Recently, I had the pleasure of hearing Richard C. Harwood of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation (www. theharwoodinstitute-.org).
His small gem of a book, “Hope Unraveled: The People’s Retreat and Our Way Back,” published by the Kettering Foundation, provides some ideas to return us to a greater sense of connection with each other and with our communities. Beginning in 1990, he and his colleagues conducted over a decade of research and conversations with community groups throughout the United States. They wanted to ascertain people’s disengagement from the larger community, to understand why it has happened and what it will take to get people more involved again.
This basic disengagement from public life has been discussed widely enough that we no longer seriously question it. Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone,” with its concept of social capital, has popularized it to some degree. We don’t even have to know about Putnam or the others who write and talk about our retreat from public life to know that it is real. We have only to look to our own busy lives to understand that much more of our time is spent within our families and our inner circle of friends than ever before. Our wealth has enabled us to cocoon to an unprecedented degree, when we are not working the increased hours we do. The promise of leisure that technology was to bring us has been at best a false promise and a cruel hoax in some cases.
Yet, it is not so much this lack of time, Harwood argues, that is responsible for our retreat from public life over the past 15 years. He offers four primary reasons: 1) a diminished faith in the American dream that we can all get ahead if we just play by the rules and work hard; 2) a free-for-all on basic values to the point that we no longer believe in sacrifice for long-term gain; 3) materialism run amok in a consumer-oriented, on-demand society; and 4) a breakdown in community because of all the walls – literal and figurative – that we have built and continue to build. This has all resulted in what Harwood describes as an overarching skepticism now bordering on cynicism about the public sphere, politics and our lives together as a community. We now expect people to prove their worthiness, a radical shift from the trust implicit in the notion that we are all innocent until proven guilty.
Part of the reason for this retreat from public life is that wherever we turn there are people manipulating the truth to sell products or to solidify political power. We are usually astute enough to know when this is happening, so we check out, and – worst of all – we lose hope. We must restore hope, Harwood asserts, if we are to realize the promise of our democratic ideals through renewed civic engagement in philanthropy and other aspects of community life such as politics and volunteering.
Fortunately, Harwood remains an optimist from all his group’s conversations with people across the country. He believes that we have allowed ourselves to be manipulated by some false dichotomies that were emphasized in the last presidential election, when we actually have more in common than the simplistic “red and blue state” reporting ever allows. We have also largely lost our commitment to the truth, to being forthright with people. We are more interested in “handling” situations or “spin.”
Harwood’s optimism depends upon three things we must do. The first is to have a renewed sense of possibility and hope based upon the reality of our lives. Part of our disaffection has come from public figures and marketers presenting a picture of people’s lives that is not authentic; that is, does not square with their own reality.
The second essential is to tap into the desire to be part of something larger than ourselves, to believe again in the concept of the public good rather than scheming endless ways to promote our own self-interest. An important part of our make-up as human beings is that we need connections with others outside our immediate families to be happy and whole. The sum total of all our self-interests can never equal the public good, here in Whatcom County, in America, or in the world.
Third, we must re-affirm our commitment to hope, another fundamental aspect of human nature. We deal in false hope every day, but we need to restore a belief in authentic hope that is based in the innate goodness of people. The cynicism that is so pervasive these days is not going to get us anywhere other than more cynicism and more people retreating from public life and civic engagement. People invest in hope when there are reasonable, real and believable alternatives that ring true to them. We respond to stories of success through struggle, especially when our hearts and emotions are engaged. We must have the courage to be authentic, to take a position based in the common good and then stick to that.
Yet, we must temper all that hope and courage with some honest humility based in listening to others who might also have some “right” answers for whatever issues we are addressing. Part of the current miasma in which we find ourselves is the certainty that “we” are right and “they” are wrong. Nothing worth doing on any scale can be accomplished if we don’t restore some hope in our common dreams. We can create and connect pockets of success that hold up to everyone the power and personal rewards of being part of a community once again.
What does all this have to do with philanthropy in Whatcom County? Everything. Philanthropy demands that we listen with hope and work creatively with others to make our communities greater than the sums of their parts.
The yardstick we need to adopt for all our actions is simply this: does it promote hope?
Don Drake has spent twenty years working in executive roles in philanthropy. He served as president of Whatcom Community Foundation from 1997 until September 2005.