Vital Capacities and the Prospects for Thriving Together

If our response to the Covid pandemic had been creation of a system designed to address the needs of all people, the spread of the disease would have slowed, fewer would have died, and economic pain would have been reduced. Bobby Milstein, one of the editors of the Thriving Together Springboard (http://Thriving.US), has been studying the difference between organizing ourselves against adversity versus organizing ourselves FOR well-being. He will share a summary of those dynamics and then, in a dialogue facilitated by Arvind Singhal, participants will exchange insights from complexity thinking. Gary Gunderson will discuss Leading Causes of Life and Dora Barilla, who leads Stakeholder Health (a network of dozens of health care systems), will share her insights. The point? To discover what it takes thrive together by evoking the vital capacities in each of us to help bend the arc of history toward well-being and justice.

We believe ordinary people in every walk of life, along with organizations in every sector or industry, already have the vital capacities they need to step into meaningful roles as shared stewards of well-being. Our questions are: What will it take to inspire many more change-makers to take that decisive step? How can we stir within ourselves and others a deeper sense of our ever-present capacities for agency, connection, community, inter-generativity, and hope? These experiences, often referred to as the leading causes of life, could be especially transformative when they flourish among those who are routinely ignored, devalued, and denied the right of self-determination.

In a year unlike any other, 2020 began by taking us at whiplash speed through a series of compounding crises. When the sheer size and depth of the disruption became clear, over 100 people and organizations came together to show how it is possible to convert loss into renewal. Together, we produced the Thriving Together Springboard. It was written for the moment, yet is part of a larger story in a long, evolving movement. Many additional resources have since been created to help the ethos of thriving together come to life. Some examples include an historic report from the U.S. Surgeon General on the connection between community health and economic prosperity; a detailed policy scan for healthy neighborhood investments, and a federal interagency plan for long-term recovery and resilience that fully supports the direction first articulated from non-governmental change-makers. Also, the Well Being in the Nation (WIN) Network has emerged as a creative platform to connect people and organizations who are all part of a vast, growing movement to thrive together.

Innovators in communities across the country are also working differently and asking questions that thread throughout the Thriving Together Springboard. For instance, Liz Baxter, CEO of the North Sound Accountable Community of Health (ACH) in Washington state, sees herself – and others – as shared stewards of a system that shapes their lives together. With a growing circle of partners across sectors, ages, races, cultures, and other differences, they are unified by an expectation of all people and places in their region thriving together. When faced with systemic inequity and compounding crises, there is much to learn from those who embrace the ethos of thriving together. Their experiences, beginning with efforts to expand belonging and civic muscle, point to promising frontiers in the movement for well-being, equity, and racial justice. Their impressive work prompts us to consider how a rising cadre of shared stewards could play pivotal roles as communities everywhere search for their own path from unrelenting adversity to lasting renewal.


A recent study on Amplifying Stewardship observed that even experienced change-makers can deepen their practice by appreciating that traditional professional expertise is inadequate and sometimes inhibiting. We each need to unlearn many things if we want to work more equitably and more effectively. With renewed curiosity, we are wondering what it takes for people and organizations to embrace the ethos of thriving together. How can they find the inner strength to join a rising cadre shared stewards? That move often reworks one’s sense of self and one’s place in the world. It springs from a conviction that each us already has the requisite vital capacities to become better stewards of the systems that shape our lives together. As unique people in a common world, anyone can step into shared stewardship merely by making a moral commitment to exercise individual creative freedom and directing it toward the liberating expectation of all people and places thriving together—no exceptions.

Our Conversation Guides

Arvind Singhal, PhD, is the Samuel Shirley and Edna Holt Marston Endowed Professor of Communication at The University of Texas at El Paso, and appointed Professor 2, Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences, Faculty of Business and Social Sciences. His teaching and research interests include diffusion of innovations, positive deviance, entertainment-education and liberating structure.

Bobby Milstein, PhD, MPH, is Director of System Strategy for ReThink Health and the Rippel Foundation, as well as a Visiting Scientist at the MIT Sloan School of Management. With an educational background that combines cultural anthropology, behavioral science, and systems science, he concentrates on efforts to spark large-scale institutional and cultural change. He works with innovators who see themselves –and others – as shared system stewards, often equipping them with practical mindsets, models, and measures to understand their own scenarios for enhancing the movement for well-being and justice. In response to the compounding crises of 2020, Bobby was the lead editor of Thriving Together: A Springboard for Equitable Recovery and Resilience in Communities Across America.

Gary Gunderson, M.Div., D.Min., D.Div. is Vice President for FaithHealth, Professor of Public Health Sciences, & of Religion & the Health of the Public, Wake Forest Baptist Medi­cal Centre & Wake Forest University. The medical center serves tobacco country up into the Appalachian mountains, the heart of the deaths of despair. Gary has invested years working on hunger, poverty and community development, public health and health care, including eight years at the Carter Centre and Rollins School of Public Health, Emory University, and seven years as a senior executive, Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare, Memphis. He quit eating read meat after traveling across the country listening to community activists and seeing the deep interconnection between health, justice and climate. He is a writer, woodturner, beekeeper and hiker, and currently chair of Democratic precinct 601 in Winston-Salem.

Dora Barilla, DrPH, is the President of HC2 Strategies and the co-chair of Stakeholder Health. She is a Senior Fellow for the Institute for Health Policy and Fellowship at Loma Linda University Health and the former VP for Community Health Investment at Providence. Dora is the founder and chair for a non-profit organization, Partners for Better Health, promoting health initiatives in communities and developing future leaders of influence and collaboration. Dora has spent last two decades putting healthcare plans in place that are strategic, community based, effective, and creative. She is deeply committed to community health outcomes.

This conversation will explore the transformative power of acting as if everyone can be a steward. Thriving Together Springboard (see especially the 20-min video on this page: What Will it Take for Everyone to Thrive Together?)