Director’s Letter March 2022

Emerald Lake

It is easy to underestimate the power of small acts of community

I think regularly about the article by David Brooks in the Atlantic (Oct. 5, 2020) “America is having a moral convulsion.” He cited polling data showing that among Americans, trust is at a historic low. With “high trust institutions,” like public schools and libraries, facing an onslaught of lawsuits and criminal charges, trust continues to decline.

The decline of trust is not simply a matter of inconvenience. Brooks notes that nations and economies start to collapse when people lose faith in their institutions and each other, citing ethicist Sillela Bok, “Whatever matters to human beings, trust is the atmosphere in which it thrives.”

Operating RMBL involves trust. Faculty trust us with students; some students may be irretrievably lost to science if they have a bad summer. We make innumerable decisions about housing and access to resources that require trust. Supporters trust us to use donations wisely. When landowners and managers trust us enough to provide access to their property, it greatly expands RMBL research.

Creating trust is like accumulating money in the bank. Everybody makes mistakes and miscommunication is inevitable; trust is lost. If we do our job well, however, we put more money in the bank than we take out. At RMBL we work hard to earn trust, going the extra mile to meet the needs of students and scientists, be accountable financially, and treat other people’s property with the same care as our own.

RMBL’s docent program has become a wonderful way that we build trust with the Crested Butte community. Historically you would find docents up by Judd Falls in summer, orienting people and answering questions. Our head docents, Annie Starr and Charlie Tomlinson, have built a thriving program and now you find docents volunteering with scientists on research projects or pulling weeds on outlying properties. See the adjoining article on docent Caroline McLean to learn more.

Brooks suggests that trust is built on “the nitty-gritty work of organizational life; going to meetings, driving people places, sitting with the ailing.” RMBL docents engage in the nitty-gritty of Gothic life, connecting us to the larger community. Committing to, and sticking with, organizations is critical to building trust; we are fortunate that Annie, Charlie, and Caroline, along with the rest of RMBL’s docents, have shown that commitment to RMBL. It is an amazing gift.

It seems like cheating to write an article that relies so heavily on someone else’s writing. But Brooks closes his article with such a powerful and hopeful passage, I will quote him again.

“Trust can be rebuilt through the accumulation of small heroic acts—by the outrageous gesture of extending vulnerability in a world that is mean, by proffering faith in other people when that faith may not be returned. Sometimes trust blooms when somebody holds you against all logic when you expected to be dropped. It ripples across society as multiplying moments of beauty in a storm.”

As society takes on the hard problems, from pandemics, to food security, to drought, to human health, trust in scientific institutions will be critical. The next time you see a RMBL docent out and about, give them a smile and thank them for helping build the trust that will be needed to address serious environmental challenges. Every important journey starts with a single step.

Ian Billick - Director RMBL

Ian Billick | PhD
Executive Director, RMBL