The aspen institute's "weave: the social fabric project"

Seven Things That Inspired Us at #WeaveThePeople

At a time when the social fabric in American civic life is fraying, this Big Bold project gathered Amazing People from across the country who are deeply devoting to Weaving The People back together.

By Jacob Hess & Liz Joyner

Learn more about Weave here. You can join the Weave mailing list here.

Last week was the inaugural Weave The People gathering in Washington D.C. – led by the Aspen Institute, New York Times columnist David Brooks and their impressive “Weave Team.” It was a life-changing experience for us as we participated and watched live-stream. In case you missed it, we’ve gathered and highlighted below some of our favorite “must-watch” moments into seven stand-out themes – each one providing deep wisdom for a country dearly in need of a lot more of that right now.

First, some background…

We’re hurting…but why? Everyone knows America is hurting right now…but explanations for the pain vary widely. In his opening remarks at Weave the People, David made a strong case for one particular cause:

“35% of Americans over 45 are chronically lonely. 55% of Americans say no one know me well. In 1970 married couples entertained in their homes about 20 times/year – now it’s down to 8. Only 8% of Americans say they have important conversations with their neighbors. The fastest growing political party is unaffiliated. The fastest growing religious movement is unaffiliated. Since 1999, suicide rates have gone up by 30% (and suicide is a proxy for loneliness). Teenage suicide rates since 2011 have gone up 70%. The American lifespan is dropping, not rising.”

He continued, “These are all proxies for disconnection – and that’s what’s happening in society. And so, we have an era of distrust. If you ask Americans, ‘do you trust your neighbors?’ a generation ago 60% of Americans said ‘yeah, my neighbors are trustworthy.’ Now it’s down to 30% and 19% for millennials (The younger you go down the age scale, the more distrust there is). And intermixed with all of that is some sort of spiritual crisis that’s hard to define…Why are mental health problems rising, not falling? Why are depression rates rising not falling? Every college I go to, the mental health facilities are swamped. So, something is going on – and it’s all about disconnection.”

In a February 2019 column earlier this year, David Brooks described personally encountering the “epidemic” pain in American communities from grieving parents, suicide, addiction, racism and other indicators of despair – arguing again that “these different kinds of pain share a common thread: our lack of healthy connection to each other, our inability to see the full dignity of each other, and the resulting culture of fear, distrust, tribalism, shaming and strife.”

If that’s true, what should we do about that? (And what is already being done about it?) Additionally, what would it mean to shine a light on the importance of more proactively nurturing and seeking to restore more of these same fraying (or ripped) connections? As you can see David Brooks describing “Weave” here, the “Social Fabric Project” starts with this idea above – that “social isolation is the problem underlying a lot of our other problems.” Check out below more of David’s own personal experiences shared on CBS This Morning prompting this effort:

So how do you solve social disconnection? If social disconnection underlies so much of our collective pain, the Weave the People event had some good news for America: this problem is being solved today in every community in America by people who are weaving connection far outside of the spotlight (building their neighborhood, rather than building their brand). If, indeed, the “social renaissance is happening from the ground up,” as David suggests, then “how do we take the success the Weavers are having on the local level and make it national?”

That was the question around which we gathered last week, to “learn from each other” and hear from all voices (congress-style). We were struck by the humility behind the convening. Rather than proposing to “start a movement,” David has consistently spoken about bringing more recognition to a pre-existing movement “that didn’t know it was a movement.” Rather than share big proposals of what ought to happen next, the Weave Team’s message was this: “We don’t know how to do it – we’ve gathered with you to figure out how to do it.”

So what was learned at the gathering? What were some of the best ideas that came up? We’ve gathered below some of the moments that touched us the most. To be sure, the combination of these excerpts is only a small fraction of what came up in many hundreds of hours of conversation. But we think they capture some of profound hope and stirring possibilities represented in this movement-starting-to-know-it’s-a-movement.

Especially if this awakening movement endures the inevitable turbulence that (universally) arises in efforts to invite inspired change, we believe it will offer great encouragement to those in America hungry for a better way.  As David Brooks put it, “culture changes when a small group of people…find a better way to live, and other people begin to copy them.”

We think these people have found a “better way to live.” But, don’t take our word for it; check it out and see for yourself! Who knows, maybe we can all copy them?

Hope you enjoy these inspiring moments as much as we have!

1. Tomorrow Can Be a New Day: Although things are getting increasingly difficult all around us, redemption is a real thing…(just ask Charles, Dylan & Michelle!)

“There’s a big difference between some hope and no hope” one woman told us recently. No matter how bad things might be, fostering hope in a better day, a new day…was a theme of Weave the People.

Before knowing what to do, of course, it’s important to remember where we are first. That’s why the poignant difficulties of this current moment in America were an explicit backdrop for the Weave the People gathering – verbalized openly as reviewed above (and very much felt in the room as well).

After describing the dramatic cultural shift towards hyper-individualism, David Brooks noted how predictably “when we’re alone, we revert to tribe.” Dr. Jonathan Haidt (Heterodox Academy) later identified 2004 as the year cross-partisan hatred really started to rise, reviewing different trends that have led us to become “more and more different” – including technological shifts to cable, then internet, and now to social media. Compared to earlier generations that faced a common enemy in WWII, Dr. Haidt spoke of how we now see each other as the enemy – sensing even legitimate danger from those around us. For instance, one participant spoke of telling her children to “go play in neighborhood” years ago, to now feeling a need to “protect children from the neighborhood.”

In reprising some of these concerning conditions, Dr. Haidt reminded the audience that “the margin for error is very small” for a secular liberal democracy and adding, “we are now outside the operating parameters.” He acknowledged the headwinds this movement would face, and warned that these conditions will “be worse in 5 years.”

While acknowledging the serious crises facing our country, once again, the focus of the event went far beyond that to hope in a better day ahead. As Shaylyn Romney Garret wrote about the event, “If there is anything we weavers all share, it is the belief that a new day will dawn, that something better is possible, and that we can get there together, however challenging that process may be.”

The hope of that new day ahead were reflected in the individual stories of personal redemption shared – including former inmate Charles Perry, former soldier Dylan Tete, and abuse victim turned joyful mother, Michelle, a colleague of Sarah Adkins in the organization Thread. What inspiration might these stories offer for finding our own collective redemption as a country? Check it out below:

2. Weaving Begins at Home: The core capacity to give and share love ideally starts among the people closest to us.

For those seeking to make the world a better place, it can be easy to forget the simple, but profound weaving available right where we are. This was taught poignantly by Darius Ballinger (Chase23), Nataki Lee (Thrive Mother Love) and Alejandro Gibes de Gac (Springboard Collaborative) – each depicting another way family relationships offer an ideal place to practice weaving together. This was the wisdom often taught by Mother Teresa, who once said: “It is easy to love the people far away. It is not always easy to love those close to us….If you want to bring happiness to the whole world, go home and love your family.”

For vivid examples of this embodied wisdom, listen below to Darius’s tender description of a perfect day, Nataki’s concern about neglected mothers – and Alejandro’s vision of parents’ love for their children as “the single greatest, and most underutilized natural resource we have in education today”:  

3. Going Deeper Together: The connections we need most are at the level of the heart, more than the head…

Given the marvels of science and technology, it’s easy to think that our answers for this cultural moment might come from academic or technological activity (aka, more thinking!) Listen below to Dr. Martha Welch (Columbia University, Nurture Science Program) explain below why our collective pursuit for answers must go deeper.

Although the pursuit of knowledge and better thinking remains extremely valuable, Martha details the urgent, fundamental need of fostering deeper emotional connection in the spaces between us. Her talk “the Science of Relationships” is fascinating – and so instructive for this moment, with key excerpts included below:  

4. The Value of Healthy Conflict: Although bad arguing can divide us more, good conflict is arguably at the heart of the American experiment.

One of the stereotypes of bridge-building and community work is that it’s aiming to bring us together in a way that makes sure everyone feels good.  It’s also common to hear hints that true societal peace depends on greater unity around some shared ideological vision (on the left or right). In both cases, it’s important to remember that American community has always been messy – with deep, impassioned disagreements…and that’s actually a good thing — a sign that democracy is alive and well!

It’s true that argument has the potential to estrange us further, something that Darius Ballinger cautions about (we dig this guy).  But there’s another way, as Eric Liu, founder of Citizen University points out, that argument is essential to an ongoing exploration of healthy tensions at the heart of the American experiment – noting: “the point of American civic life, in the end, is to argue…because America is an argument [between, he added, liberty and equality, color-blind, and color-conscious views of the constitution, pluribus and unum, individual responsibility and collective responsibility, etc.].

In discussing the healthy tension between these ideals, Eric noted how too much liberty can influence equality, and vice versa, adding: “God help us if one side or the other on any of these arguments achieves final victory – then we will not be the United States anymore. The whole point of American civic life is to contest these ideas.” He concluded, “the point of American civic life is not to have less arguments, but less stupid ones.”

In this same spirit, Dan Porterfield, President of Aspen Institute, highlighted the universality of both profound commonality and profound difference – and how rather than a liability, this “sameness and difference can energize us to build this movement.” Jonathan Haidt also reminded the audience that good ideas for how to decrease animosity exist on both sides of the political spectrum (check it out, below):    

5. Alien-Traitors, Unite! Within our current atmosphere, weaving around the edges has become harder – with “boundary stalkers” facing the threat of suspicion from both sides.

Ever feel like conversations across established boundary lines are getting scarier?  Harder?  Listen to these powerful words and experiences from one of the nation’s leading diversity experts, Eboo Patel (Interfaith Youth Core). (Even though that “diversity” word can feel threatening to some, trust us: Eboo is a guy who deeply gets it when it comes to ideological pluralism in America today). We found ourselves riveted by Eboo’s message. Don’t miss these excerpts from his inspiring talk below:  

6. A Civic Religion Revival? Maybe it’s really time to “get our (civic) religion back”…(Preach it, Eric & Anne!) 

Although faith communities provide a foundation for many people across the nation, they’re not always a place that people from diverse ideological backgrounds feel like they can unite. Are there other civic foundations that could unite us more broadly? Sharing what their team learned in traveling across the country, David Brooks noted similar core values that exist across the socio-political landscape: “we’ve been in red America, and blue America, and seen the ‘same gospel.'”

With all the attention going to preserving wetlands and other natural ecosystems, how might we better protect and preserve this common civic ecosystem today? Eric Liu (Citizen University) raised the question of “how we sustain trust and faith in each other when a certain amount of people have lost it” – noting the power of shared community ritual to help us practice and regain civic connection. In the absence of this kind of a deeper culture change, he cautioned that “no amount of law or elections” will restore trust.

Anne Snyder (“The Fabric of Character”) further outlined some of the contours of transformative communities, detailing what “the spaces that make it easier for all of us to be good” (Dorothy Day) look like and require. Jonathan Haidt (Heterodox Academy) also gave a shout-out for why this kind of a shared civic narrative and practice (aka, “civic religion”) may be so essential to preserve.

With a view of the urgency of culture change, David Brooks also proposed it’s time to screw the impulse towards being overly modest and “try to do something big” – imagining a future where lonely, estranged and isolated people anywhere find themselves enmeshed in a nurturing community of weavers. Check it out below:  

7.  A Race Conversation That Invites Healing. Could we explore our deepest pains and most sensitive questions in a way that brings us together and helps us reconcile?

In the same moment that some continue calling for national conversations around race, gender, LGBT issues, climate change, etc – many others in America have been fearful of saying anything at all. In this place of unspoken fear and anger, of course, misunderstanding only perpetuates further.

Is it possible to have a conversation where the pain (and fears and anger) of minority groups in America are heard, right alongside the honest feelings (including fear and anger) of others in our country? And could all this happen in a way that brings healing across our divisions, rather than further estrangement?

That was the brilliance of what Martin Luther King Jr. taught America. “Love Thy Enemy” can sound so quaint in these harsh times, but John Wood Jr. (Better Angels) offers powerful inspiration on why it’s more needed and crucial today, rather than less. If you’ve ever doubted whether tough questions like race could be explored in fully honest, loving (and healing!) ways, you’re not going to want to miss these excerpts from his speech. His response at the end to a concern from Connie Shultz (spouse of Senator Sherrod Brown) is also worth checking out:   

The Big Take-way: There is SO MUCH we can do!

So where to go from here? It’s easy to feel helpless in the face of everything around us. But considering all the above, there’s a lot we can do! At one point, David Brooks acknowledged that “Relationships are intimate and take a long time to develop – so, they don’t scale. But norms scale – if you can change the norms in the society, can really have a gigantic effect.”

Rather than manufactured somewhere else, these collective norms arise from our own individual choices, moment by moment. David emphasized how the entire weaver movement emanated from “being who you are – and going about life in a certain way.” It’s that way of being that he claimed was the essential “message.” “Whether they live in red or blue America,” David writes, weavers “often use the same terms and embody the same values” – reflecting “an ethos that puts relationship over self. We are born into relationships, and the measure of our life is in the quality of our relationships. We precedes me.”

For those used to living this way, it feels natural. But this is arguably a “radical” message for America today, compared with what David describes as the pervasive emphasis on “personal freedom, self-interest, self-expression, the idea that life is an individual journey toward personal fulfillment. You do you.”

And that’s the best news of all: that way of being is something we can cultivate and promote now – without waiting on anything else to change. As Liz often says, “rather than waiting for Washington to figure this out, let’s decide to cultivate the community we want right here!”

At the event, David reported on certain norms they had seen in weavers across America: “Moral motivations, radical hospitality, radical mutuality, showing up for people and keep showing up, treating the whole person, etc.” In the videos above, we’ve noted additional norms that could be more widely embraced and adopted in our homes, neighborhoods and communities:

1. Staying hopeful about the possibility of profound redemption individually and collectively (even while acknowledging the seriousness of problems)

2. Nurturing connection in our closest relationships

3. Prioritizing emotional connection more broadly

4. Embracing healthy conflict as a social good

5. Pursuing deeper understanding across divides

6. Preserving and cultivating a shared civic narrative and set of rituals/practices

7. Showing generosity to political opponents, as best we can

Even if nothing else changed in America today, imagine if these seven norms became more established and widespread aspirations for our communities, campuses and congregations. What could that mean for our country today?

Let’s join the Weave Team in figuring out together how to make that happen! Heaven knows America needs it. When it comes to reaching more people with this message, reality might be our best marketing tool!

To learn more, check out: 

@weavetheppl (Twitter)

/weavesocialfabric (Facebook and Instagram)