UnRival Spaces:
"Join or Die" with Pete Davis

A Discussion with Pete Davis & Billy Price
At our recent unRival Spaces event, author and filmmaker Pete Davis joined our Creative Director, Billy Price, for a discussion about his film, Join or Die!

Pete, the producer/director behind Join or Die and author of the acclaimed book Dedicated, is a recipient of the 2024 unRival Award presented as part of our Film Lab.

Watch the recording above and read the transcript below for the full conversation with Pete and Billy, where they talk about the making of the film and the hope they have for a world of true belonging and community.

Join or Die is a film about why you should join a club — and why the fate of America may depend on it. The film explores questions like: What makes democracy work? Why is American democracy in crisis? And, most importantly…what can we do about it?

The poster of the documentary "Join or Die"

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

SR-square
Suzanne

Today, we are thrilled to welcome Pete Davis, producer and director of the new documentary Join or Die. During this election year in the US, we are being told from all sides that the fate of democracy hangs in the balance, which is driving many of us to take sides. In Join or Die, Pete speaks with his mentor, social scientist Robert Putnam, and others about the dire state of American democracy. But without panicking or taking sides, they look at how we got here and ask the best question of all: what can we do about it? The solution surprised and delighted me. I hope it brings you the same sense of hope and possibility. I think you’ll understand why we gave Join or Die the first annual unRival Award this year at Justice Film Festival, as it shows the beauty, difficulty and value of pursuing justice and peace without rivalry or violence.

In addition to being a filmmaker and former student of Robert Putnam, Pete Davis is the author of Dedicated: The Case for Commitment in an Age of Infinite Browsing. He is also cofounder of the Democracy Policy Network, a policy organization focused on raising up ideas that deepen democracy.

Nashville, USA
Billy

I’m one of the few people in this room who’s had the privilege of watching your film Pete. I’m almost a student of your film. I’ve seen it more than two times now. You talk about the film as, very simply, a film that is begging you to join a club. But it’s about so much more than that. Can you give us a sense of what to expect from the film and the areas that you delve into?

Headshot of Pete Davis, director of "Join or Die."
Pete

A lot of people put the call to action of their documentaries at the end of the movie. They have 95% of the movie be a problem, and then, right at the end, they’re like, “Oh, by the way, you should do something about it!” We wanted to flip that on its head by having our call to action right at the front of the movie and also be the mystery of the movie. “This is a film about why you should join a club, and why the fate of America depends on it.” We wanted the movie to be an elaborate argument for why that sentence should make sense to you. 

That argument kind of comes in three parts. The first is about how community is connected with societal flourishing, and it follows the story of this political scientist named Robert Putnam, who originally got into this work by studying local governments in Italy. And he was trying to find out why some local governments succeed and some fail. And he did a 20 year study of this. 

He found that the most significant factor in making a local government succeed and not just the thriving of the locale, generally: better health, better educational outcomes, stronger economy, less tension, more peace, more equality, etc. He found that it wasn’t the design of the Constitution. It wasn’t necessarily the economy, it wasn’t the education levels. It wasn’t any particular ideology. It was the amount of ordinary neighbor to neighbor interactions and organizations in the community: Bachi clubs, choruses, local newspaper reading, people participating in local government. Ordinary civic life was the most significant thing. 

When he brought that message back to America, he found this kind of sad, tragic story that made him famous through his book Bowling Alone. He found that, over the last 50 years, there’s been a huge decline in civic life on almost all measures, from participating in political parties and movements to participating in unions and congregations to participating in civic associations, to ordinary informal interactions like picnics and having people over for dinner—all of that we were doing more 50 years ago! 

If this stuff is really important to societal flourishing, what naturally follows if you have a giant decline in civic engagement and community connections is a giant set of public problems that might arise like what we’re seeing around us today. The third act of the movie is all about how we can turn that around; what’s it going to take to rejuvenate community in America? Starting with each of us joining and creating clubs, but also looking through the community building at all the different sectors of our world and saying, “How can we design this—our health system, our education system, our economic system—for more community connection?” So that it is more hospitable to the stuff that makes democracy work? How can we make ordinary community connections? 

So that’s the message of the film. And we’ve been excited kind of going around America, having these conversations with people, asking “What does community mean to you? How have you seen it work? How can we rejuvenate community in your neck of the woods?”

Nashville, USA
Billy

You also made this film with a collaborator in your sister, Rebecca, who I was able to meet at the Justice Film Festival when we gave the award. So you’ve known Bob since you were in college, you’ve known Rebecca since you were kids (obviously). I’m curious about those relationships. What’s it like saying, let’s make a movie together, let’s go on this storytelling adventure? 

Because, it’s funny, I’ve noticed you do see a lot of sibling filmmaking teams, and I think [it makes sense] because you have to really have baked in, really simpatico and in the same vibe. You have to make 10,000 decisions together. I think sometimes the only way a partnership can work is if you literally are coming from the same place and have, like, blood connections. That helps you navigate through all the inevitable tensions

Headshot of Pete Davis, director of "Join or Die."
Pete

It also helped that we were kind of each bringing our own corner to the movie making process. I’ve worked in civics and community building the last 10 years, and my sister has worked the last 10 years in documentary and storytelling. But I also love movies, and she also loves civics. So we were able to bring that together.

Nashville, USA
Billy

[Rebecca] shared with me that, working at MSNBC, she felt she was really engaged in the symptoms of civic decline in America and really motivated to start talking about solutions. But what brought you to civics, and to the point of saying, “I want to invest my life in finding solutions for what ails us?”

Headshot of Pete Davis, director of "Join or Die."
Pete

You know, from the beginning of the movie, we loved this Henry David Thoreau quote, where he says, “Thousands are striking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” It’s important to work on all the branches of evil, encouragement to all people fighting all the particular problems across the country. But sometimes, you reach a point as a country and in your own life journey where you have to step back and say, oh, there’s so much going on here. There must be a connection between all of this. And if we only keep striking at the symptoms, we might not be able to solve this.

The word “radical” actually means “at the root.” And so when you say we need radical change, it doesn’t necessarily mean extremist, violent change. It just means you want to look towards the root of some symptoms. And that’s something that has always been inspiring to me. Part of the reason I’m into civics is because I took Bob’s class 13 years ago. And Bob doesn’t seem like it, because his demeanor is very hunky dory, but he’s kind of a radical thinker; he’s trying to find the roots of our problems.

The story of community and isolation, belonging and loneliness is not the only major thing going on in this country. But it is definitely one of the major things. And we felt like so many people, in the kind of darkness we’re all feeling in the last 10 years in this country, are looking for a first place to start a path forward. [So in this film] we don’t want you to just become more aware of the problem, but also that the root inspires a solution. Maybe the reason we keep running into dead ends is that all the solutions to the symptoms of the problem involve individual or what some might call “technocratic” experts—like some people in New York or Washington or San Francisco solve the problem, or it’s a problem we can solve through a consumer product or an app. Something we do alone. Maybe none of those are working because the actual flip-switch we have to make is understanding that, if we keep going it alone, we’re never going to solve these problems. 

We wanted to boil that down to something really concrete. You can talk about that abstractly and say, we need to be more solidaristic, we need to have more of a “we” society, we need to participate in community. We wanted to ask, “Okay, well, what is the basic unit of community?” And the basic unit is a civic organization. That’s why…this is a film about why you should join a club. You eventually have to join something. People will say, “I just don’t know, every time I hear something bad on the news, I keep thinking there’s nothing I can do alone to solve this.” And I’m here to say, you are absolutely correct! There’s not much you can do alone to solve this. But there’s a whole lot that you can do together to solve it! And the process of doing it together is itself a huge part of the solution.

Nashville, USA
Billy

Wow. You just reminded me of our last unRival Spaces guest, Libby Hoffman, who has a book called The Answers are There. As in, how do we put people together in constructive ways? We shouldn’t be looking for answers coming from New York or DC or San Francisco or from some external system imposed upon either an African nation or an under-resourced community in the States. I can be very skeptical about some of these big ideas like, “join a club, the fate of the nation depends on it.” Your film is opening that up for me. What happens when you not just join the club, but stick with it?

Headshot of Pete Davis, director of "Join or Die."
Pete

That line is one of the funny things about Bob. And one thing we tried to capture in the film is Bob’s spirit: all of this is said with this kind of lightness, very sincere, but with a little bit of ironic humor to it: the grand answer might be very small, something that seems not so serious, you know? 

That was one thing we wanted to capture in the motto, which is, “This a film about why you should join a club and why the fate of America depends on it.” That can’t be true, you know? The fate of America depends on what’s happening at the Federal Reserve, or what’s happening in Congress or big ideas you hear at TED talks or something like that! We wanted to say, no, it might actually be in the place we’re not looking because we’re not taking it seriously enough. And that’s funny, isn’t it? That the Elks Lodge might hold the answer.

In so many wisdom traditions there’s this kind of topsy turvy stuff. In the Christian tradition, for example: you mean to tell me the Son of God is born in a manger? What are you talking about? That’s the spirit we wanted to capture. And as you say, yeah, the joining itself is not where the magic happens. It’s that you join, and then that becomes a free space where surprise happens. New things are created, you have these friends you never knew you had, you feel a deeper connection to the place, you are part of new ideas, trust is built in surprising ways. Over time, other clubs sprout up because they want to have what you’re having. And suddenly you have a state convention of all the clubs that are like that. And suddenly that state convention takes an opinion on some big thing that’s happening in the country and becomes a political powerhouse. You never know.

Nashville, USA
Billy

You’re helping me see that a lot of my skepticism comes from thinking I need an answer that shows it all to me ahead of time. But a lot of times, I just need a simple way of starting to move, and then surprises happen.

One of the notes that I made about the film is that it has a levity to it. I’m curious how you arrived at this. The film is dealing with some weighty subjects and ideas and some really difficult experiences that people are having, like isolation or outbreaks of violence. But it manages to kind of come back to being really light-hearted with the illustrations you use and things like that. And in the midst of that Bob has this kind of spirituality, this “holy fool” thing to him where he’s really working with sort of sacred ideas and human connection and then he’ll just kind of chuckle and make fun of himself and it was just a really great model to me of how, sometimes, we take these things so seriously when, actually, simple ways of being together can lead to really powerful moments, powerful acts.

Headshot of Pete Davis, director of "Join or Die."
Pete

I really appreciate you noticing that! We told ourselves we wanted to make this movie a rip-roaring ride about the saddest thing. It’s a movie about how we’re all lonely, we’re all isolated, our country is falling apart, there’s no feeling of a future ahead of us. And then we filled it with bright colors, a lot of jokes, a kind of protagonist that has a buoyancy to him. And, you know, flipping a happy story to the front, instead of the sad story. It’s a story about joining, not a story about not joining. That’s only in the middle.

In many ways this was inspired by how Bob connected with people. We’re not making Bob go viral; Bob went viral in the late 90s and early 2000s with his book, fully loaded, sold millions of copies, because it had a similar spirit. And we wanted to kind of translate that. I think part of Bob’s legacy is that he was able to be a great translator of our current moment, to get to the deeper ideas that have gone silent. He’s talking about the deepest spiritual ideas: community belonging, what it means to be a “we” society instead of an “I” society. We have people at the high point of our hyper-isolation—like in the 80s and 90s and 2000s and today—who are preaching that, but they’re not connecting with people. 

And the way Bob did it was he used the language of the local time we’re in. He said, “This is actually called social capital, I have some graphs to show you (we’re in a time of graphs and capital) and you know, you need an expert to come explain to you why it’s good for your health, why it might help our systems function.” That’s the language of our time. He has these interesting graphs and you’re like, “Well, I trust graphs, we’re in the age of experts and things like that, and he’s a social scientist.” You come in because of that, it opens the door and invites you in, but you walk out and it’s like you’ve had a revolution of the heart. And that’s good evangelism of a deep idea: you have to speak the language of the time we’re in. 

We’re in a time where spiritual rhetoric has kind of gone silent a bit. He was able to sneak it back in the door with what he did. I think that’s because he has credibility as a social scientist and as a person who thinks deeply about this stuff. And you know, he was friends with Britain’s lead Rabbi, he talks with faith leaders all the time. We show him meeting the pope in our movie. It was kind of like showing the people on the Borderlands are the people who can get through.

Nashville, USA
Billy

That’s so true. I don’t know Bob, but he strikes me in the film as someone who cares deeply. And so while he’s doing charts and graphs, and he’s the social expert and all that, he’s speaking very personally. He speaks over and over again of a longing I have. I can’t imagine, if you live in America today, that you’re not feeling some degree of isolation or disconnect, or have fragmented and fractured, “how do we put it all together” sort of feelings. These are deeply human feelings; we long for not just, you know, a spouse, we long for a village, and he’s sensitive to that, even as he’s using words like social capital. Those aren’t opposed things. There’s sort of the surface, and the deeper thing.

Headshot of Pete Davis, director of "Join or Die."
Pete

It’s hard! We wanted to capture this in the movie. He goes on this road show, showing his graphs to everyone, appearing on Crossfire on CNN, talking about all the data, but then later he’s getting letters from people across the country telling him stories about how their parents were part of the Rotary Club, or how, when they were growing up, they felt like they had a village and now they don’t, or they wonder if they failed at passing along a community spirit to their kids.

So it’s a very strange—in the best sense of the term—connection, as you said, between the deepest feelings and the data. And this is kind of the goal of any filmmaker or book writer, anyone creating art or any message. I had to learn this the hard way; I used to think dumbly that, you know, the point of creating some piece of content is you’re trying to pour information into the reader’s or the viewer’s brain. So you need to organize the information in a logical way, and then you pour it into their brain, and it’s succeeded if they walk away knowing what you knew before you shared it with them. 

But that’s not how it works at all. The experience you have when watching a movie is you, personally, as the viewer, bringing together all of your past experiences that the creator knows nothing about. And you engage, and that leads you on your own personal journey through it, and you exit a changed person, and it’s got little to do with the information that was poured into your head. It’s about the experience.

You know, if I was being Divinity School about this, it’s like the liturgical experience of what you brought, and what the art brought, and then you walk away changed. We wanted the movie to be a little bit of, like, “infotainment,” but also a little bit of you, as the viewer, just forced to sit and meditate for 90 minutes. That’s why I kind of like the length of movies in the quiet of a movie theatre; you just have to sit and go through this meditative experience of asking, “What is community in my life? Am I part of any clubs? Am I aware of how much it’s brought to my life and how I need to spread that spirit.” It’s been so wonderful. That’s why it’s so great. I’m so excited when people watch the film, and then they come up with me and tell me about their journey that I could have never known because I didn’t know what they brought to it.

Nashville, USA
Billy

That brings up something else I’ve really appreciated in the film, and in your book, Dedicated. You personally seem to be very aware that people are bringing their personal histories to the conversation. And so you never let yourself get too far down any one path, leaving someone behind. In Join or Die, for example, there’s a lot of comparisons between the 80s and 90s, then to the 50s and 60s, and you’re very clear in saying “The 60s might have had high enrollment and civic engagement and democracy might have been clicking pretty well. But we had some pretty serious problems. And we had some groups that were really left out.” So it’s not about going back to the way it used to be. But it is about appreciating maybe something that is in decline.

I just want to know, how do you think about this? What’s your philosophy around bringing potentially opposing ideas together, working towards a solution? The frankest way to say it is that you and I are both white guys, you know, trying not to get too far ahead of ourselves and assuming we have the complete perspective of things. I’ve just really appreciated your ability to do that. And I want to learn from you about your prerogative on keeping everyone’s voice at the table.

Headshot of Pete Davis, director of "Join or Die."
Pete

You know, we wanted to make this movie in a way that everyone could see themselves in the movie. That’s a challenge.

One of the things we’ve been learning in these national conversations over the last 10 years is there’s been a lot of talk about how you create tables that everyone can come to. It’s not as simple as saying, “We’re all coming equally to the table.” And not everyone gets equal time, because you have to account for the power people are bringing already. You have to account for the histories that weren’t told before. So we kept saying to ourselves, “You are only yourself; you are only the experiences you have.” And so you can’t fully know; you have to know what you don’t know. 

One of the practices I really like in Catholic tradition is the “preferential option for the poor,” which means you’re supposed to do the best you can do, in addition to bringing other voices in and leaving space for humility. You just have to meditate on the world through someone else’s eyes, as best you can, when you don’t have access to them being at the table or something. And so in addition to having a diverse team, that played a role in bringing this movie together, showing it to a lot of audiences. 

One thing we tried to do as we were making it, and especially as we were editing it, is we just said, “Okay, think of someone whose immigrant identity is really big to them. What would they be feeling at this point in the movie. What about someone who cares a great deal about Black History? What would they be feeling at this point in the movie?” I’m, you know, a fourth generation Democrat, so what would a Republican feel while watching this movie? We have political science and Washington insiders, we have Pete Buttigieg and Hillary Clinton and David Brooks in the movie; what would someone who’s kind of skeptical of insiders think about this? So we made sure there were “outsiders,” in the movie, kind of populist anti-elites. 

And then we just said, you know, we’re not going to be able to make something that’s perfect for everyone. Like, it’s not a whole movie for any of those specific groups, including mine and my sister’s. It’s not a movie just for people born in suburban Washington (like Garden State is). But can we have enough people that last through it and that say, you know, this person gave a little bit of thought to me? 

So we tried to make some decisions there. We had moments in the movie where we said, okay, what caused the decline in community over the last 50 years? A lot of people have a lot of different feelings about that. And then we said, okay, here’s some data Bob found, but Bob’s not confident. Here’s what Senator Mike Lee thinks about this. Here’s what a member of the Obama administration thinks about this. Here’s what a union organizer thinks about this. Here’s what Edie Glower, a great racial justice fighter, thinks about this. You have to sit through all those [perspectives], but hopefully one of those got close to something you were thinking and you felt part of this. 

When we were doing historical and contemporary examples of community, we wanted to show all the different types of community—and this is something that’s kind of a hobby horse of mine, which is, usually when we talk about justice or inclusion in the civic history of America, we usually say, “Okay, there’s a lot of white clubs, but for the sake of justice and inclusion, we’re going to show how some of those white clubs were bad.” And that is true, some of those white clubs were really bad. But in some ways that’s condescending and exclusionary to all the diverse clubs that were fighting those bad white clubs. So we kind of made a conscious choice to show some of the bad white clubs, but more importantly, to also show the black history of civic life. Let’s talk about all the congregations and NAACPs and women’s associations and suffragist associations and immigrant mutual aid associations and jazz clubs that not only fought all those [bad clubs] but were also totally incredible stories of empowerment and creativity and mutual aid that are under-told, so this isn’t just a lens of our own story and guilt about our story. It’s everyone’s story that they can all take pride in.

Nashville, USA
Billy

You mentioned the meditative process of experiencing a film. You’re also speaking to the meditative process of creating something. There’s a lot of content in this world, and it’s easy to make things quickly. It’s easy to spout your ideas on LinkedIn, or on your Instagram or whatever, you know. It’s easy for us to sit here on a podcast and just be like, “I think this, I think that.” But there’s real beauty in being able to slow down and meditate and take in some critical questions. We talk a lot at unRival about beautiful questions: what does it mean to ask a beautiful question? What effect does that have? And in many ways, sitting with a beautiful question that’s never even answered can be more powerful than any answer could ever, ever be. And so I just really appreciate that perspective. As we’re making something, we need to pause at stages throughout and reflect and ask ourselves some critical questions. It’s a real discipline to do that.

Headshot of Pete Davis, director of "Join or Die."
Pete

I’ve learned so much from this journey. This was my first rodeo making a film, and I’m always telling my sister–who has experienced this through her whole career, making stories that were trying to be something everyone could engage with. I’m like, “Oh my gosh, Becky, the whole process of this, it brightens your whole philosophy of everything!” It makes you really sit, the process of an editing room. It’s almost like a group therapy session. It’s almost like a deep reflection on what life is about or what the country is about.

I’ll get really concrete about this: the question of what B-roll to put over someone’s comment. 

Sometimes you have to be like, “Okay, we have a shot from the 70s? What are we going to put in to represent the 70s? All of the 70s?” Sitting with that raises so many questions about what life’s about. You can teach a whole theory of knowledge around the choice of shots in one documentary, to see what that says about that person and how that implicates different things. It’s a really wonderful process. You come out changed by making art, not just by watching it.

Nashville, USA
Billy

One of my hobby horses is that I really believe in amateurism, but that word has become a dirty word. I’m an artist, so I’m around a lot of artists, and even among artists you don’t want to be seen as an amateur. But…sometimes I just sit on my porch with my banjo, right? Extrapolate that out to whatever it is: I write poetry just for my kids, or for nobody, or I sing in choir at my church. And this starts to dovetail with community engagement, because once you start to do something on an amateur level, like knit or sing or something like that, you start to go where other people are doing this. But it’s not about making money. It’s not about getting your grand ideas out in front of the world to change everyone else. It’s a lifestyle, and it forms me, and I want to do it, but I also would like to do it in community, you know?

Headshot of Pete Davis, director of "Join or Die."
Pete

Amen. I gotta say, I’m so grateful for this conversation. Because on one level, our film is kind of this normal social issue documentary. And my sister and I have this kind of weird agenda behind it, which is just our artistic exploration of the spiritual crisis of our isolation and the spiritual excitement, strangeness, potential and surprise of civic life. Our opening scene is a guy at an Odd Fellows lodge showing all his tattoos of the [Lodge] symbol because, in some ways, this is a movie about a bunch of graphs about social science, but it’s also a movie about why someone would put a tattoo of a heart in a hand–one of the symbols of the Odd Fellows–on their arm, because that group means so much to them. 

So I just wanted to raise that in response to the question of amateurism. That totally, totally resonates with the message of the film, because one thing that’s great about civic life is it’s amateur, public life. It’s getting into this thinker named Ivan Ilich–he’s this kind of radical priest from the 60s and 70s. And he talks about how professional and commercial life is crowding out and paralyzing autonomous action. 

That’s a lot of big words. There’s a lot to unpack. But what he means by commercial life is, like, the world of buying and selling and corporations and advertisement, and the market and your career, and your job and your employment. Professional life. He means the world of experts and bureaucracies. “There’s a best practice of how we do this, and we’re going to instantiate it in a bureaucracy, and it’s going to do that”. 

He says we need a third area. He and some others have called it the commons. Others have called it “anarchic” areas, free areas. There’s all these different words for it. But it’s an area where, instead of asking, “Can I buy something to solve this problem? Can we bring an expert from a bureaucracy to legislate this problem?” We ask, what do we want to do about this problem? What’s our idea? What should we do with the street? What should we do with this club? How should we solve this problem in our town? Just giving enough space for someone to think a thought and share that thought with others and have them build on that thought. 

That’s what clubs are! From the most serious movements meeting in church basements to plan a rally and thinking about what they want this country to be, to the goofiest ones asking, “What songs do we want to play?” 

Or the decline of regional and local sports culture among adults, where you can experience baseball too! You are missing out on the full experience of baseball by not playing it, because you think that’s only for high school students. You know, Shohei Otani? “It’s not for me?” Because we don’t have this middle layer. But there used to be a huge culture of just playing it yourself. And you’ll never fully understand what Otani is doing until you fully play it yourself. We’re losing out when we don’t have regional sports leagues or regional bands or regional politics. We need more of that. Participation, amateurism, autonomous zones of action.

Nashville, USA
Billy

That’s so interesting. I mean, we call this unRival Spaces, and you’re talking about spaces of people have been able to come together and solve problems or create together. 

At unRival, the thing we talk about a lot is non-rivalry, you know. Your Illich quote calls to mind something like a literal, shared space that almost doesn’t exist anymore. What we now think of as [a place to just] hang out is probably a private space, like a mall. Even an outdoor space that looks like a park isn’t actually a park; it’s a loitering area before you go into that store, that coffee shop, that whatever. We occupy so many spaces that are reminding us of our inadequacy, that are pointing out scarcity, that are telling us that we need to shop more, or we need to change, or we need to buy something. So I think there’s a real, tangible, powerful possibility that opens up when you start to say, well, we’re coming together, and we’re not serving someone else’s agenda, or someone else’s needs. Were coming together because we’re all implicated in some way, whether it’s as simple as because we all like to knit, so we’re all coming together in a knitting club. Or we have a gang problem in our community.

This goes back to what you’re saying about making a table where everyone can be together. I would really love to see us practising more what it means to come together, be nonrivalrous, and create a space where maybe something amazing can happen. Maybe something really simple can happen. But something that feels peaceful and creative, and like a village, you know?

Headshot of Pete Davis, director of "Join or Die."
Pete

Amen. I don’t have anything profound to add, that’s such a beautiful way of putting it. Another Ivan Illich quote I love is that, while we’re suppressing through our fears, we are also suppressing surprise. And surprise is where the light comes in. That is where the magic happens. Commercial and professional spaces crowded out these autonomous “unrivalled” spaces. Thirdspace, people have called it. 

Sometimes the comments is, well, in commercial interaction, we know this has a price, I pay this, I get this in return, we’re strangers afterwards. I don’t have to get to know you. It doesn’t have to be awkward, I get my sweet green, I ordered it on my app, I pick it up at at the at the counter, I don’t have to see you. And then you might drop it on my front porch, please don’t like don’t ring the doorbell. I don’t want it. Hide the fact that humans were part of this.

And I just have to say, our desire to hide people is actually a hint of our deepest desire, which is… Well, it would be too painful [to know]. If we knew that people are part of all of this, that would implicate us [in the mess], we’d know we are implicated. And it’s just the hint of a voice that says we’re all part of this together, and no matter how much you hide it, it’s still there. Then the professional bureaucratic space is like, someone somewhere is the expert at this, adjudicate this for me. In the end, it’s all to suppress surprise. And in these [unrival] spaces, we can be surprised.

My mom used to say—and this is why we like getting it down to the brass tacks of normal stuff, joining a club or going to the club meeting—my mom likes to say, “You know exactly what you’re going to if you stay home tonight. You know exactly what’s gonna happen.” Like, you’re gonna watch the next episode of Love is Blind, and it’s probably the exact same format as the last episode, and despite all the shock, it’ll be the same twist ending they all have or whatever. If you go out to the meeting, if you go out to the gathering space, if you go out to the co-creative community, if you go out to the knitting club, who knows what’s gonna happen! Something exciting might happen. Maybe you’ll discover something about yourself, maybe you’ll discover something about others, maybe you’ll find another part of yourself that feels a connection with this place, or another person who knows.

So this whole movie is just the nudge, one more nudge to make that brave act of opening yourself up to the world. I’m sorry, Billy, you’ve made me get weird about this, you know, compared to the film, where I’m just like, “Civics is nice!” But this is great. It’s opened up the deep chambers of the movie.

Nashville, USA
Billy

Well, I’m glad you’re coming with me, because I can’t help going to weird places. 

There’s this idea in peacebuilding of safe spaces and brave spaces. Safe spaces are not necessarily easy spaces, and not necessarily comfortable spaces, but they’re spaces where we know we can be vulnerable and be tended to and cared for. And then brave spaces are spaces where we go, and you would think bad things happen—but not necessarily. Maybe not at all. Brave spaces are spaces where we go and surprise can happen. But fear holds us back from being surprised. So fascinating, because I can see it, I can see how anxiety makes me think it’s better to be alone with my streaming service than to deal with surprises. If we could take up a little bit of bravery, maybe those surprises [would be] more delightful than they are demanding or painful.

Just to bring it back to the film, I love the honesty of the person at the end, about the difficulties that we’re dealing with and that lie ahead, coupled with a really hopeful way of saying this is worth it. You know, like, join a club, it’s worth it. Join a club with people that aren’t like you. It’s gonna be awkward, but I promise, it’s worth it. It’s not optimism, because it’s still rooted in the reality of it. But it is so hopeful. And I think we need more of that.

Headshot of Pete Davis, director of "Join or Die."
Pete

That’s what we were trying to capture. The idea of long haul commitments and civics is that, to get out of all the problems we face as a country—and honestly, to get out of all the problems we face as individuals; we’re dealing with the baggage we’re bringing from our childhood and all that stuff. It’s a long haul journey. I just learned this phrase last week, I’m surprised I hadn’t heard it from someone before, but I just love it: things move at the speed of trust. Trust with others. That’s how organizations move. And [that includes] developing your own self trust. Confidence and self-trust has its own organic logic to it, and it takes a long time. But if we keep searching for isolated silver bullets to these problems, we’re gonna keep being kind of sick, we’re gonna become cynical, because we’re gonna see none of them work. 

One of the messages of this film was, plant the seed now and start the long haul. Start the journey now. It’s gonna take a while, but it’ll bear fruit. What you think could happen in a year, you’re probably overestimating, and what you think can happen in 10 years, you’re probably underestimating. I always like telling the story—and this is a civic story and a commitment story—of the abolitionists. They’re like, the greatest American joiners. I’ll just say it to be superlative; they’re the best. They had the hardest challenge and they won big time. Before them, the 15th Amendment was looking impossible. [Slavery] was a fully entrenched economic, political, oppressive, violent system that had very few signs of hope of going a different way. The wave of abolition that led eventually to emancipation was only 30 or 40 years old, you know, and most people joined by the 1840s or 1850s. So like, most of the people’s journeys were like, 20 years old. But a huge, huge thing changed in the country, and it all started with people starting ordinary clubs. Frederick Douglass saying, “I’m gonna start a newspaper, it’s called the North Star.” People starting state-based clubs, “I’m going to start a New York emancipation organization.” And we’re going to start by doing a little bit of mutual aid for escaped enslaved people, as they come down the Underground Railroad. And then over time, all those clubs came together into conventions and congresses and movements, and eventually a political party. The party that elected Lincoln was a really civically embedded party; they had a lot of local meetings and local marches; the Wide Awake Club was a group of Lincoln supporters that used to march through the streets at night. And all of that eventually led to the most amazing revolution in American history. All because people were willing to walk the long haul and become joiners. We can still do it; we can tackle much easier challenges today than the challenge they faced. Absolutely.

Nashville, USA
Billy

Yeah, I love too, in the book, the idea of long-haul heroism. We work with people in places like Africa, Central America, South America, the states, who have put their lives forward for the long haul to work on problems of conflict and war, seeking to transform conflict into peace in their communities. And heroism comes up a lot as a real obstacle, because the community can tend to say, well, you’re, you know, heroic. That’s why you can do what you’re doing. Or the funding models say, well, we want to give our money to the next Gandhi or whatever. And it can be very isolating. So I always loved, in your book, the idea of long-haul heroism because it shifted the emphasis to what you can sustain for a long time, which is not typically what we think of with heroism, because it’s not about charging up a hill and planting a flag and glory. It’s usually about who you surround yourself with. What do you do every morning seven days a week? Like prayer or meditation or something like that. It becomes about the habits and the people that we have, not about the mountaintop moments or glory.

Headshot of Pete Davis, director of "Join or Die."
Pete

I like to contrast it with, with what I call in the book, Hollywood heroism or dragon-slaying heroism. We think about big, brave moments, like charging up the hill. But the funny thing about our time is that we have a lot of people that I think are willing to die for a cause. A lot of people say,” Oh, no one has any courage anymore.” I actually think one of our problems is we have too many people willing to die for a cause (this is gonna sound really controversial), where, if they were presented with a moment, they could charge, they could do a brave thing, they could have glory, and then all the problems would be solved. I think a lot of people would take that deal: save your children from this thing or something. That’s a quick way to do it. The problem is, a lot of people would take that deal, and they’re not taking the deal that is presented to most of us; they’re willing to die for the cause, but they’re not willing to go to a Thursday night meeting 50 weeks in a row.

Nashville, USA
Billy

You could’ve something poetic! Like, they’re not willing to do, they’re willing to die, but they’re not willing to live for the call, they’re not willing to lead, but you took it all the way down to, “And they’re not willing to show up on a Thursday night!”

Headshot of Pete Davis, director of "Join or Die."
Pete

That’s exactly it. And it’s like, if you want to, if you’re sitting there as a young person, and they’re like, “I want to be really brave,” my message would be, “You don’t need to work out and prepare to dive-tackle the person on the plane.” It’s nice to work out, but maybe start doing something in a routine way. Go to the Thursday night meeting of the neighborhood improvement organization and become a member of it. That is courageous; there are a lot of fears that come with that. There’s a fear of regret. There’s a fear of missing out because of your commitment. And the big one for millennials is a fear of association. It’s going to be messy. It might implicate your identity or reputation or your sense of control by dealing with other people. You might come out a changed person and transformed. And that’s brave, to overcome that and join. I’d say that’s the type of heroism we should be encouraging. And all of this is easier said than done; I’m not a particularly good committer Joiner. I just love noticing patterns and writing up things on them. But you know, the real work is in the actual experience of doing it. And the best we can hope for, the best I can hope for with the book, the best my sister and I can hope for with this movie, is just a little nudge for you to discover what’s going to happen when you join, when you take that brave act to commit to something. If you’re on the precipice, we want to be a little nudge in the direction of taking the leap.

Nashville, USA
Billy

This tees up an interesting question from the audience, actually. Someone says, “We also have civic organizations like churches who are having their own existential crises. Have these institutions become too insulated? For me as a church goer, who’s already joined up in something, is it possible I’ve become too complacent? Is it time for me to join up somewhere else?”

Headshot of Pete Davis, director of "Join or Die."
Pete

There’s a lot to that. First off, just on the data side, in the last few years we had—for the first time ever in American history since the measurements started—a time when congregation membership has dropped below 50%. Most churches, most congregations, I think it’s fair to say, are in population decline. Then that creates its own interesting sociological patterns that you see in a lot of places, where they get into these death spirals. Since it’s becoming less and less “normal” to be part of a congregation, there are people that desire the congregation to really, you know, be the hardcore alternative, so now I’m going above and beyond to be the counterculture, but then suddenly, that’s repelling more people. Then you have all these tensions, not taking sides in these debates and in congregations, but you have all these tensions between kind of the hardcore nests of the entity and openness to others, where you’re always balancing, “Do we thin it out to let people in? Or do we make it more rigid to make it more real, if we’re going to be in a declining thing anyway?”

I think there’s a third option, which is to kind of have prophetic discernment of the deepest way—and this is what anyone in a congregation is grappling with much better than me—what is the deepest way to live out our mission that finds the deeper story that resolves the contraries and polarizations. That doesn’t give in on the deepest beliefs, but also touches people in a way, trusting in your beliefs that they will touch people in a way that will make it grow, having those hard conversations. I write about this in my book; that’s what the concept of prophecy partially is. It’s not predicting the future. It’s returning to the original mission and revivifying the thing, not as a set of rules but as a living organism, and that’s always a challenge.

Nashville, USA
Billy

Which is to say, a living organism is permeable.

Headshot of Pete Davis, director of "Join or Die."
Pete

To some extent, yes. This idea of, you know, is it too insulated? I would think one question you could ask is, how permeable are we? Are we influenced? If something happens in the community around us, is our community also impacted? Do we feel the burdens of the community around us, the joys of the community around us? These sorts of questions help us see if we’re a living institution.

One of my favorite kind of edgy metaphors of this is thinking about stewardship as organic or inorganic. You know, if you think stewarding a congregation is like a collection of ceramic plates or something, all you’re thinking about is what you do if it breaks. So you put the ceramic plate behind fortified glass and don’t touch it. But that’s not what congregations are, congregations are like dogs. If you’re like, “I don’t want this dog to die, let me put it behind fortified glass, in this airtight chamber,” the dog’s gonna die. So if you think in the organic metaphor? Exactly as you say, all organic things are a constant process of interconnectivity that have to always balance. There has to be some coherence to my organic body. It’s not just floating in the wind or thinning out to nothingness or chaos. You know this, but it’s also not behind glass, metal, ceramic, you know. And so that’s the challenge.

Nashville, USA
Billy

Our pull-quote from Pete: “Churches are like dogs.”

Headshot of Pete Davis, director of "Join or Die."
Pete

“More like dogs than like ceramic plates!”

Nashville, USA
Billy

I do want to be conscious of time. That is fantastic. But I don’t quite want to end there. I want to ask you just one more question. We’re in an election year. A lot of this [film] is about, you know, our nation. It’s about the world in general, but also democracy. And I just want to know, what’s giving you hope?

Headshot of Pete Davis, director of "Join or Die."
Pete

In some ways, we want this movie and the whole message of it to be the counterculture, the counterprogramming to the election. The election is going to be telling us, the most significant thing is happening way away from you with two powerful people. Well, we want to say, there are important things regarding that election; I’m not going to tell people, “Don’t pay attention.” Pay a little bit of attention to do what you need to do with what you think is right there. I have some opinions about that. But the most important thing, in the long run, is ordinary, surprising things that are happening in local neighborhoods and in institutions all across the country. One of my favorite ideas on this is that the world, the country, the neighborhood, the world we dream of, already exists in piecemeal, spread-out various alternatives and experiments, and attempts at something new, scattered all across the world. Our task is to blow on those embers and play our part in that. So I know for a fact that wherever you live, whatever institution you’re part of, or sector you’re part of, there are people planting little seeds of this, and those people give me hope.

Nashville, USA
Billy

Well, Pete, you give me hope, because you’re one of those people. And one of the ways, very practically, that we can take that into action, is to watch Join or Die. If you haven’t figured it out, this is a movie I love, we gave it an award, we really like it, and you can’t watch it alone. Pete, you’ll give us the information, but here’s what you can do: watch it in your community. You can host or co-host a community gathering and screen the film and have a conversation. We would love to encourage everyone to take that up over this summer and fall, to bring this movie in as a way of gathering in community. And who knows? Maybe a movie going club sparks out of one of these! But Pete, how do they do that?

Headshot of Pete Davis, director of "Join or Die."
Pete

Go to JoinOrDie.film. Or, you know, we’re usually the first hit if you Google any of a few words that I said about this: Bowling Alone documentary, community documentary, Robert Putnam documentary. Right there is a very simple form you can fill out that just says who you are, how we can contact you, and where you want to show it. And then we’ll get you in our process of getting you kind of queued up to make that all work and we’ll reach out to you. So you know, exactly as Billy said, we don’t want you watching this movie alone. We want it to be an excuse for you to bring people together and spark some ideas about rejuvenating community in your part of the world. So thank you so much. Appreciate it. Hope we can get another screening soon!

Nashville, USA
Billy

Thank you, Pete. I wish we had another hour. It’s been so great to chat. I appreciate your perspective, and I’m excited for people to see the film. So thanks again.

Headshot of Pete Davis, director of "Join or Die."
Pete

Talk soon. Keep up the good fight.

Nashville, USA
Billy

Thanks, Pete.

SR-square
Suzanne

Thank you, Billy. And Pete, that was wonderful. Just the word of hope we really do need right now. I want to thank everyone for being here and to let you know, Pete, my church is going to be signing up soon. Can’t wait to watch it together. Even that line about us being more like dogs! There’s a lot of dog lovers in my church, so I think it’s gonna land really well. Thanks to all of you joined today and for being part of unRival Network. If you’re a member, I know you look forward to the Frame, our bi weekly newsletter that Lyle edits and that features an unRivalrous Perspective like what you experienced today, and a practice that you can follow to be a more peaceful presence in difficult and divisive times. So please don’t hesitate to share the Frame with your friends. Please sign up to host a screening of Join or Die. And as we wrap up, I hope you’ll consider donating to unRival, because the support of our donors makes all the difference to our work. So thank you friends, and may you be at peace.

Want to host a screening of Join or Die in your community? Click here to learn how to watch and share this timely film!

To get to know more about Pete and his work, we encourage you to get his book, Dedicated: The Case for Commitment in an Age of Infinite Browsing.

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