Meet the Community Builders

Sarah Hemminger grew up in Indiana understanding the debilitating power of social isolation. When she was a girl, her father discovered that their pastor was dipping into church funds and reported it to the congregation. Instead of doing something about the pastor, the community shunned her family. Sarah and her siblings would sit at parties and neighborhood events and nobody would talk to them. She spent eight years of her childhood ostracized.

She also learned what it looks like when people come around to heal isolation. When she was in high school one of her classmates, Ryan, failed his freshman year because his home life was crumbling. Six teachers rallied around him, serving as extended family members. Ryan recovered, ended up getting into the U.S. Naval Academy and married Sarah.

Years later, she was beginning work on her Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins, mapping the neural structures of the brain. She was lonely, and she saw kids throughout the Baltimore schools who were lonely and isolated, too.

She got the principal at Dunbar High School to give her names of some of the school’s most academically underperforming kids and persuaded dozens of Hopkins students to volunteer as extended family members for the kids, driving them to school, bringing them lunch, driving them back to school when they skipped out, doing homework with them, taking them camping.

The organization Sarah Hemminger formed is now called Thread. I am constantly using this column to argue that social fragmentation and social isolation are the fundamental problems afflicting America today. Organizations like Thread are the best way to address them.
Thread has taken 415 academically underperforming students in Baltimore schools and built an extended family around them, with about 1,000 volunteers. Each student is given up to five volunteers, who perform the jobs that a family member would perform.

Each volunteer is coached by a more experienced volunteer, called the Head of Family. The Head of Family is coached by a Grandparent, who supports the Head. The Grandparents are coached by Community Managers, who are paid Thread staffers. Circling the whole system are Collaborators, who offer special expertise when called in — legal help, SAT tutoring, mental health counseling, etc.

In short, the organization weaves an elaborate system of relationships, a cohesive village, around the task of helping kids. The social network is as much for the adults and the city as for the kids.

The students are lured with free pizza and asked if they would like to join the program. They are told they will be in it for 10 years, until they are in their 20s. They sign a contract demonstrating commitment, and no one has left early.

For the first few months, the students often reject the relationships. “You expect people not to be there for you,” says Marcus, one of the students. Trust is built by persistence through failure.

Hemminger observes: “Unconditional love is so rare in life that it is identity-changing when somebody keeps showing up even when you reject them. It is also identity-changing to be the one rejected.”

Thread also has an app called Tapestry. It tracks every time a volunteer has a touchpoint with one of the students — driving to school, sharing a meal. Hemminger calls it the Fitbit of social relationships. Tapestry can track how often a student has touchpoints, who hasn’t had a touchpoint, how many touchpoints lead to what outcomes.

The institutional structure of Thread is impressive, but not as impressive as the ethos that pervades it. Thread cultivates an ethos of utter vulnerability, which starts at the top. Hemminger and her staff are very open when they don’t know what they are doing and need help.

They are very, very open when they are hurting. “I entered in this role to combat social isolation, but this role is very isolating,” Hemminger confesses. That vulnerability stretches throughout. Teenagers, who usually have their armor up with strangers, told me all about the stresses in their life, their fears and their mental health challenges.

Thread also has an atmosphere of intense intimacy and outspoken love. Everybody is encouraged “to call a thing a thing” — to talk bluntly about what’s going on — and to “show all the way up” — to throw their mess on the table for others to carry.

The program rejects any distinction between haves and have-nots. The volunteers are not there to do social change. They are there to be changed. The word “mentor” is banned because everybody is leaning on everybody else.

Dozens of cities have asked Thread to come to their town. Hemminger has turned them down. Thread is about Baltimore. Thread is going to go deep in Baltimore. Hemminger wears a map of Baltimore as a pendant around her neck.

These days, I spend my mornings writing depressing columns about a political culture marred by distrust and my afternoons visiting places like Thread. There is no way to repair national distrust without repairing individual relationships one by one. This is where American renewal begins.