BETTER TOGETHER: Restoring the American Community
By Robert D. Putnam and Lewis M. Feldstein, with Don Cohen
Published by Simon & Schuster
September 10, 2003
Price: $26.95; ISBN: 0-7432-3546-0

Press Release

When Robert Putnam’s bestselling book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of
American Community
was published in 2000, its central idea — that Americans were becoming less and less connected to one another and to community affairs — struck a nerve with people all across the country. Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard, found that every kind of civic and social involvement — including membership in civic associations, participation in local and national politics, membership in churches and social clubs and unions, time spent with family and friends and neighbors, philanthropic giving, even simple trust in other people — had fallen by 25 to 50 percent since the late 1960s. As Putnam traveled the nation to discuss his findings, one question kept emerging from ordinary Americans: What can bring us together again?
In his new book, BETTER TOGETHER: Restoring the American Community (Simon & Schuster; September 10, 2003; $26.95), Putnam and co-author Lewis Feldstein, who has had a long career in civic activism, report on how Americans are developing new ways of making connections among people, reestablishing bonds of trust and understanding, and revitalizing civic spirit. In the final chapter of Bowling Alone, Putnam detected early signs of civic renewal. Now, he and Feldstein explore those trends in depth through the vivid stories of twelve successful efforts that build community as the principal means of addressing key needs in every region of the country.

Putnam, Feldstein, and their team of researchers found that hardworking, committed people are re-weaving the social fabric within institutions, organizations and communities all across America as the most effective way to respond to civic crises and local problems. Individual activists as well as local and national groups working in private and public enterprises of many different kinds are building community in big cities, suburbs, and small towns from coast to coast:

Valley Interfaith (Rio Grande Valley, Texas). Valley Interfaith is a decades-long community organizing effort that brought such basic services as electricity, roads, and health care to the mostly Spanish-speaking residents of one of the poorest regions in the United States. The special strength of Valley Interfaith — with members drawn from 45 churches and public school groups representing 60,000 families — is that the agenda for reform emerged from one-on-one conversations with the members, rather than being imposed from the top down. Through these thousands of conversations, individuals joined with one another, “making their private pain public” as one minister described the work. Organizers followed an “iron rule” of never doing anything for people that they can do for themselves, and worked constantly to develop new leaders. As a result, the power of personal relationships was translated into civic and political strength, often in coalition with similar networks throughout Texas.

Branch Libraries (Chicago, Illinois). With the advent of the Internet, many people predicted that public libraries would die. But in Chicago, the libraries are thriving and expanding because they embody a new idea of how a library functions. No longer a passive repository of books, the new Chicago library is an active and responsive part of the community. It is also an agent of change that can bring together very different types of communities, from the wealthy Gold Coast to the impoverished, mostly African-American, Cabrini Green. As one librarian observed, “Like the Marines, we go in first” to help link and change neighborhoods.

The Shipyard Project (Portsmouth, New Hampshire). The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard has been building ships and submarines for more than two centuries, and employs a workforce of 3,000. Yet in recent years, many residents of the historic city of Portsmouth, just across the river from the shipyard, had come to see it as an odd and ugly contrast to their newly gentrified city. That gap in knowledge and sympathy led Chris Dwyer to conceive the idea of an arts project that would reveal and explain the shipyard to the city. The surprising result was a remarkable, two-year effort to create a democratic, participatory dance project — involving burly shipyard workers as well as dance professionals — which culminated in a week of performances that moved and transformed the entire community.

Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (Boston, Massachusetts). A deteriorating and crime-ridden wasteland in the early 1980s, the Dudley Street neighborhood has been saved by a civic association that knocked on every door, overcame ethnic differences, and now plays an ongoing role in the neighborhood. At countless community meetings, at multicultural festivals, and through side-by-side labor, organizers helped people in the neighborhood connect and reconnect. “Now,” says one resident, “most people know each other, and they talk to each other. And it feels more like a family than a neighborhood.”

The Tupelo Model (Tupelo, Mississippi). In 1940, Lee County, in which Tupelo is located, was one of the poorest counties in America. After half a century of hard collective work, Lee County has been dramatically transformed, with a poverty rate half the national average. Tupelo is bustling and prosperous, and is regularly cited by economic development experts as one of the top success stories in the nation. Yet Tupelo’s turnaround had an unlikely beginning when a liberal newspaper editor named George McLean convinced conservative small-business owners to invest in a prize bull so that the very poor dairy farmers—who were their primary customers—could improve their herds, make more money, and support more business.

Saddleback Church (Lake Forest, California). Saddleback is a highly successful evangelical Christian mega-church, with some 45,000 members and a sprawling complex of facilities on 74 acres of land. Yet it manages to turn its vast crowd of “seekers” into a genuine congregation, and then into committed, core members, by fostering real community through intentionally organizing congregants into hundreds of small groups. Another church in southern California, All Saints Episcopal in Pasadena, has built a large and diverse community of 3,500 members in a different way. While also using small groups to promote community, All Saints offers a blend of traditional Episcopalian ritual, social liberalism, and religious ambiguity, in contrast to Saddleback’s combination of innovative worship styles and religious certainty.

Do Something (Waupun, Wisconsin). Do Something is a national organization established to encourage community activism and develop leadership skills among young people. Yet Do Something works by letting young people in local communities define their own action agendas and build the commitment to carry them out. In the small town of Waupun, a group of sixth-graders managed to convince local authorities to improve safety at a railroad crossing, learning valuable lessons in civic activism. Do Something’s national leadership also learned a lesson: they had to discard their initial strategy in order to tap into the natural social networks in schools, rather than make an expensive and ultimately futile attempt to create artificial ones.

Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (Cambridge, Massachusetts). Two unsuccessful efforts to unionize support staff at Harvard University showed the weaknesses in traditional union organizing strategies. Then, in 1985, a group of organizers led by Kris Rondeau chose a path that led to a new kind of union. Instead of leafleting, telling workers what they could get for them, and emphasizing grievances against Harvard, the organizers slowly built personal relationships with the employees, 85 percent of whom were women. They had multiple one-on-one conversations with them over coffee and lunch, during which the employees could talk about their work and their wishes and tell their personal stories. The organizers also had the explicit goal of deepening relationships between labor and management. They even had a singing group that sang union lyrics old stand-by tunes. This time, the union won. As one member put it, “An employer will never beat a union that has a singing group.”

Experience Corps (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania). Every week at the racially integrated Cook-Wissahickon Elementary School in North Philadelphia, ten Experience Corps volunteers, mostly women, all retired, ranging in age from fifty-something to their seventies and eighties are helping to raise the ambitions and improve the skills of kids from impoverished backgrounds. Each volunteer (many from minority backgrounds themselves) commits fifteen hours a week to the school, tutoring four to six children three times a week. The program not only brings many different kinds of benefits to the students, it builds community among the volunteers and deploys them strategically in order to foster a sense of mission and magnify their individual impact.

UPS: Diversity and Cohesion (Everywhere, USA). Forty years ago, UPS was overwhelmingly an organization of white males, many of them Irish Catholic and with a military background. Today, minorities hold 27 percent of managerial positions, women are 21 percent of the workforce, and DiversityInc.com ranked UPS third in its list of top ten companies for diversity in 2001. UPS is a very large, profitable firm in a highly competitive global industry – not an outpost of “boutique capitalism”— that succeeded by embracing change rather than resisting it. Central to UPS’ success has been the hardnosed business calculation by UPS management to invest in building its entire operation on cooperation, connections, and loyalty within its 370,000 member workforce.

Craigslist (San Francisco, California). It remains an open question whether the Internet can build “virtual” communities that are truly comparable in impact and cohesion to physical, face-to-face communities. Craigslist, based in San Francisco, is one of the most successful online communities precisely because it has a very close, multilevel connection to the community in which it is located. Members not only peruse ads for jobs and apartments, but tell personal stories, offer emotional support, and suggest spur-of-the-moment meetings for coffee, concerts, and even doing laundry.

A Positive Epidemic of Civic Engagement (Portland, Oregon). Over the past three decades, Portland has moved from an average level of civic participation to the one of the highest in America. What magic elixir boosted Portlanders’ civic engagement so astonishingly just as it was precipitously declining in most of the rest of the country? The authors trace how a core of committed activists from the 1960s helped create unusually responsive local and state governments, which in turn encouraged more activism and more government responsiveness in a “virtuous circle” of civic participation.

What these diverse endeavors have in common is that they all involve the creation of social capital: developing networks of relationships that weave individuals into groups and communities. Scholars, government officials, and business leaders around the world have increasingly recognized the essential contribution of social capital to the economic and social health of countries, regions, cities, and towns, to the success of organizations, and to individual accomplishment and well being. “The stories in this book,” Putnam and Feldstein write, “show the positive effects of social capital, the ways that people in relationships can reach goals that would have been far beyond the grasp of individuals in isolation. At the same time, these people enjoy the intrinsic satisfaction of association, of being part of a community.”

There are two main types of social capital. Some networks link people who are similar in crucial respects, and tend to be inward-looking — bonding social capital. Other networks encompass different types of people and tend to be outward-looking — bridging social capital. Both bonding and bridging social capital are essential. Bridging social capital is harder to create than bonding social capital — after all, birds of a feather flock together. So the kind of social capital that is most essential for healthy public life in an increasingly diverse society like ours is just the kind that is hardest to build. For that reason, Putnam and Feldstein have paid special attention to the challenges of fostering social networks that bridge the various splits in contemporary American communities.

Certain common themes emerge from BETTER TOGETHER’s stories. In none of these stories did people set out to build social capital. Their goals were to raise farm income in Mississippi, or help poor kids in Philadelphia, or deliver packages competitively across the US, or build parks in Portland or save souls in Los Angeles. But they all focused on strengthening social networks as key to achieving their ends. These cases make it clear that developing robust social capital takes a great deal of time and effort, since it develops mostly through extensive face-to-face conversations. A related theme is the unparalleled power of personal storytelling, which allows people to articulate their own experiences and goals, and to recognize themselves in the stories of others. For the creation of social capital, smaller groups are better. But for extending the power and reach of social networks, bigger is often better. The dilemma can be resolved, in part, by creating networks of networks — nesting smaller groups within larger, more encompassing ones. Moreover, social capital is usually developed in pursuit of a particular goal or set of goals and not for its own sake. Social capital is generally a means to an end and an important fringe benefit, but not in itself the main aim.

Putnam and Feldstein note that community building sometimes has a warm and fuzzy feeling, a kind of “kumbaya” cuddliness about it. While these stories have some elements of this, they also show that building social capital is not free of conflict and controversy. Social capital represents not a comfortable alternative to social conflict, but a way of making conflict productive. By organizing some people in and some people out, social capital can have a negative effect on “outsiders.” Social capital relies on informal sanctions and gossip and even ostracism, not just on fellowship, emulation and altruism. In short, the concept of social capital is not totally sweet, but has a certain tartness. Each of the stories in BETTER TOGETHER illustrates the extraordinary power and subtlety of social networks for enabling people to improve their lives.
In his landmark study Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam expressed the hope that the disturbing decline in community in America over the past three decades might be reversed with the creation of new kinds of institutions and forms of association. Now, he joins with Lewis Feldstein to describe some examples of what could be the beginning of that process. Putnam and Feldstein write, “If BETTER TOGETHER provides insight, unlocks new ways of thinking, and sparks enthusiasm that contributes in even the smallest way to such a revival, it will have more than justified our hopes and efforts.”

ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Robert D. Putnam is the Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University, where he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in American politics, international relations, comparative politics, and public policy. He is the founder of The Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America, a program that has brought together leading practitioners and thinkers for a multi-year discussion to develop broad-scale, actionable ideas to fortify our nation’s civic connectedness. Before coming to Harvard in 1979, Putnam taught at the University of Michigan and served on the staff of the National Security Council. In 2001-2002 he served as President of the American Political Science Association. A former Dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government, he has also served as Associate Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Director of the Center for International Affairs, and Chairman of the Department of Government at Harvard. He has been consulted by both the Clinton and Bush White Houses, by leading governors and members of Congress from both parties, by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, and by national leaders from Germany to Finland to New Zealand. He has written numerous books including the best-selling Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000), and more recently a collective volume Democracies in Flux: The Evolution of Social Capital in Contemporary Society (2002). He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Lewis M. Feldstein is President of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation. NHCF is New Hampshire’s statewide community foundation, the principal source of venture capital for the state’s nonprofit community. NHCF finished 2002 with approximately $214 million in assets and received $25.4 million in gifts. Feldstein worked with the civil rights movement in Mississippi in the 1960s and served for seven years in senior staff positions to New York City Mayor John V. Lindsay. Prior to coming to NHCF, Feldstein served as Provost of the Antioch/New England Graduate School. Feldstein serves on several Boards of Directors for nonprofit organizations. He co-chaired with Robert D. Putnam the Harvard University Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America. Feldstein was selected as one of the ten most influential people in New Hampshire in 2000 by Business NH Magazine. He lives in Hancock, New Hampshire.

Don Cohen is coauthor (with Laurence Prusak) of In Good Company: How Social Capital Makes Organizations Work. He is editor of Business Value Directions, the journal of the IBM Institute for Business Value.

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