Anne Snyder: Welcome back to The Whole Person Revolution, a podcast of Breaking Ground. It’s a fun one today. Benya Kraus and Joe Nail of Lead for America are joining me for a dip into all things localism: politics, civic engagement, and the yearnings of young people as they graduate into an ever more overwhelming sea of vocational options.
Lead for America was founded by Joe and Benya and two others trying to stem the tide of cities and towns bleeding talent, soul, and a whole lot of pride. LFA attracts recent college graduates who are game to do the often unpopular thing—namely, return home. But they’re not returning to their parents’ basement or coming back to their high school compatriots as some enlightened savior brandishing a fancy BA. Rather, LFA participants are returning out of love of a place, out of belief in the future of that place, with intimate knowledge of it, and hope for where it could go.
A lot of the towns and even cities where these fellows hail from are considered forgotten. Lead for America refuses to let that be the final story, providing a paid, two-year fellowship that encourages proximate, culturally humbled, and empowering service at all levels of local government and civil society. We’re here today to talk about this budding movement and that evocative yet strangely elusive good: home. It’s a good that Americans in particular—perhaps especially these days—have a whole bevy of unresolved emotions around. Joe, Benya, welcome.
Benya Kraus: Thanks so much, Anne. It’s so great to hear your words bring our mission to life. It’s so grounding every time to hear you describe and see the potential in what we’re doing.
Joe Nail: I should just add to that. We’re definitely not excluding people who want to return to their parents’ basements. That can be a form of homecoming as well. So for those for whom that would be a deal-breaker: Don’t worry. We’ll accommodate that too.
A lot of the towns and even cities where these fellows hail from are considered forgotten. Lead for America refuses to let that be the final story.
Anne: Tell us a little bit about your origin story. What’s the inspiration behind Lead for America? What fundamental problem were you trying to solve?
Joe: I grew up with two examples of people participating in public service: my parents. My dad works for the military, and my mom is a nurse. So I was around folks who were dedicating their lives to public service before I even realized that was a specific career trajectory.
There have been two big inflection points in my life. One was when I was turning fifteen years old. My dad, who was working as a military contractor, was given an ultimatum: his job was in jeopardy unless he deployed to Afghanistan for a year.
I’d grown up as the middle child of five kids, I’d never really had a position of family responsibility whatsoever, but all of a sudden my dad was away, my older brother was starting college, and my older sister has a pretty severe intellectual and developmental disability.
So all of a sudden—and I’m sure, Benya and Anne, you’ve both had experiences like this, where you’ve been completely unequipped for the challenges in front of you, and you have to grow up a little bit faster than you were anticipating. That was definitely the case for me. I started asking questions: Why is it that we don’t have the sort of professional care that we need for my sister? Why is it that my dad’s deploying to fight in this war that a lot of people may not think actually needs to be fought any longer? And it was really during that year that I started seeing the intersection of public institutions and community. There are these huge public decisions that felt like they were being made in a black box—we don’t have a great social safety net for people like my sister; more troops are being deployed—and I could see them for the first time affecting my family in profound ways.
And had it not been for neighbors and community members rallying around us, we would not have been able to get through that year. So that was a fundamental shift in thinking about what I wanted to do with my life. I’d wanted to be an engineer; I was very introverted. But I started thinking that maybe I wanted to do something public service oriented.
The second moment that led me to Lead for America was leaving high school. I, like many people growing up in Kansas, thought the narrative of success was leaving and never coming back. I did not apply to any colleges in Kansas; I only applied to colleges on either coast. I was dead set on leaving. But I did a year in Germany on a Congress-Bundestag scholarship before starting college. And it was during that year that I started becoming dedicated to the concept of homecoming. I started feeling like I needed to take seriously the things that had allowed me to get to where I was, and I felt an obligation to give back in some way. I felt so far away from home, and at the same time I was thinking through Germany’s history of persecution of people like my sister just seventy-five years ago, while I had a front-row seat to see how they’re grappling with welcoming a million-plus refugees. It was incredibly inspiring.
I, like many people growing up in Kansas, thought the narrative of success was leaving and never coming back.
So I had these two personally and professionally galvanizing moments of being able to see the intersections of public institutions, homecoming, and community building. And as I was getting through college, I tried to surround myself with other people who’ve had similar realizations, who had similar goals and aspirations. And I saw the same thing happening over and over again, which is that for many students, those core convictions were only growing over the course of college. But colleges and universities were providing essentially no pathways for people to act on those convictions: no one was encouraged to go home; everyone was supposed to go to the star cities.
It seemed like this was a tragedy on a massive scale, depleting our communities and essential institutions of the most critical resource we have, which is dedicated people.
Anne: Benya, how about you? What inspired you about this mission?
Benya: I met Joe right after I had signed on the dotted line for a two-year commitment to a corporate law firm out in Boston. Lo and behold, here’s this guy sliding into my inbox with a one-pager idea saying, Why go to these star cities when you know your heart is connected to a different place? And here was my opportunity.
Home for me—it’s a little bit more complicated. I was born and grew up in Bangkok, Thailand. My dad worked for the United Nations. We actually moved around quite a bit. But he is one of nine siblings who grew up on a sixth-generation family farm in Waseca, Minnesota, which is actually where I’m calling in from now.
That’s a little foreshadowing! We have deep ties to this community, but I grew up really untethered. Home and family I loved, but I didn’t grow up valuing how deeply important that was. I had a brother who struggled with mental health and addiction; home in many ways is a pretty scary concept for me. A lot of my life was wanting to go elsewhere and to get out. And I went to school out in Boston to study international relations; I was expecting to be living a similar path of moving between cities for the rest of my life. I was on a search to try to understand what my community was, and to maybe somehow carry that with me, until a challenging family situation brought me back to Waseca one summer, and I was reintroduced to this community.
It’s a real community, about ten thousand people. In the nineties, a federal penitentiary was established here, and by many Google searches, we were a community in decline. But I was introduced to a lot of things that you can’t find via Google searches. There were pockets of possibility everywhere around me. I so deeply wanted to find my way back to Minnesota, to Waseca, but I just felt very lonely in that search. And there was a lot of pressure: the family had struggled financially, and the toll of mental health and addiction problems on a family is heavy. I felt very much that I needed to be the one to sustain us, to be the one to have my shit together.
And I thought that what having your shit together meant was working at this very prestigious brand-name law firm. I lasted there for about two months, until I realized that there was a deeper pull both to place, to Waseca, and to this problem, this systemic problem: if I couldn’t find my way back, many others couldn’t either. And what does that mean for the future of our democracy? What it means is that our country is being pulled into two very different Americas: the America of those who leave, and the America of those who stay.
If I couldn’t find my way back, many others couldn’t either. And what does that mean for the future of our democracy? What it means is that our country is being pulled into two very different Americas: the America of those who leave, and the America of those who stay.
Anne: What you describe sounds like taking up a deeply gratifying and rewarding new set of values—values that are frankly still pretty countercultural, I think, for our shared generation. Has LFA been an easy sell for today’s twenty-one- and twenty-two-year-olds? Or a hard sell? What kind of person is drawn to it?
Benya: We knew there was this innate desire because we had felt it, but a year ago when we first launched, we didn’t know which communities or which people we were going to be supporting through this hometown fellowship. We put out this open call and on a recruitment budget of about $3,000 with two months of full-time staff, we ended up getting eighteen hundred registered applicants. Going into year two, we’ve got over three thousand registered applicants nationally. We reviewed that first round of applicants in three days, and I remember every single hour of those three days: we were poring through these personal stories and narrative videos of people describing their story, and the story of their community and describing how they intersect. And we had to google a lot of these places; these were not well-known places. That was deeply humbling and exciting: it’s clear that our desire to go home was a feeling shared across so many different young people. I think there’s a growing movement of young people who are recognizing that there’s more to life than just the corporate law firms out in Boston. There’s a hunger to go home—but to go home with purpose, not just to end up back there.
Joe: We have two dynamics that heighten the appeal at least for those young people who might already be interested. One issue is that the current job market is much more limited than it has been previously, of course. So you see not just with programs like ours, but with all sorts of national service programs, applications increase and decrease in direct correspondence to the tightening or loosening of the job market. And I think the other dynamic is of course coronavirus, and what that’s meant for the need that people feel to move home, to be back at home for extended periods of time, often for the first time in a long time.
There’s so much happening in the world; things are so unpredictable and fragile: What is my place in this community, within my family, within my street? How can I contribute? How do I distribute medicine or food to elderly folks in my neighborhood or in my hometown? What do I do with the inequalities I’m seeing in how the virus is hitting? How can I be a part of fixing this, in these home places where things are hardest? That’s something that naturally lends itself to more people thinking about homecoming or staying in their home communities. But it also presents a unique opportunity for us to be able to perhaps give language or voice or purpose to underlying longings that people may have had for a long time, but then they didn’t have the time or space or proximity to actually realize they were there, to respect them.
Anne: It’s almost like you’re riding a wave and hopefully providing people with language and with a new moral map to understand a different conception of value and belonging. Benya, you talked about your initial couple months in the corporate law firm. I’m probably about a dozen years older than you guys, but when I was graduating, my peers were very interested in saving the world or changing the world, whatever that meant—that was in every commencement address. But it wasn’t very locally oriented. And then at other schools, there was a real status-seeking pecking order, a promise that you’re going to find your belonging in an amazing job at an amazing firm, but the options even then seemed very limited. Your value and your sense of how you fit into a broader whole had almost nothing to do with place in either case.
I’m struck by a shift toward finding your roots in a much more meaningful, physical, tangible set of relationships. The focus on placeless status versus relationships and place feel like two very separate moral systems. And I love that you’re accelerating that shift, and responding to maybe inchoate hungers that today’s younger cohort feels. They seem to feel very dissatisfied with the choices that were presented to, say, my age group.
It’s interesting to me that the values of homecoming, of localism, have often been enshrined in our ideological discourse on the conservative side of the political spectrum: the historically minded intellectual conservatives who love Edmund Burke and Michael Oakeshott—to say nothing of Wendell Berry and the more romantic agrarian thinkers. There’s a sense on the part of conservatives that “we are the people who believe in local control and local problem solving and federalism.” But while you strike me as very respectful of that tradition, partly because you’re simply living it and providing opportunities for others to live it, you’re kind of scrambling the usual ideological and demographic categories, in who you’re attracting, and who you’re inspiring to return to their hometowns. How intentional has that been? How have you thought about ideological labels around home, roots, the local?
Joe: You use the word “scrambling”: that’s a really appropriate word. Not just on an organizational level, but also for me on a personal level. I gave you the personal anecdotes of how I came to want to get the organization off the ground. But what I didn’t say was that directly before starting the organization, I was having this existential crisis period. Like we all do, I think, in college or later on—or throughout the rest of our lives, I guess I’ll prepare for future rounds of it. But I was thinking, what do I want to do in the world? What’s my place and where can I actually contribute? And so I made this list of what I thought were going to be the seventeen biggest challenges over the course of the twenty-first century. And I would talk to professors and—
Anne: Not, like, nineteen or twenty-one?
Joe: Well, I first did research and had a list that I think was like eleven. And then I would talk to somebody else and say, what’s missing on the list? Where do I have things coupled together? And, well, it came out to seventeen problems. Anyway, where I’m going with this is that there were all these really, really big challenges, right? How do we address ecological devastation? How are we going to deal with the development of artificial intelligence? How do we align that with human values? How are we going to avoid nuclear war? All these really big challenges. And one of the things that we’re doing with this program is placing people in local- and state-government institutions. And the reason is that if we’re going to address any of these challenges, or the current challenges of the racial reckoning and coronavirus, we need to have effective public institutions to be able to address them at scale.
Ideologically, that’s pretty traditionally liberal, as opposed to, say, conservative or leftist: We need really effective public institutions. We need people at the local level, sure, but also at the state and federal level. And if we place people at the local level, that’s going to be an incredible grounding. People’s first experiences can be proximity to serving their closest neighbors and community members. But we are absolutely thinking that we also want people who trickle up to the state and federal levels—after having had this grounding experience at the local level.
What’s been really interesting is that as I’ve been able to have more proximity to the sorts of conservative thinkers you’ve been talking about, plus change-makers themselves on the ground and our experiences through our fellows, I have kind of scrambled my own ideological orientation. I came here from a conservative family. I went to a very liberal institution. But I would actually say that I identify more as a conservative now, certainly, than when I started.
A lot of that has to do with the fact that as much as you can see the incredible potential of these change-making institutions, these governmental and public institutions, ultimately, if you don’t have some of the relational foundation and a strong civic fabric, it doesn’t matter. Civil society is at the core, even before government. You can provide great schools and economic resources and whatever else, but there still might be this huge chasm of meaning and purpose that you just can’t throw dollars at or throw institutional resources at to fix.
You can provide great schools and economic resources and whatever else, but there still might be this huge chasm of meaning and purpose that you just can’t throw dollars at or throw institutional resources at to fix.
And I worry about us looking at things like, for example, childcare and thinking that the solution is going to be institutionalizing that more and more, removing care from family and neighborhood structures. All of those are more traditionally conservative views, of course.
This is all to say that with me personally, and with the organization, there are these tensions. But that’s good—there’s incredible merit that both sides are bringing to the argument. We have so many fellows who are thinking, okay, I can’t make a difference right now at a state or federal level, but I can very much make a difference at the local level. They’re coming to see the importance of more traditional conservative values: those Burkean intermediary civic institutions. I think it’s been really grounding. But I also recognize the limits of some of those conservative thinkers you mentioned: that’s also not going to be the entire picture. The big takeaway from this, for me, is that I’ve come out of it with a lot more humility. These things are so incredibly complicated. And for me, the most important thing in my life is faith. And if it weren’t for the fact that I felt like it’s my job to just do the best I can with what I have in the time that I’m on planet Earth and then trust that the rest is up to a Higher Power, I think I would be going a little bit crazy. When you start diving into some of these issues, you need to come away with a lot of humility about your place in these things: a conviction that, yes, there’s a lot we can do, but if you’re looking to line yourself up with “left” or “right,” neither one of those positions is going to be complete. And if we don’t have that healthy tension, both within our community and more broadly across the country, we’re never going to make the sort of progress we want to make.
Benya: It’s really interesting to be building Lead for America in partnership with Joe, because we come from different family backgrounds and experiences. I grew up in a more liberal-leaning immediate family, but there’s a lot of conservatism in my extended family. And I grew up in a mixed-race family too, and I grew up abroad: in order to get along, I needed to make a lot of space for very different cultures and rituals and norms, and I always had to negotiate those, at every family dinner. There was a lot of cross-translation that needed to happen. And so innately, and not tied to any political ideology but just personally, as I tried to make sense of my own identity in my own family, and in my communities, I was always trying to reach something capacious: How can we hold it all? And I was always attentive to the way that one side of myself, or one side of my family, might not be held or protected or safeguarded in the same way that the other half might be. I was always aware that my mom and my dad experienced American life quite differently.
I was always trying to reach something capacious: How can we hold it all?
I’m not sure what side of any political line that puts me on, but a guiding question in my formative years was, Why is it so hard to be fully me? Why is it hard to have my full self seen—my mom fully seen and also my dad fully seen? I did go to a very liberal university as well, and there, in ways that are different from when I’m in Waseca, I also had the experience of not all sides of myself being fully seen. There was always this push and pull.
This notion of localism and the question of whether it’s conservative, or whether there’s a bit of ideological scrambling going on—I now am actually back in Waseca and I’m building out our next state affiliate, Lead for Minnesota, in my hometown of Waseca. When I first came back, I went on this listening tour all across the state of Minnesota—thirty small towns in thirty days. And the board of Lead for Minnesota is largely made up of people who gave me their couches or spare bedrooms while I was on that listening tour. I’ve gotten to know them on a really intimate level; the mix of people who are guiding the creation of Lead for Minnesota is quite varied. Vanessa Goodthunder is bringing an Indigenous perspective: she was also a homecomer; she came back to her reservation and built the first ever Dakota integrated language center and daycare center.
And then you have my good, good friend Bruce Tiffany who’s come home, and he’s on the same land that his parents and his grandparents were on as farmers in Redwood Falls, in southwest Minnesota. And it’s so interesting hearing their stories, hearing their ability to speak to our mission, to the importance of homecoming even with totally different lived experiences. They can speak to why investing locally and starting where you live is the greatest impact that you can have. And it’s really interesting, too, that, especially now I’m back and rooted in my small town, I have learned so much more about commitment to place from my uncle—he’ll take me around our farm and tell me about how our great-great-great-aunt Clophia came in—that’s the history to which we are tethered. And I think how incredible it is to feel that deep sense of care: I have to care about this place because so many of my ancestors have been here too.
It’s not the same, but these are similar threads to what Vanessa is talking about when she speaks about her Indigenous history with her land: there’s that thread of commitment. But it brings in those who are not from here: My mom is from Thailand, but she’s coming to Waseca. She’s part of a growing immigrant community here in Waseca. And it makes me wonder how we can also share the potency of that commitment to place with people who might not have a great-great-great-aunt Clophia, but they still have the capacity, if they’re invited, to care about that place so deeply as well. And a lot of these solutions to the problems that we run into are not really about politics—not partisan politics, not the politics of left and right. It’s about, what does Waseca need to thrive?
There are so many creative solutions: sometimes those require public institutions, sometimes they require our church stepping up, sometimes it requires remembering that redistribution of wealth and resources and love doesn’t always have to always come through a government program: this sharing of what we need with each other can be something that we as communities actually practice and do every day.
I’ve felt that as I’ve changed, and learned about my place and my context within it—well, sometimes those changes fall along the fault lines of conservative and liberal values, but most of the time, I don’t think they do, at least in the ways that we as a society have come to use those labels, and the judgments that we put on them.
Anne: “How can we share the potency of the commitment to place?” You just wrote a song lyric, Benya! That’s the ideal of pluralism, honestly; that’s the American hope. You don’t hear that frame very often these days. So I thank you for that.
Joe, earlier you talked briefly about the unique opportunities and challenges that COVID-19 and this crazy year have opened up. I confess early in the pandemic, I had this instinct . . . it seemed like this could be amazing for a lot of us: we can really double down on commitment in ways we haven’t before to our block, to our neighborhood, to our home: because we’re not going anywhere. Right before everything truly locked down, I was living an unusually mobile life. I’m in DC, I’m a journalist, I’m out and about often observing other places. And then the pandemic was like, Nope, you got to stay home. You’ve got to know all the shopkeepers on your block, et cetera.
I’m not totally sure that’s what’s going to be the result of this, but I’m just curious if you all could reflect a little bit more on how COVID-19 has affected your fellows experiment. It’s also affected different places so differently: as people in different places come together in conversation, how do those differences sometimes trouble the conversation and sense of mutual encouragement, mutual formation?
Joe: I can talk about that on the national or systems level. And then Benya, if you want to give the experience on the ground of actually working with individual local communities and what that’s been like in Minnesota, I think that’d be great. I think like obviously acutely for any person who’s trying to run a business or nonprofit, there are significant challenges. So when it first started, it’s like, okay, how are we going to keep everyone on payroll; let’s meet the basic existential challenges and be good stewards of the organization. But as soon as we moved past that stage, we started to think along the same lines of what you were talking about, which is like this incredible sense of possibility, right?
Like here’s the time when people are not only recognizing the incredible importance of public institutions, but also how those intersect and are brought down to the local level in terms of networks of care and having strong relationships. We’ve all been forced to be a little bit slower and more deliberate in our relationships than we might otherwise be. These were all really positive changes. The other thing is, when you’re in college, or the military, it can feel like this conveyor belt of pursuing success and all these sorts of things that we’ve been made to believe are important. This is the traditional meritocracy. For a lot of young people, the pandemic has allowed them to have conversations, have time to pick their heads up, and think more broadly—this is a huge cultural reckoning; what is my place in this going to be?
There’s a lot of possibility. And I was hopeful also that there could be some sort of push for national service or resources going to local communities, not just to allow our program to be able to thrive and meet the moment, but to make sure that for a generation of young people, when they think back to this moment of significant reckoning, with so much need in their communities, the defining experience for them would be that they met this challenge, that they played a role, even a big role; that they met this moment and were able to serve their closest neighbors and communities. It’s been a major missed opportunity so far in terms of actually providing those opportunities from a federal level, any sort of federal funding packages, any real pathways on a large scale for people to be able to do that work.
But we’ve all been encouraged at least by the isolated examples of that happening at a local level in our own neighborhoods or communities. And my hope is that even if we’re not seeing the fruits of this awakening or these realizations right now on a large scale, those sorts of thought processes and conversations that are happening at a far higher frequency than they were before will spill over, now or in two years or five years, to far more opportunities that are supported by institutions, but also far more individual decisions to go and commit to being in a specific place and serving whatever community you’re a part of. Those are some of the broader national trend lines.
It’s also been a moment of reckoning for us. When you’re in the first couple years of getting anything off the ground, you don’t have a lot of latitude to be able to think. And then all of a sudden, from board conversations to talking with advisors, the first question is, How are you doing? Are you healthy? And then the second question is, All right, the playbook’s out, it’s gone. You talk to entrepreneurs who have been doing this for twenty or thirty years, and they say, okay, we went through the great recession, but that’s nothing compared to what we’re currently dealing with.
So all of these questions are in play: What is our place and how do we grapple with these ideological questions both now and over the long term? How do we maintain a deep investment in public institutions and deep faith in public institutions, but also not crowd out the focus on the relational foundation, the local? All these sorts of things, we’ve had far more space to think about.
So now, as we’re thinking about our future, we’re not just thinking about the fellowship program. We’re also thinking about how we document this all, how we put it out to a much broader audience, how we work with the education system that’s so profoundly taxed by this virus. How do we have each one of our staff members live into the mission by contributing just as a fellow would to serving their local community members and actually building that out? We’re aiming for at least 10 percent or 20 percent or more of staff members’ time each week that’s dedicated to actually doing that work.
I’m really proud of our team and the way we’ve been able to navigate it. It’s because I’m surrounded by amazing people like Benya and Reed and Maya and the rest of our amazing team that were able to come out of this, I think, stronger than we started. And I’m personally just really optimistic about what this will mean in the five- or ten-year time frame, even though the one- and two-year time frame might be rough. And I have that optimism not just for our organization, but really for the country as a whole.
Benya: How it’s felt locally—well, you know, we work in deep, intimate partnership with each of our local hosts, to design the grand challenge to be solved in your community. You have to ask, If you had a magic wand to significantly transform your community, what would you do? And so there’s a lot of labor of love and reciprocity that goes into putting these project scopes together. And then when COVID hit—well it was a challenge. So many of the projects that we had designed had hinged around outreach, and bringing more people into the conversation, trying to do really innovative, creative things around community engagement. And so it got very challenging to see how this would work: What does place-based community outreach and engagement look like in a time when we’re confined to virtual interactions, when we need to practice social distancing? I’m a major extravert; I get a lot of energy from human physical connection, just being able to sit down across from somebody and give them a hug. And now I have to think about, How do I form meaningful conversations without that?
So we had to rethink a lot of things. But what was interesting was that the need was more apparent than ever: our hosts were saying that now with COVID, whatever the problem was that we had identified, whatever the project was that we had planned, it’s more important than ever. Even on the level of increasing community connection, especially now when we’re so much more physically isolated from each other, the need to find and connect and support each other is all the more important. So I think it’s actually added a lot.
Our hosts were saying that now with COVID, whatever the problem was that we had identified, whatever the project was that we had planned, it’s more important than ever.
We’ve had to get pretty creative with the logistical stuff, with financing, since everyone’s struggling with that stuff, but in terms of what the fellows are doing, there has never been more agency for that.
Anne: That’s really encouraging. So I know you’ve both been inspired by many thinkers and doers and books, and obviously by your own life experiences most of all, but you’ve also mentioned that one influence was Jim and Deb Fallows’s 2018 book Our Towns. It got a lot of attention, I think in part because at a time when national morale was really slipping, this was a story about local hope. I appreciated the book, and I really appreciate a lot of their work together, to say nothing of Jim’s work over his storied career. But I do think they missed two things. One is what I call the sacred sector: how faith-based organizations often wind up playing a powerful role in the work of reweaving the social fabric—often in hidden ways (so it’s not a total surprise that that dimension was absent). But I thought that was a slight blind spot. More pronounced, I thought they didn’t pay enough attention to the long-standing, very real conflict of power often involving race, but also rural versus urban and suburban communities, or mountain people versus flatlanders—all the different ways in which we set ourselves against the other. Insofar as you were informed by their work, how do you think you’ve navigated some of those realities that weren’t mentioned? And just more broadly, if you could talk about what’s missing in the “go local, go home” rhetoric, what would you say?
Joe: Before you said it just now I hadn’t heard of the sacred sector concept; I like that. I also think it fits neatly into a lot of the very helpful but more technocratic analysis that’s been done of what actually makes communities go. I have so appreciated Jim and Deb’s writing and the sense that they really are trying to distill it down to: Okay, what are the important things? And they actually have that Atlantic project where they’ve boiled it down to, What are the crucial things that make a community go? Having a microbrewery was one: that was a sign of a community on the rise, which I think Benya could attest to as well.
But getting back to the question of faith, of the sacred: I would not be doing Lead for America and, quite frankly, especially given the importance of faith in my life and Benya’s life, I don’t think Lead for America would exist if it weren’t for a strong and profound faith.
It’s the single most important thing in my life. It’s the grounding presence in everything that I do. When I was telling you that initial narrative, those important moments, I maybe left out what you would call the “sacred sector”—the importance of particular sermons, the importance of prayer—all these were things that led me to be able to reflect and put into context what I was going through, what my family was going through. And I think that is potentially a missed element in how we think about these things.
I think the challenge for us and for anyone trying to include that in the narrative is just how incredibly polarizing that is as a concept. Right? But the principles that have ultimately led me to be much more solid in my faith are those core principles: the historical life of Jesus, what the Bible calls us to—the care for our neighbors is such a simple and radical and profound call; it is really an incredible thing.
And that call is not asking you to do anything more than what you already have to do, right? Everybody has people they’re surrounded by. Everybody has neighbors. That call is asking you to recognize the inherent humanity and dignity of the people around you and to take an interest in people who are physically proximate to you and be in relationship with them and just love them. Everyone can do this. Everyone is capable of giving love. This is at the foundation of what we’re talking about. And if you miss that, you miss everything: you can have a microbrewery, you can have the best economic-development strategy ever, you can have great public schools, you can have all these different things, but ultimately if you don’t have a strong relational foundation as our mutual friend Mack McCarter in Shreveport [Louisiana] talks about, then at the very least, you’re going to be missing what makes life worth living, and community worth experiencing and investing in.
That call is not asking you to do anything more than what you already have to do, right? Everybody has people they’re surrounded by. Everybody has neighbors.
Without love, you’re actually going to have something far worse, which is the appearance of some sort of utopia or strong community, something that is constructed extrinsically to feel like the real thing, but it isn’t the real thing, and then you’ve depressed your own ability or the community’s ability to really reach its full potential.
Personally, but also organizationally, it’s something we struggle with, because again, we recognize not just within the Christian church, but in all faith traditions, there’s often this huge gap between what the faith at its best can actually call us toward, and then how those faith traditions—not just Christianity, but all faith traditions—are invoked or weaponized, or used as bludgeons to be able to advocate for specific ideological viewpoints or very exclusive ways of being better that are contrary to what it means to build and sustain community.
Benya: The other aspect of what you mentioned, thinking about race and power and the need to own up, to do some truth-telling—I think especially in small towns, we can struggle with making space to talk and really grapple with those things. There is this beautiful small-town pride, pride of place, and as a country, we’d be better if we all had that sense of local ownership to which our identity is tied. But what can be challenging is that if there is truth being told that does not fit the narrative of that pride, of the good community, it can be hard to hear—there’s this sense of, “What do you mean? I’ve experienced this community in a way where my neighbors have absolutely cared for me, I do feel safe walking around!” That experience is real. So to hear someone who might not have that experience because of their racial or religious identity, if they differ from the dominant identity in that place, it can come across as very personally devastating, like a gut punch—“What do you mean? My community isn’t that way?” And those are really tough feelings to have, but I think they make us stronger, more resilient, as we have those conversions, as we’re honest about the reality of all these experiences, and work through to a sense of pride that is also humble and can change. To ground it in more of a tangible example, I’m going to go back to my great-great-great-aunt Clophia, when my uncle took me on a walk through our farm and we stood on top of Blower’s Hill, which is the highest point on our family farm. And he talked about the generations that have stewarded this land before us. I am intentional about using the word “stewardship”: what I’ve learned from farming is that to do it right, you have to be planning for the future generations. One version of what happens when you have a conversation like that is that you hear about your ancestors on their place, and your takeaway is that this land is mine and I’m going to do everything I can to preserve it.
But I think actually what I have learned from my family and from so many farmers across Minnesota is that that’s actually not the only takeaway. It’s that this land is not necessarily mine. It is for future generations. It is for my community, and I have the blessing to hold on to it now. But how can I seed it, how can I sow seeds into it, so that when it is time for harvest, whoever comes after me has way more to harvest?
And I think for our small towns to survive for that future harvest, we need to be sowing seeds that allow more people to be able to come and harvest the goodness of that land. And as you think about great-great-great-aunt Clophia as you stand on Blower’s Hill, if you look closely, you’ll also see that there are dart heads from the Native people that were here before, the Oceti Sakowin people: this is the tribal land of the Wahpekute people. And that is there too, when I stand on Blower’s Hill: it’s a history of genocide, of people whose ability to steward their land was taken away. And that is a hard, hard history that does not fit neatly into the true and beautiful story of my family being stewards to the land. But I have to hold the violence of that narrative too. And we do have to tell those truths if we are to be better stewards moving forward.
For us to be strong advocates for our local communities, we have to tell hard truths, take those in and let them inform how we can make a more beautiful and richer and more plentiful future harvest for the next generation.
This land is not necessarily mine. It is for future generations. It is for my community, and I have the blessing to hold on to it now. But how can I seed it, how can I sow seeds into it, so that when it is time for harvest, whoever comes after me has way more to harvest?
Anne: I love the pasture images that you’re using: you’re speaking both literally in an agrarian context and figuratively. A number of years ago, I was for a variety of reasons drawn to communities that had this porousness about them. They were open to outsiders, they were open with their way of life, but they were also so rich and thick. We’re suspicious of Winthrop’s phrase, now, the “city on a hill,” but these places were like mini cities on a hill, these different communities filled with light. They cross all sectors and different ways of life. And I was just so drawn to them. What the radical hospitality of a lot of these communities did for me was they made me start writing about them, trying to figure them out. And I went on trying to study community life. I wound up having this phrase hit me one day: within each of these communities, there’s at least one, and usually a few more shepherds, community shepherds: Miss Rosie on the block; you know. You can find them in institutions as well. You can find them at an EVP level in a university or, you know, the front-office person at a dental office. I happen to know someone who might call them weavers, which is also a great term, but I love this phrase “community shepherd,” because there’s something about it that is like tending a pasture.
I do think of you guys as building, and I’m going to mix metaphors here, an army of community shepherds. It sounds aggressive, but there’s an element of war here, a war on social isolation, on disenchantment, on complacency, on distrust: there’s such dire need for what you’re offering. But then there’s the shepherd element: someone gentle and tender and protective. I think we need to consider the possibility that these kinds of people will not just be honored quietly, which is usually how it should be, but perhaps recognized more publicly, even, some of them, paid full time to do that tending role, that place-based, committed attending role. How does that strike you? Does that sound right, in terms of what LFA is doing?
Benya: Well, to be clear, the fellows aren’t getting paid Wall Street salaries. For the Minnesota program, we’re also a Federal AmeriCorps program; this is tapping into those ideals of national service. With that comes the AmeriCorps stipend as their base salary. What I often say is you are getting a living allowance to have this broad creative canvas of possibility to paint on. We structure our fellowship such that, yes, you are connected to public institutions, but the purpose of that is not to have you be restrained by those institutions, but rather to see the place that public institutions can have, in addition to all the forms of independent local caretaking that a community requires. So we ask them, what role must you play both in and outside of a public institution to better shepherd and understand and move your community and weave new possibilities into your place?
Joe: You mentioned Wendell Berry earlier in the podcast. I’ve had long debates with other LFA team members and friends about, From the perspective of community life and village life what were the best times to be alive? There are all sorts of things you can bring to those debates. I’ve lived for extended periods of time in villages in Sierra Leone and Indonesia, and I don’t want to romanticize the incredible inequities in economics and opportunities not just between neighborhoods in the United States, but even more markedly between countries. What really strikes me is that what we’ve done so incredibly successfully in the Western world in the United States is to build incredible wealth.
But there’s a cost. And part of that cost is that much decision-making is out of your hands, and the proximity that you have to basic questions is really reduced. Where is my food coming from? Where’s my water coming from? Where are my clothes coming from? If something goes wrong, do I go to a neighbor? Am I building relationships? Or is the experience the impersonal one of filing an unemployment claim or filing an insurance claim? We’ve been so effective as a society at being able to meet these sorts of challenges by systematizing our response to them. But the messy, slow, deliberative process of relationship-building has been sacrificed on the altar of efficiency and interchangeability.
It’s a real boiling-the-frog thing. I don’t think we realized until very recently that we actually have a relational- and a social-capital problem. But now, all of a sudden, we’re starting to see some real cracks in the livability of our system. It’s no longer possible for a family to subsist on a single wage earner’s income. We no longer have direct proximity to our neighbors. We’re now surrounded by more people who are like us, but people no longer feel comfortable having their kids walk to and from school together. All of these small changes ultimately make a big difference. And the cat’s out of the bag—we can’t just pretend that we’re just going to reverse everything and go back to a village life, an agrarian lifestyle.
So then you start thinking, okay, how do we use the tools that are at our disposal, the tools that have already proved effective in addressing some of our challenges and eliminating suffering? There are some basic economic tools that we might still be able to employ. For example, in Elizabeth Warren’s book The Two-Income Trap, she talks about the need to strengthen families by having either the mother or the father be able to provide for the family on a single income, so that we are not all so incredibly stretched all the time, so that we’re not outsourcing the raising of our families, so that we have the energy, as families, to be active community members. We need to recognize that raising a family in that way is actually incredibly valuable, not just for the family itself, but for the community and for society as a whole.
So how can we get there? Well, obviously there are proposals around universal basic income, there are proposals about child care, but it also just boils down to us doing a better job at the family and community level of inculcating those values and those skills of family living and community living, holding up as people to emulate those who are doing the hard and really important work of community weaving. How do we make these the celebrities, the superstars? As a national culture, we’ve celebrated people who are achieving extraordinary success while sacrificing building the deep relationships that are necessary for fulfilling sustainable human lives, embedded in family and community, and that success often leaves them feeling empty.
Until we stop and think about what our economic structures are rewarding, until we start being thoughtful about what stories and lives we raise up as “the good life,” until we take into account aspects of the good life that go beyond pure classical “achievement,” I think we’re going to struggle.
We need to be humble about this. There’s not going to be any one-size-fits-all solution. We have to address some of the economic indicators. Absolutely we should have more national service programs. We should have a network of community shepherds whose full-time job is to build the relational foundations of these neighborhood bonds. But ultimately it’s also a lot about culture and what we actually signal as being really important.
Anne: Both of you have somewhat uncannily provided the runway to my final questions. The title of this podcast is The Whole Person Revolution. There are a couple of different definitions of what a whole person is. Our mutual friend Mack McCarter defines a whole person as someone who is both competent and compassionate. I love that definition too. But there’s also the classic definition: it’s the knitting together of head, heart, and helping hand.
We all yearn for that: we all want to be growing, integrated people throughout our lives. But what’s so beautiful is that a whole person never operates alone. By definition, they are interdependent with others; they’re contributing to sowing and to bearing and to reaping the fruits of a whole community. How are you promoting that wholeness in your fellows? They’re young people, who are just learning how to be connected in these peer-to-peer and mentoring relationships. What are the rituals around that? What are the webs of support that help them develop both the qualities of character necessary and the relationships that are necessary to help them be whole? Especially in the context of their going back home, with maybe different ideas and cultural standards than they left with: I imagine that there’d be a lot of boundary-crossing?
Benya: A huge piece of the Lead for America experience is the rich training we provide, and all the support structures we’ve put in place. We’re about to dive into a week of Zoom virtual training: six days, nine a.m. to six p.m. Wish that new cohort luck! Our colleague Maya Pace, the chief program officer, and I, with our team, center a practice of what we’ve termed “convergent leadership” as the core ethic that we teach our fellows.
What we came up with is built on a lot of Indigenous practices. We’ve drawn from the Anishinaabe idea of the Grandfather Teachings, we’ve focused on the image of balance; of the interweaving of things that sometimes seem to be at tension with each other. The heart of convergent leadership is trying to exist at the convergence of work that we do on ourselves and the work that we do in and for our community. We weave those into a practice of service and of a search for possibilities. We also have four pillars that we focus on, which are interconnected with each other.
Those pillars are foresight, innovation, service, and justice. We have a network of mentors who our fellows learn from, and we find that helping fellows balance their work is really important: you might have someone who’s really strong on innovation, but we need to strengthen and balance that with service, which calls you to be proximate, to be grounded.
The more we can expose fellows to the deep tensions and sometimes contradictions of ways of knowing and doing and building community, the stronger their practice becomes.
Joe: Thank you for bringing up Mack, Anne. I feel like we couldn’t have this conversation without talking about him. This whole question of how to create an environment, and how to choose mentors who will develop the qualities of character in people that will help them to be those good leaders is a really important one. That’s going to look a bit different for different people, for different communities. For some people, it’s really important that they have mentors who are pushing them to not be small, to live into their power and grace and possibility, to think big about what they can do. Those are often people who have been raised in a way where their first instinct is to help and to be of service and to give so much of themselves away that they don’t actually think about what they need or what they can contribute.
What somebody like that needs is very different from what somebody like me needed as I was coming out of high school or college. I’d been given an enormous amount of affirmation: charge hard and you can do whatever you want professionally. I had a stable and loving family who gave me the possibility to go to school and not have to worry about family responsibilities or burdens.
As we think about those two strengths, competence and compassion, it really is not an either/or, but depending on where somebody is, we need to ask how we get them to that full version of the whole person that they could be. We also recognize that everybody has their own gifts and things that they’re going to be more naturally inclined to do.
One of the simplest concepts we have is that we encourage people to not always see relationships or mentorships instrumentally, through the lens of, How do I get to a specific place? but rather treating them as an end in and of themselves. Service at its very best decenters the self: you put something else—your community, your faith—at the center. You say, you know what, it’s not about me. Rather, I need to ask how I can be of service. I don’t think that we can do that at a systems level or in national politics or in our careers or aspirations, if we don’t do that on a daily basis in terms of our practices and our habits.
No matter what we do, we’re going to be interacting with so many people who don’t have any transactional value or career value. We need to commit to seeing their value, because you can’t shortcut character: you really need to see others as this immense, impossible-to-define source of value. That’s the challenge: How do we really live into that concept of loving our neighbor? How do you have that not be a slogan but rather something that at each and every moment, each and every day, in each and every interaction, that is the thing you’re holding on to and using to guide your interactions?
We need to commit to seeing their value, because you can’t shortcut character: you really need to see others as this immense, impossible-to-define source of value. That’s the challenge: How do we really live into that concept of loving our neighbor?
Anne: On that note, I want to thank both of you so much. You are—to use Mack’s definition of a whole person—both very competent and unusually compassionate. You’re salt and light; countercultural in the best way. I wish you every success.
Joe: It’s people like you, with all the work that you put out into the world, who have paved the way for us to have language to be able to describe so many of these things. Truly, thank you. It’s been a pleasure.