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How Americans can reweave our fraying social fabric

The deadly violence of recent days underlines what social scientists have been saying for years: The fraying of the social fabric has dire consequences. But there are antidotes to despair.

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Harry C. Boyte
The deadly violence of recent days underlines what social scientists have been saying for years: The fraying of the social fabric has dire consequences. But there are antidotes to despair.

Today people trust each other less. Friendship circles have narrowed. Settings where people of different backgrounds learn to work across their differences are being replaced by online communities of like-minded people. Robert Putnam, a political scientist at Harvard, documented the decline of civic life, which he called “social capital,” and its consequences in his 2000 book, “Bowling Alone.” 

In recent years the erosion has worsened. Dhruv Khullar, a physician, noted in a 2016 New York Times piece, “How Social Isolation Is Killing Us,” that since the 1980s the number of adults who report loneliness has skyrocketed. The man from Florida who is accused of sending pipe bombs to critics of President Trump, the man reported to kill 11 Jewish worshippers in Pittsburgh, and the alleged killer of two African-Americans in Kentucky all had social isolation in common.

What can be done to reverse these trends?

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Soul of the Community

In a project from 2009 to 2011, just after the global economic downturn, the Knight Foundation teamed up with the Gallup organization to study what makes for a flourishing community. The aim, Knight Foundation Vice President Paula Ellis told me, was to explore the “enabling conditions that liberate citizen energies.” The study was titled “Soul of the Community.”

Over the three years Gallup interviewed 400 or more people in each of the 26 communities that had a Knight newspaper – more than 14,000 each year. Researchers looked at many factors — from services, jobs and infrastructure to voting and volunteering. Three stood out. The communities that did best economically were also ones that fostered a strong sense of “attachment,” and attachment was highly correlated with: an open and welcoming attitude; opportunities for social interactions and development of “citizen caring”; and an aesthetic sense, involving appreciation for public beauty and green spaces.

Over the last 30 years, working with colleagues in the U.S. and around the world, I have learned that public work can play a powerful role in creating these three elements of successful communities. Public work involves effort by a mix of people to create things, both material and cultural, of lasting civic value. Public work draws on traditions of collective work like barn raising, planting and tending crops, and taking care of forests and other common resources. Public work builds social connections and also civic muscle, development of capacities to act across differences. It cultivates a sense of care for the beauty of a place. Clear Vision Eau Claire is an example.

Building civic life in Eau Claire

In the early 21st century, cutbacks in state contributions and increases in fuel, energy, and health-care costs in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, resulted in larger school classes and less revenue for the museum, the senior center, low-income housing, and social services. Mike Huggins, the city manager, saw an opportunity.

Huggins had learned the concept of public work in the mid-1990s while participating in a project on underage drinking with the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at the University of Minnesota. Public work, he discovered, includes the idea of “citizen professionals” who work with other citizens in empowering ways that draw out their talents and capacities.

“The idea of citizen-centered problem-solving requires managers letting go of control, which is hard,” Huggins reflected. Yet he was convinced that local government needed a paradigm shift: “a twenty-first-century vision for local democracy centered on citizens.” The question was how to do that. The public work approach impressed him.

In 2007 Huggins organized an informal meeting of government and nonprofit leaders to discuss how to deal with the challenges of social services and infrastructure and proposed they enlist the broader community. What followed was a planning process with a strong action orientation, involving government, businesses, the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire, United Way and a diverse cross section of the community. The initiating committee made special efforts to recruit from low-income and minority ethnic groups, including the Hmong community, African-Americans, and local trade unions. The visioning and planning process was respectful of the knowledge of lay citizens in ways that were exceptional. Huggins wrote in a report to the Ford Foundation that in contrast to most community planning efforts, in Eau Claire, “citizens are actively involved in designing and conducting the process, determining the format and substance of recommendations, writing the final report, and determining the implementation strategies.” The goal was to “blend citizen passion with technical knowledge and expertise.”

These elements defined the Clear Vision Eau Claire community-wide citizen group that emerged. It seeks “to convene, nurture and support diverse groups of community members for civic work that addresses the immediate and future needs of Eau Claire.” Harvard University’s Innovations in American Government awarded Clear Vision $10,000 for its work. It highlighted the core concepts of public work, power, public relationships, and diversity in Clear Vision’s innovative model. Clear Vision also was rare in its sustained skill-building process.

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Over more than a decade, Clear Vision has sparked many projects: the Sojourner House homeless shelter, community gardens, and public art throughout the city. It has been the driving force behind the Confluence Project, a $45 million performing arts center connected to a $35 million commercial and residential development project in downtown Eau Claire. Most recently it has undertaken a community-wide initiative to address poverty.

As significant as the visible results are the changes in civic culture in Eau Claire, all of which help create a welcoming, open, strongly connected community with an appreciation for public beauty — the elements that the Soul of the Community found essential for community attachment and flourishing.

A shift in mindset

In the view of Vicki Hoehn, vice president of the Royal Credit Union, Clear Vision has generated a shift in mindset. “At the time we began, our community blamed government. People said nothing happened because the government was too slow.” She believes that Clear Vision “opened a lot of eyes.” She continued, “It’s not about relying on or blaming government. It’s about taking responsibility and ownership ourselves as citizens.”

The collaborative approach impacts institutional practices. “Everything I do I say, ‘How will this affect others?” she explains. “I listen more. I ask questions, I probe on collaboration, I ask my staff, ‘How do you work with other people?’” Many others describe the new sense of connection and new emphasis on collaborative civic initiative.

Ten years of work in Clear Vision have shown that it is possible to reweave the civic fabric. Eau Claire illustrates the ancient biblical lesson from the book of Nehemiah: People repair their identity as they work together to “rebuild the walls” of their community. The lesson is relevant everywhere.

Harry C. Boyte is co-founder with Marie Ström of the new Public Work Academy based at Augsburg University. His latest book is “Awakening Democracy Through Public Work.”


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