If you find yourself dispirited by the state of our republic, it could be because you’re simply not looking in the right places.
Last week, I attended the Weave conference in Washington DC, the new initiative of New York Times columnist David Brooks, hosted by the Aspen Institute. The project is appropriately subtitled The Social Fabric Project, as it seeks to empower and highlight a subversive group of Americans across the country reclaiming ownership of their local, civic sphere.
In attendance were more than 300 “Weavers”: local innovators and problems solvers across the country working to re-weave our social fabric in our divided moment.
Present was Pancho, from Houston, who works at a nonprofit that serves undocumented migrants with life threatening injustices and diseases, and who have not been able to be served by the health care system.
Also from Texas was part of team of citizens who lead the Hurricane Harvey recovery. Their leader was a young man, who is autistic, and is credited with saving Houston in their moment of crisis by creating an app that allowed citizens, in real time, to let those displaced by the flood know if they had rooms and space available.
The founder of The Evergrey—a newsletter in Seattle that helps citizens to make most of their city by connecting them to one another—was also there. By enabling people to become a part of local life—to form relationships with their neighbors, and assisting them in finding their own small way of being part of their city—The Evergrey helps forge the investment in relationships and place necessary to sustain difference of background or experience, and conversations among divergent views of policy, politics, and opinion.
Also in crowd was the team from Solutions Journalism Network, a group working to encourage a new theory of change in newsrooms across the country: one that acknowledges that the state of our social fabric and civil discourse will only improve when journalists and news outlets show where it’s going wrong—but also and how it can, has, and will get better.
In my own research, I’ve discovered and chronicled other such people and groups across the nation. In a recent essay for Quillette entitled The Curious Reemergence of Little Platoons, I highlight a groups such as Better Angels Debates, the Wabash College Initiative for Democracy and Public Discourse, the National Institute of Civil Discourse, and many more.
These groups, and the individuals at last week’s Weave conference, constitute a revolution occurring at the local level across the nation: citizens across the country are re-asserting control over their civic sphere and being a part of the solution in our broken and fragmented era. Yet these people and initiatives consistently fly under the radar of media attention, as fear, anger, and scandal are more lucrative than hope.
One particularly meaningful session at the Weave conference included remarks by John R. Wood, Director of Media Development for Better Angels—a grassroots, nonprofit organization dedicated to healing America’s frayed social fabric by gathering people from different parts of the political spectrum for in-person conversation.
“We live in a divided moment,” John said, “and what we need is to rediscover a story that is informed by common humanity and love. We need a new cultural narrative that reminds us of our common humanity that can overcome our personal fragmentation. If we predicate our goals of a shared American identity on our ability to create a polemical argument, it will never happen. Today, we must oppose corrupt laws, but we should also build noble social structures.”
He encouraged the audience to have hard conversations about important issues that affect the African American community—such as gang violence, crime, incarceration, and more—and to do so with people they disagreed with, but to do so with a mindset of goodwill. We must remember that we have more in common than what divides us,” he concluded.
Such was the ecumenical and hopeful ethos of the week.
It’s not about right or left, black or white, it’s about humanity. And that’s what it should mean to be an American.