Why David Brooks is working with The Aspen Institute to connect and support people weaving
their communities together.
By Glen Justice
They called it The Lot. For years, Arica Gonzalez and her neighbors passed it often in their Baltimore, Maryland, neighborhood, the once-vacant property where waist-high grass, frequent illegal dumping, and skittering rats forced pedestrians to give it a wide berth and walk in the street.
Yet Gonzalez is not one to walk around a problem forever. As founder of The Urban Oasis, a nonprofit dedicated to neighborhood renewal, she had a notion about how to fix it. Gonzalez found The Lot’s owner, traveled 20 miles to his home, knocked on his door, and started talking. What happened next was an extraordinary act of trust. The owner gave The Lot to The Urban Oasis at no cost. Gonzalez then invited him to sit on the board. Together, they went to work.
A year later, The Lot is a symbol of community renewal. It features a tidy lawn and community stage for weekly, low-cost Zumba and yoga classes. It supports three annual community festivals, which draw hundreds of people from the neighborhood and surrounding area. Gonzalez even arranged for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to perform on The Lot’s stage.
It is not lost on her that the transformation was enabled by a single connection. “I think everything in life is about connecting people — the things that are worth pursuing, anyway,” said Gonzalez. “Because we grow based on human connection.”
In today’s America, that connection — and the trust it is built upon — seems to be in short supply. The Edelman Trust Barometer, which has measured trust worldwide for more than two decades, shows that trust in many U.S. institutions currently falls short of 50%. That includes trust in the government (39%), media (39%), business (49%), and even in nongovernment organizations such as nonprofits (45%). The same can be said of international institutions, such as the United Nations (48%) and the World Health Organization (49%).
Seven out of 10 people in the U.S. agree that “Americans’ low trust in each other makes it harder to solve the country’s problems,” according to a report by the Pew Research Center in 2019. Six out of 10 young Americans agree that “most people can’t be trusted.”
Trust is the grease that lubricates and helps progress push through. It is the difference between a group and a community, between a pair and partners. Without trust, we aren’t merely alone, we are powerless. And yet, it is a difficult quality to scale.
The sorry slide away from trust is not a uniquely American phenomenon. Among the 27 countries tracked by the Trust Barometer, only one in three can be considered trusting — meaning that their levels of trust break above the 60% mark. Trust levels fell this year over last in many countries, including the U.S., Germany, Australia, The Netherlands, and South Korea.
“You’re really seeing a trust crisis,” said David M. Bersoff, head of global thought leadership research at Edelman Data and Intelligence.
The lack of trust is the invisible cause for so much of what ails us. It is the source of bitter debates and gridlock in the halls of government, and falling rates of participation in community groups like churches and parent-teacher organizations. At the same time, growing mistrust blocks collective action on issues like climate change, poverty, and homelessness.
As a result, lack of trust is increasingly recognized by social investors as a key challenge. Trust is the grease that lubricates and helps progress push through. It is the difference between a group and a community, between a pair and partners. Without trust, we aren’t merely alone, we are powerless. And yet, it is a difficult quality to scale.
“Trust is built one-by-one,” said columnist and author David Brooks. “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.”
That’s why Brooks founded Weave: The Social Fabric Project at The Aspen Institute. He wanted to take a different approach to solving social problems, an approach that focuses on building trust.
Weave empowers those who are already connecting people in their communities.
“We invest in local community leaders who are investing in relationships and trust and creating the conditions in their community for trust to be higher,” said Frederick J. Riley, executive director of Weave.
The project calls these people “weavers.”
“What we found was that there are a lot of people who are doing this work around the country, with no real organization and no real understanding as to why they do it, other than an inkling and a calling,” Riley said. “We find these people and we have tools and resources for them … and then we use ... their stories, in their own voices, to share with a greater community to inspire others.”
Weave is tapping into one of the few areas where trust remains relatively high. Worldwide, 62% trust people in their community and 74% trust co-workers, according to the Trust Barometer. Weave believes social change must start where we live and work, as people come together around shared, local interests.
Weave’s goal is to inspire a nation of local weavers who can rebuild the trust needed to tackle the nation’s many problems. Weave identifies local leaders and connects them with resources, offers skills training, provides a technology platform where they can interact, and gives out “Weaver Awards” that come with a small grant (US$5,000 in 2022). The organization is giving out US$170,000 in microgrants over two years.
The organization has created a speaker’s bureau, to help weavers tell their stories on local and national stages, and is developing a Social Trust Map that will enable people to see trust data in their community, volunteer for relationship-based work, and meet neighbors who are weavers.
Weavers are generally not well known to philanthropists. But they are often well known in their community. Charles Perry in Chicago, Illinois, who spent more than a decade incarcerated, opened Staying Out Staying Active, a program — including a transition house for men — that helps people reenter their communities after prison. Dottie Fromal in rural Ohio noticed children in her neighborhood did not always get a hot meal and began a spaghetti dinner on Thursdays that now involves the whole community. They meet in community space and, because no one has a commercial kitchen, everyone brings a dish to share.
Gonzalez too is a weaver. Long before The Lot rehabilitation up the block from her house, she launched an effort to clean up and close off the alley right behind her home, which had attracted drug dealers. That was seven years ago and Gonzalez has enlisted scores of volunteers, companies, and local public officials in the effort. Together, they have razed abandoned buildings and cleaned the area. The Alley, as it is known locally, is now a thriving community space used regularly by dozens of residents as a neighborhood park. It’s the kind of work that attracts Weave, which gave her an award and a grant and has helped connect her with organizations that can help in the effort. Her work, Riley said, is Weave’s vision in action.
“Think about the other folks who live in that neighborhood, who have seen this blight for years, have seen the drug dealing and called the police a bunch of times and got no help through the system,” Riley said. “They saw this one person go in and get things done. Now, imagine how they have built their idea of trust based on the work they saw Arica do. There are stories just like that all around the country.”