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Mending Divided Communities with the Thread of Social Trust

By Risa Wilkerson on November 10th, 2020

For those of us who believe that the Biden/Harris ticket represents a hopeful shift to decency and fairness, the results of this election bring joy—albeit tempered joy. We are still a nation divided. In his first address as president-elect, Biden appealed to unity, asking Americans to “give each other a chance” rather than viewing their opponents as enemies—because until we address the deep divides in this country, nobody wins.

No matter what we’re working on—racial justice, poverty, COVID relief, or any other issue that affects community health—the only way to solve those problems is through collaboration. And we know firsthand that it’s impossible to collaborate with people you don’t trust.

Social trust is an indicator of health and well-being for individuals and for communities. Societies in which people trust one another are healthier and wealthier. Social trust is also associated with non-economic outcomes, such as increased life satisfaction and lower suicide rates. 1 However, even before the intersecting health, economic, and social crises of this year, social trust has been declining in the United States. A growing number of people have zero people in their network with whom they feel they can discuss important matters, for example.

Our divisions are perhaps most clear when it comes to politics—in other words, when it comes to allocating power. According to The Pew Research Center, “40 percent or more of Democrats and Republicans see the other party not just as people they disagree with, but as a threat to the well-being of the nation.” 2 Journalist David Brooks goes so far as to say that “when people in a society lose faith or trust in their institutions and in each other, the nation collapses.” 3 Brooks describes the growing animosity we are currently experiencing—especially during this election cycle—as the result of “explosive distrust, which is the belief that those who disagree with you are not only wrong, they are illegitimate.” He notes that this year’s intersecting crises created a unique chance for us to pull together as a nation and build trust, but that we haven’t yet fully embraced that opportunity.

Now, more urgently than ever, our work to improve health and well-being depends on strengthening social trust. So, how?

When people work together toward a co-created vision, interpersonal and institutional trust is strengthened. For example, our team has seen how trust has been restored between historically disenfranchised neighborhood residents and their representatives in government institutions. We’ve facilitated conversations that helped people with opposing viewpoints develop a shared vision for the future. Decades of work with community partnerships have also taught us that trust gains ground:

  • When funding and power is shared between organizations and people who face the very problems those organizations seek to solve.
  • When civic processes welcome community members by considering their scheduling, transportation, language, child-care, and other needs.
  • When organizations and communities have courageous conversations about racial equity; historic oppression; and the traumas that people have experienced.
  • When public spaces are designed and programmed through collaborative processes that invite all people (including those who usually feel excluded/ignored, such as those without homes) to participate.
  • When policymakers reflect the demographics of the communities they represent.

The good news is that while the majority of people believe current levels of trust make it harder to solve our country’s problems, they also believe we can still rebuild trust in each other and in our institutions. 4 The tough news is that trust won’t rebuild itself. Divisions won’t mend themselves. Just as democracy requires our active and ongoing civic participation, rebuilding social trust requires that we implement intentional practices and strategies within our organizations and initiatives.

Creating a trusting country starts by creating socially connected, trusting communities at the local level through collaborative, community-led, place-based efforts. We have a lot of work to do, and we’re ready. We hope you’ll join us.

Risa Wilkerson

Executive Director

Action-driven optimist, abundance thinker, and simplicity seeker.