The Hewlett Foundation Blog
August 26, 2014 — By Diane Douglas
Diane Douglas is the Executive Director of Seattle CityClub, an organization that "works to to inform, connect and engage the public to strengthen the civic health" of the Seattle region.
Of the many provocative topics Larry Kramer discussed at Seattle CityClub during a conversation about political polarization earlier this summer, one stood out to me. It was his personal and rueful reflection on the demise of the informal associations that brought his parents together with all kinds of people, people who didn’t share their views and may have had little in common besides a single hobby or commitment to community service (a topic Daniel Stid also addressed recently on this blog). He contrasted that post-war American civic experience with the narrowed field of associations Bill Bishop describes in The Big Sort. Increasingly, we live near, encounter online, and associate with people just like us—leaning blue or leaning red, but not mixing it up, not hearing dissonant perspectives from people we respect.
It struck me because of its relevance to Seattle CityClub’s work right now. Since 1981, Seattle CityClub has been a trusted place for civic conversation, inspiration, and action. In February, we published a report on the civic health of our community. It finds that although Seattle is a city of civic doers—we join organizations to address community problems; we use our consumer power to support our social values; we vote in local elections—we’re not great neighbors.
Just as Larry described, we lack connections that bring us into contact with those we don’t already know. And given the momentum behind this “sorting”—growing income, age, and racial disparities, immigration, and the increasingly partisan consumption of news and information—it’s an urgent problem for our city. The “Seattle Freeze” describes a superficial friendliness newcomers often encounter here—easy smiles and greetings, but no invitations to come over to the house for dinner. It’s the deeper bonds formed over shared meals, time spent together talking through a shared interest, that allow a community to build trust and reach agreement on how to face common challenges. Increasingly, it’s those bonds that our city—and, perhaps, others—are missing.
Seattle CityClub is testing new strategies to improve social cohesion in our community. I’d love to hear your responses, thoughts, and experiences.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation develops health rankings for communities across the country based on the many factors that make them healthier places to live, learn, work, and play. Surprisingly, new findings show that only 50% of health outcomes relate to clinical care and physical behaviors. The remainder depends on social and economic factors, environmental quality and the built environment—and social determinants are the biggest single factor of all. This integral link between public health and civic health has prompted Seattle CityClub to explore a partnership with local public health organizations to see how we can connect and leverage the effort we put into our individual programs, strategies, and outcomes.
In another example, one of our sister nonprofits is working on a new ten-year plan to ensure sustainable regional growth. It entails keeping rural lands safe from sprawl and concentrating density in the urban core. Recognizing that achieving healthy urban density requires neighborliness, this environmental organization is enlisting us as a planning partner.
While these emerging mutual interests and associations between professional organizations do not replace the personal ties Larry Kramer admires, they may point to a viable way to renew civic capital. In trying to connect Seattle CityClub’s network of engaged citizens with our colleagues’ networks of public health workers and environmental activists, we’re finding common ground in the understanding that our work—and our goals—are interdependent.
Taking Advantage of Opportune Moments
In times of great tragedy and great celebration, community spirit surges. Civic pride and connectedness seem palpable. In the last year, Seattle experienced both extremes: an outpouring of philanthropy, volunteerism, neighborliness, and mutual concern generated by a landslide an hour north of us in Oso, Washington; and an unprecedented civic celebration following the Seahawks Super Bowl victory. (Sorry, San Francisco—I don’t mean to rub it in!) Strangers high-fived one another on buses, showed up in record numbers to cheer the team on, befriended each other in crowded bars and shared hot chocolate with freezing victory parade goers.
This spirit of belonging, loyalty, and pride was masterfully wielded by the Seahawks in developing their fan base as the team’s essential “12th Man.” As the successful 2013 season progressed, that magical number began adorning more and more of our clothing, hand-painted signs and faces, flags, stickers, bus banners, night-lit buildings, and more. And the 12th Man and the Seahawks showed up big-time to help the Oso community in its time of need.
Seattle CityClub is now engaged in conversation with the Seahawks about how to fulfill the powerful potential of the 12th Man for social good. We’re exploring youth civic education opportunities and crowd-sourced civic challenges to “12”—or tackle—together.
I believe that immediately after 9/11 an opportunity was squandered. There was a chance to rally Americans and issue a call to unity and service when we had both the need and a willingness to come together. I believe we can build social capital in times of strength, and times of weakness, that will last beyond these opportune moments and yield a resilient sense of trust, loyalty, and optimism about the common good.
If we’re no longer bowling together, we must invent new ways to create enduring associations and social coherence. One way to counter political polarization is to tap veins of mutual interest and generosity that bind us together as Americans.