What Weaving Can Teach Us About Cultivating Leaders

July 9, 2024  • Paul Smalera

In today’s polarized climate, many see the deep divisions in our society as insurmountable. Yet some Americans believe there is a solution – and that the path to a more united America starts at the local level. Through quiet acts of care and cooperation, they are weaving fresh connection every day in their communities across the country.

These acts often go beyond volunteering and organizing into something that can only be described as a bit more generous — not just volunteering at a soup kitchen, but sitting down after cooking to share a meal and conversation with an unhoused diner. Not just making a donation for a neighbor’s cancer walk — but offering to drive their child home from school when you pick up yours. Put another way, these acts go beyond the norm—just a little—and turn someone from a good neighbor into a pillar—or leader—around which a community comes together.

At the core of the work of the Aspen Institute’s Weave: The Social Fabric Project is the idea that there are unheralded leaders everywhere already working to heal our divides.  All too often we look to the traditional power structures of organizations for leadership. We think executives set strategy, managers implement programs, and our frontline folks implement the plan.  

Look to Weave’s new interactive Social Trust Map to see how these unheralded leaders are active in your neighborhood and across the country, building trust and connection and providing hope. 

The Weave project supports and connects these grassroots leaders. It asks, what if we begin to celebrate these smaller, quieter, unsung acts of leadership happening every day in our communities? What if we begin to recognize and honor these acts for what they truly are? Acts of leadership that impact other’s lives and weave a new sense of belonging and inclusive social fabric. If we stretch and redefine our traditional definition of leadership, we can apply the lessons of these grassroots weavers well beyond the local level. 

How? Weavers build trust at the micro level and spread leadership by tapping into everyone’s gifts and building a shared sense of ownership. Yes, weavers treat everyone as a leader, but they also prioritize authentic connections. If treating everyone as a leader is step 1 in the weaver school of leadership, step 2 is making relationships the heart of your work.

A weaver, it turns out, is an individual who simply connects — and by that connection, makes a positive difference through consistent acts of neighborliness, support and relationship-building.

Megan Helberg lives in Taylor, Nebraska, a ranch and farming town of just 190 people. Like most rural kids with dreams, she left Taylor to go to college in the city and didn’t stop there. She went to Africa and spent time studying the genocide in Rwanda. She lived with an Indigenous tribe in the Amazon. She traveled and worked all over, before deciding to return as a teacher to the grade school she had attended. Why? Because her travels taught her the beauty and value of the relationships and people in her hometown. 

Now she is passionate about helping children in Taylor see the value of their home, so they, too, will return. How does she do it? She takes students, their families, and neighbors on trips around the country – exploring places from Washington, DC to San Francisco. Many of these families have never traveled, because planning and doing a big trip to a place where you don’t know anyone seems daunting. Yes, the kids see there is a big, fascinating world to explore. But they and the neighbors who explore together end up even closer and more connected than before they left. 

A core feature of a weaver is an almost intentional disregard for the unspoken rules that organize our society and govern our interactions. Another core feature is that, once a weaver has gotten a group together, they don’t focus on resolving arguments — they find areas of mutual interest and concern, bonding an often-unlikely group to a common cause. They do this by inspiring conversations on shared priorities like safety, health, thriving schools, and inclusivity. 

Weaving is almost a subversion of norms, a countercultural way of showing up that views all community members as equal partners in creating a place where everyone wants to live. Finally, weavers start with a vision built on strength. It’s easy to give attention to what’s hurting, what’s painful – namely, the problem. Weaver-leaders tend to focus on a vision of a better future, built on the strengths in the community. 

Look at Arica Gonzalez who lives in the Panway neighborhood of Baltimore City. She and her husband bought one of 50 homes sharing an alley with crumbling buildings. It had become a place to dump trash. No one used it except rats, drug dealers and drug users. She wanted her children to grow up in a neighborhood that they were proud of. So she gathered neighbors. Gonzalez didn’t focus on the alley as a problem to be solved – as a blight. She focused on what it could be. Something beautiful and welcoming rather than dirty and scary. A community green space where their kids could play, people could sit and read, and families and friends could picnic. 

Gonzalez and her neighbors dubbed the project The Urban Oasis. They convinced the city to allow them to put gates on the alley and give them the right to develop it. Now, it is that beautiful green space she imagined where kids play and families picnic. And the neighbors didn’t stop there. 

Arica convinced the owner of an overgrown vacant lot to donate it to the community. Neighbors cleaned it up, built a stage, and turned it into a gathering space. Last year, they invited the Baltimore Symphony to play – it was the first time many people had ever been to the symphony. Weaver leaders start with a vision, not a problem. They build from pride and not pain or fear.

Aspen’s Weave project connects and supports these grassroots weavers in several impactful ways. Since its early days, the Weave team has grown to fourteen, led by Executive Director Frederick J. Riley, who has written eloquently about how three weavers played key roles in his early life. 

At the heart of Weave’s outreach work is an online community now numbering 1500 members from cities and towns across the nation. Within this digital hub, weavers gather for peer support and learning. They share challenges and solutions. They can access a learning center offering training modules on skills like public speaking, group facilitation, and setting up nonprofit organizations to formalize their work. 

Beyond this support for grassroots leaders, Weave also aims to inspire Americans of all backgrounds to become community weavers. It does this in three main ways. Many thousands of people subscribe to Weave’s weekly newsletter to find ideas, inspiration, and grants to start building connections where they live. Others ready to jump in can put their address in the Weaver Network search engine to find volunteer opportunities that build community near where they live. And communities can invite weavers to share their neighborhood stories and successes through Weave’s Speakers Bureau as a way to kickstart interest among neighbors.

  • Weave just launched an interactive Social Trust Map to inspire more people to show up as grassroots leaders weaving trust and a strong social fabric where they live. Based on US Census and social survey data updated every year, the map shows the strength of trusting behaviors, intentions, and spaces in every neighborhood across the US. Weavers can learn how to build on these strengths, see others interested in weaving in their area, and find weaving projects near them. The goal is to create a nation of weavers, where everyone feels connected and a sense of belonging.

Weavers show that, by starting with a vision built on strength, treating everyone as a leader, and centering on strengthening relationships, Americans can weave a new social fabric built on trust Weavers show us that a more united America is within reach, and perhaps even closer than we think. They teach us that one of the most awesome powers of a community may just be its ability to cultivate effective leaders from within.