Weave is a project of The Aspen Institute under the leadership of New York Times columnist David Brooks. In his new book, The Second Mountain, Brooks describes the crisis of hyper-individualism and bemoans how “America’s social fabric is being ripped to shreds by distrust, loneliness, alienation, inequality, racism, spiritual emptiness and tribal enmity.” After reading The Abundant Community, he was inspired to travel throughout the United States to uncover stories of people who are working to build social connections. He calls them the weavers.

Brooks invited 275 weavers to Union Market in Washington, DC from May 14-16. The purpose of this Weave the People gathering was to provide an opportunity for the weavers to meet and learn from one another, deepen their practice, and begin to build a movement for greater social cohesion throughout the country. I was fortunate to attend and want to offer my perspective. If you want a more complete and less biased record, you can visit the website at: WeAreWeavers.org

David Brooks addresses Weave the People gathering

David Brooks addresses Weave the People gathering

There were at least five different kinds of constituencies represented at the gathering. Many journalists were present from the New York Times, National Public Radio and other media wanting to learn from the weavers and explore how they could be helpful whether it was by reporting on positive community stories or by doing more solutions-based journalism in which articles on social problems are accompanied by examples of community approaches to addressing them. Similarly, representatives of many foundations were present, listening to the weavers, and exploring ways in which they could be more supportive.

The seemingly most dominant group were representatives of organizations that described themselves as serving the community. Many of them were heroic individuals who had overcome some kind of trauma and were now rescuing other individuals who faced similar trauma. They were doing valuable work, but it was difficult for me to see them as weavers. Most of these people whom I met said that they either didn’t have time to be engaged in their own neighborhood or that they related to a different kind of community which was often defined by whatever trauma they were addressing.

A fourth group was comprised of staff from organizations providing consulting services to other organizations. Many were experts at facilitating conversations to bridge the divides in a community. Each one had its own approach and some were actively marketing their services.

The fifth group and perhaps the smallest was the one I had expected would be the most prevalent – people who were building place-based communities. That more of them weren’t represented was a major disappointment. Nevertheless, I met some amazing individuals and heard some great stories.

There was Mac McCarter, a minister who was concerned about the breakdown of community and the accompanying rise of crime and blight in Shreveport , Louisiana where he lives. McCarter began by focusing on the most distressed neighborhood, but he was soon working citywide. His organization, Community Renewal, has now recruited and trained 1600 block coordinators. 54,500 people have pledged to do something to help someone else and, when they do, they get a “We Care” sign to display in their yard. The organization has also built ten Friendship Houses in “low income, high crime neighborhoods” where more than 2000 volunteers and staff provide tutoring, mentoring. life skills, conflict resolution, parenting classes, and family support. They also sponsor monthly barbeques and other events for the neighborhood. This Community Renewal approach is now being replicated in eight other cities across the United State. McCarter says that he was inspired by the writings of John McKnight.

Another great example of asset-based, community-driven development is the Nebraska Foundation that was well represented at the gathering. They have spawned 100 local foundations controlled by their communities. Ronda Graff, a mother of seven, described what she and her neighbors are doing in their small town in southwestern Nebraska in order to make it the kind of place where young adults will want to stay.

LB Prevette shared the story of how her town in North Carolina was in danger of losing their one gathering place, a coffee shop. She and her neighbors worked to save the coffee shop. Now, they are also actively programming it and other found spaces (including a lawn) with events for youth, the LGBT community, and neighbors in general.

Although most of her extended family lived in Atlanta, Asiaha Butler purchased a home in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood in 2002. She loved to hang out on her front porch, but that became increasingly difficult as her neighborhood succumbed to increasing violence. When a bullet pierced her front door, she was tempted to move to Atlanta. But, who would care for the neighborhood if she left, she wondered. So, she founded an organization called Rage that gave her neighbors the tools, resources and voice they needed to turn their neighborhood around.

Janet Topolsky started the Black Belt Community Foundation to address the needs of her impoverished rural community. There were no deep pockets to tap so the residents contributed generously with whatever resources they had.

I’m sure that there were other participants with great stories to tell, but it was difficult to connect with them due to the format of the gathering. Most of the time was spent hearing from and responding to speakers on a stage. The time for small group discussions was very limited, and there was some criticism that those for whom the gathering was intended had not been consulted in designing the event.

Nevertheless, there were parts of the gathering that I found useful. When someone gave a talk about the need to listen and love those who disagree with you, a lively discussion ensued about the challenges of weaving an inclusive community in the face of racism. (“How do we weave if we can’t afford a loom and we aren’t an equal part of the fabric?”) That discussion also got me to thinking about divisive issues such as abortion, climate change, police brutality, and gun control. How do you take action on matters that you are passionate about but tend to divide at the same time that you are trying to build an inclusive community?

Eric Liu of Citizens University in Seattle didn’t speak to this question directly, but he did talk about America as an argument. He pointed out that there has always been a tension between rights and responsibilities, state and federal, individual and collective, liberty and equality, etc. He emphasized that the tension is healthy. Without it, the country would go too far in one direction or the other. “We just need to have better arguments.”

Someone pointed out that diversity work needs to focus on more than the differences we agree with. Monica Guzman described how, after the last presidential election where hardly anyone in Seattle voted for Trump, she took a busload of 18 residents to a small town in Oregon where the residents had voted exactly the opposite. Through a facilitated discussion, the participants found much more to agree on than to argue about.

The agenda we were given for the final half-day was to plan for building the movement. Some actions were identified out of small groups, but again, there was little time for that after the speeches from the stage. I’m not too optimistic about the prospects for a Weaver movement since people seem unwilling to abandon their own brands in favor of a Weave the People project that they feel little ownership of. But, the main objective is to change the culture and I believe that the continuing efforts of Brooks and Aspen will provide fuel for the many existing and emerging grass roots community building initiatives whether or not they are tied to the Weave the People project.

Finally, here are a few quotes I heard during the gathering that will stick with me:

“It doesn’t do any good just to clean the part of the pool that you’re swimming in. You need to clean the whole pool.”

“Community is based on love for one another. Tribalism is based on hate for the other.”

“Relationships grow at the speed of trust. Social change moves at the speed of relationships.”

“In order to weave, you must start not with the need but with the dream.”

“Focus more on what gives you energy than on what takes your time.”

“People want to be asked.”

“We need stories lubricated by love.”

Community is built on relationships and people develop relationships through frequent contact with others. So, if you want to build community, you need places to bump into other people. The closer those places are to where you live, the more likely you are to bump into the same people over and over again.

Most neighborhoods have an abundance of bumping places. There are public places such as community centers, libraries, schools, parks, athletic facilities, sidewalks and trails. Local business districts with their pubs, coffee shops, grocery stores and other bumping places can be equally effective. There are also collectively owned gathering spaces such as clubhouses and places of worship.

Edmonton neighbors organized activities in their local park to promote bumping.

Edmonton neighbors organized activities in their local park to promote bumping.

Unfortunately, neighborhoods have been losing their traditional bumping places. Benches have been removed and access to parks and other public spaces has been restricted out of a concern that the “wrong people” have been using them. Online shopping, big box retail and gigantic malls have led to a decline in many neighborhood business districts. Regional so-called community centers are replacing those that were neighborhood-based. The large scale of many new recreation and retail facilities leaves people lost in the crowd and anonymous. An increasingly mobile population often shops, works, recreates, worships, and attends school outside of the neighborhood where they live. People have many different communities, and in a sense, they have no community at all. They seldom bump into the same people in more than one place.

Some neighborhoods were never designed for bumping into other people. Bedroom communities are often more friendly to cars than pedestrians. There are no places to shop, eat or drink within walking distance even if there are the rare sidewalks. Residents drive in and out of a garage adjoining their house and have little opportunity to bump into neighbors. Likewise, there is a dearth of bumping places in rural areas, and long distances between houses make it difficult to connect.

People are social creatures, however, so there has been a growing interest in placemaking. Rather than trying to prevent people from using public spaces, the new thinking is that safety is better achieved by attracting more people from all walks of life. Business districts are being revitalized by creating a distinctive experience that malls can’t replicate – small scale gathering places, shops and restaurants with a local flavor, personalized service, and community-based events such as art walks, heritage days and parades. Co-working spaces are enabling individuals to collaborate with others close to home. The local food movement is bringing us community gardens, community kitchens, farmers markets and other prime bumping places. At the block level, neighbors are reclaiming their streets by painting murals in the intersections, installing street furniture, and periodically closing the street for parties and play. Apartment buildings and condos sometimes have rooms for common use, but when they don’t, a sofa or a table with a teapot might be placed in the lobby or next to the elevator to spark interaction.  Some people are turning their homes into bumping places by installing a little free library, moving their barbecue to the front lawn, staging concerts on their front porch, or hosting welcome dinners for new neighbors.

One of many neighbors hosting front porch concerts in Waterloo, Ontario

One of many neighbors hosting front porch concerts in Waterloo, Ontario

Creating bumping places in suburban and rural areas can be more challenging, but they also have homes and yards that could be used for gatherings of neighbors. Practically everywhere has a closed or underutilized school, church, grange hall, or other facility that could serve as a venue for community dinners, educational programs, concerts, dances, movies, swap meets, cider making, game nights, holiday parties and all sorts of other events that would attract the neighbors. Portable bumping spaces are another option; some communities operate a wood-fired pizza oven, tea station or espresso cart that can be driven or pedaled to a prominent intersection, popular trail, cul de sac, or other location where people are likely to congregate around it.

This tea trailer in Adelaide attracts neighbors wherever it parks.

This tea trailer in Adelaide attracts neighbors wherever it parks.

Rural communities like Vashon Island can enjoy road bowling, a bumping activity not possible in more populated areas.

Rural communities like Vashon Island can enjoy road bowling, a bumping activity not possible in more populated areas.

Sometimes, though, the only option is to start with virtual bumping. In new suburbs where the housing is being developed more quickly than the public infrastructure, communities have effectively used a Facebook page as their initial bumping place. Contact on the internet can lead to relationships in real life. I’ve heard many stories of Facebook friends helping one another in times of need even though they had not previously met one another physically.

If you want to develop an inclusive community, you need to have inclusive bumping spaces. While neighbors typically have all kinds of differences in terms of age, income, culture, religion, politics, interests, etc. they tend to gather with people who are like themselves. To be inclusive, a place should be accessible to those with differing abilities and incomes. To the extent that the place includes signage and art, it should reflect the full range of languages and cultures in the neighborhood.

As part of their successful effort to turn a problem property into a vibrant bumping place, Newton neighbors in Surrey, BC hung welcome signs in all the languages of their diverse community.

As part of their successful effort to turn a problem property into a vibrant bumping place, Newton neighbors in Surrey, BC hung welcome signs in all the languages of their diverse community.

A key reason why places aren’t sufficiently inclusive is because so many are single purpose. They only attract gardeners, basketball players, seniors or whomever the space was specifically designed for. An inclusive place will be multi-purpose. Project for Public Spaces, the premier placemaking organization, calls this the Power of 10. They assert that every place should accommodate at least ten different kinds of activities. Not only will this make the place more inviting to a wide range of users, but it will make it more likely that the place will be used more extensively, at all times of the day and during all seasons of the year making it safer for everyone.

Occidental Park in Seattle's Pioneer Square neighborhood was revitalized by adding table tennis, basketball, chess, bean bag toss, a children's zone, food trucks, music and other activities that appeal to a broad variety of people.

Occidental Park in Seattle's Pioneer Square neighborhood was revitalized by adding table tennis, basketball, chess, bean bag toss, a children's zone, food trucks, music and other activities that appeal to a broad variety of people.

Having an inclusive space isn’t sufficient, however. We’ve all experienced elevators, bus stops and other public places that are crowded with people doing their best not to make eye contact with anyone else. Sometimes an intervention is needed to get people off of their smartphones and interacting with one another.

Public libraries are a good example. They attract neighbors from all walks of life, but the diverse readers seldom interact except for families during Saturday morning story hours. Increasingly, though, libraries are trying to serve as the neighborhood’s living room. Many libraries have incorporated coffee shops or other spaces where people aren’t shushed. Some have living book programs through which a person can spend time getting to know someone who is different than themself. After hours, libraries have hosted sleepovers, concerts and even miniature golf where people putt their way through the stacks of the Dewey decimal system.

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My favorite bumping places are the ones that are designed and built by the neighbors. These places are most likely to reflect what is special about the residents and their neighborhood, and they are designed to work for the people who live there. Through creating the place, neighbors feel a sense of ownership. They are more likely to use, maintain and program it.

These Toronto neighbors built a playground and converted the closed community room in their apartment building into an active center for all ages staffed by volunteers.

These Toronto neighbors built a playground and converted the closed community room in their apartment building into an active center for all ages staffed by volunteers.

Of course, it is critical that the design/build process be inclusive as well. All of the potential users, whether they are young or old, business or homeless people, have a valuable perspective to bring to the design process and everyone has contributions they can make to creating a place that makes it possible for everyone to do the bump together.

 

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The Voorstad neighborhood of Deventer in the Netherlands is a model of asset-based, community-driven development (ABCD). Residents of this lower-income neighborhood have used their own resources to sweep the streets, plant the medians, create 180 street gardens, build parks for people and dogs, operate a welcome wagon, develop a community center, and offer programs for young people.

I first learned of Voorstad from Joop Hofman, an amazing community builder who has cultivated an ABCD approach throughout the Netherlands and especially in his own city of Deventer. He is also an ardent fan of the Go Ahead Eagles football club whose stadium is located in the heart of Voorstad.

IMG_0394 Joop introduced me to Gerlinda Tijhuis, the City of Deventer’s neighborhood process manager for Voorstad. Gerlinda had done a great job of getting the municipal government to pay more attention to Voorstad, but she had also challenged the residents to do those things best done by community.

Gerlinda (pictured at the right) took me on a tour of community-driven projects in Voorstad where we met Kim Arntzen (on the left), a resident who had initiated a knitting group. The group was knitting scarves in the red and yellow colors of their beloved Go Ahead Eagles. This seemed like such a frivolous project for such a high needs neighborhood.

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The scarf project started with ten women knitting around Kim’s kitchen table. As word spread and public venues were added, more and more people joined the effort. Neighbors taught one another how to knit, and the non-knitters provided support. It wasn’t long before about 200 men and women were engaged. As they worked, they shared their stories, challenges and dreams. New friendships blossomed and community was built.

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People were knitting everywhere – at the community center, in the park, and on the street. They even knitted at the stadium while cheering for the Go Ahead Eagles.

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The group started stitching their work together to make one long scarf. At halftime in the football game, they paraded the collective scarf around the field. It grew longer each game.

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In 2017, they stitched the scarves to create a blanket that covered an entire house. The house they selected was the home of a Syrian refugee family. Wrapping the house in the red and yellow blanket was the community’s way of expressing warmth for their new neighbors.

Community knitting project in the Voorstad neighborhood

By 2018, the scarf was large enough to wrap Wilhelmina Fountain and The Waag, two of Deventer's most iconic structures.

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Kim’s vision from the start, which I discounted as totally unrealistic, was to create a scarf so long that they could wrap it around their entire neighborhood. But this week, after several years of work, Kim’s dream is becoming a reality. Neighbors are using a cherry picker to suspend their three-kilometer-long scarf from light poles marking the perimeter of Voorstad. The project has instilled the residents with a sense of pride in their neighborhood while knitting them together as one community.images0.persgroep.net

The knitting project reinforces an important lesson about community development. Communities aren’t built by outside experts using evidence to come up with solutions to address what research shows are the neighborhood’s most pressing needs.  Rather, people come together when they are relying on one another’s resources to fulfill their shared dream. No matter how frivolous it may seem to those on the outside, a shared dream can fuel community. There is nothing frivolous about an inclusive community because that is the key to health, safety, resilience, happiness and mutual support.

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As a proud practitioner of Asset-Based Community-driven Development (ABCD), I’m convinced that every person and every neighborhood has abundant and often underutilized strengths that can be mobilized to accomplish what is best done by community – caring for one another and the earth, promoting health, preventing crime, responding to disaster, creating great places, strengthening democracy and advancing social justice. But, I’m also aware that there is nothing inherently progressive about ABCD. In fact, unless an ABCD approach is accompanied by a strong commitment to social justice and an understanding of what that entails, it has the potential to exacerbate current inequities. Following are some actions to take and pitfalls to avoid on the road to social justice.

For starters, we need to stop talking about everyone’s glass being half-full. True, all people have valuable skills, knowledge and other gifts. But, the notion that everyone’s glass is half-full reinforces the myth that we all have the same opportunities. It ignores the fact that privilege based on race, class, gender and other identities gives some people an incredible advantage. The obscene concentration of wealth and mass incarceration of African Americans are two manifestations of the extreme inequity in our society.

It’s not enough to be community-driven; we need to ensure that those who are less privileged are in the lead. As many community organizers have observed, “It is those closest to the problem who are closest to the solution.” Inclusive engagement won’t happen unless we are intentional. We need to engage people where they are – their networks, gathering places, language, culture and priorities.

While emphasizing that there is no substitute for community, we need to acknowledge that there are some things best done by government, not-for-profits and other agencies. Portraying them as the problem aligns us with the right-wing. Similarly, a solely strengths-based approach echoes the conservative notion that people can and should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Appropriate professional services are needed, and agencies can be good partners. We must help them work in ways that are more strengths-based, holistic and community-driven.

At the same time, we must embrace the idea that a key role of community is to hold government and corporations accountable. Thus, we shouldn’t be content with organizing for mutual support. We must also organize for social and earth justice. The networks built through an ABCD approach could make a powerful impact on external forces, but typically, we miss that opportunity as we focus on self-help.

As we work to make our communities stronger and our neighborhoods more attractive, we must recognize that our actions are likely to make local real estate more desirable and thus less affordable for existing residents and businesses. That’s hard to imagine when conditions seem desperate, but that is exactly the time when we need to plan for the future. As we’re working on small projects, we should be consciously building the capacity to establish cooperatives, community lands trusts and other forms of community ownership. We must also organize for a living wage and ensure that government and developers act in the interest of the community, especially those at greatest risk for displacement.

Just as it is important for those practicing ABCD to be open to community organizing, my friends who are organizing for social justice would do well to encourage their members to engage in mutual support and other ABCD activities. I’ve found that this is a great way to develop a much stronger base, especially among those people who are averse to meetings and conflict. Then, when it comes time for the fight, the members of the organization don’t have to yell so loudly because they have the whole community with them. Including an asset-based approach also provides opportunities for members to sustain their relationships with one another during those times when they aren’t involved with an issue campaign. ABCD and issue-based organizing are incredibly compatible, but few organizations utilize both approaches.

And, just as communities need to find ways to partner with government and other agencies, it is incumbent on elected officials, civil servants and not-for-profit staff to step back and make room for community. Ironically, many of my progressive friends are some of the biggest obstacles. They seem to think that people’s welfare is tied exclusively to rights and services, and they fail to acknowledge the vital role of community. It is a grave injustice when people are treated only as clients and customers and not as citizens with gifts and capacity. Government officials often have a paternalistic attitude towards the community and don’t sufficiently value its knowledge or trust its judgment. They have a skewed sense of power and guard it selfishly while failing to recognize that power is infinite and grows as you give it away. Social justice has always depended on the power of the people. Now, more than ever, progressives need to act on that truth.