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Weaving Together the Lessons of Movement Building

In trying to build a grassroots movement, a ‘New York Times’ columnist finds that elite institutions need to give up their power — while taking on three critical new roles.

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I joined the Aspen Institute to start Weave: The Social Fabric Project based on two realizations. First, that many of today’s social issues — from suicide, addiction, and loneliness, to political polarization, prejudice, and alienation — stem from a cultural problem. As a society, we have come to so overvalue individualism and self-interest that we have lost a sense of connection, belonging, and community. Second, that this cultural problem is being solved locally around the country by “Weavers” — community builders who are forging thick relationships and strengthening connections in their neighborhoods and towns.

The question was, How do we learn from their example and nationalize their effect? Or more specifically, how could we at Weave support the growth of these local efforts? I work at the New York Times, teach at Yale, and have a number of other elite credentials. Weave is housed at the Aspen Institute, which is housed in Washington, D.C., and Aspen, Colo.

From the start, we had to figure out how elite platforms could work with and support grassroots activities. How could established Old Power institutions blend with and collaborate with dispersed New Power ones?

There is a key truth when you are at an established institution and working with those who have lacked power until now: You have to stay in your lane. You have to define your roles carefully so that everything you do is in support and not in control.

At first, you will still face a ton of suspicion. At first, the only thing some people will see is: Aspen, New York Times, power establishment, privilege, $$$$$. Some people just want to burn us all down, and so they scream at us and storm out in great self-righteous displays. They appoint us Pharaoh and themselves as Moses.

But over time, most people realize that, through these people, I have access to things I might not otherwise have access to. I can do my work better if I join with these people. Over time, warm relationships build. People see that we all want the same future.

So, we’ve learned to stay in our lanes. We stay in three supporting roles at Weave.

First, we are illuminators. We shine a spotlight on people who are doing community work. We’ve done videos and online stories on Weavers like Asiaha Butler, who is a community builder in Englewood in Chicago, and on Agnes McKeen, a Weaver in Oregon who lost her son to suicide and now helps other families cope with that kind of tragedy.

This gets their stories out to audiences and supporters they might not meet. We believe that culture changes when a small group of people find a better way to live and the rest of us copy them. Weavers live lives of deep connection. Our hope is that by using our platforms to tell their stories, we will inspire others to live a bit more like them, as we ourselves have been inspired.

Second, we are synthesizers. Weaving isn’t just a set of actions, it’s a way of being, a set of values lived out every day. People who are enmeshed in this life often don’t have the time to step back and name the values that they live out with the gospel of their lives.

We travel around the country meeting with Weavers and ask about what motivates them. In red or blue America, we hear similar phrases: radical hospitality, deep mutuality, seeing the whole person. We name those shared values so Weavers can understand their own work better and so others can learn and adopt this way of being, which puts relationship above self.

Third, we are conveners. We find that Weavers crave contact with each other, to share skills and bare souls. So, we bring them together, online and in person. We learned the hard way that when we bring them together, we shouldn’t try to dominate the agenda. At our #WeaveThePeople gathering in Washington, D.C., last May, we had the community seated in the round with an 18-inch-high stage in the center. People hated the stage! It implied some were above others. By midmeeting, people stopped using it.

This is why we love working with Independent Sector and being at Upswell. It is an established organization that does convening in new ways. It emphasizes social collision, not panel discussion. It embodies a community-building ethos that is dynamic, organic, and affectionate.

At Weave, we are finding new roles for ourselves. We will be an information clearinghouse. We will gather ideas and best practices from around the community and share it in The Weavers Guide to Life. This will be a catalog of the Weaver community, the way The Whole Earth Catalog was an information hub for the 1960s counterculture.

We will be conversation starters. For 70 years, Aspen has been hosting text-based dialogues. We will disseminate texts and curricula so that communities can more easily start their own conversations, on say, Thick Pluralism — how to live deeply across difference.

There are several other projects on our docket. But the key point is this: History shows social change happens when bottom-up and top-down efforts happen simultaneously. You can widen the gap between perceived elites and perceived grassroots or you can weave relationships between them.

We prefer to Weave.

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