Michael Skoler describes himself as a reformed NPR correspondent, a dad, a meditator, and a backpacker. Michael is the communications director for Weave the Social Fabric Project, an initiative of the Aspen Institute, designed to address the broken social trust in America.
We spoke about his work in Africa during the Rwandan genocide, his desire to care open-heartedly and his goals to foster community at a grassroots level with the Weave Project.
“I was raised to believe that we can change the world through our actions and in many ways, that’s been a gift and a plague. I’ve always assumed that the way we show up in the world and the work we do defines us. And I think it’s focused me for far too long on actually seeing the change I want to see in the world, rather than focusing on making the change and making it by showing up moment to moment, person to person, in a way that sends the energy that I want to see into the world.
And I think I’m just beginning to learn now that, wanting the impact—wanting to see the impact—actually gets in the way of making impact. And that part of my journey is about letting go of the ego part of feeling like I can change the world and focusing in on the caring part of wanting the world to be a better place.
I’m going to care. And if the world gets better, wonderful. If it doesn’t get better, I’m still going to care. And I’m not going to let worrying about whether the world’s getting better affect me to the point where I can’t care as open-heartedly as I want to.
[I want] to get away from worrying about what the world thinks and get away from worrying about whether you can actually create change, because it’s a pretty disturbing picture of the world right now. And if we let that affect our emotions, we can’t show up with the light we have.
It’s taken me a long time to figure that out. I used to think that impatience was a good thing. I wanted to see change and I wanted to see it quick. And I realized that my impatience actually affected people badly and it made me less effective. I’ve learned the lesson of patience. You have to sit with the way the world is and you have to send the energy you want into the world and you have to trust that it’ll come back. But you can’t spend your life looking for it to come back or expecting it to come back, because that takes your eye off the prize, which is giving the world what it needs.
I think I’ve realized this partly out of failure and partly out of realizing that the things I’ve invested so deeply in weren’t in my control. As I’ve reflected on what I’ve done, I think I’ve realized that you don’t change the world through force of mind and force of will, you change the world through force of heart.
I’ve always been very idea driven. I’ve always felt like I’m going to change the world by changing the systems of the world. I was in journalism for most of my career and saw that journalism could be a force for good, but it didn’t feel it was being a force for good. It wasn’t a force for bringing people together around a shared understanding of the world, which is what I wanted. And so I spent a lot of my time trying to change the culture of journalism.
I like to think I affected some people and made some changes, but I don’t see the world of journalism—that culture—having changed. I see journalism increasingly being a divider of our society. If I cared about the impact, I’d be pretty discouraged because I spent a few decades trying to change the culture of journalism. But instead, I’m kind of showing up with the idea of [having] worked on that. Maybe [I] had some impact. But I can keep bringing my energy in different ways to the world.
Now what I’m trying to do is work with people in community who are showing up for each other and finding ways to support them to be the change. I’ve gotten away from some of the ego that drove me to want to be the change. And in doing that, I’m realizing that I can have a lot more power if I support other people to be the change in their communities.
Weave was started by New York Times, columnist David Brooks in 2018. David, who has become less political pundit and more social commentator, realized that underneath a lot of our current social problems was a deep cultural problem. A crisis of connection. And that on a very deep level, people don’t trust each other anymore. People don’t see each other anymore. And he formed Weave because as a journalist and columnist, he felt like he couldn’t just stand by and comment on society. He had to do something to try to help change it.
His great insight was that lots of people were working on policy issues. Lots of people were working on systems change. Lots of people were working in the political process. But he realized very few people were actually pointing to the cultural problem that we’re not seeing each other and we’re not showing up for each other.
And the way he started was through a series of trips around the country, into communities—much like what you’ve done, traveling around in your van. And every community that he visited, he found people who were just quietly bringing people together and creating connection and making people feel seen and making people feel like they belonged in the community and bringing people together to make the community stronger and better.
And from that trip, he realized that the solution to our problem is here. It’s just quiet. It’s in every community. And that the people who are working to create trust and build connection, they’re often not valued. They’re often not seen for the true leaders they are. And so Weave was born as a project to basically lift up these folks in support and connect these folks and give them more energy and resources to do the healing at a local level.
That is how we’re going to heal our country. We’re not going to legislate our way to trust and connection. We’re going to work our way there by knowing each other and sharing networks of contacts that get bigger and bigger. They start with our block, they move to our neighborhood. They encompass a community. Then they encompass several communities. Then it’s the city. Then it’s the county and the region and the nation. But you have to start on the block. If you can’t deal with the neighbor two doors down that’s a little angry and a little crazy, then you’re not going to find a way to accept people who are really different and have really different lived experiences.
So the message of Weave is start with your community, build connection, weave your community together. And as you do that, as you get together and tackle problems of common interest and needs—you know, playgrounds, if you’ve got a food desert, how do you get a farmer’s market in there—if you start working on that level for change, you build the relationships that enable you to change really big things with people who are really different.
And so that’s our mission. It’s a long-term mission, but I do think it’s the answer to our problems of disconnection and our problems of racism and inequity and injustice. It’s a long-term solution. And we don’t have a culture that prioritizes long-term solutions, but we need to have a culture that does that. So that’s what we’re trying to do.”
“I was an NPR correspondent for a decade. A foreign correspondent. And one of the stories I covered pretty much from start to finish was the genocide in Rwanda. I was one of the first reporters in, and I left my post based out of Nairobi, Kenya, after the fall of Mobuto Sese Seko, which in many ways was kind of the final scene in the change of government, to the Tutsi government in Rwanda.
What was fascinating to me—and this is kind of what launched me into trying to change the culture of journalism—is that most journalists were telling a story that the Hutus and the Tutsis in Rwanda were age-old enemies, and they could never get along. And everything I found in Rwanda told me that wasn’t the case. That Hutus and Tutsis had lived together as neighbors, as friends. Had intermarried so much that you could no longer look at someone and say, “Oh, they’re Hutu or Tutsi.”
But journalists were telling the story, this simple conflict story. The true story was that the colonial powers had chosen one ethnic group to have power when they left. The true story was that Rwanda was one of the most populated countries on the African continent. And they had a equitable way of providing inheritance to both the girls and boys in their society. As a result of that, farm plots were getting smaller and smaller in a mainly sustainable farming economy. And the government basically used the economic pressure, and a threat of a Tutsi army that the government was refusing to negotiate with on the border, to scare their own people.
[They told] the Hutu population, “Oh, the Tutsis are gonna kill you if you don’t kill ’em first. And oh, by the way if you do, you can get that land for yourself.” And they distributed guns. It was an orchestrated genocide by a government that wanted to divide its people in order to create this killing. But this wasn’t Hutus and Tutsis wanting to kill each other. This was a government inciting people to do it.
I think our natural state is we care about the people we’re with, and it’s our structures that somehow give us another cultural message that we’re in competition, that we’ve got scarcity and not abundance. And when that happens, it can spin out of control pretty quickly as I saw in Rwanda. And I tell that story, because in many ways that realization led me to start on a journey that has brought me to where I am, which is that we have to tell a different story. Of caring. Of sharing more than we differ. Because if we tell stories of division, we can create division that isn’t there. That’s what happened in Rwanda.
Having been a journalist for over three decades, I used to be a news junkie. I had to know what other people were saying, had to get all the information so I could understand what was going on.
I’ve barely been listening, watching, or reading the news for the last few years, partly because I’m so frustrated by a culture of journalism that emphasizes division and that spends its time speculating about how something could spin out of control rather than speculating about how we can actually come together and solve our [problems.]
You know, the world is in crisis. It’s not just the U.S. We do see division and the power of anger and scarcity taking over in many places. And I think journalists are part of telling a story that reinforces that.
It builds a sense of righteousness. I think some of the issues we have in this country are that people believe righteous anger is a wonderful and important thing. And people are lulled by their own righteousness about how the others are wrong and they’re right. That’s not a recipe for being able to listen and understand other people and find what you have in common and resolve the differences you have and how you see the world. It’s just a bad recipe. And I think that’s also something we’re suffering now is a blooming of righteousness that also tears us apart, even though I think [it makes] people feel good, like, “Look how righteous I am.”
It justifies othering people. It justifies stereotyping people as the enemy, and stereotyping people as someone who doesn’t get it, as someone who doesn’t have the right values. When we think about the values in this country, it’s a little bit like when we talk about the DNA of chimps and humans. We’re like 99% similar. The 1% makes a lot of difference. Our values. We have a lot of the same values in this country. It’s the 1%, which isn’t even so much different values, it’s the emphasis you put on certain values.
Conservatives put a lot of emphasis on security, personal security. Liberals tend not to have personal security as as deep of value. But the differences are really slight. And I do believe that the stories we tell about the world create our world. We need to change those stories.”
“I’m Jewish and I’m reformed Jewish, which has a long history of being involved in social justice issues, racial equity, and other issues of basic human rights. I grew up in that tradition so that’s important to me. We have a phrase called “tikkun olam,” which is repair of the world. And God basically requires that we each do our part to repair the world. What I have come to in recent years is an appreciation that all the major faith traditions talk about the very same principles. That we are stewards of the world. Indigenous cultures have long seen ourselves as intimately connected with nature, with animals, with other people, with inanimate objects. And to me, that’s the same notion as, we’re here to repair the world.
It’s not just repair the world for humans, [but also] to repair the world for all living things and to take care of the inanimate world, which supports us all. I’m fairly deeply into meditation. Now I’m doing something called Raja yoga, as taught by the Brahma Kumaris service organization from India. The principles are a reminder, the meditation is really a reminder that we are not these bodies. We are souls and that on a very deep level, we are all connected.
Again, those are teachings that every religion—people phrase it in different ways, religions phrase it in different ways—but it’s the same message that we’re more than these bodies. We’re more than Freudian egos trying to meet our id needs and balancing those out with our super conscious moral prescriptions. We actually are kind of connected and we’re connected through love. It sounds corny. I grew up in intellectual tradition. I went to Ivy League schools. It sounds corny to talk about love, but you know, really that’s what all faith traditions have talked about for a long time. And that is really what it comes down to. Can we look at each other with love, or are we going to look at each other as if we’re strangers?
It’s easiest to look at people with love, who are loving. It’s really hard to look at people whose actions hurt others. It’s really hard to look at people who are concerned for self above others, or for the world. It’s really important to be able to love and see those people fully because we don’t really know what’s going on in anyone else. And we make all sorts of assumptions about whether or not they’re out for themselves or out for others. We make all sorts of assumptions about what drives them, but they’re just humans like us. Souls on a journey trying to learn. And I think my meditation each morning and evening is really just trying to remind myself that we’re all just souls and there’s very little difference between us that we don’t create. And so meditation is a way to try to peel away the layers of difference that we seem to glom onto throughout the day.
It is a challenge and I do not want to give the impression that I walk around loving other people. I’m trying to love other people. But we do live in a society that at every turn, every ad we see, every message from politicians, seeks to divide us, judge ourselves against others.
I remember in college, one incredible experience I had, I walked into an interview for an internship and all of the interviewees were sitting in one room and within a few minutes, I noticed, “Oh, God…I’m looking at each of these people and thinking, well, this person must be this way. And that’s why I’m better than them. And this person looks like this.” All to make myself feel good. And when I caught myself, [I thought,] “What am I doing? I’m judging people without having spoken to them in order to make myself feel good.”
And I think our culture reinforces that all the time. So it’s really hard. It’s hard to see politicians who seem to care more about themselves, their power, their status, than about their constituents. It’s hard to see people who don’t recognize that their privilege is rare in the society and that there’s a responsibility to support and help the people who have historically had less privilege. But it’s also absolutely critical that I look at those people and say, “We’re all just the same on some deep level. And we’re all struggling to understand that we actually are brothers, sisters.”
I live now in Silver Spring, Maryland. I came back to the DC area four years ago, and one of the things I liked about Silver Spring is it’s in one of the most diverse counties in the nation. We live on a fairly busy street where they need to have [what they call] traffic calming to slow traffic down on the street. There are no sidewalks or limited sidewalks. So it’s not the type of street where kids trick or treat.
For me, part of the challenge is how do I get folks who live in the suburbs of Washington—where life is about careers and when people ask you how you’re doing, and you say you’re busy, that’s considered a good thing, there’s pride in that—how do I make the time in myself and with my neighbors to get to know my neighbors? And really convince my neighbors I want to get to know them in a society where again, we often are thinking, what do people want from us when we meet them?
My kids are grown, they’re in their twenties, so they’re not living with us. And kids are always a natural way to connect to a community. We moved here four years ago after they were out of the house. So there’s the whole adult experience of trying to integrate into community when you don’t have the natural bond of kids in schools. So we’re working. We’re working to meet our neighbors. The pandemic kind of interrupted that, so we still have a lot of work to do.
We’ve slowly just been walking around. I’m trying. I got into a lot of cooking during the pandemic. So my plan is to start doing dinners of eight to ten people where we just invite random neighbors to come by for a meal. Treating people as guests is a wonderful way to get to know folks. Everyone likes to be a guest.”
“The pandemic was really interesting. I was quite hopeful that the pandemic would really open up our society. All over the country we saw amazing things being done by people showing up for their neighbors, particularly the elderly mutual aid societies taking off. That’s all been really encouraging and that is part of what we want to support. We want to support the people who are showing up for each other.
But you also saw a lot of people kind of deciding, “Gee, I don’t want to be this vulnerable,” and stocking up and hoarding things. Deciding that they need to be fully self-sufficient because it’s scary to realize just how connected we are. The pandemic showed us how connected we are, how much your life and my life is connected to the person who drives the truck to bring the groceries to the store and the person who unloads it and puts it on the shelf. And you could either embrace that or you can run from it and fear that.
I think we saw both. I know a lot of people now who barely leave their homes for shopping, because you can do everything online. And so you don’t really even know the people who enable your life to be the smooth life that many people don’t have in this country. So we had those moments early in the pandemic where we were applauding the people who stock shelves and applauding the healthcare workers who did so much to take care of us. But, I’m seeing us kind of moving back into losing that appreciation for our interconnections right now.”
“We brought weavers together in a meeting that we called Weave the People in 2019 and one of the people who spoke at that event said that social change moves at the speed of relationships and relationships move at the speed of trust.
The big significance there is that you can’t move things along quickly. Trust gets built over time. Relationships get formed. And it’s the relationships that enable you to actually move society in a different direction. So this work is going to take time. There won’t be quick fixes. I think it can move quickly if we all put our minds to doing it, but you can’t scale relationships very well. What you can scale is generalized trust, because if I know you and trust you, and I know that you know all these people, I’m going to have what we call social trust. I’m going to trust those people because I trust you and you trust them. You know them.
We can scale these social norms that say, people are basically trustworthy and good and trust enables us to do many of the things that we appreciate in society. The ability to have a sharing economy where people rent out their homes, rent out their tools, rent out their cars now, with ride sharing services. But it goes much deeper than that. When we count on FedEx every time to get something to a destination, we’re counting on hundreds if not thousands of people doing their jobs in an organized system, and when trust breaks down, everything breaks down. We no longer can count on the world working the way we think it can work. And that often means that people withdraw into themselves. They withdraw into their homes, they hoard. When the pandemic started, we withdraw to ourselves. [It’s] a very human thing when we’re scared. And the fear comes from the fact that we don’t trust people.”
“One of the disturbing pieces of data is that the youngest generations have the least trust. There’s always been data showing that people tend to trust more as they age, but generationally the current youngest generations of kids have much less trust in each other, in institutions and government. And that is a disturbing indicator for what the future might be. One of the things Weave is trying to do is figure out how we invite youth to begin to see each other and become Weavers of their communities.
We held an event at Cuyahoga Community College in Ohio, which was really beautiful, where we brought four Weavers from around the country—the people we call Weavers, these people who were weaving their communities together—to talk about their lives. We kind of created it as almost a career night, except instead of coming to learn about what career you want to find and how to build it, it was to come and learn about how to create a connected life for yourself.
We had small group discussions between the Weavers and the students, who were second year students in community college. Those kids told amazing stories about building community at Cuyahoga Community College and within their communities. And while the research shows that some of the youngest generations trust the least, they also are really ready and open to wanting to create trust and build trust. And I get huge inspiration out of talking to young people who are wide-eyed about what’s not working in the world, but also open-hearted about what they can build in the world if they feel like they’re given an invitation and if older generations like us do a little bit of modeling of what it means and what you can achieve if you start relating to other people.”
“I’ve always assumed that ideas would change the world. And I think I’ve come to realize that relationships change the world. In our entrepreneurial culture, everyone’s looking for the next big multi-million dollar, multi-billion dollar deal or idea. But everything I’ve read about entrepreneurialism is that people invest in teams because a team that can adjust and can take an idea and then completely pivot and spin are more likely to actually have success. It’s not the idea, it’s the people, the relationships and the ability to listen to whoever you’re trying to sell an idea to and respond to the feedback you get.
So I think the big takeaway for me in these recent years is that the relationships matter as much, if not more than the ideas. We live in a society that tells us we’re going to find technological solutions to global warming. There are all sorts of new apps for connection to better health. Those are all supports, but if we don’t actually have trust in each other, if we’re not embedded in relationships, it’s very hard to get anything done. I wish I had known that when I was young.”
“It’s easy right now to look at what’s going on in the country and the world and be discouraged. There are a million ways that we can end up destroying ourselves as a race. That’s not going to get us anywhere. What’s going to get us somewhere is realizing the million ways that we can reach out to someone, make a difference, build a relationship, build trust. And for me, focusing on that enables me to not get into the downward spiral of worrying about the future.
Part of our project at Weave the Social Fabric Project is to invite people to start becoming Weavers of their community. And one of the things we’re doing is we’re trying to invite people in, to meet other people who are Weavers. And so if people are interested, we have a website, we are Weavers.org, and it’s kind of an entry way to learn more about weaving, but also an entry way to meet people who are showing up like this, who will inspire you and will tell you that no matter how bleak things look or how worried or scared you are about other people or what’s happening, that there are ways to show up for other people that will reinforce the love and make the world make more sense.”
-Do you believe we can change the world through our actions?
-What is your reason for caring? Is it tied to outcomes?
-Do you get discouraged when change is slow?
-What will it take to heal our country?
-Talk about the simple narratives you’ve seen that are unhelpful.
-Are there narratives you hear that tell a story of division? Of healing?
-What is your role in tikkun olam? Healing the world?
-Did you respond to the pandemic by drawing closer to, or retreating from community?
-What do you do to weave community?