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When BIG Hits the Wall: Go Local

“Small is beautiful” again ... chance to impact one’s community with tangible, visible results, is hugely appealing to a generation that feels denuded of both belonging and heroic opportunity. Anne Snyder, Philanthropy Roundtable

Remember when you and others mostly believed in institutions and their leaders? Remember when “BIG” was associated with successful, stable, sustainable, and safe. Today, BIG in front of business, labor, pharma, banks, government, oil, media, tech – is a pejorative. BIG’s reputation or “brand” has become slow, bureaucratic, impersonal, transactional, oppressive, absent innovation, anti-relational and untrusted. Seventy percent of Millennials say they hope to escape working for large, traditional organizations at some point.

It is not just individual organizations. Today whole institutions, like capitalism, democracy, religion, marriage, parenthood, college and pro sports, and now even technology and social media face scrutiny as places that misuse concentrated power. Power corrupts and concentrated power corrupts absolutely. Dashner Keltner’s labs research reveals the impact power has on those who hold it: it mimics blunt trauma to the brain creating “sociopath” behavior – where those holding power lose touch with how others think and feel.

Yet our doubt and even rejection of everything large and institutional has left a massive hole where meaning, purpose and relationship once resided. Today we are increasingly defined by the relationships we do not have – a growing trend of “nots and nones”: not married, not (or absent) parent, not engaged at work, not Democrat or Republican, and church affiliation “none.” We know what we oppose or at least eschew but in a post-modern world, what are we “for”? Where are we to look for infrastructure to support and underpin purpose and meaning? What is worthy of our belief, commitment, and efforts?

BIG Hits the Wall

We don’t need reminders of just how large and concentrated BIG has gotten:

  • · A world population of 7.6 billion, 1.4 billion in China

  • · U.S. federal budget of $4.4 Trillion with a $1.0 Trillion deficit

  • · Tech giants – Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft – have a combined value of $3.6 Trillion and control 70—90 percent of key markets

  • · Apple’s market capitalization just hit $1 Trillion; CEO Bezos is worth $155B

A global economy and a world-wide web have provided a platform for scale and concentration of power and influence unlike anything in history. This is a world ruled by money, power, votes and eyeballs. There is a reason Millennials are so focused on purpose – it is because they have seen so little of it in their elders. That ecapsulates today’s power-paradox: Things continue to get bigger and we continue to like BIG less. This growing world of large, top-down, centralized, consolidated control, aided by scale and monopolizing the means of efficient production and access to huge global markets, has created quite a backlash.

In response, culture has been on a march in the opposite direction. For several decades there have been growing movements that disparage institutions and their leaders, and reject concentrated power. Brexit, Tea Party, Black Lives Matter, Resist, Make America Great Again, Occupy Wall Street, Me-Too – the list of noisy revolts is long as are the objects of their contempt – Wall Street, police, banks, organized religion and their churches, the media, political parties and their leaders. Sometimes the revolt is quiet and passive. Two prominent church pastors, recently discussing their denomination’s upcoming meeting where weighty decisions are being decided, confided: “Nothing they do or do not do will change a single thing in my church.”

As organizations grow larger, more dominate and even cartel-like, their credibility and trust – and that of their powerful leaders – grow smaller and weaker. Are we to the place where leaders can no longer lead? Where institutions can no longer institute? Too big to fail but too big to trust?

These institutions seem part of a viral, synthetic world that is constantly on our screens, commanding our attention, and yet distant and impervious to our influence. National, global, intergalactic – this world seems a constant source of distress – a drama-drip of worldly gossip that never ends. A lot of noise but only fleeting progress. This battle between BIG’s dominance and a culture that rejects it is like the symbiotic relationship between President Trump and much of the media: each hates, but is totally dependent on, the other. So, the cycle continues.

In this world, people are very worried. Over half do not believe the “country is headed in the right direction.” In this world people are not particularly passionate about what they are “for” but are at times apoplectic about whom they hate and what they oppose. In this world, people reserve the strongest hate for powerful people they have never met – political leaders, organizational executives, and celebrities. Stranger-haters.

Small and Local – A World Worthy of Commitment

There is another world. Let’s call it local. It is your family, your neighbors, your community, your colleagues, your local church or locally-owned store. In this world things seem to be going better. Surely there are problems and skirmishes but mainly people get along and are pretty hopeful. In fact, Pew research indicates that our optimism about our own lives runs about 20 points higher than for our nation and 67 percent have a favorable view of local government compared to 35 percent for the federal government.

Here rather than the illusion of working with faceless, unknown agents of good and evil – my side vs. the other side – I actually know people. Like me, they are mostly good, but flawed people who are really very hard to classify, often defying common stereotypes: progressive gun owner, gay Christian, Hispanic citizen opposing open borders, pro-tax business owner, white-male supporter of BLM. Here labels are less tempting and useful – here personal stories replace labels. Like Father Padraig O Tuama from Northern Ireland shared at a conference at Cambridge where I spoke: in the early Gaelic language there were no words for yes or no. There was always more to the story than that, right? Contrast that to the binary machine language that dominates today’s world. Story is the language of relationship.

Only one of these worlds seems very real or capable of addressing what ails us. Only one of these worlds is a place of relationships, community, innovative teams, compassion, sustainability and sharing – the world of local.

A Hopeful Invitation: Go Local

This emerging trend of embracing local is the source of real hope. In many ways it is a “start-up” mindset. It often means rather than trying to transform something large and resistive to change, start or join something small, emerging and meaningful. It means get engaged with whatever your cause is – it needs you and you need your cause.

Here’s the secret – local works. Things are going better locally because a ton of local efforts have been and are making a difference, but they get very little press. Thomas Friedman netted-out a recent community turnaround in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, noting it had nothing to do with technology, but rather: “They all said it was due to relationships – relationships born not of tribal solidarity but of putting aside tribal differences to do big hard things together in their collective interest. It’s a beautiful thing to see.”

There are hundreds of examples, let me share three I have recently worked with:

Community Renewal International headquartered in Shreveport, Louisiana has been quietly, systematically rebuilding at-risk neighborhoods through a model of care and cooperation – locally, bottom-up for years. They have 54,000 “We Care” team members – and counting.

Better Angels is a bipartisan organization formed in 2016 bringing Red and Blue groups together locally all over the country to depolarize America. They already have 3100 members signed up.

RelationshipsFirstTM enables local couples, schools, police departments, social agencies to improve relationships through better conversations. It provides tools/skills for tough, gritty relational challenges – talk without criticism, listen without judgment and connect beyond our differences. They trained 11,000 adults and 1,500 teen/kid participants in 2017.

These organizations have a model for building local, bottom-up infrastructure and commitment to address national problems. To an earlier generation, Harvard Professor Theodore Levitt called it: “think global, ACT local.”

If you are frustrated with the old ways of government, charity, business, religion – jump in and be a part of a group that makes it better, more responsive, more effective. And, by the way, this is very hard work – sometime it even gives us more appreciation and empathy for those we have criticized and assailed. Don’t try to start at the top – start at the bottom. Snyder counsels Millennials: “There’s an inherent personalism involved in choosing the local – it demands real conversations in real-time, real meals around real tables, and real problem-solving and sacrifice, less hash-tagging and virtue signaling.”

Local is the new BIG that can transform us. Get real, sign up, go local.

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