By
Rebecca Davis
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20 October, 2011

Rebecca Davis
Rebecca Davis
At a time when some of us may feel discouraged by political gridlock, ongoing economic hardship, and a range of social problems that can seem so much larger than any one of us, I was reminded this week of the potential for individuals to positively impact their communities. Spending a week engaged with individuals and organizations partnering on The Trust Factor has expanded my hope for positive change, even in a town best known for its cynicism and stagnation.

Initiatives of Change orchestrated The Trust Factor as a series of workshops, panels, dialogues, and other events in partnership with nearly a dozen other organizations. Don’t get me wrong—I haven’t left the planet, and I’m not living in an oasis of naiveté, but I have been bolstered by these interactions focused on real trustbuilding work that has been occurring. I am convinced that great possibility exists in an intentional effort to multiply this work.

For me, the beauty of the skills involved in building trust is the simplicity of actions we can take and the opportunity for every one of us to build trust in some way. As I move forward from my participation in The Trust Factor, I am aware of four significant take-aways that I can infuse into my daily interactions, and I am encouraged by the unknown possibilities that could result from these practices.

First, each of us would do well to spend a few minutes at the end of each day reflecting on how our actions throughout the day built, broke, or repaired trust. Dushaw Hockett, Founder and Director of SPACES (Safe Places for the Advancement of Community and Equity), explained our daily interactions with others as constantly—though often sub-consciously—violating or repairing trust. In an effort to learn from these frequent experiences and to increase our trustbuilding actions, we could each engage in a self-reflective practice to increase our awareness of how our actions—from the smallest to the largest—serve a goal of building trust.

Second, if I could point to one theme I heard in each Trust Factor session I attended, it would be the importance of relationship building. We are all social beings, and we appreciate being in meaningful relationships with other human beings. These relationships have a greater social impact when they create a bridge to a group or an experience with which we are unfamiliar. Mark Granovetter (1973) wrote about the 'strength of weak ties' as contacts who can play an important role in our lives by expanding our social networks beyond our inner circles. Strong ties (close friends, family, etc.) often have similar life experiences, information, and connections to ourselves, but weak ties (acquaintances, casual friends, etc.) can introduce us in meaningful ways to new ideas, innovations, and perspectives. Building relationships with those who are different from ourselves whether in age, race, religion, social class or other aspects of identity, provides great opportunity for us to check our assumptions. In building these relationships, we can work together to breakdown myths and stereotyping about 'Others' which can be easily entrenched when we do not have these personal relationships.

Third, part of the importance of relationship building is the opportunity to see firsthand, the humanity of 'the Other'. Mee Moua, of the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum, powerfully reminded participants in the Trust Factor, of the humanity of elected officials. Too often elected officials become an 'Other' group once they are elected and are held to different standards and no longer seen as fellow human beings themselves. On the heels of the Trust Factor, President Obama’s speech at the long-awaited dedication to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial offered an important illustration of the shared humanity of those who find themselves on different sides of contentious issues. 'If [Dr. King] were alive today, I believe he would remind us that the unemployed worker can rightly challenge the excesses of Wall Street without demonizing all who work there…. He would want us to know we can argue fiercely about the proper size and role of government without questioning each other’s love for this country…. He would call on us to assume the best in each other rather than the worst.' We can each certainly participate in a cultural shift in Washington by assuming the best of intentions of those we encounter. We do not need to agree on all the issues to build trust in this way, and we open up a world of possibilities we could never discover without coming from this open-minded starting point.

Finally, I was struck by a particular challenge to the work of trustbuilding articulated by one of the Trust Factor participants. In our post-9/11 age, every American has been given tacit permission to unleash their anxieties on those they believe to be 'the Others', Moua remarked. Certainly we have all witnessed such unleashing. It is the idea of 'tacit permission' that provides the key to trustbuilding work. This permission only exists because we allow it. Just as each of us can make commitments to reflect on our own actions to build or violate trust, we can also examine our own opportunities to deny this permission. We must ask why these anxieties exist. Where are these fears coming from that unleash such ugliness toward our neighbors, colleagues, family members, acquaintances? Can we build new relationships—bridges—with those who are feeling threatened in some way? Are we feeling threatened? Can we take risks to create the space for relationship building where the trust deficit has done the greatest damage? And when we are not able to build such bridges, what actions can we take to withdraw this tacit permission for treating people as 'Others' rather than as fellow human beings?

I hope the significance of trust as a tool for social change will reach our country’s leaders and decision-makers and that more examples of its large scale impact will be highlighted by the media in the near future. But for now, I am hopeful because The Trust Factor has underscored the accessibility of building trust in ways that show how we can personally impact those we encounter each day. These four simple tools: reflecting on our own actions; building new relationships and strengthening old ones; staying grounded in our shared humanity; and denying permission to unload fears on those perceived as “Others” paint a concrete picture of trust. To those who are discouraged by the degree of social, economic, and political problems we face, I ask them to adopt these simple practices and observe the change that results. Simple should not be mistaken for easy; trustbuilding is challenging work. But together we can make a difference by practicing trustbuilding one day at a time.

Rebecca Davis is the Program Coordinator, International Peace & Conflict Resolution at the School of International Service at American University, one of the partner organizations for The Trust Factor 2011.

NOTE: Individuals of many cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs are actively involved with Initiatives of Change. These commentaries represent the views of the writer and not necessarily those of Initiatives of Change as a whole.

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