In this exclusive interview, The New York Times columnist, author, and founder of Weave: The Social Fabric Project at The Aspen Institute, David Brooks, shares his perspective on healing social fragmentation and building community. The interview has been edited for length, style, and clarity.
I’m a newspaper columnist and it occurred to me sometime around 2017 or so that almost all the stories I was writing had the underlying cause of social fragmentation and social distrust. So, I thought, “Who’s solving this problem?” and it became obvious pretty quickly that there are people solving this problem in every community in America. They are the aggressive neighbors who invite people over. They start community organizations. They volunteer. We call them weavers. The idea is to lift them up, support them, spread their influence around the country and hold them up as an example. The hope is that social change is going to happen from the bottom up, so we really focus on the hyperlocal.
I think our values and ideas shape the way we live. We used to live in a culture that was pretty “we” oriented. People lived with extended families. You were on the farm and you needed your neighbors. Dense neighborhoods were very quick to join community groups. Americans used to be famous for that. And then after World War II, we just developed a much more individualistic ethos. I’m free to be myself. I don’t want to be tied down. You know, all the rock songs. “Ramblin’ Man.” “Born to Run.” We viewed life as much more about individual freedom, and that had some good effects. But we’ve overshot the mark. And now I think a lot of us realize we’ve taken individualism too far. We have to devise lives that are more communal, and we’re willing to be tied down a little if we get to be part of a group.
First, it is important to have an identity. In 1960, nobody knew what the word feminism was. By 1975, millions of people called themselves feminists. They saw themselves differently, with different ideals. So just having an identity for weavers is our first goal.
Second, is that we really want to lift up their stories, because their stories are compelling. These are people who have assumed responsibility for problems around them, who are driven by a moral motivation. Often, they had something really bad happen to them, like a suicide of a child, and they want to make sure it doesn’t happen to others. Their stories are powerful and people are shaped by stories.
And then, finally, we’re doing much more now under [Frederick J. Riley, executive director of Weave]. We’re concentrating on specific cities and giving Weaver Awards, which allow communities to pick and celebrate their own weavers. It allows the weavers to get some financial support from us and it allows them to be in dialogue with each other, so they have a cohort. These cohorts can often be life-transforming.
Trust is built one-by-one. It’s built by having a bunch of trustworthy relationships. There’s no escape from the idea that people have to be enmeshed in trustworthy relationships.
There’s an organization called Thread in Baltimore that surrounds young people with volunteers and their relationship is unconditional. You can’t leave. You can’t quit. The kids often reject the volunteers because they’ve been betrayed, and they don’t want to be betrayed again. But the volunteers just keep showing up. And it’s life-changing when someone keeps showing up for you, even after you’ve rejected them.
So there’s no escaping that this has to be bottom up and it has to be the actions of every person. Trust is rebuilt through trustworthy relationships, and that’s done through good behavior, to talk the language of morality. Trustworthiness is about morality. It’s about living up to your promises.
I do think dialogue is more or less at the center of life. Life is about encounters — human encounters. What weavers do, often without even saying “I’m a dialogue person,” is that they just say, “I’m a community person,” and dialogue happens. It’s not only about politics. People need to compare notes about their emotional health, and their spiritual nature, and how you lead a good life. We need not only political dialogue, but moral dialogue. People used to get that in church, but fewer and fewer people are going to church these days.
I went through a period of intense isolation and loneliness, caused by overwork and normal, middle-aged American male problems. I was embraced by a community in Washington, DC, called AOK, which is a bunch of kids who gathered for meals and holidays and vacations. They were weavers, and they welcomed me into their community. And so I saw how it worked.
I found that I really enjoyed being part of at least one community where nobody expects to find me, meaning any community with people very much unlike yourself. I just found it fun. We happened to come together those four years, 45 of us, mostly kids but some adults, and we were just forged together. It was a great thing to have in my life. I think everybody should have that experience.