My colleague David Bornstein points out that a lot of American journalism is based on a mistaken theory of change. That theory is: The world will get better when we show where things have gone wrong. A lot of what we do in our business is expose error, cover problems and identify conflict.
The problem with this is that we leave people feeling disempowered and depressed. People who consume a lot of media of this sort sink into this toxic vortex — alienated from people they don’t know, fearful about the future. They are less mobilized to take action, not more.
Bornstein, who writes for The New York Times and also co-founded the Solutions Journalism Network, says that you’ve got to expose problems, but you’ve also got to describe how the problems are being tackled. The search for solutions is more exciting than the problems themselves.
But many of our colleagues don’t define local social repair and community-building as news. It seems too goody-goody, too “worthy,” too sincere. It won’t attract eyeballs.
I’ve spent the past year around people who weave social fabric, and this week about 275 community weavers gathered in Washington, for a conference called #WeaveThePeople, organized by the Weave project I’ve been working on at the Aspen Institute.
The people at this gathering are some of the most compelling people I’ve ever met. Charles Perry was incarcerated for nearly two decades and now connects community members to health care systems in Chicago. Dylan Tête was an Army ranger who served in Iraq, suffered from PTSD and has built communities in New Orleans for vets. Sarah Adkins came home one Sunday to find her husband had killed their kids and himself, and she now runs a free pharmacy and leads a life of service in Appalachian Ohio.
Pancho Argüelles works in Texas, accompanying workers who have suffered spinal cord injuries on the job. He helps find the diapers, wheelchairs and other things that will allow them to live with dignity. Pancho radiates a deep wisdom, almost a holiness. As he and the others spoke about their values, the same thought kept pounding in my head: How is this not a story? Why don’t we cover these people more?
At most conferences people lead with their bios, but at this gathering people led with their pain.
A prominent researcher described how she was abused as a child, and how this led her into her research into children’s emotional development. A woman from South Carolina talked about loved ones she had lost and the time she tried to talk a man out of jumping off a bridge, finally confessing: If you jump, I’m going to jump, too. A man admitted that all the people he had loved had left him, and that he had lived with the trauma believing that his wife will leave him, too. In the atmosphere created this week he felt free to let go of that trauma.
It was emotionally gripping through and through. The weavers know how to open relationships with vulnerability and they know how to build connections and move to action. Their defining feature is that they are geniuses at relationship.
This was a gathering in which it was permissible to be an angry black person. Some of the African-American participants fully ventilated their anger at injustice. It was uncomfortable and searing, but the discomfort broke through barriers and moved us closer.
Martha Welch, a professor and researcher at Columbia, pointed out that our emotional health is dependent on connection with others. We don’t just regulate emotions ourselves. We co-regulate with others and need connection with others to keep from spinning out of control.
The weavers are acutely sensitive to states of mind that can build or mar a relationship: how people can feel more or less efficacy, depending on the emotional conditions in a room; how words like “social justice” and “biblical” can be good or bad depending on whom you are speaking with, and how much damage is done when people demand you use words their way, instead of asking: Well, what do you mean by that word?
There were so many acute observations about building community: “Relationship moves at the speed of trust. Social change moves at the speed of relationship.” “Neighbors are people we practice doing life with.” “I don’t fix people’s problems; I let them unfold. I respect the mystery of healing.” “We’re trying to do something that has never been done before. We’re trying to create the earth’s first mass, multicultural democratic republic.”
Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out that associational life is the central feature of American life. But somehow we in the media under-cover this sector. We barely cover the most important social change agents. These people are not goody-goody. They are raw, honest and sometimes rude.
How did we in our business get in the spot where we spend 90% of our coverage on the 10% of our lives influenced by politics and 10% of our coverage on the 90% of our lives influenced by relationship, community and the places we live in every day?