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Learning to build strong communities

March 21, 2019

New York Times columnist David Brooks and colleagues from the Aspen Institute stopped in North Platte on Wednesday as part of Weave: The Social Fabric Project. The purpose of the trip was to view firsthand what makes Nebraska good at community development.

Nebraska Community Foundation leaders from across Nebraska met with Brooks in Nebraska City and Grand Island on Tuesday, and McCook and North Platte on Wednesday.

Brooks said he realized about a year ago the division and polarization of our country.

“Somehow we have to pull the country back together,” Brooks said. “Around the country, there are people building communities every day.”

He said they decided to travel around the country finding people who are really good at building communities and creating relationships.

“We came to Nebraska in part because Nebraska is one of the more successful states at building community,” Brooks said. “There’s a measure in the U.S. Congress of social capital, which is how much community there is, and Nebraska comes in seventh in the country of all 50 states.”

Even though people are spread out geographically, Brooks said, there are institutions like Future Farmers of America and the Rotary Club.

“And you’ve got a lot of an activism,” Brooks said. “I’ve really been struck from this little tour of Nebraska and ending up at North Platte at how many people are just hustling for community.”

He said Nebraska communities are building places to gather and reaching out with early childhood education. That local effort is a model that can be done around the country.

“A lot of places we’ve been to, people are just taking the initiative,” Brooks said. “Some people will be in one community wearing eight different hats.”

Those people, he said, are helping with the kids and driving the school bus and coaching Little League.

“We were at (McCook) this morning where they are building a dog park where people can gather,” Brooks said. “They’re building a skate park where kids can gather.”

Community in small-town Nebraska is different in some ways, Brooks said, than in the big cities, such as New York.

“In the big city, you try to create a little village,” Brooks said. “As human beings, we really can only handle about 150 people in our social circle, so you try to create that.”

One of the problems in a big city, he said, is if you don’t like someone, you can be really mean to them and then go off and find somebody else.

“I think, in a small town, people are going to be around each other for a long time,” Brooks said. “So there’s much more incentive to get along.”

Another thing he said he noticed here is that people devote a lot of time to their town.

“I was with a guy yesterday who has a full-time job,” Brooks said. “But in the evening he went to three separate meetings — city council meeting, some other meeting and a park meeting.”

Brooks became a columnist for The New York Times in September 2003. His column appears every Tuesday and Friday. He is currently a commentator on “PBS NewsHour,” NPR’s “All Things Considered” and NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

The Aspen Institute is a nonpartisan forum for values-based leadership and the exchange of ideas. Its headquarters are in Washington, D.C.

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