NationSwell: David, you’ve spent most of your life as a journalist, author and columnist holding a mirror to society. What made you decide to join the Aspen Institute and lead a project aimed at shifting American culture?
David Brooks: It’s clear that we have a crisis of connection in this country. I do a lot of reporting across the country and see firsthand the loneliness and division. So many people feel unseen and misunderstood. Black people feel that white people don’t understand their daily experience. Democrats and Republicans glare at each other in angry incomprehension. There are teenagers across the country who feel that no one knows them well. There are seniors wondering what happened to the warm bonds they remember from the old days in their neighborhoods. Our national problems are really relational problems. I realized that the solution wouldn’t come from Washington, DC. It had to happen in our neighborhoods.
Q: How do we solve this crisis of disconnection? How do we make people care about each other?
Brooks: It’s already being solved. It’s being solved by people in neighborhoods everywhere. I will go into a town and ask, “Who is trusted here?” Immediately people start reeling off names of folks who are really good at building community and deepening relationships. Sometimes the people they mention work at a suicide hotline or a mentoring program. Sometimes they run a coffee shop where everybody feels at home. Sometimes they are just the person on the block who invites everybody over for barbecue. Sometimes it’s a young woman in high school who sees someone alone and sits down to talk.
Q: So, for you, are these people “Weavers” of their communities?
Brooks: Yes, they are all Weavers. And they are all very different and yet they are the same in one way. Whatever they do, they lead with love. They create countercultural islands, where love and community are more important than ego and self. The problem is that so far, it’s just islands. So many places and people are left out. Our project began as a way to learn from the Weavers and spread their way of living. Relationships happen one on one. They don’t scale. But social norms do scale. Our goal is to spread this way of living, these social norms that value relationships and community over striving just for yourself. The job is not just to heal division. It’s to find a better way of being.
Q: How do you do that?
Brooks: Our Weave Project does three things. First, we find Weavers and tell their stories to illuminate their values. Being around Weavers has inspired me to change how I live, to be more emotionally open, to live more as an active member of my communities. We use video, narratives and public appearances to bring the Weaver stories to millions of people, so they, too, will be inspired to live a little more in the Weaver way. Culture changes when a small group of people find a better way to live and the rest of us copy them.
Second, we bring Weavers together, online and through in-person gatherings. We’ve learned that Weavers crave each other’s company. They want to know, “I’m not alone.” They want to meet other Weavers to laugh together, share each other’s burdens and learn from each other’s wisdom.
Third, we spread Weaver skills. Building good relationships is hard. How do I talk to someone with depression? How do I help people heal from trauma? How do I organize a community gathering and keep people engaged? How do I weave across racial or ideological lines? We want to spread the wisdom that’s already out there in the community.
Q: What makes Weave unique? How is your project different from other groups that support community development and neighborhood organizations?
Brooks: Wonderful organizations are doing important work in their communities. Their services are crucial to supporting people, but their work alone will not create the kind of society we dream of. Look back on the 1970s and 1980s and 1990s and 2000s. In those decades, there were foundations that spent hundreds of billions of dollars to build community and expand social mobility. There were millions of volunteers who dedicated hundreds of millions of hours to this work.
They did good work and helped many people. But the fundamental trends did not change. Social mobility declined. Social trust declined. Polarization got worse. All that work didn’t bend the curves.
They didn’t bend the curves because they focused on creating and scaling good programs. The vast majority of Americans are not in programs. Most of the care in society is informal — friends, neighbors, relatives, teachers and parents.
If you really want to change society, you have to work to change the rest of us. You have to change the culture. You have to change the norms – what people think is the normal way to be a neighbor and citizen, the way a good person behaves. If you’re not doing culture change, you’re not going to bend the curve and make fundamental change.
Weave’s hope is to be one of many organizations that shift people’s perception of how they want to show up in the world. What kind of person do I want to be? How can I live a more connected life, where I deeply see others and where I am deeply seen? How can I lead with love? Culture change is vital.
Q: In today’s society is cultural change on that scale really possible? Aren’t we too steeped in values and a pace of life determined by technology, social media and the pursuit of money and fame?
Brooks: Culture change has happened before and it’s happening now. Back in the 1890s, America was coming apart at the seams just like now. But the Settlement House movement, the Social Gospel movement and the Progressive movement shifted culture and norms and produced 60 years of greater cohesion.
By the 1960s, people found those communities stifling, so they created a counter-culture that emphasized individualism, freedom from restraint, liberation. Think of all the old rock anthems: Free Bird, Rambling Man, Born to Run. They shifted culture again. Today, individualism has gone too far. People acknowledge that. Now the tide is turning again. People from every walk of life, every ideology are talking about connection, relationship, interdependence. Cultural change is already happening. People want to come together, to form new kinds of community. Weave is highlighting those who are on the leading edge of this new way of life.
Weaving is not some complicated legislative agenda. It’s us creating connections that make our hearts glow and souls shine. It’s us spreading that kind of love and care to the people around us, who may be lonely, stressed, or marginalized. It’s us creating a culture where that seems normal, a culture in which it’s easier to be good.
I was in Waco, Texas recently having breakfast at a diner with Mrs. Dorsey. She’s a formidable African-American woman in her nineties who was a school principal for many decades. I was a little intimidated by her. “I loved my students enough to be disciplined,” she told me, firmly.
As we were having breakfast, a friend of hers named Jimmy Dorrell, a white guy in his sixties, came in and grabbed her by the shoulders and beamed into her eyes and said, “Mrs. Dorsey! You’re the best! I love you!” Her face lit up like a thousand suns. They were just there in that moment together, two friends who were making their town a better place.
I remember thinking, I want to be able to do that. I want to be so emotionally open and so caring toward people that I can make heart-to-heart connections with a friend even when I’m just walking into a diner. I want to be so deeply connected and so gift-giving that I radiate joy, the way Jimmy Dorrell does, the way the Weavers do.
This article was published in partnership with Weave: The Social Fabric Project of the Aspen Institute. Weave supports people who live in a way that puts relationships and community first. These “Weavers” lead with love and defy a culture of hyper-individualism that has left Americans feeling more lonely, distrustful and divided than ever. See their stories and learn more here.