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United Way Blog

Rebuild the Middle; Solve Societal Challenges

When are we going to learn that we won’t solve problems by shouting and running to our respective corners? When are we going to learn one of the basics of long-term problem solving – that you need all sides to listen to one another and work together to solve community and societal issues?

It’s been a busy start to 2020, but the model that I’ve seen work well in communities for decades seems to be out of style – at least if you listen to the national discourse. Collective impact, which brings all stakeholders to the table, yields sustainable results. I’ve watched it work in every community where I’ve spent time during my United Way career, including in Columbus, Ohio, when non-profits, government and business came together to increase affordable housing options for those in need.

But leaders continue to play to the extremes and carve out the social middle in the United States and around the world. The economic middle has already been hollowed, and you only need to watch a few minutes of cable TV to understand that the political middle has mostly disappeared. But, as someone who has been involved in community building for nearly forty years, it’s the weakening of the social middle – and its impact on our ability to solve big challenges – that has me most concerned.

Inequality, climate change and socio-economic mobility are all compelling issues that require us to re-think how we approach problems and define human success. Lately, I’m not the only one talking about how individual success is about more than GDP growth rates or the size of one’s checking account. Families today are more likely to define success based on factors such as whether they can advance, whether they feel a connection to their community, and whether they feel a sense of purpose in their lives.

Migration is one issue that ties all these beliefs and trends together. A prevailing narrative right now is that migrants are taking jobs, stealing public benefits and hurting communities. But it’s a false, xenophobic description meant to further divide and cast blame on one group of people. The truth is that migrants start new businesses at higher rates than native-born populations, often are net contributors to local economies and can revitalize moribund towns and cities. They contribute to our society economically and socially. As the son of immigrants, I know that we need to stop treating migrant families as “others” and realize what experts tell us: that around the world, including in the United States, they are key to growth and stronger communities.

Migration is a wide-ranging issue, but as one that impacts community health, it’s inextricably tied to United Way’s mission. I made these points about migration recently at the Bipartisan Policy Center, where we discussed ways to change the narrative around this issue and others. If you’ve heard me speak in the past, you know that I’m a steadfast believer that shifting public opinion is the best and most sustainable way to create long-term societal change. From seat belts to AIDS, when you change how people think about an issue, you create the grounds for lasting social impact.

This shift will require bringing people together, restoring the middle, and rebuilding social trust. When people trust one another’s intent and purpose, it builds a foundation for cooperation. But as New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote: “High social trust doesn’t just happen. It results when people are spontaneously responsible for one another in the daily interactions of life, when the institutions of society function well.” That’s exactly what we need to get back to, whether we are discussing migration or any other important socioeconomic issue, like economic mobility. It takes trust, and it takes a critical mass of people willing to ignore the shouting, put differences aside, and work together for the betterment of all.

Bringing people together to solve tough problems is a role that United Way has played for 130 years and will continue to play in every community in which we work.

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