“Resilience is the ability to face internal or external crisis and not only effectively resolve it, but also learn from it, be strengthened by it, emerge transformed by it, individually and as a group.” -- Gilbert Brenson-Lazan
“What does it mean and take to thrive during a crisis?”
This is a key question that is front and center for cultural sociologist Dr. Josh Yates, the CEO and Founder of Thriving Cities Group. “This moment offers us an opportunity to rethink the neglect and fraying of our social fabric.”
A nationally recognized urbanist who has been writing, speaking, and examining human thriving for over two decades, Dr. Yates checks in with VMDO to offer insight on ways to design and build for a thriving future while recognizing the fault lines of social inequality that the COVID-19 pandemic has been revealing and intensifying. Key to thriving, shares Dr. Yates, is putting humans at the center, collectively designing the future we want to return to, and building this future not just for, but rather, with each other.
Josh Yates delivering his talk on "The Promise of America's Underdog Cities" at the 2018 TEDx Talks in Memphis, TN.
Dr. Josh Yates is the Executive Director of the newly relaunched Ormond Center for Thriving Congregations and Communities at Duke Divinity School. He is also the Founder and CEO of Thriving Cities Group, a national not-for-profit that builds "community intelligence" to solve local challenges through data, technology, and advisory services. Trained as a cultural sociologist and urbanist, Dr. Yates weaves together two decades of academic research and socially-based practice in an on-going quest to ask and answer the question: What does it mean and take to thrive in the contemporary world?
He has pursued this work in over a dozen communities around the country and has written and spoken widely on related themes, including “The Promise Of America’s Underdog Cities,” his 2018 TEDx talk irecorded in Memphis, TN. Prior to working at Duke University, he served on the faculties of both the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, in Banff, Canada, and the University of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.
Q1: Asa Eslocker, VMDO
How does your research and your work at the intersection of Thriving Cities Group and at Duke University inform the way you see the world, especially now during our current crisis?
A1: Dr. Josh Yates
I'm trained as a cultural sociologist and I have spent the last two decades studying the question, “What does it mean and what does it take for communities to thrive?” And in the course of that work, I think you could boil it down to basically two key insights: that when humans are put at the center of what the things we're designing, whether those are buildings or programs, and that when that growth and development are thought of in ecological terms, which is not environmental, but rather in holistic ways and inclusive ways, then communities thrive. And when they're not, they struggle to thrive.
With a group of friends, I founded the Thriving Cities Group, and its focus is to take those two key insights and turn them into tools and frameworks that empower leaders and organizations to work for thriving in their communities.
We can think about the preexisting crises [before COVID-19] that existed around healthcare, higher education, political polarization, or inequality. COVID-19 is not creating any of those things, but simply revealing that those fault lines already existed. It is intensifying the experience of them, and I think also accelerating the timeframes with which many who were dealing with them are having to confront them in really profound ways.
Q2: Asa Eslocker, VMDO
As a cultural sociologist, how do you see this current pandemic?
A2: Dr. Josh Yates
I see this current pandemic in a couple of ways. As you know, there are a lot of different metaphors that people are using to make sense of this time. I tend to think of it in ways that you might say are climatological, and informed by a very nice piece called “Leading Beyond the Blizzard” (by Andy Crouch, Kurt Keilhacker, and Dave Blanchard). They use a metaphor that was first created by an epidemiologist (Michael Osterholm) to describe this. Is it a blizzard? Is it a winter? Or is it a mini ice age? And each of those have a different orientation to not just how we understand the nature of COVID-19, but how we respond to it.
Is it a Blizzard? So, at the beginning of all of this, I had to convince my kids that this was not an extended snow day, that this had a reality to it that was bigger and more long-term than just a blizzard. It comes, we hunker down, and then eventually it goes and we get back to life as normal. It's kind of like an extended snow day.
Is it a Winter? A winter on the other hand says that this is a prolonged season. You don't just hunker down in winter, but your activity and your behavior changes for a long, extended period of time, before, hopefully you can come out into spring and time again. So it a blizzard? Or is it a winter?
Is it a mini ice age? Or is it something like a mini ice age in which is it more than a long winter. It's so long that it not only changes our behavior and activities for a given season, but it actually shifts ways of living. When you come out of the mini ice age, you don't go back to normal. So, how we understand the nature of this crisis will determine our responses to it.
Q3: Asa Eslocker, VMDO
What big picture guidance might you give leaders, owners, or architects who are designing public facilities for our post pandemic world?
A3: Dr. Josh Yates
I would say I have four basic thoughts. And, these are things that I'm seeing that come from two decades of thinking about this, but also in seeing it actually lived in real examples. Just to be clear, both for those designers and architects of our physical places and those people who are equally concerned with our programs and initiatives that can bring us together in those places. So, it spans the whole spectrum of how we might think about design and building.
1. It's Time to Build: The first is – taking the title of a recent book and essay – it's time to build. So this would be my first point, and I'm taking this from, from two very interesting recent writings. So one from Yuval Levin's book, “A Time to Build” and Mark Andreessen, of Silicon Valley fame, his essay, “It's time to build.” They both use effectively the same phrase. And they both come at this from different perspectives – one from a slightly more socially conservative vantage point, and the other a slightly more socially progressive vantage point. But what they're both trying to tell us is that our lack of preparedness for COVID in part stems from decades-long neglect of investing in building the infrastructures that support common life. That's the key. And so I think they both challenge us in different ways: that it is time to not simply protest – we need to do some of that too – but to roll our sleeves up and get to work to build and reinvest.
2. How We Build Matters: The second point that I think is so important is how we build – not just that we build, but how we build matters. We have to build with human people at the center of how we build. And we have to build in such a way that we have the whole system in view, the whole ecosystem in view, or the whole community in view. So we're not just building a widget right over here, isolated by itself, but we're building something that's going to be in conversation with the larger picture, with the larger common good.
3. Build with the Third Horizon in Mind: The third point is that we have to build with what I'm calling the third horizon in mind, and here's what I mean by that. Right now we're thinking almost entirely, and rightly, about the first horizon of the response to the crisis. Everybody is trying to figure out how do we survive if we're an organization or a small business or how do I keep a job, right?
The second horizon, you could think of that as the recovery. Where do we go next to? How do we get out of this and get “back to normal,” right? We hear this a lot, so how do we recover from this and get back to normal?
But the third horizon, and this is where I think the leadership challenge is because not many people have the luxury right now – at least it's often interpreted as a luxury and I actually think it's a necessity – to think about the third horizon. Which is to say, how do we not just recover from this and get “back to normal" but what's the normal we want to get back to? How do we reframe and re-envision the normal we want to build toward.
4. Build With, not just For: And then the last one is also critical – we also have to be thinking carefully that we're not just building for, but we're building with. This is the critical importance. And we all know the history of that and it's fraught with all kinds of missteps.
So I think that we're in this enormously positive moment in the midst of all of the real human suffering and real human and community struggle. But there is, in the midst of this, these green shoot opportunities of rolling our sleeves up, of building with humans at the center, of building towards that third horizon of re-imagining and reframing what the “back to normal” might mean for us and to do it with others, not for others. So that's the song I'm singing, and the good work that I think we have before all of us.
Q4: Asa Eslocker, VMDO
What can we learn from this pandemic that indicate a possible future with more equitable, thriving communities for all?
A4: Dr. Josh Yates
I see two roads in front of us. One road you might think of as the “great reset.” This opportunity to reimagine and reset our communities on many different fronts, on many different issues, whether it's racial disparity or economic inequality or the kinds of political polarization and partisanship that's so divisive, and so dividing.
There's this other equally true possibility of what they called the “great snap back.” Which is to say we recover from this crisis, we open up, we make it through, and we just go back to “normal.” We go back to the way it was, which for many people is a good thing. But it doesn't change the status quo.
So what gives me hope is that everywhere I look in every community that I know, I see countless people from countless walks of life and in every sector who deeply desire a great reset, who don't want to simply go back to normal. And so I put my hope in those people who are not just wanting it, but rolling their sleeves up every day to work for it.
Thank you so much for having me!