Better Together

by Scott London

Better Together brings together a dozen case studies of successful community-building efforts in the United States. The book is an outgrowth of the Saguaro Seminar on Civic Engagement in America, a three-year dialogue among leading thinkers and activists about how to build and strengthen the American community (though it bears little resemblance to the Seminar’s final report of the same name).

As Robert Putnam and Lewis Feldstein note in the book’s opening pages, the stories in the book represent “exceptional cases in which creative social entrepreneurs [are] moving against the nationwide tide and creating vibrant new forms of social connectedness.” The book is presented as a response to civic leaders, local officials, foundation executives, community activists, and others who believe that the decline of civic engagement documented in Putnam’s Bowling Alonecan be reversed.

“We focus on these social-capital success stories,” Putnam and Feldstein write, “hoping and believing that they may in fact be harbingers of a broader revival of social capital in this country.” The examples they present are certainly robust and successful enough to serve as convincing models for how to build strong and sustainable communities. They devote a chapter each to:

  • Valley Interfaith, a coalition of church and school groups in the Rio Grande Valley that, like its sister organizations in the Texas Industrial Areas Foundation, uses the grassroots organizing model to build relationships, develop civic leaders, create a culture of small-group dialogue, and mobilize broad-based political action.
  • The branches of the Chicago Public Library that have become a major force for social connection and civic revitalization in and around Chicago by refashioning themselves as vibrant community centers.
  • The Shipyard Project in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, an initiative that helped reconnect a divided community through a creative arts project that expressed through dance the history and work of the local naval shipyard.
  • The Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, a community revitalization project in Boston that rescued a neighborhood from the brink of catastrophic decline.
  • The social and economic transformation of Tupelo, Mississippi, from a dying cotton town in one of the poorest counties in the state into a thriving and prosperous community that became the top dairy county in the United States.
  • Saddleback, a mega-church in Orange County, California, that attracts more than 45,000 congregants through a mixture of flashy shows featuring popular music and big video screens and small-group gatherings where members can get to know one another, build relationships, receive support, and discuss public and private issues.
  • The Waupun, Wisconsin chapter of the Do Something League, a national organization established to encourage community activism and develop leadership skills among young people.
  • The Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based union that creates social capital through extensive and time-consuming face-to-face conversations between two people, or among small groups of people, because it is an effective strategy for sustaining the organization.
  • Experience Corps, an organization of seniors, mostly women, ranging in age from fifty-something to their seventies and eighties, who volunteer fifteen hours a week tutoring kids, offering support, and building community in the schools of greater Philadelphia.
  • United Parcel Service, an example of a corporation that sponsors community volunteering and workplace flexibility to allow employees to reconcile their professional duties with their family and community obligations, not so much out of altruism but because it stimulates profits in the long run.
  •, a “virtual community” based in San Francisco that uses the Internet not as an alternative but as a supplement to face-to-face communication in order to forge connections between people in the community, foster dialogue about local issues, and create free public “spaces” where the community can find itself.
  • Portland, Oregon, a city that has bucked the national trend and experienced a remarkable civic renaissance over the last two decades thanks in part to innovative leadership, a tradition of community activism, and a vibrant culture of public participation.

While Putnam and Feldstein admit that their collection of stories offers no blueprints or secret recipes for creating social capital, they draw out some of the common themes and offer a set of tentative guidelines in the concluding chapter. One of their key findings is that social capital is best realized in the pursuit of some other goal or set of goals. In all the cases in the book, social connectedness was a byproduct of working toward some specific objective, not an end in itself.

The case studies also suggest that building social capital is time-consuming and labor intensive. It can only develop through a process of relationship-building based on trust and reciprocity. Sharing personal and collective stories are often a critical part of this process. Narratives, Putnam and Feldstein state, “help people construct and reconstruct their interests…. Telling and listening to stories creates empathy and helps people find the things they have in common, which then eases the formation of enduring groups and networks.”

Another common theme is the importance of building in a redundancy of contact in any social capital initiative so that people encounter one another in multiple settings and contexts. This reinforces a sense of reciprocal obligation and extends the boundaries of empathy in the community. “Reweaving social webs,” Putnam and Feldstein conclude, “will … depend on our ability to create new spaces for recognition, reconnection, conversation, and debate. Creating these spaces will require innovative uses of technology, creative urban and regional planning, and political will.”