Civil Society for the 21st Century
Civil Society for the 21st Century
This article series, presented in partnership with Independent Sector, explores important issues of civil society in the 21st century: its origins and evolution, its boundaries and blind spots, its values and variety, its obstacles and opportunities.

One of my heroes is Frances Perkins. She grew up a rather timid girl and eventually went to Mount Holyoke College, class of 1902. The school’s strong social mission filled her with a burning desire to do good in the world. But although it was a burning desire, it was not a focused desire. She floated around, trying her hand as a teacher and social worker and other things, trying to get a sense of what specific vocation she was called to.

In 1911, she happened to be in lower Manhattan and witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, in which more than 100 young seamstresses burned to death due to unsafe factory conditions.

It was a call within a call. It was her “agency moment.” She already had some vague sense she wanted to do good, but here was a specific problem—a lack of worker safety and worker rights—that burned into her consciousness. She would dedicate the rest of her life to that problem, rising to become the first woman in a US presidential cabinet. She was Secretary of Labor under Franklin Roosevelt.

I find that many people go into the social sector the same way. They have a vague desire to do good, and then they feel a burning call to address a specific problem—homelessness, hunger, poverty, racism, or what have you. They hate their problem, but they sort of love it too. Love is a process of attention—you love the thing you can’t stop thinking about. A lot of the people I see doing the most good in the world can’t stop thinking about their problem. They are a little obsessive. Their problem has called them, it has structured their lives, it has given them something to pour their lives into. Some of them send out mass emails linking to articles about their problem. Sometimes I wish I could unsubscribe, because their emails are clogging my inbox. But I could never do that. Telling them I didn’t care about their problem would be like telling them I didn’t care about their child.

In other words, most people go into the social sector to solve a specific, sometimes local issue. But I started paying attention to the social sector by looking at the sector as a whole, and it has given me a different perspective on the work that many people in the sector do.

I was doing my job as a political journalist, covering issue after issue. And I started noticing that many social problems really pointed back to the same macro issue, the weakening of our social fabric. The problems were different—rising suicide rates, men dropping out of the labor force, opioid addiction, political polarization, worsening racial divisions, the violation of our basic democratic norms. But they all flowed back to social isolation, loneliness, the fraying of our communal bonds. They all flowed back to the fact that many people are less connected than they were.

I was covering politics, but it was crystal clear that the real problems afflicting the country were pre-political. They were about the withering away of the quality of our community, the level of trust we have for one another, and the common stories that make us one people. They were about the withering away of the sense that you may disagree with me, and you may not be like me, but you are my brother, you are my sister, and, despite our differences, we are in this together.

It became blatantly obvious to me that the problems of politics were downstream from the problems of community. So then the question became: Well, who is addressing the problems of community? It’s the social sector. People in the social sector may see themselves fighting racism or poverty or hunger or homelessness, but when I look at the sector as a whole from the outside, what I see is a group of people collectively reweaving community.

Moreover, I see an emerging system of values. In the 1940s and 1950s, we had an “organization man” culture that encouraged people to work in big organizations but didn’t offer a lot of creativity. Then in the 1960s and 1980s, we had a highly individualistic, “I’m free to be myself” culture—a left-wing social individualism and right-leaning economic individualism, respectively—that offered a lot of personal freedom but didn’t do much to help people forge communal bonds. Now, especially in the social sector, I see a new ethos forming. I don’t pretend to understand it yet. Somehow this new ethos is more communitarian. It is suspicious of big institutions but trusting toward small ones. It is about commitment and service and redistributing power in new ways.

I hope that in conversations we can name the values that make us distinctive today. I do know that the social sector’s behavior is ahead of its self-consciousness. People are living a new creed, even if they haven’t yet put that creed into words.

I also know two other things. Societies change when cultures change. Usually what happens is this: Some group, often on the edge of society, finds a new and better way to live. Other people admire it and then flock to copy that new way of living. After a while, somebody names that new way. Eventually, the whole culture shifts. Collectively, people begin to think in new ways. They begin to value different things, and love and admire different things.

I think the people in the social sector are finding, willy-nilly, new ways to live. Moreover, the values emerging there are the values America needs most right now. They are the values of community building, relationship, healing and transcending difference. If the early 2000s were defined by the Silicon Valley hackers, and the 1980s were defined by the Yuppies, and the 1960s were defined by the hippies, I believe the coming years will be defined by some of the people in this sector, who are living most urgently to build a new social fabric, who are working most urgently to build a new power dynamic, and who are thus addressing the central problem of our time.

This series aims to spark a conversation and provide a place where diverse thinkers can propose, discuss, and iterate their understanding of the role that civil society plays in 21st century America. We encourage all readers to actively participate in discussion in the comments areas. SSIR and Independent Sector will also be accepting a limited number of crowdsourced articles to include in the series. These articles should be standalone pieces that add new perspective to the topics presented, rather than direct responses to published articles. If you are interested in submitting, please refer to the SSIR Online section of our submission guidelines here.

Listen to Independent Sector's Civil Renewal podcast. In the second episode, Independent Sector President Dan Cardinali interviews Janine Lee, president and CEO of the Southeastern Council of Foundations.