Editor’s note: The following is a transcript of the episode. It's been edited for clarity.
Boyd Matheson: America faces a multitude of challenges, including intergenerational poverty, an opioid epidemic, overcrowded prisons, the breakdown of nuclear families, capable yet unemployed men, political tribalism and the loss of institutions of civil society.
Could character be the solution? When looking to influence behavior, could a focus on the principles of character bring about greater change? Anne Snyder explores the transformative power of institutions committed to character-driven development on this episode of "Therefore, What?" "Therefore, What?" is a weekly podcast that breaks down the news while breaking down barriers, challenges you and the status quo, explores timely topics and timeless principles, and leaves you confident to face what's next. I'm Boyd Matheson, opinion editor for the Deseret News. And this is "Therefore, What?"
We're honored today to be joined by the author of "The Fabric of Character," Anne Snyder. Anne is the director of the character initiative at the Philanthropy Roundtable and a fellow at the Center for Opportunity Urbanism, a Houston-based think tank that explores how cities can drive opportunity and social mobility for their citizens. Anne has also been published regularly in The Atlantic Monthly, The Washington Post and many other national journals.
Anne, thanks so much for joining us today. Your book is just an extraordinary look at this issue of character. So often I think people hear character today and they sort of get a little glazed over, not quite sure what that is anymore. Tell us about the genesis of this book. Why character and why now?
Anne Snyder: So I was actually tasked to, or I was invited to, think about this question explicitly by the Philanthropy Roundtable back in late 2015, early 2016. My career up to that point had kind of — my writing world — I'd always been interested in questions of how one's culture and context shape one's moral aspirations and moral instinct. And they got ahold of me and said, Look, we have a growing group of people in the donor community, big foundations, medium, small, who are increasingly concerned that we're no longer like the Boy Scouts country, YMCA. And just more broadly, we've lost a lot of the widely shared institutions that form people, especially outside of school.
So I think back in the '90s, I mean, I feel like every 10 years there's sort of a character revival. But it tends, at least in my lifetime, has tended to be only through the prism of education. So while the roundtable really respected the role that schools can play in moral formation, we're interested in throwing kind of a broader net. So they asked me to think about what would it look like to cast divisions specifically for the philanthropic community to think wisely, and frankly, just better about what it means to support, if not strengthen, existing character-building institutions and/or build new ones. So it's like a very huge question. And I had to play both sort of liaison between understanding how donors think, particularly donors of the generation above age 65 years old, who have a certain memory of America, and then what's actually on the ground today, all while, in some ways, going on my own journey of trying to figure out, why do I care about this, why do I care about it today?
BM: I find it so fascinating that here you have the Philanthropy Roundtable, where people who give away large sums of money to all kinds of different institutions, all in the hope of doing good, of making a difference, of lifting people up. I just find it fascinating that they were intrigued of, is there a better place for us to invest our money? Is there a better way to make a difference in society? Tell me how you grappled with that and where that lead you?
AS: Yeah, really great question. I mean, and it kind of gets at my somewhat renegade approach to this. There are, I mean, hopefully philanthropy in general is doing more good than harm. Although there are many debates out there running today as to, you know, whether that's true. Character is interesting on a number of levels from a philanthropic perspective, because it's more mysterious. In my view, it's very, it's nature, it's very holistic, it's very core to who we are as human beings. And it's universal. There's something about it. In some ways almost however you define it, that anyone from any walk of life should be able to care about. Because, I mean, that famous saying, character is destiny, I think has proven to be true, over and over and over again, both for individuals and for civilizations or societies.
And while I honor all the, you know, smart philanthropic work that's being done — name your sector — economic development, neighborhood safety, education, poverty, name your issue, veterans. What appealed to me about character and how philanthropists could think about it was that it kind of gets to the deeper levels of how we're motivated, how we relate to others, how we build or don't build trust, what we allow ourselves to trust, so that we submit ourselves say, to an institution that we come to fall in love with that seems healthy, that we therefore allow to shape our character.
I'm not saying character is a solution for everything. And this book tries to say that there's sort of a depth of the nature of character, that it's not purely an individual faculty, or it's formed in the context of relationships and things outside of ourselves. But I just thought there was something about it, that was immediately, it just intrigued me. It's sort of like philosophy and the liberal arts. Like it kind of gets to the foundations of everything. And how do you pair something so deep and so profound, and kind of all-encompassing, with dollars and cents? And that continues to be a question that I haven't fully answered.
BM: Well, as part of your study and your work on the book you went to a host and a really a wide range of institutions. And you talk about kind of the organizational guide to character formation. And we can talk about some of those different things. But I want to start with one particular institute, because it's right here in Salt Lake City, Utah. And it's one that I happened to be a big fan of. Actually, the first time I met you was standing outside of The Other Side Academy, who does some extraordinary work. So tell us one, how you connected there. And then what you found as you started to engage with their approach, a really interesting approach in terms of people who've been in and out of the prison system.
AS: Yeah, well, it's one of my favorite stories to tell. I think when we met I might have had tears in my eyes because I was so moved by the whole community. I learned about The Other Side Academy, through actually just an acquaintance. I think I met him once before, won't mention his name. But he now works in the governor's office. And we reconnected at, it's actually an interesting thing called the Faith Angle Forum, which tries to equip journalists to report more intelligently and with nuance on religion and religious communities, kind of give them a theological language. And it was in that context, he heard about what I was doing professionally, and I talked about all this character, this, you know, exploration, I was traveling everywhere. And he said, You know what, you have to come out to Utah, for many reasons, not least of which is the beauty and the wonderful social capital we have out here. But my wife and I, he said, we recently moved homes in state and we just had this incredible moving experience with this company that was so much more than a moving company. And we found it because they had, like, five-star Yelp reviews. And every review was not just praising their punctuality and comprehensiveness and how well they took care of our things. But also just some deeper qualities that you don't usually see in a corporate compliments. And turns out, we had the best move experience of our life. Turns out they're the number one rated moving company in Utah. And when we found out more about them, they're this group of former criminals, some of whom have spent up to 20 years in jail or prison, and most of those served 5, 10 years.
So anyway, he said all this and I didn't know much more than that. But I was immediately intrigued. So bought a ticket and went to Salt Lake City and spent a couple of days. The whole thing, I ate there, saw their way of life, a bunch of the students took me around. And I will say, I walked in the door. And the very first moment I shook hands with some of the students, I almost had to look away, you know. I'm coming in as sort of a journalist in this mode. And I'm meant to be just pure inquiry and take it all in. But as a human being there, frankly, I just don't think I've ever felt more morally humbled in my life. Like just the level of eye contact, self-respect, humility, respect for me, just like so much integrity combined with a desire to serve one another in this very tight-knit, very unique community. It's hard to describe, but I was like, I don't meet anyone in the real world, in the so-called free world beyond these halls who comport themselves this way. I feel like I'm seeing, you know, something from a previous time.
So it's basically an amazing rehabilitation community for men and women who've spent time in and out of jail. And they'll say things like, you know, the problem that our population faces is not fundamentally addiction, it's fundamentally disconnection. And they, through a series of principles and actually very physical monuments, like they had this bench that you come into and sit down on when you're being interviewed. That bench is both a symbol to your beginning to your to your life, their life of hard knocks, of peer-to-peer accountability, of hard work. But anytime say, you incur an infraction, you disobey the rules, you're sent back to that bench as a kind of purgatory, where you get to reconsider whether you want to go back to your life on the streets, or really embrace this future. They have these rituals that they call games, which doesn't sound fun to me, but just like really hardcore accountability, where the students really get in one another's faces over — they all observe each other in close quarters every day. And I think it's once a week or maybe once every two weeks, they all come together in a group. And it's, you know, it's gradated by freshmen to seniors, so people who have different levels of experience inside this community. And they correct one another. And they both encourage and exhort when they feel like one of them has really — their view is like, I mean, the religious way of putting it may be that sin breaks relationships, but that any sort of any way in which you try to go back to your former life, or tried to take a short cut around our rules here, or they maybe talk to a member of the opposite sex during hours when you're not really not supposed to be doing that, all of that actually breaks like the transcendent norms of the community. And it's hurting relationships. So they kind of go at each other and they call it 200 percent accountability.
So I could go on, but I think what struck me about it, aside from just watching physically, people's lives change, and if you look at before and after photos of people who come in as freshmen, and then people who leave as seniors, or who choose to stay on a little longer, even their countenance is so changed. It was just amazing to be in a place of where had at one point in their lives been so obviously broken, and I sort of believe we're all broken, but they're the most dramatic instances of that, who are now in this community that is so morally coherent. And it's like the community of The Other Side Academy, as compared to the mainstream world, is profoundly morally self-confident as a community because they have a set of ideals beyond themselves they've all agreed to submit to. And yet each individual is very, they know who they are in the community. But they're quite humble as individuals, and they don't deny who they once were. So that combination of individual humility and communal moral self-confidence was just, I want to take them to every organization and just have them teach the world.
BM: Exactly. I remember there was one city council meeting as they were trying to expand their facility there. And one of the members of the council just couldn't quite wrap their head around, you know, having all of these people who had been, you know, in and out of prison over and over and over, people who, you know, normally couldn't, you know, stay out of a fight inside a prison for 15 minutes. And the council person said, So, you're telling me that all these people, there's no guards, there's no security, there's no camera, there's no shackles, there's no solitary confinement room, and you're telling me all of these people are just going to work and do the right thing and show great character? And Joseph Grenny said, Yes. And she said, Well, how can I possibly believe that, what do you do to get them to do this? And Joseph just didn't even miss a beat. He said, We asked them. And it was that idea that when we ask them to live with character, people do have that innate, and then as you said, Anne, in terms of creating a culture that supports that, really is transformative.
Let's look at some of the other organizations that you explored. And maybe in the context of this, you can share maybe some of those key elements that you found in organizations that are really creating that kind of transformation through character. To me it was fascinating to go through just the range of organizations that you explored as you were pursuing this.
AS: Yeah, I really cast a wide net, which at times felt like I was drowning in a Pacific Ocean. But the underlying premise is that we're always being formed, character doesn't stop being developed at age 18, and so every place that we spend time, and devote our energy and have relationships and give of ourselves is a chance to be chiseled. So therefore, I felt like I kind of had to look everywhere, including workplaces, and including even some for-profit companies in sort of a separate conversation. But I went to hundreds of places both regionally, and organizations across almost every sector and just decided to feature a limited group that I thought embodies what it meant to be a community of character that was itself its own sort of city on a hill, even as each of the individuals who felt a member of that community, be it a school, company, a rehab community. I had to be a little sensitive to today's philanthropic default question, which is always does it scale? So I was looking at also like, is there anything out there that I believe could be effective that scales?
And so some of the others include a place called the Oaks Academy that is just a very unique school that combines both a classical education, this is an Indianapolis, with a highly diverse student body. So it's like diverse socioeconomically, and racially, ethnically, and they really excel in forming habits of virtue formation. And they kind of do this by way of an underlying philosophy that says, each child is a person, they don't come in as blank slates, beauty is really important. You do not engage in behavioral manipulation, you sort of capture their desires and their innate affections.
There's another organization that in some ways is more of a logic of neighboring then really just a nonprofit. It's called Community Renewal International. And it's gone global. And it started in Shreveport, Louisiana, one of the most historically very racially-tense parts of the South, and through sort of intentional, what the founder, Mack McCarter, calls a system of relationships, where you have — it's kind of a reincarnation of the settlement house movement of the early 20th century, if you know that. But there's like block leaders on every street that take responsibility for social occasions, and reaching out to neighborhoods across town, everyone in the city of Shreveport. Not everyone, but it's like a city of a little over 300,000 and right now I think something like 52 to 55,000 residents identify as part of the We Care team, which sounds maybe a little like Oprah. But it's actually a very real identity of people feeling like they are civically engaged, they care about the future of their city, they care about one another, there's just a highly civically healthy atmosphere that's emerged. And so they didn't come to me saying, Oh, we're a character-building organization. But I discovered them because I was also interested in sort of social fabric repair. And they just have a deep, deep philosophy that suggests you're never formed alone. And it was just neat to see both kids, whole families, adults of all ages transformed by learning to trust and relate to those very differently from them, learning to serve one another.
So anyway, those are just a few examples of narratives of organizations that are teased out in the book. But in the midst of all of it, I started to hear this like repeated, patterned vocabulary in terms of how many of the leaders of these organizations, or even participants, be they employees or people who are being served by the organization, how they spoke about the underlying logic. And I just thought, well, this is so interesting. Those organizations that people really come to trust, that have a healthy culture, that in their own way start to form what someone once called a beloved community, they have certain things in place. And I decided to enshrine them in a set of questions that I secretly hope might go viral a little bit, but questions that both donors — I'm trying to give donors better questions to ask as their grantees to evaluate what is actually building people's character and what isn't, instead of just like measuring how much grit someone has. So trying to give them more of an institutional vocabulary. But I also hope these questions might help a leader like Joseph Grenny, or actually there's an interest from people in Congress, to the religious community, anyone who's in a position of overseeing a community that cares both to draw and sustain the goodwill and the best efforts of the members, but also form them. I just found these characteristics in common, and I'm hoping that people can find them usable. So we can go through them.
BM: Yes, let's do that. I'm really fascinated to hear how you landed on these 16 questions in particular, because one, I think they're powerful, not only in terms of someone who's looking to donate philanthropic dollars toward a good cause. But as I went through them I started thinking, Okay, am I doing this at home? Am I doing this at work? Am I doing this in my faith community? These are great questions for really the character and the culture of any organization. But particularly if you're in an organization that's really trying to make a difference. So let's dive in. Let's go through the first four maybe kind of rapid-fire and then maybe an example here and there. Let's start with No. 1 one there.
AS: Yeah, so No. 1 is probably the fanciest word I use. I call it telah, which is just trying to get at the profound why. I asked like, does your organization have a clear, strong reason for existing in the world that's embraced and pursued by all of its members? Does it give its members organizing criteria for what to love? So this is kind of paramount. And I think it's actually true for individuals thinking about their moral commitments, like, Who do you marry, what career path do you want to go down? You know, what do you believe? But I think in general in society these days, and I'm not really allowed to pontificate. But there is a bit of a telah crisis, a lot of people go about very busy days, not really understanding the underlying why. And I even think nationally you see a huge poverty of fluency, or even certainly poverty of agreement on what is the reason, you know, what animates the U.S.? And people disagree on that, which is fine, but I think there needs to be like a deep probing into any sort of collective, why do we exist?
And I try to give examples later on in the book, when I flesh out each of these questions of here's a strong why. And they tends to, in my experience, it tends to be frankly, especially, I would say faith-based organizations tend to have kind of a leg up in this realm because they're naturally oriented to think about the transcendent aim more than just a secular organization. But I still think it applies to like, even a GE or Allstate Insurance or something. Mission statements are part of it. But it goes to like a deeper sense of this is what — like Wake Forest University will say, We exist to cultivate the whole person. And then you get into, well, what do you mean by that? But sort of everyone who's hired there, any student who applies there, even custodial staffers in their interviews, they have flooded all of their institutional decision-making with that as the overarching end. And I think if they didn't have that, I mean, I talked to many colleges and college presidents. And it's sort of immediately obvious when, and especially universities kind of struggling with a strategy or should it buy this land or, you know, name, your issue. It becomes very obvious if they don't actually know who they are.
BM: Yeah, that's right. And I think understanding that why is so vital, and it leads to that culture, as you said with the college, for even the custodial staff to understand the compelling why. We always joke around here that culture eats strategy for breakfast. You can you have a great strategy, but without a real compelling why in a culture, it just doesn't go. All right. Let's look at No. 2. Second question.
AS: I call it liturgies and rituals. Is there a covenant or creed that is affirmed regularly as a community in word and deed? Are there communal rhythms, routines and rituals? So kind of alluded to this with The Other Side Academy, but that's a perfect example. They have these regular kind of accountability sessions, they have actual physical sort of symbols that are part of every student in the whole community's life. The bench, the bridge when they graduate to the outer world. There's a certain, I think, regular affirmation of the 12 beliefs that permeate The Other Side Academy. So that's an example. You know, there's some colleges, again these would tend to maybe have some faith or sacred flavor to them, or sacred origin, but they might have like a chapel every week where the whole campus comes together and flows together. You know, honestly, this is maybe a dumb example. But like Southwest Airlines — Southwest Airlines is actually a very interesting for profit company when it comes to character. But a very obvious example is the military. And in fact, early on in a lot of this work, my three main sort of institutions of inspiration to think about character formation, historically, was the U.S. military, was the church and all of its variations or religious institutions generally, and was sort of communities for those who have been very deeply broken, whether through addiction or through whatever. And the military is, you know, you've got taps, you honor your fellow comrades who have fallen in a certain kind of way. There's like, it's thick with ritual. So a lot of these questions try to get at not just what shapes culture, but how particular, how thick is your organization with intentional symbols that would show the outsider what you're about.
BM: So questions 3 and 4 really play into that same space in terms of the full engagement. Tell me just a little bit more about this power of the particular. What is that?
AS: Yeah, so that, early on I wasn't sure that should be included, because it doesn't seem necessarily moral in nature. Maybe it comes out a little bit of situating this project in our modern times, where, you know, everything can be a little relativistic and anything goes and you don't want to ever be exclusive, you know, all of those kind of cultural pressures, I guess you could say. And I was just struck by that may be the times we live in. And there are times to be really inclusive and that's great. But I was struck by the communities where people feel most attached and where they feel like — this camp, for instance, had a huge impact on me. I went for 15 summers in a row. Or this Dutch Reformed community, you know, we did potlucks every week, there's a whole series of lingo, there's, you know, frankly, the LDS Church, and the military falls into this again. I happen myself to have gone to a college that I meet people from my alma mater today, and it's very easy to identify them as, Oh, you know, you're a Wheatie. And there are some colleges that, whereas if some who went to, say, Michigan State, or, even if you identify with a sports team, it's not necessarily as obvious. So there's just something here about those institutions that are self-confident in who they are, tend to be willing to stick out a little bit and either make some truth claims, or just be willing even to be a little bit odd or countercultural. And people actually want that if they're going to stick to it, and not let it be sort of the water that runs over you in our anything-goes world.
BM: For sure. I want to jump to a couple of because I want to drill down on these and it's questions 9, 10 and 11, because you get into this element of struggle and growth, vulnerability and accountability, and then reflection. Because it's just a really interesting axis there, including that, we often talk about it in terms of courageous vulnerability. And so tell us about kind of that set of three in terms of struggle and growth, the vulnerability and accountability, which does take some courage, and then that ability to reflect.
AS: In talking to many, many, many people early on in this I would ask them, like, how has your character been shaped, and people from all walks of life, high, low, medium, you know, just whoever as human beings, and they would invariably tell me a story or a set of stories. And I started, again, to notice a pattern. And again, this isn't science, this is journalism. And the pattern was, when they talked about how their character was shaped they would mention three ingredients somehow in their story. One would be a loving authority figure at an impressionable time of their lives. The second was an experience of struggle or suffering that forever after marked them. And then the third was a growing awareness at some point in their lives of a context greater than themselves that they wanted to serve. And I think with, especially with that second one, it's sort of tried and true psychology, it's true moral philosophy that you can't grow without pain to some degree.
Change, as a human being, usually involves some degree of pain, small or large. And you know, there are, of course, instances of people living hermit lives, or at various points in history, who have grown and we do grow alone. But the idea here behind trying to encourage organizations or certain kinds of communities to provide a space for your struggles to be given voice to, in the context of a group that not only listens to it, and kind of can help you interpret it, but also both correct you like they do at The Other Side Academy or, you know, gives you a reason for hope, helps you find an alternative pathway. Organizations that kind of provide base for that, it immediately opens the horizon for you to grow safely, and likely in a discerned sort of, in a healthy way, versus just spiraling out into the abyss of your own thoughts. So whether you're talking about 12 step programs, obviously AA has this like from the beginning of their model to integrate this, or I think it probably looks differently in a big multinational corporation, you need to be careful because there are — actually I wonder sometimes if these questions, they've received interest from the corporate world, but I think especially these three you noticed — struggle and growth, vulnerability and accountability, and reflection. I sometimes wonder, are these all a little bit too rooted in a familial metaphor? Like, do these only working in family like contexts? Not so much how do you deal with the boundaries between personal and professional?
So that's an issue of what civil sphere we're talking about. But I do think everyone longs — safety is a word that's gotten bandied about by both the right and left in the last couple of years, and so I was hesitant to use it. But I think this issue of do you feel like you can trust the people around you to respond to a moment when you're not fully confident that you've made the right choice? I just think we all need these guides in your weakest moments.
BM: That's right. And I actually think we will save this conversation for another day. But I do believe every organization, whether it's for profit or not, or helping in the community, whatever it is, I think they all can go through those questions in a significant way. And as we come down the homestretch here, I want to ask you two final questions. And first is, you know, what surprised you in this process? What was your aha moment as you took on this massive project, that I know you invested countless hours and a whole lot of traveling. What was surprising to you, what was the, oh my gosh, this could actually make a difference, moment?
AS: I mean, on a more discouraging note, I would say that an early surprise was that character is a very loaded word. And I think that's fair. But I didn't expect it to be such a controversial space. So whether the divides are happening along left and right, between men and women, whether you were a WASP who was harking back to a Boy Scouts era. Boy Scouts still exists, but there's baggage associated with character as being sort of stream form of colonialism, if you're talking to certain people, but also sort of a little more mildly, a form of forcing cultural forcing cultural assimilation to a certain kind of culture, like a narrow cultural view of what the good life is. So it turns out, you know, we're in a very moral materialistic time, and I sort of anticipated that, but I would make some phone calls and people would respond really harshly, like, Oh, I don't like that word character, it's so judgmental. Or it's religiously imperialistic or, anyway. So that was a surprise in kind of a, oh, dear, I have my work cut out for me, how do I redeem the word and should it be redeemed?
But then on the flip side, there is a huge and I think this is just very human, but particularly today, I live in D.C., we don't exactly have really like morally uplifting discourse being perpetuated by a variety of public leaders, or frankly, big institutions. I'm not going to blame the media on this show. But, you know, I think people are feeling so pressured and tribalism has strengthened, that there's just not a lot of edifying moral clarity or moral uplift. And yet, if you can speak to the human, the sort of soul's longing to seek goodness, and to be in harmony with one's neighbor, and to be stretched and to learn new things. I was just, I was surprised at how once I was able to get past the word wars around character, how many people right now feel like this is so timely, and that whether we're talking about communities that shape character, whether we're talking about helping people with mental health, like there's so many ways in which there's pain in the country right now. And pain is purifying. And there's something about moral longing that people want. They want to have conversations about their own, and how they could maybe foster an environment that encourages that moral longing to grow. And so, you know, some will suggest religion as an answer. Some will suggest national service for everyone as an answer. But there's like this physical awakening, there's very little complacency, I would say. And that was really encouraging
BM: The last thing we do on this show is "Therefore, What?" So people have been listening to us for 25 minutes now, and they're going to read your book, "The Fabric of Character." What's the "Therefore, What"" that you hope people will take away from this? How do you hope they will think different? What do you hope they'll do different as a result of listening today? And as a result of reading "The Fabric of Character"?
AS: Yeah, well, thank you. Gosh, I just hope that something about the stories in the book and maybe these questions resonate, even if no one has ever been to The Other Side Academy or the notion that rituals are a good thing that we actually all have in our lives in different forms, is somehow what has been written here, which is really, in some ways, I don't feel it's my book. It's just a mirror to the most inspirational moral exemplars institutionally and individually I found out there. I hope that people find resonance with their own context. And then can like turn their eye to their own context, be they politicians or company leaders, or a cleaning woman, or a mom or a dad or coach or grandparent or name your role. And we all likely have multiple roles in society, that we would look at those roles and the institutions or community organizations that they find their life within, and be more considerate. That they would generate in us sort of a practical ability to answer these 16 questions better. That's sort of on the individual reader level.
And then more broadly, obviously, I would love to see kind of a self-confident movement, for lack of a better word, or community really of the owners, doers and thinkers kind of come around these questions and see them as not prescriptive but very indicational, that they would see them as a fresh way to understand the good. That you don't have to be cynical about the good or think it's all G-rated. But that ultimately we all desire to be part of communities that give us a sense of meaning, and that requires something of us to invite us to our highest selves and that people could creatively figure out how to sow a fresh moral ecosystem for our timeComment on this story
BM: Anne Snyder, author of "Fabric of Character." Thanks so much for joining us today on "Therefore, What?" Remember after the story is told, after the principle is presented, after the discussion and debate have been had, the question for all of us is "Therefore, What"? Don't miss an episode, subscribe to this podcast on Apple podcast or wherever you're listening today and be sure to rate this episode and leave us a review. Follow us on Deseretnews.com/tw and subscribe to our newsletter. This is Boyd Matheson, opinion editor for the Deseret News, thanks for engaging with us on "Therefore, What?"