Dear Leadership Rhode Island,

I enjoyed the opportunity to interview Brown University research fellow Marc J. Dunkelman during the Leadership Rhode Island session at The Providence Journal on Feb. 11. And I was able to use parts of that interview for a column published the next day with the headline: “Hey Neighbor! Why is American politics so politicized?”

But I didn’t get a chance to delve into the connections between Leadership Rhode Island and the central ideas of his book, “The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community.”

In short, Dunkelman says that with the advent of the Internet and texting, Facebook and Twitter, we’re investing more time and attention on “inner ring” relationships (family members and good friends) and “outer ring” relationships (online acquaintances who went to our school or support the same cause). But we’re spending less social capital on “middle ring” relationships (neighbors we run into at PTO meetings, bowling leagues or the barbershop). And in the process, we’re losing what Alexis de Tocqueville identified as a defining quality of American society — the “township,” where communities of people with different interests, values and views find common ground and pursue the greater good.

So I asked Dunkelman what a group such as Leadership Rhode Island could do to strengthen those networks and to increase those “middle ring” connections. In reply, he said that he has lived in Rhode Island for 18 months now and he has noticed two seemingly contradictory things: “One is that everyone claims to know everyone else,” he said, “and the second is that people never leave their towns.”

As a native Rhode Islander, I think that observation rings true: We do live in a small state that can at times display the best qualities of a “township.” But at the same time we can be parochial, remaining comfortably in our own spheres and missing out on valuable opportunities to interact with people who live nearby.

So it would seem that a group such as Leadership Rhode Island could play a vital role in breaking down those barriers and bringing leaders from each community together, providing fertile soil to nurture the “middle ring” relationships that Dunkelman says we are losing.

During the interview, Dunkelman said he was glad that executive director Mike Ritz had asked him to speak at the Leadership Rhode Island session in part “because I do think this is exactly the sort of organization — the sort of interaction that you want to create as much as possible.” He said, “In this group, you are trying to replicate what used to happen naturally, and I think it’s just sort of a crucial element to fixing the problems that we are all complaining about perpetually on the pages of The Providence Journal.”

That neatly summarizes the potential for Leadership Rhode Island to strengthen the state’s “middle ring” relationships, which can be vital in terms of spurring innovation and the economy, as well as creating a healthier and more productive political and civic life.

Best of luck in those endeavors. I will be watching to see what you can achieve.


Edward Fitzpatrick

Providence Journal columnist