Stories from Weave the People

John McKnight asked me to write a brief report on the Weave the People gathering that we both attended in Washington, DC from May 14-16. I’ll offer my perspective, but if you want a more complete and less biased record, you can visit the website at:

Weave is a project of The Aspen Institute under the leadership of New York Times columnist David Brooks. In his new book, The Second Mountain, Brooks describes the crisis of hyper-individualism and bemoans how “America’s social fabric is being ripped to shreds by distrust, loneliness, alienation, inequality, racism, spiritual emptiness and tribal enmity.” After reading The Abundant Community, he was inspired to travel throughout the United States to uncover stories of people who are working to build social connections. He calls them the weavers. The purpose of the gathering was to bring those weavers together so that they could meet and learn from one another, deepen their practice, and begin to build a movement for greater social cohesion throughout the country.

About 250 people attended at Brooks’ invitation . . . [and] I met some amazing individuals and heard some great stories.

There was Mac McCarter, a minister who was concerned about the breakdown of community and the accompanying rise of crime and blight in Shreveport , Louisiana where he lives. McCarter began by focusing on the most distressed neighborhood, but he was soon working citywide. His organization, Community Renewal, has now recruited and trained 1600 block coordinators. 54,500 people have pledged to do something to help someone else and, when they do, they get a “We Care” sign to display in their yard. The organization has also built ten Friendship Houses in “low income, high crime neighborhoods” where more than 2000 volunteers and staff provide tutoring, mentoring. life skills, conflict resolution, parenting classes, and family support. They also sponsor monthly barbeques and other events for the neighborhood. This Community Renewal approach is now being replicated in eight other cities across the United State. McCarter says that he was inspired by the writings of McKnight.

Another great example of asset-based, community-driven development is the Nebraska Foundation that was well represented at the gathering. They have spawned 100 local foundations controlled by their communities. Ronda Graff, a mother of seven, described what she and her neighbors are doing in their small town in southwestern Nebraska in order to make it the kind of place where young adults will want to stay.

LB Prevette shared the story of how her town in North Carolina was in danger of losing their one gathering place, a coffee shop. She and her neighbors worked to save the coffee shop. Now, they are also actively programming it and other found spaces (including a lawn) with events for youth, the LGBT community, and neighbors in general.

Although most of her extended family lived in Atlanta, Asiaha Butler purchased a home in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood in 2002. She loved to hang out on her front porch, but that became increasingly difficult as her neighborhood succumbed to increasing violence. When a bullet pierced her front door, she was tempted to move to Atlanta. But, who would care for the neighborhood if she left, she wondered. So, she founded an organization called Rage that gave her neighbors the tools, resources and voice they needed to turn their neighborhood around.

Janet Topolsky started the Black Belt Community Foundation to address the needs of her impoverished rural community. There were no deep pockets to tap so the residents contributed generously with whatever resources they had.

. . .

When someone gave a talk about the need to listen and love those who disagree with you, a lively discussion ensured about the challenges of weaving an inclusive community in the face of racism. (“How do we weave if we can’t afford a loom and we aren’t an equal part of the fabric?) That discussion also got me to thinking about divisive issues such as abortion, climate change, police brutality, and gun control. How do you take action on matters that you are passionate about but tend to divide at the same time that you are trying to build an inclusive community?

Eric Liu of Citizens University in Seattle didn’t speak to this question directly, but he did talk about America as an argument. He pointed out that there has always been a tension between rights and responsibilities, state and federal, individual and collective, liberty and equality, etc. He emphasized that the tension is healthy. Without it, the country would go too far in one direction or the other. “We just need to have better arguments.”

Someone pointed out that diversity work needs to focus on more than the differences you agree with. Monica Guzman described how, after the last presidential election where hardly anyone in Seattle voted for Trump, she took a busload of 18 residents to a small town in Oregon where the residents had voted exactly the opposite. Through a facilitated discussion, the participants found much more to agree on than to argue about.

The Search Institute was represented. I have often differed with them because it seemed like they were most focused on the assets that youth are missing. But at the gathering, they described the four S’s that they initially use to engage youth – what are your sparks, strengths, struggles and supports? It seems to me that might be a good way to frame the questions we typically ask in our learning conversations.

Here are a few quotes that I heard during the gathering that will stick with me:

“It doesn’t do any good just to clean the part of the pool that you’re swimming in. You need to clean the whole pool.”

“Community is based on love for one another. Tribalism is based on hate for the other.”

“Relationships grow at the speed of trust. Social change moves at the speed of relationships.”

“In order to weave, you must start not with the need but with the dream.”

“Focus more on what gives you energy than on what takes your time.”

 “People want to be asked.”

 “We need stories lubricated by love.”

The agenda we were given for the final half-day was to plan for building the movement. Some actions were identified out of small groups, but again, there was little time for that after the speeches from the stage. I’m not too optimistic about the prospects for a Weaver movement since people seem unwilling to abandon their own brands in favor of a Weave the People project that they feel little ownership of. But, the main objective is to change the culture and I believe that the continuing efforts of Brooks and Aspen will provide fuel for the many existing and emerging grass roots community building initiatives whether or not they are tied to the Weave the People project.




Read Jim’s full report here. See videos and read more stories at the Aspen Institute’s Weave project page. Home page image: LollyKnit

About the Lead Author

Jim Diers
Jim Diers
Participatory democracy has been Jim Diers’ preoccupation and his career for the past 36 years. In his work with grassroots community organizations and with government and other large agencies, Jim has found ways to get more people engaged with their community and more involved in decisions that affect their lives. Jim moved toSeattlewith his wife, Sarah Driggs, after graduating fromGrinnellCollegein 1975. For six years Jim worked as a community organizer in the low-income, racially diverse neighborhoods ofRainierValley. Bringing people together to take action on issues ranging from dangerous intersections to obtaining a new health center, Jim helped the South End Seattle Community Organization grow to include 25 member churches and neighborhood organizations. Its annual meetings drew as many as 800 people. Jim spent the next six years with Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound where he organized medical center councils to review budget and quality-of-care issues from a consumer perspective. He also helped members organize special interest groups: the Senior Caucus, the Nuclear Awareness Group, and Partners for Health. Jim also organized­-and reinvigorated-the cooperative’s annual meetings, which attracted as many as 3,000 members. In 1988, Mayor Charles Royer appointed Jim to direct the City ofSeattle’s new Office of Neighborhoods. Jim was reappointed by the subsequent mayors, Norm Rice in 1990 and Paul Schell in 1998. By the end of Jim’s 14-year tenure, the four-person Office had grown into a Department of Neighborhoods with 100 staff. The Department’s mission is to decentralize and coordinate City services, strengthen communities and their organizations, and work in partnership with these organizations to preserve and enhance the neighborhoods. The Department manages 13 Little City Halls that provide basic services to citizens and serve as meeting places for neighborhood organizations. It supports about 400 community self-help projects each year through a $4.5 million Neighborhood Matching Fund that was recognized by the Ford Foundation and Kennedy School of Government as one of the most innovative local government programs in theUnited States. Another program of community empowerment involved 30,000 people in the development of 37 neighborhood plans. The Department also manages the City’s historic preservation program, a P-Patch Program of 75 community gardens, and a leadership training program. In 2000, the Department received the Full Inclusion Award from the American Association on Mental Retardation for its Involving All Neighbors program and a Best of the Best Award from HUD for its Cultivating Communities program. In 2001, Jim was named Public Employee of the Year by the Municipal League of King County. That same year he was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Law fromGrinnellCollege. After leaving the Department of Neighborhoods in 2002, Jim Diers worked for a year as Interim Director of the Delridge Neighborhoods Development Association, for three years as Executive Director of the South Downtown Foundation, and for five years as Director of Seattle Community Partnerships for theUniversityofWashington. Currently, Jim teaches courses on community organizing and community development at the Universityof Washington. Jim also speaks, conducts workshops and provides technical assistance to communities and agencies around the world as a faculty member for the Asset-Based Community Development Institute and as the author of Neighbor Power: Building Community the Seattle Way which is available in English and Chinese editions.

The Latest

The Story of the Clouds and the Forests

There’s a story one often hears in conversations about systemic transformation that goes like this… We are headed in the...


More Articles Like This