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Scott Heiferman and Jeremy Heimans

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We Are the Stimulus

Posted: 03/12/09 09:56 PM ET

America today is like someone with 1,000 friends on Facebook but none to really turn to in a time of crisis. A nation in crisis needs community. To weather the current storm, people need more than the support of tax cuts and stimulus cash. To restore confidence and surface new economic opportunities, people need the support of each other. They need renewed community to re-imagine and build a new economy together.

This is not the Larry Summers plan. But it could help to address the psychological underpinnings of the crisis and make the stimulus stick.

While Washington works on policy, citizens have begun self-organizing solutions for themselves. Hundreds of women in DC, for example, have formed a support group called "Girls Just Wanna Have Funds". They gather regularly to hold each other accountable for managing their debt and to share strategies for getting through hard times. It works.

Local job-hunting groups are sprouting -- giving hope to the unemployed and sparking entrepreneurialism. Small business owners are inventing next-generation Chambers of Commerce -- gathering to provide advice and save local commerce. Parents are inventing next-generation PTAs and playgroups -- some even providing mutual babysitting to to reduce the cost of child-care. Career groups, support groups and community groups of all sorts are forming with a "do-it-ourselves" spirit to help people find a new path in a new economy.

These groups could be the beginnings of a major social phenomenon. They're using the internet to get off the internet and form a 21st century civil society. They mark a reinvention of a social institution that has been rapidly disappearing since the 1950s -- the local community group.

At the same time, another larger cultural trend is pushing us in the opposite direction. Today we're more connected but less connected. We avoid strangers and distrust institution. We retreat to our screens and stay in online echo chambers where we don't have to find much common ground. The gratification of aimless distraction and self-expression fills our time.

We're not yet building enough enduring community strength we can count on, the new forms of durable organization to improve our lives, towns, schools, economies, and businesses. This requires more than just friends and family or classifieds -- it requires self-organized new local institutions and community spaces where people can meet, interact, share connections, roll up their sleeves and build strong groups. These groups -- and the community and infrastructure they provide -- help us to restore each other's confidence, dial down economic anxiety and give each other the courage to take risks.

With a relatively modest effort, the Obama administration can take the current uptick in self-organized community groups in response to the crisis -- and the enthusiasm for the idea of community organizing that the president himself has sparked -- and turn it into a major revival of community in this country. We need to make it easier for people to self-organize into local groups around what's important to them.

To do this, we need to face a very practical barrier to the proliferation of such groups: America simply doesn't have a great, quiet place for a group to meet! (This is a key learning from the millions of meetings hosted by self-organized groups on Meetup.com.) Starbucks, homes, and old municipality or religious space often don't cut it. We need thousands of 21st century community centers -- places where local groups can meet to build community together.

Retail space is cheap and abundant in many parts of the country because of the crisis. Now's the perfect time to offer grants to local entrepreneurs who can turn some of this space into financially viable meeting venues -- call them Organizing Centers -- for community groups of all kinds (from job-hunting groups to learning groups). Local businesses can service this new activity and make them vibrant. In many places, these centers would help create a public square where none exists.

At the same time, the government can provide seed funding and an incentive for citizens to start and grow a local group. We propose a program of micro grants (between $200 and $1,000) to anyone who is running or wants to start a community group of any kind -- not just a service organization. The test should simply be this -- if a group has an earnest purpose to help people support each other through this crisis, that's service enough.

President Obama -- for now -- has the capacity to help trigger real cultural realignments. As the president has said, at moments of national crisis we need to do more than just tell people to go shopping. Now it's time for the Community Organizer-In-Chief to tell the American people to turn to each other and go Organizing.