City Lab

David Brooks explores the new coalition of community builders with a new set of beliefs rising to turn things around.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Richland Source’s Rising from Rust team traveled to Detroit, Michigan from Oct. 28 to 30 for CityLab Detroit, a summit organized by the Aspen Institute, The Atlantic, and Bloomberg Philanthropies. The story below relates to at least one of the sessions at that convention.

It’s much easier to choose isolation instead of community.

At least, in today’s society it is. It’s much easier to bury your face into your phone instead of talk to the stranger standing next to you. It’s easier to get home from work for the day and watch Netflix instead of talking to your neighbors.

I know because I’m guilty of both those things.

It would’ve been much easier for Sarah Adkins to choose to give up when her husband murdered her two children on Sept. 26, 2010.

On that day, she came home from a day of antiquing to find the house oddly quiet. She walked downstairs to find her husband oddly still. She touched the face of one of her sons, and it was cold. Her husband had murdered her two sons, ages 8 and 6, before taking his own life.

This was the story told by David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, author and the executive director of Weave: The Social Fabric Project, to a room full of people on the first day of CityLab Detroit.

I swear I think I was holding my breath the entire time.

It’s not exactly the kind of story you’d expect to hear at a conference focused on cities fueling innovation and learning from the challenges faced by their peers. I’d spent most of my time earlier that day in sessions about female leadership, the power of public spaces, and creating pathways out of poverty.

I definitely wasn’t ready for the emotional wallop that David Brooks’ session - the last of the day - was about to deliver. But the topic definitely intrigued me: “The Cultural Revolution We Need: How America Will Turn Itself Around.”

You might wonder how stories about the innermost desires of human beings translates to making progressive steps as a city - believe me, I was too. But the point was that looking at cities and community life is sometimes less about the cerebral mind and more about forming an emotional bond.

“We all have desiring hearts,” Brooks said. “We’re born for intimacy. What we want most in the world is community with others.”

It was what Sarah Adkins craved after the murder of her sons. Nothing anyone said would ever make what happened OK. But sometimes a kind embrace helped even more than the anti-anxiety pills.

“If you touch me, help me, and hold my hand, I don’t have to take them,” she said of the pills in a 2011 Columbus Dispatch article. “But it’s hard, because I make people cry. They see me and cry.”

More than a desiring heart, the other most important part of being human is a yearning soul, according to Brooks. Putting aside religious beliefs for a moment, Brooks opined that some piece of you has no weight, size or color but has infinite value and dignity, and everyone has one. And the soul yearns for fusion with the good.

“I’ve interviewed some terrible people, and I’ve never met anybody who didn’t want to be good,” Brooks said. “The soul yearns for union with an ideal, and it overflows when it feels that.”

The problem, Brooks said, is that we currently live in a society that actively works against our basic human desires for intimacy and goodness - to be in harmony pursuing a common good. Instead, we’re growing further apart. We don’t trust our institutions, and we don’t trust our neighbors.

Part of the problem, Brooks acknowledged, is sometimes people are just more worthy of distrust - it’s about actual behavior, not perception. This coming hot on the heels of the tragedy in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27, where 11 congregants of a Jewish synagogue were killed in one of the deadliest attacks on Jewish people in America’s history.

“This guy in Pittsburgh is a classic case of painful loneliness finding community in a cult of hate,” Brooks said. “Tribal thinking is based on mutual hatred. It’s about building walls and erecting barriers.”

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Things are sounding pretty bleak at this point. So the question must be asked - what can be done?

For Brooks, hope comes in the form of Weave: The Social Fabric Project. Weave starts with the idea that social fragmentation is the central problem of our time — isolation, alienation and division. Fortunately, all across the country groups and individuals are rebuilding communities and creating social capital.

Weave seeks to work with these groups to spur a movement to repair the national fabric. It seeks to identify these groups, celebrate them, synthesize the values that move them, and help forge a common identity.

Sarah Adkins is a perfect example. In the wake of unimaginable tragedy, she created the Solly and Sammy Foundation for Peace to support programs that serve women and children, educate against violence and provide grief counseling. According to Brooks, she has given herself away to community service in an act of revenge.

She pictures her husband, the Dispatch said, and thinks, “You’re not going to win.”

“We want to build villages,” Brooks said. “A neighborly ethos that says, ‘We are enough.’ We want to plant trees whose shade we will never sit under.”

But of course, we are our own worst enemies. Those of us in the room were enraptured with Brooks’ words, then immediately after his presentation we all silently filed out of the room without saying much to each other. We want to know our neighbors but prioritize privacy; we want community but we prioritize work.

The work of repairing the torn fabric of our society starts with me. It starts with you. It’s not easy, and it can feel uncomfortable, but it’s imperative to our survival as human beings.

So, as cliché as it might sound, look up from your phone once in a while. Invite your neighbor to dinner. Our hearts and souls depend on it.

This Solutions Journalism story is brought to you in part by the generous support of our Newsroom Partners: Spherion, Visiting Nurses Association, PR Machine Works, Nanogate/Jay Systems, DRM Productions, OhioHealth Mansfield Hospital, Richland Bank, Mechanics Bank, Area Agency on Aging, and many others. To learn more about Solutions Journalism at Richland Source click the "About Solutions Journalism."

Journalism nerd. Adopted Shelby resident; Dayton native. Proud OSU alum. Coffee enthusiast.