are in the academy — you know, not me, but other writer types who have the luxury in my view of being able to intellectualize a lot of things. We’re trying to put them in conversation with one another. I mean, so that’s one line of difference.


“There is a huge power to the dinner table; really honoring guests, and thinking through carefully setting a table where people feel uniquely empowered and dignified and tended to, to speak freely and in the context of hopefully budding relationship.”


A: And again, all this is trying to get at — we all have a cognitive side, we have a heart, we have bodies, we are trying to be very holistic in how we’re understanding human experience of a society and all of its potential but also all of its pathology. And we’re trying not to be just heads on sticks. So that’s one way I do it just through a magazine. [But] I’m not sure we change that much if we are only hearing arguments. I think some things needs to touch — what one said, 18 inches down, you know here [:touches heart:]. So that’s just one. And more concretely [and] sometimes I wonder if this is too naive these days, but my own life has just said that there is a huge power to the dinner table; really honoring guests, and thinking through carefully setting a table where people feel uniquely empowered and dignified and tended to, to speak freely and in the context of hopefully budding relationship. And I just think you can’t replace the power of food, the power of music.

My own life prior to this has been in journalism, which is a craft which kind of gives you an excuse to satisfy your curiosity about people very unlike yourself because it kind of gives you a professional reason to get to know them. I grew up very cross-cultural but a lot of my journalistic experience has been quite embodied. I used to do a lot of writing around immigrant communities and how they’re understanding their American identity with their roots and I think if you have — whether through educational systems or whatever [space] for cultivating that curiosity about persons as more complex than any categorical label can put on them, ideally that then gives you some bravery to humbly enter worlds that are not your own where you look different, etcetera. I just feel very lucky that for some reason I have been given both the opportunities and also the delight in being a student of others. I just would love to see more of our education system equip people to be endlessly curious about sort of the infinite complexity of another person that then encourages you to try to step into often stretching waters that challenge your own convictions and challenge your own complacency often about how we are alive.


“I think if you have — whether through educational systems or whatever [space] for cultivating that curiosity about persons as more complex than any categorical label can put on them, ideally that then gives you some bravery to humbly enter worlds that are not your own where you look different.”


C: Yes, all of it is totally resonating with me in the work that I do at PACH but also personally in my interest in immigrant identity.

A: Oh, really? Ah, cool.

C: Yeah, a lot of the research that I did and am still doing is on immigrant identity, Black immigrant and African American identity and how it relates to the perceptions Black Americans hold of the police as institutional authorities. And so the complexity of identity is something that, as a child of immigrants as well, that I’ve always been interested in and how we can use curiosity to investigate those complexities of who we are, which is exactly the work we do at PACH.

C: So my next question is — we often talk a lot about bringing people together, building bridges across divides, but less often, as it may be a more challenging conversation, we talk about the stuff that gets in the way of these connections. The injustices, the systemic structural barriers to bringing people together. How do you think about your work as it relates to addressing injustices in society that often gets in the way of building connections across social divides?

A: Yeah that’s a great question. I entered this particular role with a bit of a frustration, long-standing frustration specifically with a certain kind of cultural, religious, intellectual world that I felt was just very white, male, and even spiritually and dispositionally, very defensive and acting besieged. And meanwhile my both American and faith experience had really been forged in largely what you might probably call minority communities, but I would just call the future of religious faith, which was the Black church. I just saw so much hope in those communities that had really actually often suffered in sort of a worldly, temporal level. And with that comes — often, not always, but a lot of spiritual vitality and strength and never a sense that they’re kind of victims or losing cultural power as people of faith. So part of my initial kind of manifesto was, look, I want to reorient this particular magazine to try to represent that much broader world of faith voices because they have stories about injustice to tell. But also stories of how you can overcome injustice and all in fairly practical, often very local ways. And I just think we all need to hear those stories because they never get talked about in a certain kind of high-level — like, not even high level — but frankly [often with] a whole white set of assumptions. And then I think we try to give voice to questions of injustice just substantively in our pages, whether it is around police or whether it is around — oh, we have a podcast, as well, that does this — police reform or whether it is about economic inequality, or whether it is around refugee work.

My husband and I have this thing we say, which is like, the best adventures take off from a secure base, which I think is like a psychological principle of raising children. But it’s also true I think for our own lives, I think we each are kind of in the mobile thought leader realm, and if you just stay stuck there, you can really gain a lot of hubris that you sort of know. Even in the name of justice. And so we’ve always tried to have our community life constantly challenging our assumptions of what we believe to be true. And that’s not always a comfortable place to be. We’ve just happen to have had ten teenage boys from Anacostia, which is kind of a rough part of DC, 7 minutes from where we live, stay with us for a long weekend. I was just sort of once again shocked by — and in some really uncomfortable ways [questioned] what am I doing in a magazine and in an intellectual world? What of that is trickling down to these fourteen year olds’ lives, who in two years are going to — I don’t care how many marches there are in the name of Black Lives Matter, like, these kids are going to be considered dispensable by this society.


“I just saw so much hope in those communities that had really actually often suffered in sort of a worldly, temporal level. And with that comes — often, not always, but a lot of spiritual vitality and strength and never a sense that they’re kind of victims or losing cultural power as people of faith.”


A: I’m often feeling like if I want to I have the privilege of being distant [from] real physical suffering and real physical inequality and injustice. And I think this year in particular when it’s been too easy to be separated in our silos, [it’s clear that] I need in my life, especially coming from a faith perspective, to be consistently challenged by these unanswerable problems and people whose futures are so different than what mine was. And have them be nephews in my life, and have them be friends, and mutual relationships to make real everything I write about or everything I’m trying to foster others to write about. And that’s not solving any kind of injustice, but it is keeping me close to I think the margins which actually is where, in my view, all policy needs to focus. So I don’t have solutions but I have a deep desire to be — to stay real and not be in some cloud that’s detached from the reality of an increasing number of people’s lives who are not doing well.

C: Yeah. That in itself is really powerful. Just a sense of the awareness of our proximity to injustice, and how privilege can allow us to opt in or opt out of the conversation; that alone seems to me like a step to addressing injustice; asking ourselves, how close and personal do we get to it.

C: I want to zoom out a little bit just to talk more specifically about you and your story. And in particular I’m curious what’s brought you to the work? Can you tell me about a time, or a moment, or experience that really shaped your interest in the work that you do? What’s your ‘why’ ?

A: Yeah. No, it’s a great question. I’ll try to be succinct. I grew up overseas till I was 10 years old. My mother grew up in the Amazon jungle, so I grew up in Asia, she grew up in South America. Without even knowing it was unusual, I just grew up very cross-culturally. And then when we moved to the US and I’ve always just found myself drawn to those who either generationally were not from here, or had been on the outs of the mainstream. And so my whole childhood was — and again, I didn’t think it was abnormal, but — I’ve just always been interested in what a friend of ours calls like, border stock, like stocking borders and being on the edge of the inside of kind of mainstream communities.

I had sort of a very meaningful experience in high school in a super sort of secular context where to have any kind of faith conversion would have been considered ridiculous and crazy. And I think that pairing of discovering some deeper truths about human nature and believing there was a divine, paired with my global and super cross-cultural worldly experience has always just made me love the intersection of absolute truths or transcendent things with human idiosyncrasy and human culture.

And I had an experience when I was 20 years old in Honduras, I spent quite a bit of time there, I was helping build a water system. My mother grew up in Peru and I had very good Spanish and I just had this experience of culturally and linguistically translating between worlds, between Americans who were there and these rural Hondurans. And something about that moment was like, an enunciation moment for my own sense that — and this is so cliche now, and it’s funny that our group is called this — but I was like, sort of been like, in the early 2000s where I was like, I just… think I’m called to be some sort of a bridge builder and I just need to find a craft that will let me do that. And I think there’s so many ways to do it and mine has just wound up being sort of storytelling, and also seeing the human behind an argument and reframing and naming. So that was like, a beginning moment of figuring out bridging. And then it’s just been a longer story of, okay, what kind of writing is it? Okay, journalism. But so many journalists are distant from their subjects. How can I be really closer to the subjects I’m actually in relationship with so I can really illuminate and honor the intricacies of their lives without caricaturing them? So there’s been a lot of heart driving whatever mental skills I have. It’s been very driven by a love of human difference, and yet being in that difference, some like, shared longings, shared… And never wanting to let go of what’s shared, and wanting to find ways to articulate that. So there’s a longer story there, but that’s like, in a nutshell.

C: Yeah, yeah. The power of storytelling as a vehicle to being a builder is something that really resonates with me. My last question for you is zooming out again, and is essentially a question of legacy. So what change in the world do you hope your work leaves behind? Or you leave behind?

A: Yeah. Someone’s asked me a number of years ago, like 100 years from now how would you hope the world is a tiny bit different because you existed? And I was like, I don’t think — I mean, I’m so small. But it was an important question just to think about longevity and generativity and transferring to future generations. And I think a few years ago — and I still believe this — but I would have said I really love surprising those that [are] — and I don’t mean this in an immature or mean way — mean-spirited, but it secretly really delights me — like, I have this mischievous love of watching those who think they have a lot of power be disarmed and sort of humbled by what they actually don’t totally understand. And often those who are on the margins of our mainstream stories that we tell, those who have often been ignored, or who have really suffered, or who have had almost nothing, — they have been my tutors about the good life and I often think they have wisdom that policy-makers and presidents of universities, and the wealthy, etcetera, really need to listen to and sort of submit themselves before… And if I can play any role in kind of translating, that’s just where I’ve found myself most often, in a variety of institutional settings and cultural settings. So just that we would listen more to the wisdom of those on the margins. And then I think more recently I’ve found a bit of a niche and I still, for all — and this is not generationally cool for our peer group. But I do still believe in institutions when it comes to thinking about the future and future generations. So I would hope that something about my writing and the voices I’m stewarding and… would yield institutions in the future that are more trustworthy. I think the world would be better if it was led by more of a mosaic of people and not a certain type of person. So I sort of believe in institutional health, and I don’t want to give up on institutions, but also seeing that they could be filled with a little bit more soul and a little bit more of a communitarian logic. So something about my work is very like, how do we make institutions healthier and more future-oriented?

C: Beautiful. Thank you so much, Anne, it’s been a powerful conversation to have with you around your work and your vision for the future.

To learn more about Anne Snyder’s work and organizations, visit her website and Comment Magazine.

If you or someone you know would like to be interviewed or otherwise involved with PACH, please email nyu.pach@gmail.com.