In Conversation with Dane Erickson, Leslie Lai, and Ryan Eller
As we continue living in an era of polarization, driven through division, how do we begin to create a collective vision for the future? Without a shared commitment to building bridges, many problems in the United States—and across the globe—will be left to the wayside, as the opportunity to act decreases with each wasted moment.
We sat down with Coeuraj team members to unpack one of the most challenging issues affecting the United States today: a diminishing lack of trust across people, groups, and institutions.
Hi, folks, thanks for sitting down with us. To start, what is the state of trust in the United States today?
Dane Erickson: By almost every indicator, trust is at an all-time low in the United States. Whether it be in governments, institutions, or even our own neighbors, we’re seeing significantly lower trust levels than we did in previous eras.
But ironically, in the material sense, the world is better off now than ever before, in terms of life expectancy, literacy, and economic prosperity. There’s a paradox in the United States, in that, while we are measurably healthier and wealthier compared to past generations, inequality is growing and we’re less connected to one another. As a result, we’re less trusting of each other and the systems around us.
What complicates this are the national mythologies that have historically bound us together—all societies are bound by myth and ours is no different. But to state the obvious, there are deep fault lines between these myths and our realities. To move forward, we need to acknowledge these faults and remagine America’s narrative, in a way that is rooted in our country’s original vision but also reflective of a better future.
Leslie Lai: And a lot of the myths and narratives that people consume, like the American Dream, have to do with the idea of prosperity and achieving upward social mobility. However, this prosperity has been achieved by simultaneous oppression and exploitation of certain groups of people in order to get on top. As the world becomes more competitive, some people feel like their inability to move upwards is not because of changes in technology or the global economy, but because of others. As a result, trust begins to erode. So really, these low levels of trust we’re seeing come back to an acceptance of a broken system that enforces an “Us-versus-Them” mentality.
Ryan Eller: I tend to be bullish about the future of humanity, and also recognize that currently in the United States, we’re living in an age of extreme polarization. And I think what’s driving this is an existential identity crisis. Identity precedes ideology in shaping human behaviors. Many of the deep narratives and creeds that we once accepted as a part of our national story are being challenged, and as that’s happening, trust has waned. People may now have an affinity with others outside of America who share the same political identity, even more than those who hold different views in our own country. The bridges that are supposed to bind us, and give us a sense of shared purpose and opportunity, have decayed. And yet, despite that current reality, if any nation is equipped to meet the challenges of our age, it’s the USA—the world’s most diverse power.
Why is it important to change our conversation on trust?
DE: Trust is the bedrock of human civilization. It enables cooperation among strangers. When there is more of it, people work together faster and more efficiently; when there is less trust, things grind to a halt. We all know that intuitively and yet it is also true across cultures and systems.
RE: As a community organizer, we always point to two forms of power: organized people and organized money. But, in order for anyone to act, you need trust to collectivize, organize, and move forward. So trust is an essential element to expediting action. We’re starting to learn that the very survival of humanity is at risk, and there’s no time to sit idle. Individuals, even nations, can collaborate without trust, but that doesn’t mean you can act together and move things forward in a meaningful way.
LL: Ultimately, trust is a social contract that enables things to get things done, especially between strangers who don’t have an established relationship to rely on. It’s required for the efficiency and integrity of life to keep moving forward. When you take trust out of the equation, things start to fall apart.
What are other conditions that are impacting people’s relationship with trust?
LL: We have such a large population in the United States—and we have the largest national population with this much diversity, but we have no roadmap for how to design an equitable society. Because on one hand, we’re trying to reconcile the past sins and current injustices of our country. On the other hand, we have new people coming to the United States who are also asking “what about us?”. Almost everyone feels like they’ve fallen behind and aren’t being adequately represented in the story of America. As long as this tension remains, we’re all feeding into a zero-sum mentality.
We're also seeing the increased weaponization of all forms of technology, particularly social media. I think this has been a key factor impacting how and who people trust.
RE: The Information Age has made traditional binaries more nuanced. Not that it was ever simple, but distinguishing between “good” and “bad” is more complicated now. There’s a lot more general distrust in institutions because the understanding of what the “truth” even is has been muddied by an abundance of information online.
In the last decade, two of the largest social movements, #MeToo and #BlacksLivesMatter, were heavily amplified by a digital presence. These social movements have transcended popular culture, and have material impacts on the workplace that people are being asked to question: are we creating organizations that are truly equitable?
DE: In one way, the Internet has challenged traditional gatekeepers of knowledge. We’re living in a much more transparent age, and today, it’s much harder to build and maintain a singular myth to unite a society. For those with power, that was much easier to do in the past. This reality doesn’t mean trust isn’t possible to nurture, it just makes navigating relationships within communities and systems more essential—and more difficult.
What can Coeuraj bring to this larger movement of strengthening trust?
DE: In working to build trust, there’s an opportunity to invest time, energy, and thought-partnership in this space that provides value to organizations and society as a whole. Coeuraj exists to enable trust among diverse stakeholders and people who often don’t know each other or have contrasting perspectives. Within the wide range of capabilities that we want to deploy, from thought leadership, capital, technology, data science, we want to foster trust among people; to better understand what trust is, how it can be applied, and when and how it works to support better outcomes for the future.
RE: Coeuraj’s approach to building trust and collaboration is unique, as it’s willing to be form agonistic. We’re trying to establish interventions in the world that aren’t just charitable, just for-profit, or just tech, but by whatever means necessary to build a more inclusive and sustainable world. The de-siloing of form is a fairly rare organizational construct that could, if done well, meet people where they are in their own sector, and walk beside them towards a greater, more collaborative goal.
LL: It’s important to acknowledge that we’re not the first people to talk about trust, but we’re trying to find new value-added ways to approach it. We think about including diverse perspectives in multi-stakeholder engagement and collaborative processes, which is not something that happens on its own naturally. Bringing people who are engaged in grassroots, on-the-ground work with established institutional leaders is not something that often happens, but I’m hopeful that we can help champion this change.
As we say at Coeuraj, people are at the heart of what we do. To close out this conversation, why do you do this work?
RE: I am first and foremost a person dedicated to creating a more loving and just world. Any opportunity that allows me to build that world at scale and still be connected to a community at a local level, I’m going to explore it. When I first heard about some of the work Coeuraj has done with Indigenous communities, how mining closures could take place and give back to these communities, and if we could make this work scalable, I knew Coeuraj could be really special. With both Appalachian and Indigenous heritage in my family, my ancestors have been ravished by intergenerational poverty because of how coal has been extracted from our land without systems in place to redevelop the local economies or communities. I want to contribute to making better systems for communities like my own.
LL: To me, Coeuraj presents a really unique opportunity to think about the real-world application of big ideas that are typically kept within the confines of the ivory tower. Our work is about actively engaging with communities whose voices aren’t always heard and reconciling differences for true impact and at scale—across industries, sectors, and geographies.
DE: I want to be known as someone who gave everything to help others, in one way shape or form. The reason I came to Coeuraj was because I saw untapped potential and an early-stage opportunity to create something from the ground up, and build something meaningful and long-lasting. I am a builder, just like everyone on this team.
We all want to use our skill sets to build something truly unique that the world needs, and to do so in a place where people can come to work as their best selves.
And that is what Coeuraj represents.