Jonathan Gruber -

Aug 27, 2020

Telling a New Story of Us

"Culture is simply the ensemble of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves."

—Clifford Geertz, anthropologist

As we adapted to staying home and keeping six feet apart to stem the spread of COVID-19, former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy warned of a potential “social recession – a range of bad outcomes that would flow from a lack of human connection. It wasn’t just older adults who were at risk; he was speaking to people of all ages. Murthy warned that physical distancing, while vital to our health, could further erode our already weakened social bonds.

In late March, sharing this concern and not willing to let the crisis go to waste, the teams at Weave: The Social Fabric Project and the Listen First Project got together to ask how they might help people deepen relationships and support each other in response to the trauma, fear, and isolation that were intensifying by the day. They created #WeavingCommunity, a social campaign inviting people to connect through honest conversation and to take action in their communities. The #WeavingCommunity platform offers a growing set of resources and opportunities from a diverse coalition of partners. The animating idea, “to turn this moment of shared pain into a moment of shared possibility,” is giving people hope in trying times. The campaign is also strengthening relationships and sparking acts of care and service in communities across the country. In just a few months, more than 220,000 people have engaged – posting stories, sharing ideas, joining virtual conversations, and taking other actions.

Inspiring stories like this are not so few and far between, and yet they’re also not the norm in this national moment. Why is that?

The prevailing narratives highlight division, distrust, and dysfunction

If we were to name the main characters in the stories we’re telling ourselves about America today, we’d likely start with a list of antagonists. Division and distrust, injustice and outrage, fear and othering, alienation and loneliness. With the overlapping crises of the pandemic, the protests against racial inequality and police brutality, and the toxic polarization in our politics, it’s no surprise that the prevailing narratives are bleak. They have been for some time. Even with an initial uptick in perceptions of unity as the severity of the pandemic set in, the media continued to paint a distorted, dystopian picture.

Big forces have converged in recent years to amplify the negative stories we’ve embraced: social media platforms that keep us in bubbles and amp up charged emotions; a national news media that profits from reinforcing us-versus-them identities; elected leaders who play up contempt for the other side to harden partisan divisions; a long-simmering loneliness epidemic that is growing worse as we stay apart; and a broad recognition of economic inequality but different views about what to do about it. It’s easy to see why we’ve lost the plot of a more affirming and unifying story.

The downbeat narratives that seem to define American culture right now are powerful, and they’re not baseless – but they’re also incomplete

Unfolding every day, all around us, is another set of stories – real, vivid, and deeply felt by Americans from small rural towns to large urban centers: stories of our innate capacity for connection, of the longings and values we have in common, and of how we live together and get things done together amidst our differences. Through our Building strategy at Einhorn Collaborative, we are trying to do our small part to reveal, elevate, and spread these stories that go untold and unheard. Why? Because when we hold the mirror up in ways that remind us of our shared humanity and our better angels, we can also summon the motivation to bridge divides and take action together.

Culture change in context

"There is hope for humanity, but in order for us to get there, we really have to interrogate not just what it takes to change laws, but what it takes to change culture that supports laws that uplift humanity and also supports laws that serve to denigrate it."

—Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter

In the social sector, culture change gets invoked as a goal and a strategy across a range of issues – health care, the environment, education, democracy, to name a few. In our efforts to strengthen connection and belonging in American life, we see culture work as crucial. To help people see and feel our shared humanity, to foster belonging in a range of everyday contexts, to expand our collective sense of “we” – that is not an intellectual exercise. It requires stories and experiences that touch the heart, stir the soul, and move us to act.

At the same time, we’re mindful that there are structural reforms – laws, policies, institutional commitments – also needed in order for us to prioritize relationships and foster belonging in our increasingly diverse, fractured, and unequal society. Culture change work can seem inadequate or even distracting alongside more concrete imperatives. And yet we believe that the work of building relationships and common purpose across our differences is a vital complement to structural and systemic change.

Stories to lift up and live into

Tune into NPR’s Morning Edition on Friday, and you’ll likely hear an excerpt from a StoryCorps interview. Two people – often loved ones – talking about their relationship and reflecting on love, hope, pride, regret, joy, grief, and gratitude. That is, talking about the human experience. The stories are profound and poignant, yet also relatable. Through the act of listening, StoryCorps reveals the dignity, the decency, and the yearning for connection and belonging that we all share. The On Being Project adds to this generative story, bringing the lenses of spirituality, the arts, and social healing. Through radio and podcast conversations, public events, poetry, and writings, On Being takes up the big questions of meaning. They strive, in their words, “to renew inner life, outer life, and life together.”

These stories of relationship and connection are too often the exception and not the rule. Part of the problem is the pervasive idea that human nature is not all that good; people believe that we are inherently tribal, selfish, unkind, and combative. It’d be naïve to say that we’re not capable of behaving in these ways, but it’d be wrong to say that this is the gist of who we are. Research from a range of disciplines – psychology, neuroscience, sociology, opinion research, and other fields – has shown that we are capable of building thriving communities, of bridging our differences, and of expanding our view of who belongs. Greater Good Science Center, More In Common, PACH (The Project for the Advancement of Our Common Humanity), and the Othering & Belonging Institute are all contributing to this research. They are also sharing it broadly to shape the public conversation and to embed it in tools and programs that reach people in a range of settings.

How these stories illuminate and inspire is crucial; equally important is how they get activated. Many organizations that are shaping the culture through narratives are also putting them into practice. Take Citizen University, advancing a vision of powerful, responsible citizenship while designing gatherings like Civic Saturday, a ritual-filled civic analogue to a faith gathering, that brings people together to experience community and connection. Or Millennial Action Project, putting forward a new paradigm for political bridge-building while engaging directly with young policymakers on a national and state level to help them forge relationships, collaborate across party lines, and model a better way forward. Or Interfaith Youth Core, giving voice to the importance of religious pluralism in American life while partnering with colleges and universities to train and support the next generation of interfaith leaders. Or Solutions Journalism Network, supporting journalists to lift up responses to social problems in rigorous, humanizing ways while helping news organizations use solutions reporting to tee up better conversations with the public about issues that hit close to home.

What these organizations recognize is that shifting the culture is about grounding these efforts in the science of what works and the stories that show us what’s possible. This is about spreading norms, values, and attitudes that help to instill and reinforce new ways of thinking and acting with respect to how we live together.

In order to realize the promise of an America in which we all belong and thrive, we must tell stories that ultimately shift how we see and relate to one another across our differences. And the stakes are high. This period of national trauma, upheaval, and uncertainty could strengthen the negative narratives that besiege us and, in turn, continue to tear our frayed social fabric. Or this could be a turning point, an opportunity to see with new eyes how the crises we confront reveal our common humanity, our interdependence, and our shared future. We are working toward the latter, joining with our partners and peers to tell and live into a new story of us.

As we embark on this work, we’re holding more questions than answers. How can philanthropy best contribute to the kind of culture change and broader social change we envision? What could it look like to support and connect the varied organizations leading the way? What will it take to break through the noise? To reach and mobilize new audiences? How can we stoke collaborations with peers and partners that add up to more than the sum of the parts?

With a learning lens front and center in the new initiatives we’re pursuing in our Building strategy, we look forward to sharing the insights we glean along the way.

Jon Gruber leads Einhorn Collaborative’s Building strategy. Learn more about our work in Building and more about Jon. Sign up to receive our monthly newsletter and be the first to read Jon’s blog posts.