Robert Putnams stories of hope for civic life in America

Better Together: Restoring the American Community
By Robert D. Putnam and Lewis M. Feldstein, with Don Cohen
Simon & Schuster, New York, 318 pages.

In 2000, Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone documented his claim that America is in free fall as far as civic life is concerned. With cool and scholarly detachment, trenchant analysis, and voluminous data, Putnam chronicled the country’s slide into the murky clay of civic solipsism.

Bowling Alone‘s central assertion was this: America is losing its social capital. It’s losing that reservoir of interpersonal interactions among friends, family, and community, that fount of good feelings, trust, and reciprocity that are the DNA of any healthy body politic. Putnam’s assertion was buttressed with fact after convincing fact, portraying a generation of Americans that is less inclined than its predecessors to do such things as write letters to the editor, attend PTA meetings, vote, interact with neighbors, or, as the title of the book suggested, join a bowling team.

The absence of these signs of civic, or even social, spirit is a bad omen for the future of the republic and our ongoing democratic practices. Indeed, it may well be the first symptom of civic death.

Cognizant of the book’s lugubrious tone, Putnam ended Bowling Alone by mustering up some predictions of civic blossoming, and by pledging to provide a forum–through an initiative called “Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America,” at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government–to nurture such a revival.

In Better Together: Restoring the American Community, Putnam teams with Lewis Feldstein, president of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, to document examples of social capital being built, rather than depleted, in America. In doing so, they seek to explore social capital formation in its variant manifestations, explicate its existential meaning, and proffer models of how the ends of authentic community building can be achieved by the means of social capital development.

Over the course of a year, the authors painstakingly document social, political, and entrepreneurial movements in 12 different cities. The result is a book that is very much unlike its statistics-laden precursor, Bowling Alone. This is an accessible volume filled with the stories and voices of Americans who are improving social reality in their communities. The authors write that they have “descended from the statistical heights of Bowling Alone to the ground level,” entering the living rooms, the classrooms, the violence-plagued inner cities, the church sanctuaries, and the business boardrooms.

Take, for example, the branch library movement in Chicago. In the age of the Internet and increasing illiteracy (in practice if not in ability), many believed that the neighborhood library would become practically obsolete, with Americans opting to access information more and more from television or from the confines of home or office. But in Chicago, library usage is on the rise as new branches are being constructed. A literacy initiative advanced through the library system has generated citywide reading projects that have brought residents and neighborhoods together in dialogues that are now expanding into conversations about neighborhood renewal, crime reduction, and civic engagement more broadly.

Putnam and Feldstein offer stories of social capital building in places that seem likely and unlikely, including the evangelical Saddleback Church in California, the United Parcel Service (which built cohesion even as it diversified its workforce), the Shipyard Project in Maine, the Harvard Clerical Union, and the virtual-community Web site craigslist.org. The result is a collage of community building, detailing the obstacles that confronted the citizens in their various efforts and how they called upon bonds of trust and reciprocity to manage crises and achieve significant community successes.

Of particular interest for local readers is the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative in the Roxbury section of Boston. By the late 1970s this once middle-class and immaculately preserved neighborhood, five miles east of the Massachusetts State House, had become a civic, social, and political backwater. It was undesired by many and avoided by most.

An illegal dumping ground had surfaced as an eyesore and source of toxicity. A faltering neighborhood infrastructure, episodic gang violence, and neighborly distrust also punctuated community life, leaving such longtime residents as Julio and Sandra Rodriguez (she is now director of the Boston Housing Authority) wary of the long-term prospects of the Dudley area. John Barros, then a youth of Cape Verdean descent and now executive director of DSNI, witnessed fires in his community on a nightly basis–evidence, to many residents, of absentee landlords abandoning the community as it transitioned from virtually all-white into a multiracial mix.

The Dudley Street revitalization movement was founded in the ashes of arson fires and illegal waste dumps. In 1984, Nelson Merced, then executive director of La Alianza Hispana, a multiservice center for the city’s emerging Latino community, responded to the Boston-based Riley Foundation’s request that he organize a “visioning” process for the community. What that process identified was a beleaguered community, the needs of which went well beyond what the foundation’s capital improvement grant could address.

It also got the ball rolling on what has become one of the most celebrated examples of self-directed neighborhood renewal in the country. The first years were rocky, with DSNI residents and organizers at one point rejecting the foundation’s involvement as patronizing, but the community is now a vital web of human interconnectivity addressing problems ranging from school reform and affordable housing to racial bridge building and political participation.

DSNI has constructed an organizing infrastructure that demands a high level of inclusion in order to meet community goals. Holding regular community meetings, hosting celebrations, and honoring community and stakeholder commitments are behaviors that have helped to build trust and fellowship among neighbors. Such a human network allows DSNI to pursue its goals of social justice.

To be sure, the neighborhood and DSNI leadership still confront the familiar menu of issues impacting almost every urban center, including gentrification, a public school system with a poor reputation, and ethnic tension. But, say Putnam and Feldstein, the Dudley Street community is awash in social capital, giving people the means to engage with each other in solving neighborhood problems.

Better Together also highlights the Experience Corps, a Philadelphia-based organization seeking to improve the academic performance of inner-city middle-school children by matching retired professionals with struggling students. Experience Corps is credited with successfully engaging isolated seniors with public school staff, students, and parents in North Philadelphia.

The retirees tutor youth on subjects ranging from algebra to English composition. In the process of tutoring, seniors feel reconnected to youth, and also to teachers and administrators who work in their local community. Likewise, young people come to know elders in the community and pay respect and deference in ways that would not have been imagined a short time ago. Such social capital development, the authors assert, enriches individual lives, but it also weaves a tapestry of neighborhood connectedness.

Portland, Ore., provides yet another example of the success that results from intentionally building social capital. In 1978, Mayor Neil Goldschmidt sought to reverse the trend of civic disinvestment across the city by creating the Office of Neighborhood Associations. Goldschmidt aimed to bring the city together through small, city-funded neighborhood organizations that could advise the city on issues ranging from commercial zoning to municipal budgetary priorities. In the 25 years since, civic participation in Portland has risen in inverse proportion to how it has fallen nationally. Notwithstanding some failed initiatives attributed to tensions steeped in issues of class and race, the Portland civic participation model has been a success.

The common thread running through Better Together is the observation that social capital building was not necessarily the end sought in any of the documented projects, but instead the means by which each of these initiatives met with success. DSNI was not so much about building temples of social capital as it was about cleaning up illegal waste dumps, abating gang violence, and repairing a devastated housing and commercial infrastructure. Similarly, the branch library movement in Chicago, or the evangelical movement at the Saddleback mega-church in California, is less about creating platforms for social interaction than about advancing literacy and saving souls. But, in the view of Putnam and Feldstein, social capital is the glue that held these efforts together, and a byproduct of these efforts that enriches the broader community.

Readers of Better Together will come away with the clear message that there are numerous and various ways for social capital formation to take place. But for those who have followed Putnam’s intellectual journey more closely, there may be a yearning for more. Indeed, with its emphasis on storytelling over theorizing, Better Together is a mile wide, but an inch deep.

Even after several tomes exploring different aspects of social capital, Putnam has never made the philosophical underpinnings of this notion clear. Is his conception of social capital grounded in any discipline of political theory or ideology? Is it part of modernist enlightenment thinking, in the tradition of Descartes, Hobbes, or Hume? Or does it rest on the neo-social contract or state-of-nature theory of John Rawls? These queries are not inconsequential to the reader who wants a clear and certain epistemological reference point.

In the end, Better Together is an important contribution to the literature and the practice of civic engagement for a number of reasons. First, it is a book that will aid and inspire professional and lay activists who are struggling to make change in their communities. Any serious activist will find in Better Together a number of strategies he can put to use in his own circumstances. So, in this regard, Better Together serves as a template for action.

Second, Better Together offers a mature look at serious problems and offers solutions while not denying the grave state of social and civic disrepair we are in.

Third, Better Together makes connections that may not be readily obvious. The most important of these may be the fact that government, and institutions such as foundations, can play a significant role in generating social capital. In most of the 12 narratives in this book, government plays a featured role in assuring that social capital building is a supported activity. In Chicago, for instance, social capital is built as people share ideas and lives, but they do so in library space provided by the city.

A final caveat from the authors is that social capital formation doesn’t happen overnight. It is the product of numerous face-to-face encounters, protracted periods of human engagement and reflection, and episodes of struggle and celebration. In essence, social capital building is a gradualist’s enterprise that demands patience and persistence.

Meet the Author

In all, Putnam and Feldstein have done well to produce a volume that educates and enlightens activists, leaders, and laypersons alike regarding the importance of social capital formation. In a country where democracy is dependent on the degree to which citizens are bonded together in networks of engagement and mutual affection for public life, this book sheds light on how we can, indeed, be better together.

Kevin C. Peterson, a senior fellow at the Center for Collaborative Leadership at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, is founder and executive director of the New Democracy Coalition, a Boston-based organization focusing on civic policy, civic literacy, and electoral justice.