America today is like someone with 1,000 friends on Facebook but none
to really turn to in a time of crisis. A nation in crisis needs
community. To weather the current storm, people need more than the
support of tax cuts and stimulus cash. To restore confidence and
surface new economic opportunities, people need the support of each
other. They need renewed community to re-imagine and build a new
This is not the Larry Summers plan. But it could help to address the
psychological underpinnings of the crisis and make the stimulus stick.
While Washington works on policy, citizens have begun self-organizing
solutions for themselves. Hundreds of women in DC, for example, have
formed a support group called "Girls Just Wanna Have Funds". They
gather regularly to hold each other accountable for managing their
debt and to share strategies for getting through hard times. It works.
Local job-hunting groups are sprouting -- giving hope to the
unemployed and sparking entrepreneurialism. Small business owners are
inventing next-generation Chambers of Commerce -- gathering to provide
advice and save local commerce. Parents are inventing next-generation
PTAs and playgroups -- some even providing mutual babysitting to to
reduce the cost of child-care. Career groups, support groups and
community groups of all sorts are forming with a "do-it-ourselves"
spirit to help people find a new path in a new economy.
These groups could be the beginnings of a major social phenomenon.
They're using the internet to get off the internet and form a 21st
century civil society. They mark a reinvention of a social institution
that has been rapidly disappearing since the 1950s -- the local
At the same time, another larger cultural trend is pushing us in the
opposite direction. Today we're more connected but less connected. We
avoid strangers and distrust institution. We retreat to our screens
and stay in online echo chambers where we don't have to find much
common ground. The gratification of aimless distraction and
self-expression fills our time.
We're not yet building enough enduring community strength we can count
on, the new forms of durable organization to improve our lives, towns,
schools, economies, and businesses. This requires more than just
friends and family or classifieds -- it requires self-organized new
local institutions and community spaces where people can meet,
interact, share connections, roll up their sleeves and build strong
groups. These groups -- and the community and infrastructure they
provide -- help us to restore each other's confidence, dial down
economic anxiety and give each other the courage to take risks.
With a relatively modest effort, the Obama administration can take the
current uptick in self-organized community groups in response to the
crisis -- and the enthusiasm for the idea of community organizing that
the president himself has sparked -- and turn it into a major revival
of community in this country. We need to make it easier for people to
self-organize into local groups around what's important to them.
To do this, we need to face a very practical barrier to the
proliferation of such groups: America simply doesn't have a great,
quiet place for a group to meet! (This is a key learning from the
millions of meetings hosted by self-organized groups on Meetup.com.)
Starbucks, homes, and old municipality or religious space often don't
cut it. We need thousands of 21st century community centers -- places
where local groups can meet to build community together.
Retail space is cheap and abundant in many parts of the country
because of the crisis. Now's the perfect time to offer grants to local
entrepreneurs who can turn some of this space into financially viable
meeting venues -- call them Organizing Centers -- for community groups
of all kinds (from job-hunting groups to learning groups). Local
businesses can service this new activity and make them vibrant. In
many places, these centers would help create a public square where
At the same time, the government can provide seed funding and an
incentive for citizens to start and grow a local group. We propose a
program of micro grants (between $200 and $1,000) to anyone who is
running or wants to start a community group of any kind -- not just a
service organization. The test should simply be this -- if a group has
an earnest purpose to help people support each other through this
crisis, that's service enough.
President Obama -- for now -- has the capacity to help trigger real
cultural realignments. As the president has said, at moments of
national crisis we need to do more than just tell people to go
shopping. Now it's time for the Community Organizer-In-Chief to tell
the American people to turn to each other and go Organizing.