Community Development

How Community Leaders Restore Social Trust: Key Takeaways from the Leaders of Weave: The Social Fabric Project

November 6, 2023  • Weave: The Social Fabric Project

Social trust — our sense of dependability on other people — lies at the heart of a society; it ensures that our communities, our institutions, and our democracy can function. Yet in recent years, social trust has diminished across the U.S.

As part of the Aspen Ignites video series, New York Times columnist and founder of Weave: The Social Fabric Project David Brooks interviewed Frederick Riley, Executive Director of Weave: The Social Fabric Project to discuss how community leaders can restore social trust.

Their observations, informed by experience supporting Weave’s community organizers, revealed encouraging insights. 

The importance of social trust

Social trust is foundational to a healthy society.

“When trust is low in our country, our democracy fails because people don’t vote. When trust is low in our country, people don’t put money in banks. When trust is low, crime goes up because people don’t follow rules … It’s really hard to live in a place where trust is low.”

But there is hope for restoring it, as Riley notes: “What we have found throughout our country is, there are these people in neighborhoods who are helping to corral their entire community on an issue, which is building trust and … helping to knit the fabric together in their community.”

Community leadership creates social trust

Weave’s mission is to invest in local community leaders (known as “Weavers”), “who can go into their neighborhood and say, ‘Let’s build a community garden,’” Riley explained. These Weavers are ordinary people chosen to receive grants, resources, and a network of support so they can complete projects they identify as important to their neighborhoods. 

“And what we find is that folks working together … helps to really move issues to the side. It’s hard to know somebody, and work hard with them, and then hate them. So we find that these projects that these Weavers are doing are … helping to connect a disconnected community.”

“It’s hard to know somebody and work hard with them and then hate them.”

Focusing on common humanity fosters connection

Our country has become extremely polarized, but Riley and Brooks have found that regardless of personal ideology, people form connections by focusing on their shared humanity.

“The things that have always connected us are love for community and a love for each other.”

“Once you start in relationship with somebody, you’re going to always have things you disagree on,” Riley went on. “We will never build a truce on that stuff. But we will connect on humanity.”

Local leadership can reshape norms

Weave’s ultimate goal is to bring communities together. “There might be folks in the community that are connected, but there are groups in the community who are trying to pull everybody in. And our work at Weave is to help them.”

Through that work, Riley and Brooks hope to inspire more communities to embrace norms around social trust. “We need better relationships, but the problem with relationships is, they don’t scale,” Brooks says. “But norms scale.” 

If you can shift how people think about what it’s like to be a neighbor, then you can scale that.”

When national news feels daunting, local community can bring hope

Despite today’s globalized society, people value their local communities. “I can pull out my phone and contact somebody [from] all around the world, but … people still do really value the people they’re physically around,” Brooks said.

Riley agreed and commented that a connected neighborhood can offset some of the anxiety caused by stressful national news.

“The problems that we hear about every day are so daunting, and if you only watch the [national] news, you walk away saying, ‘There’s nothing I can do to solve these issues.’” Weave’s successes counteract that narrative with individuals who made substantial positive impacts on their neighborhoods.

“We want to shine a light on them so they can inspire others to figure out that their role is to be the person to stand up first,” he said.

Watch the full conversation below.