David Brooks Talks Education, Cultural Divides and How the Weavers in our Schools Will Help Heal America

Originally published by The 74 Million.

For some educators, teaching is only part of the job. For them, student and school success requires weaving a community of connection, support and belonging. These “weaver educators” teach the value of relationships to their students and make their communities stronger. The 74 is telling their stories to inspire all of us to become weavers.

We created our series “Weaving a Stronger Society — Starting in our Schools” in partnership with The Aspen Institute, a global nonprofit headquartered in Washington, D.C. In 2018, New York Times columnist David Brooks and The Aspen Institute launched weave: The Social Fabric Project to solve the problem of broken social trust that has left Americans divided along many lines. The project works to find weavers bringing their communities together, tells their stories and offers them support and connection. 

During a recent conversation in Washington, D.C., David Brooks shared how the weave project began and why he believes we all can help heal our lonely, divided and distrusting nation by weaving community, starting where we live and work.

The 74: You founded ‘weave: The Social Fabric Project’ with the Aspen Institute in 2018 — can you take us back in time to before the pandemic, and talk about what sparked the idea for you? 

Brooks: Well, my full-time job is being a newspaper columnist, and I spend a lot of my time writing about America’s problems. And a lot of the problems I was covering [around 2018] all had one similarity — and that was the tearing of our social fabric. Whether it was the rise in suicides, loneliness, depression, political polarization, people angry at each other and not really seeing one another … a common link was a loss of community. 

A loss of connection. 

And so as a reporter, you start asking questions and you run across these statistics: 54% of Americans say no one knows them well, the number of people who say they have no close friends has quadrupled, you see increasing isolation and rising opioid addictions, etc. And so I began to realize, the problem underlying all these other problems is a degree of social distrust. 

But there are people, whom we call weavers, who are out there actively rebuilding trust, rebuilding communities every day. And the purpose of weave quickly became: What can we do to help these people out? What can we do to encourage more people to become weavers?

How do you talk about ‘weaving’? What distinguishes a weaver? 

It’s easiest to describe when you talk about seeing it in action. I’m always reminded of this woman in Chicago who was living in a neighborhood called Englewood, and she was going to leave because it was getting dangerous. One day, as she’s about to move, she looks out across the street and sees a little girl playing in an empty lot with broken bottles. And she turns to her husband and says, “We’re not going to just leave. We’re going to be a family that stays here.” 

And so she Googles “Volunteer in Englewood,” and [starts getting involved] and now she runs this thing called R.A.G.E., Resident Association of Greater Englewood, which is the big community organization in Englewood. So she could have left, but instead she invested in the community. They clean up the lots in the community, they aid the homeless in the community, they help organize political things in the community. And so instead of leaving, she’s now actively weaving the fabric of that particular community. 

The first thing a weaver does is they take a place where there was no community, or weak community, and they create a strong community. They’re hyperlocal, they tend to work in the neighborhoods where they live. They’re trusted by their neighbors and they know what the problems are. That last one is a key takeaway I’ve learned — that the entire neighborhood is the unit of change. A friend of mine said, “You can’t only clean the part of the swimming pool you’re in. You’ve got to clean the whole neighborhood.” 

And the thing is, the people in the neighborhood know what to do. They don’t always have the resources and the money to do it, but they’re the ones who understand the problems better than anyone — and they’re the ones who know exactly what their neighborhood needs.

So with weaving, it’s not about outsiders coming in to fix the neighborhood. It’s about neighbors being empowered to fix their own neighborhood, and we look for ways to support that however we can. 

With a new concept and new approach like this, how do you figure out where to start? How did you get this off the ground? 

While America was sort of at political war with itself from 2016 through 2019, we were traveling the country. And we’d arrive at cities like Wilkesboro, North Carolina or New Orleans or Chicago, or neighborhoods in Los Angeles like Watts or Compton, and we’d start asking, “Who’s trusted here?” And everywhere we turned, people would start giving us names of who they trust, and who has built trust among their neighbors.

In Watts, it was a woman named Keisha Daniels who runs Sisters of Watts, a group of moms who, when a kid needs some food to take home, they give him or her a backpack full of food. They help homeless people take showers.

Weave is about people like this, just pitching in for their neighborhood. 

We heard about a guy in Washington, D.C., in one of the neighborhoods here, who was working at the parking garage, taking the money. Apparently he knows a lot about city zoning regulations. And so if you have a problem in the neighborhood with the city, everyone just knows: You go to the guy in the parking garage and you say, “How do I fix this?” And he helps you fix it. 

So it quickly became apparent to us: Social fabric is really about who is trusted — who is building trust in their area? And I think, in many ways, good community members are generally weavers. 

I have a friend who says I practice “aggressive friendship,” which means I invite people in. I’m the one who’s organizing the block party. And so that’s a part of weaving, yes, but I’d say the one thing that goes beyond just organizing is being a moral force — having a moral vision for how to uphold the dignity of a person. In my reporting through the years, so many people tell me they feel invisible, unheard, and unseen.

That can be rural people who think coastal elites don’t understand them. Black people who think whites don’t understand their daily experience. Republicans and Democrats looking at each other without understanding each other. So Weavers not only organize people, they have a commitment to first seeing others deeply and seeing the dignity in each person. Which extends beyond a social thing — it’s a moral thing, a way of living that says “I see your dignity, I’m going to ask you about your life, I’m going to listen to you really well, and you’re going to go away thinking, ‘Wow, that person was a really good listener. I feel seen.’”

When you talk about ‘aggressive friendship,’ can you talk about times you’ve played the role of a weaver? What role has weaving played in your life? 

Before I really knew what a weaver was, I was benefiting from weavers. 

I had a friend who had a kid in DC Public Schools, and that kid had a friend named James, whose mother was struggling, and he didn’t have a place to sleep or anything to eat. So my friend’s family said, “James can stay with us when he needs to.” And that led to James also inviting in another friend who also needed help. And that kid had another friend. So by the time I visited their home in 2015, I remember walking in the room, and it seemed like there were 40 people sitting around the dinner table, mostly high school-aged, and a bunch of mattresses were laid out for the kids who were staying over. 

We forged this little family for the next five years. I came back and ate with them every Thursday night. We did holidays and took vacations together. And through this family we forged sort of an urban tribe. For me, that was a powerful experience of weaving. I didn’t even really know what a weaver was, but I knew that there I was, sitting in the middle of a couple of them, helping these kids and creating a community. And it’s been experiences like that where I’ve learned about all this. 

We’ve recently starting profilingweaver educators at The 74, who are playing a role in weaving community in and around schools. How do you think educators, schools and classrooms can play into your vision for Weave? 

One of the things that I find true of most educators is they have this skill of seeing others and being deeply seen themselves. It’s something most teachers are just good at: When they look at a child, they see not only the child but the potential of the child. And so they come with this ability to be other-centered, and to walk with a student through whatever level of education they’re at. 

I had a friend who had a daughter in second grade, and she was struggling. And one day the teacher says to her, “You’re really good at thinking before you speak.” And that one comment, that one aside, turned around the girl’s whole year, because the girl suddenly started thinking, “the teacher sees me. The thing I thought was my weakness, my social awkwardness, she sees as my strength.”

It’s been the same in my own life — I had teachers who were good at that. Once in 11th grade, in high school English, I had said something smug and stupid in Mrs. Dewsnap’s class. And she says, “David, you’re trying to get by on being glib. Stop that.” On the one hand, I was kind of ashamed — felt like, ooh, she called me out in front of the whole class. On the other hand, I was like, “Wow, she really knows me. I’m honored.”

I just think teachers are in the serving-other-people business and they exist in the community. I have a friend who says “teaching is a community of truth” — we’re in the classroom together and we’re trying to find the truth together. It’s not me lecturing at you. It’s we, discovering together. And so those people who can turn a classroom into a community — that’s what great teaching is all about.

The thing that characterizes the teachers who we really prize as weavers is the fact that they’re not just coming into the building every day, but they’re creating a community, and community comes together around common loves. 

At Weave, our theory is that culture changes when a small group of people find a better way to live and the rest of us copy. And so we set out to help amplify those who are finding a better way to live — to help spread the word. If you read a story about a weaver or see a video about a weaver, you think, “Wow, that’s an amazing person. I may be not that amazing, but maybe I can be a little more amazing.” And you can devote more of yourself to community service. 

The second thing Weave tries to do is, we give them resources. We have these things called Weaver Awards. And they’re not large grants, but enough to make a difference in a small organization. 

And finally a lot of weavers, a lot of people doing the work of building community, they’re exhausted. So many community needs are thrust into their laps, and they often don’t have anybody to talk to. Nobody’s trained them to do this work. And so by bringing weavers together with each other, they can also educate and help one another. So we’re also about fostering mutual support — they find that quite valuable. [Weave has created the online Weave Community for weavers to connect.]

It’s interesting that you’ve started to identify this universe of weavers at the same time as the country seems to be growing more divided. How do you reconcile what you’re seeing within the Weave project and then what you see every night on the news? 

I think our gap right now is being widened by partisanship. We don’t disagree more than we always have, we just hate each other more. 

So the problem is not intellectual, it’s emotional. And the problem is of the “stranger” and the evil stories we tell about the “other.” 

So when I look at the weavers who are building community, the first thing I think is, they may not be involved in politics at all, but they’re making people feel safe. And then how does that build trust? Trust is built when somebody is trustworthy, when she shows up for you, when you feel safe enough to be vulnerable with him. And so trust is built on the ground level by one relationship at a time. And if we lived in a world where we generally felt the world was a trustworthy place, we wouldn’t live in a world with this much anger, so much lashing out, and so much political division.

So, to me, our political polarization, which I cover in my day job [at the New York Times], flows out of a social and psychological crisis. And the only people I see solving this psychological crisis are weavers — the people out there helping, being vulnerable, teaching others how to trust. 

You can measure the health of a society by levels of trust. A generation ago, if you asked people, “Do you trust your neighbors?” 60% of Americans said, “Yeah.” Now, it’s 30%. And so we’ve become less trusting. That’s why I look at weavers as these essential engines of trust building, moving through their communities. 

Like a lot of people, I went through a nanosecond in early COVID where I thought, “Oh, we’re going to come together. We’re all going to serve each other.” And I was ready to write a story on how we all came together in the time of COVID. And it’s one of those stories [that never came to be] — I’m not finding much evidence of this.

And so instead, I had to do: How we all fell apart during COVID. The pandemic has been tough and if you look at bad social indicators, at fights on airplanes, at more drunk driving, people being rude to each other in stores, more hate crimes — more crime, period — it’s all proof that this has been a time of intense stress. And when people are stressed, we’re not at our best. And so we’re living through this special challenge right now. 

But then, in early COVID, I met this woman named Sarah Hemminger who runs an organization supporting teenagers called Thread in Baltimore. At the start of the pandemic she leapt into action and started this food bank which became a community food distribution network. And I talked to her at the start, when stress and fear were off the charts, and here she was saying, “I was born for this.” And so some people just assume responsibility. It doesn’t matter what their day job is, whether they’re teachers or lawyers or anything else … they just start with this worldview of “Yeah, if there’s a problem, I’ll fix it.” If there’s a piece of garbage on the ground, they’re going to pick it up. 

And in taking action, and weaving community, I think people realize something that mostl successful people discover — which is that career success helps you avoid the anxiety you might feel if you felt you were a failure, but it doesn’t produce that much lasting happiness. 

That’s what I found — my lifestyle was putting time above people. I had so many deadlines, so many commitments … so I had this clock in my head: Okay, move on to the next thing. And I have a friend who says she loves people who are “linger-able” — who linger. And I was not linger-able. And therefore, all my friendships and relationships were weak, because I was always like, “Okay, 15 minutes, I’m off.” And so I hit a period, about eight years ago now, where my marriage had ended, my kids were going off to college, and I didn’t have good friendships. It was a period of intense loneliness for myself … I didn’t have to go report on the crisis of connection, I just had to look at my life and my pathetic little apartment and there it was. 

But connections were the key. I was helped out of that period by friends, just by throwing myself on my friends. And I felt guilty because I was throwing myself on them. But now I’ve learned the power of that, and now when people throw themselves on me, I’m so honored. And so much of what we work on here at Weave, this mission, has grown out of something that happened to us personally. And the weavers you meet, many of them can say the same thing — that some experience they went through inspired them, and they said, “Yeah, I’m going to try to make it so other people don’t have to go through that.” 

Now I look back and realize: I’ve been around the most giving and community-oriented people for three years. And the crazy thing is, they’re not hard to find. We would land in a place, and in six hours, we had a long list of people to meet with. They’re everywhere. And I guess I’ve been frustrated that America hasn’t done a better job at getting their stories out into the public … a lot of the time, those of us in journalism, we think our job is to explain how bad everything is and not focus on the people who are fixing it. But what gives me hope is the fact that those people are just sprinkled throughout society of all different types and shapes and colors and creeds. And they’re out there. 

And then I look at the younger generation. The group that’s been most enthusiastic about Weave, as we present it, is high school students. They’re filled with moral passion, and they get the crisis of connection firsthand, particularly now. They’re at a point in their life where they want to contribute. 

This story was originally published as part of the “Weaving a Stronger Society – Starting in our Schools” series celebrating educators who use community to help students succeed in school and life. The series was produced by education news site The 74 Million in partnership with the Aspen Institute’s Weave: The Social Fabric Project and support from The Walton Family Foundation.

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