Inspector general reports of insubordination and bias, IRS targeting citizens, politicians using character assassination as a strategy, fake news perpetuated on social media, Congress failing to act on critical issues — all of these represent a portion of a growing crisis in America — a crisis of trust. Trust in government remains near historic lows. The bigger crisis is that the distrust perpetuated by big government and large organizations has begun to fray the fabric of trust in our communities and even in our personal relationships.
As the foundation of trust is eroded, people become more isolated, more tribal and less likely to engage in meaningful dialogue. All of this undermines the soul of the American story. Despite our romanticized view of rugged individualism, the American story has always been about how those unique individuals come together. Raising a barn, building a bridge, fighting for freedom or getting a man to the moon galvanized communities, united the nation and strengthened the bulwark of our collected trust.
Sadly, distrust has become the standard starting point for relationships with organizations and our fellow citizens. Only 19 percent of millennials say they can trust their neighbor. Interestingly, while trust in those we at least somewhat know has plummeted, we are somehow comfortable having someone we have never met give us a ride in an Uber, and we allow complete strangers to stay in our homes through Airbnb. Social media has provided a disconnect from real relationships and the core component of trust.
There are two keys to building or restoring trust: developing personal relationships and establishing “thick institutions.” Trust comes naturally through shared experiences and conversations. Such relationships are not only essential to thriving communities, they are the only way to help those who are struggling.
A longtime professional counselor was once asked, “Which program really can transform lives?” The counselor, without hesitation, replied, “I’ve never seen a program transform a life. The only thing that can transform a life is a relationship.” Transforming the life of someone who is addicted to opioids or who has lived forever in poverty requires a trusting relationship. Such relationships are also the only way to change our communities.
Author David Brooks uses the term “thick institutions” to describe organizations that build trust and leave a mark on those who interact with the institution. These groups develop trust through shared space, shared values, shared tasks and shared rituals. Providing a space for people to come together fosters trust and creates meaningful anchors to individuals, families and neighborhoods.
Combining meaningful relationships of trust and strong trustworthy institutions is what creates a vibrant society and a better America.
This past week I attended a celebration of 25 “thick” relationship-driven organizations. SelectHealth provides annual recognition and awards to groups that range from foster care services and horse therapy to hope squads and food pantries; from free dental care and refugee assistance to help for aging Navajo elders and a safe place for kids. All of the organizations are taking action and building trust-filled relationships in their local communities. The result is they are not only building trust but are literally transforming lives.
Nothing is more inspiring or important than the work being done around the country by local citizens with a desire to make a difference. I have tremendous trust in communities, neighborhoods and families to best meet the needs of people. Yes, government has a role, but trust is built by people.
While our trust in government will continue to be challenged by the actions of some, we cannot let it undermine, erode or destroy our trust in each other. The future of our communities and our country will require enormous amounts of trust. We must do what we can to build trust in our institutions while always being trustworthy ourselves.