Illustration by Randy Glass

Ask Shaylyn Romney Garrett who she is and she’ll tell you she’s a Latter-day Saint, a working mom approaching middle age and someone who’s “always exploring at the edge” of what those descriptions mean. She says she’s a “changemaker” seeking community, connection and healing “in a fragmented world.” She is also co-author with Robert D. Putnam of “The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again” and “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.”

What it takes to build bridges and what kind of human dynamite can knock them down has been a thread she’s pulled at most of her life, including while scouring the country with David Brooks’ Aspen Institute initiative, Weave, to find people crafting communities in different ways.

She speaks Arabic and lived for six years in the Middle East, two of them spent with the Peace Corps teaching English in a public girls school. That inspired her to launch a nonprofit called Think Unlimited that taught creativity, critical thinking and social entrepreneurship. She tells her own story on the blog Project Reconnect.

Garrett and her husband, James, have a daughter named Sophie, 7, and year-old son named Aeon. The family also includes a dog named Dewey after one of her favorite progressives, John Dewey. 

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Deseret News: What contributed to your interest in community?

Shaylyn Romney Garrett: The roots of this go way back to my upbringing as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Church communities are unique, particularly in the modern American landscape. We know from the data that they have high amounts of social capital, which is how we measure connection and community. When I was young, I just knew how it felt to grow up in a tight-knit, supported community. 

Then, when I got to Harvard, I took Putnam’s sophomore seminar, when he began teaching the research behind “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.” I was captivated by the thesis that American connectedness and social capital had been in dramatic decline for 50 years. That was 20 years ago and the decline has only deepened.

Yet Latter-day Saint communities, while not entirely exempt, have been an outlier. 

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DN: How do you define community?

SRG: There are different aspects: One is our experience of feeling connected to human beings. In that sense, the opposite would be loneliness. Another is social trust — the sense that most people around me can be trusted, they have my welfare in mind, they’re generally not out to get me. And that we’re all trying to make it through the world and get ahead in life together, rather than every man for himself. 

Another aspect is a sense of belonging, of being part of a group that is hanging together, whether that group’s trying to accomplish something together, or is defined by shared identity. That sense of belonging can be big —  like I belong as an American — or narrow, like I am a working mom approaching middle age. I could feel a sense of community with other women who are like myself. 

When it comes to social capital, there are a couple of different types. Bonding capital is belonging to people who look like me. Bridging capital is connections to those who are unlike me. 

Ideally, we want a mix of both to build healthy, thriving communities.

DN: Are there differences in capital value? 

SRG: Yes. There’s often great value in bonding capital. For example, immigrants from Southeast Asia will bond together to create a mutual aid society where they’re not just engaging in personal relationship connection, they’re pooling capital to cover expenses for someone starting a new business, and that becomes a revolving credit situation. Shared identity can be not just about feeling supported, but also about getting ahead in the world.

The American identity is built on the concept of bridging capital, and we’re all different in these different ways. Particularly in a diverse democracy, bridging capital is incredibly important, because you need to understand people who are not like you, you need to be able to compromise with them, work with them to create shared solutions. The two play different roles, and we need both. 

However, bonding capital can have a dark side. You can have groups competing with one another, thinking my group, my identity is all that matters. When we don’t know or understand anybody not like us, we think of them as an alien “other” that is our enemy. I think we’re seeing some of that in America today.

DN: Is white nationalism an example?

SRG: Yeah, exactly.

Religion is a powerful form of connection. When you have limited social capital or religious communities, there can be a sense without the right sort of narrative attached that we are the only ones that understand the true nature of reality, true nature of God, and everybody else is fundamentally wrong and morally flawed. We’re seeing that now when it comes to political ideologies in a way that we’ve never seen before, when people are religifying their political identities. That also happens when it comes to race.

In religion, race and politics, we become tribal in particularly destructive ways.

DN: What does it mean when you say we’ve been losing community for 70 years?

SRG: Bob Putnam’s earlier work showed the power of social capital. Not only are community, connection and social capital super important for personal well-being — people with higher rates of personal social capital live longer; adding meaningful connections to your life can extend your life — it also has effects on the health of the community. The incidence of crime, for example, or the general safety of a neighborhood. It affects our politics and the success of democracy.

Bob’s original research on this was about different parts of Italy. The levels of social capital they had he found predictive of how much corruption would be experienced in those communities versus how responsive government leaders were to citizens’ needs and desires. 

So it affects us personally, it affects our neighborhoods and the way that we experience our life right outside our doorstep. It also affects the health of the democracy on a big scale. The fact that all of these things have been in decline for decades turned out to create a multifaceted crisis. 

If you wanted to look for a silver bullet to solve polarization, economic inequality, the loneliness epidemic, the culture of narcissism we’re seeing ourselves in, if you wanted to pick one thing with huge power to affect all of that, reinvesting in relationship and community would be at the very top of that list. 

DN: Did you always feel like you fit in?

SRG: Over the years, I’ve come to understand that in order to feel belonging, wherever we are, we actually need to lean into authenticity.

For a long time I felt that I had to contort myself to fit into all these different communities that I wanted to be part of. As I’ve matured, I’ve gained more courage to own all the orphaned parts of myself, and to bring my full self into any community. That’s a journey that we all have to go on, to first understand ourselves well enough to know who we really are, what are all the disparate parts of ourselves, and then find the courage to show up fully.

I have found that, as a Latter-day Saint who’s very interested in politics and ideas, a working mom who doesn’t fit the mold, I’m able to contribute in an incredibly vital way, rather than hanging back.

DN: Any last word on this?

SRG: It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the multifaceted crises America finds itself in. We are facing historic levels of income inequality, historic levels of political polarization. We are facing historic levels of loneliness and isolation, cultural narcissism and self-centeredness. In that dark place, it’s easy to lose hope.

America has been in this same moment before: 120 years ago during the last Gilded Age. From statistical, hard measures, we know that America looked very, very similar to how it looks today. A determined group of reformers came onto the scene and engineered a multifaceted upswing in which all of these negative trends started moving in the right direction. For 70-odd years, everything was getting better on these different measures that I’ve mentioned. We got out of this mess once before; we can do it again. 

The way those reformers got out of the mess and the way that we will do it is by association building, rather than turning inward —  turning back toward one another.

The solution can begin right in our own families, outside our doorsteps and, to a certain extent, inside our own heart. Investing in community is heart work. 

The solution may be simpler than we think, and a lot closer to home in terms of reinvesting in the power of community.

This story appears in the June issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.