Archives of Headwaters XVII

The Focus for Headwaters XVII:

 

BUILDING SOCIAL CAPITAL FOR A STRONGER CIVIL SOCIETY

There is no magic bullet for building civil society. Nor is the process ever completed.
Building civil society is like walking to the Horizon. - Lewis Feldstein

"We are trying to change the tones in the state capitals - turn them toward bitter nastiness and partisanship."

There's an interesting statement. Who said it* is less important than the fact that someone would actually come out and say it - but it only reflects what has been gradually happening in these occasionally United States for a third to half of a century now, not just in the state capitals, but at all our levels of public participation.

And rather than trying to alleviate this "nastiness and partisanship," the mainstream regional and national media seem to work hard to cultivate and exploit it. Here, for example, is an early summer headline from the Denver Post: "Let the attack ads begin: Governor's race ready to roll," followed by an article that basically leads the charge for developing an election environment of "bitter nastiness and partisanship."

This leads to a question that has to be asked: are people who are polarized to the level of "bitter nastiness and partisanship" really capable of the kind of give-and-take discourse necessary for resolving the challenges of living together somewhat democratically in a complex modern society?

The 17th Headwaters conference this fall (Nov. 10-12, right after the election) will explore the challenges of developing social capital - the connective webs of social relationships and networks, informal as well as formal - that might help communities develop stronger civil societies - the voluntary, unregulated, non-state aspects of community wherein the people of the community decide to work together to address their challenges and develop their opportunities.

This exploration has been inspired in large part this year by the Gunnison Area Community Foundation (GACF), which, after a somewhat "nasty and partisan" election in 2004, locally as well as nationally, launched a "Civility Initiative" to try to bridge some of the gaps and tears in the social fabric of the Gunnison valley communities - some of which gaps and tears go back generations, others of which are much more recent.

The GACF is part of a growing movement of community foundations throughout the nation: non-governmental public organizations that usually begin with the idea of raising a capital fund to help the community deal constructively with problems that the various levels of governance are either unable or unwilling to address. But many community foundations soon realize that the real problems are not dealt with just by raising money; they also represent a challenge in raising consciousness and developing a local will to address the need for either change or reaffirmation in the way the community does things - social capital to constructive put the material capital to work.

Pam Montgomery, Executive Director of the Gunnison Area Community Foundation, says that the “foundation's role is that of convener, connector and ultimately enabler. We work between and among our citizens, our businesses, our nonprofits and our governmental agencies - helping bring people together to work for the common good, enabling collaborations to spring up, and embracing the inevitable changes that come to any community.”

The GACF's desire to share what they are learning, as well as learning what other communities are doing, led to this regional collaboration with Western's Headwaters Project, and to the idea of inviting other community foundations to gather here to see where this relatively recent movement in local “capital creation” might help the communities of the region go.

So all of the community foundations from the Headwaters region have been invited to bring to the conference their ideas and experiences in the challenge of “community capital creation,” with representatives from each present as guests of the college and its community.

The keynote speaker for the conference, Friday evening, Nov. 10, will be Lewis Feldstein, co-author with Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone) of Better Together: Restoring the American Community. (More about Feldstein and the book below.)

In Better Together, Feldstein, president of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, and Putnam address the need for "social capital" in our communities - defining social capital as "social networks, norms of reciprocity, mutual assistance, and trustworthiness," without which problems just don't get resolved.

More specifically, they discuss two types of social capital necessary for diverse communities, "bonding" and "bridging" capital:

"Some networks link people who are similar in crucial respects and tend to be inward-looking - bonding social capital. Others encompass different types of people and tend to be outward-looking - bridging social capital…. Bonding social capital is a kind of sociological Super Glue, whereas bridging social capital provides a sociological WD-40.”

They continue: “The problem is that bridging social capital is harder to create than bonding social capital…. Social capital represents not a comfortable alternative to social conflict but a way of making controversy productive" - which would seem to fit the need of the Headwaters communities.

The challenge for the mountain communities of the Head-waters region is clearly one of developing “bridging social capital” - but maybe not in the way we usually think of “bridging differences.” There is a tendency in American society to think of “different types of people” in ethnic and racial terms; but even considering the substantial recent influx of borderlands Hispanics into the region, the real challenge in developing “social capital” here lies in bridging the gaps between internally bonded Anglo-American factions with deep, passionate and very divergent economic and social values and philosophies - the values that have led us into “bitter nastiness and partisanship.”

How do we bridge those gaps - the gap, say, between developers with everything tied up in their projects, and the locals who feel their valley is already too full? The gap between those whose idea of outdoor recreation is hiking and camping in “the forest primeval,” and those who want to expand the area where they can take their ATVs? The gap between those who think we have too much wilderness and those who think there is never enough? Those whose idea of “affordable housing” begins at $200,000, and the hard-working families whose household incomes are below $30,000?

It will take a long time for the divergent elements in the Headwaters communities to drink enough coffee together and converse enough to be able to develop the common ground and common story that will generate the necessary social capital for bridging these and other gaps. But are there ways in which, as it were, we might “force the bulbs” of social capital a little?

These are some of the questions we'll explore at Headwaters XVII in Gunnison.

-- George Sibley, Coordinator

KEYNOTE SPEAKER: Lewis Feldstein

Lewis M. Feldstein is President of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, New Hampshire’s state-wide community foundation, the principal source of venture capital for the state’s nonprofit community.
But Lew Feldstein is probably better known for his work with Robert Putnam, a political scientist at Harvard Univer-sity; together they chaired Harvard’s three-year Executive Seminar on Civic Engagement in America. Putnam had previously written a seminal work in civic engagement, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.
Out of their collaboration at Harvard and the subsequent “Saguaro Seminar,” a program dedicated to fostering civic engagement, came Better Together: Restoring the American Community.This book is mostly a collection of stories from towns, cities, neighborhoods and some even more “placeless places” where people are actively working to generate “social capital” for stronger communities. Some samples:

  • A group of teachers, ministers and concerned community members in the lower Rio Grande valley, working under the auspices of the Industrial Areas Foundation network that Saul Alinsky began in Chicago in 1940, to do “relational organizing” - mostly a matter of talking and visiting together a lot - to help an underclass improve its situation.
  • A deteriorating Boston neighborhood where strangers became neighbors and created a community through the “Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative.”
  • The “Tupelo Model” in an economically depressed Mississippi county where business people collaborated with an ornery newspaper editor to turn the local economy around - beginning with the purchase of a prize bull.
  • A group of clerical and technical workers at Harvard University, mostly women, who tried a whole new set of “soft” strategies for union organizing that worked where traditional methods had failed.

And a dozen others. Putnam and Feldstein are careful not to describe this as “manual,” or even the results of a rigorous study. But they do draw some lessons and suggestions from the experiences they have collected, which will be the focus of Feldstein’s Headwaters presentation. But here’s a preview:

  • Smaller is better in trying to generate social capital; the world will be changed by federating many small local successes, not by any large top-down changes.
  • Creating social capital takes time, and lots of patience. Most of the stories involve lots of coffee klatches, face-to-face conversations, and other informal and formal meetings.
  • Stories shared are important, as are common spaces that belong to everyone.

One could say much more about both the book and Lew Feldstein - the boards he serves on, his honorary doctorates, his other honors, et cetera. But what might best qualify him to speak on this topic to the communities of the Headwaters region are what he lists as his “singular achievements”: his seven-year tenure as the MC of the International Zucchini Festival, and a stint as wine steward and personal assistant to John Wayne on his yacht in the Mediterranean.