Public trust in shared institutions has been declining for generations. At this point we’re debating whether facts exist. Doubt is the watchword of our time: will the future be better than the past; do those with resources and power at their disposal have our common needs in mind; what can the have-nots realistically accomplish; and so much more.
What’s missing that’s led us to this queasy moment? Solid ground: spaces, both tangible and intangible, that create a stable environment in which to build trust. Solid ground helps us feel confident and sure of the basic shape of the world around us. It provides reliable stability amidst volatility.
Brands across the gamut are grappling with this long-term decline in public trust. The good news is some are finding ways to build solid ground by establishing space for experimentation, learning and engagement. These forward-thinking brands know that creating stability today will give them a competitive advantage in the near future that could prove essential to their long-term viability.
In New Haven, Connecticut, artist Titus Kaphar was tired of watching as graduates of the Yale School of Art — “some of the most esteemed artists in the world” — quickly left the city upon graduation. The issue isn’t that New Haven lacks affordable space to create. Rather, it’s been missing an anchor around which a working arts community can grow off-campus. In the absence of that local arts anchor, graduates are typically drawn to nearby New York City, where community is plentiful — even if cheap space isn’t.
Kaphar wanted to create a reason for working artists to stay in New Haven, while at the same time using the arts to empower Dixwell, the historic heart of the city’s black community. Through his nonprofit NXTHVN, a $12 million arts incubator and fellowship program, Kaphar is attempting to do just that. The space, located in two once-defunct factory buildings, provides artist-fellows not only with the stability of funding and space to create, but also training in relevant professional skills like negotiating and public speaking. NXTHVN even hires young people from local high schools as paid apprentices, where they’re taught art skills of varying mediums. In doing so, Kaphar hopes to create the foundation for a thriving arts community in Dixwell that will make New Haven a more attractive base of operations for working artists.
As hinted at above, the exact opposite problem is prompting innovative responses an hour-and-a-half south, in densely packed New York City. One brand flipping the script to create stable space is The Shed. Here, ambitious wheels-to-steel architecture is matched by an equally innovative commitment to presenting only original, commissioned work at fair(ish) fares. This allows the city’s newest institution of culture to provide something more than meets the eye: refuge.
“What The Shed attempts to do is to create a structure… to protect the ecosystem of collective culture within the ruthlessly commercial city.”
In his glowing review for the Financial Times, Heathcote makes a case that The Shed’s most important feature is not impressive feats of engineering, but the role it will play in preserving opportunities for experimentation in a city that struggles to maintain affordable space for artistic risk. It’s hard to take chances and create with freedom in a city where everything is so damned expensive. This, by design, is what The Shed intends to provide. As former Brooklyn Academy of Music president Brooks Hopkins puts it “Doing a few commissions is complicated — doing all is a little scary.” The Shed’s pledge to provide solid ground for artistic risk is a gamble, but it the long run its likely to help this upstart carve out a niche in an already crowded cultural market.
For an example of solid ground beyond the world of arts and culture, look no further than King James’ court. Or rather off-court. Basketball superstar LeBron James may have failed to bring showtime back to Los Angeles this season, but even if he had his greatest accomplishment would still have been back in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. There, rather than just throwing money at a problem it didn’t fully understand, The Lebron James Family Foundation (LJFF) spent significant time talking to and working with teachers, educational experts, students, parents and community leaders to learn about the challenges they face in order to conceptualize a new kind of program that would best suit their needs.
The LJFF wanted to know why at-risk students performed academically at lower rates than other students. What they uncovered is that at-risk students needed to be reached earlier and could greatly benefit from counteracting the trauma that many experienced in their lives. In an untraditional and innovative partnership with Akron’s public-school system, the LJFF contributed more than $2 million to fund the I Promise School, which features a trauma-informed curriculum that not only helps students better transition into school and process information, but provides educational and empowerment resources for families.
So far, 90% of I Promise students have met or exceeded individual growth goals in reading and math, compared to 70% of students district wide. After decades of top-down interventions in education focused on test scores and rigid guidelines, the LJFF’s innovative approach has been to build on insights learned at the community level. This bottom-up strategy validates the lived experiences of parents, teachers and students, and recognizes that providing a stable environment for learning is about much more than the school itself.
Online, the largest tech brands are taking big steps to help people find solid ground in an information landscape shaken by fake news. In the battle against disinformation, Google has taken a number of steps: partnering with the International Fact Checking Network, launching the $300 million Google News Initiative, and changing its AI to try and limit hoaxes and falsities on YouTube. Apple, meanwhile, has partnered with several organizations in the US and Italy that provide nonpartisan, independent media-literacy programs to “present quality journalism from trusted sources and help train young people on how to seek accurate and reliable information.”
In the digital realm it’s especially important that leading brands like these step up to help establish a baseline of shared, fact-based reality. As some of the most far-reaching providers and organizers of information in the world, helping to bring to light a more clearly defined communal truth is essential if they wish to continue to have long-term commercial success.
If trust is what all brands hope to build with their audiences, then declining public trust presents an opportunity for brands that are paying attention. By creating ways for us to find our footing and empowering us to resolve challenges that bring imbalance, brands that create solid ground for their customers will have a significant advantage in an increasingly destabilized world.