4 Insights from Wendell Berry for Social Impact Leaders

At Openfields, we believe more leaders who care about serving communities need to consider new approaches to their strategy and programs. Too often we see organizations reinforce the very problems they are trying to solve because it is truly difficult – and even risky – to step back and reconsider the essential purpose and impact of our efforts. Wendell Berry is a great place to start the process of reflection.

One of the first questions a group of high school students asked Wendell Berry, the Kentucky elder statesmen was, "Can industrialists act from a motive of love?"

I was at The Berry Center in New Castle, Kentucky with my colleague Joe Waters, CEO of Capita. We joined Dr. John Powell's class of Kentucky Governor's Scholars as they considered their responsibility to contribute to the future of Kentucky.

Upon first meeting Berry, it's hard to not be struck by his humor and candor. He juxtaposes indignation at the waste and violence of our modern capitalist society with a deep peace about who he is and the limits of his work. For example, I was surprised to hear him remark that the local food movement, of which he might be considered a patron saint, has largely been ineffective.

Much of Berry's perspective is informed by his memories of boyhood on a Kentucky tobacco farm only a few miles from where we talked. He recalled drinking from springs, swimming in creeks, and playing amongst work crews in the tobacco fields. I wondered how far removed most children are today from this kind of grounded community experience.

There are four insights from our time with Wendell Berry that seem especially vital for leaders who seek to reimagine how our work might contribute to flourishing communities. I will publish a post on each of these topics in the coming weeks.

1. "We all accept the technological impulse."

Work in our modern capitalist society has been so degraded that, whenever we encounter a challenge or problem that requires work, our first thought is to find a new tool or technology that might do the work for us. We don't pause to consider the long-term social, ecological, or human consequences of using those tools. We are quick to replace humans with machines, a pattern which is often the very source of the problem we are seeking to solve.

2. "Poisons substitute for people"

The main ingredient in RoundUp – glyphosate – has recently been discovered at toxic levels in children's breakfast cereals. Berry sees this a consequence of a culture that simply accepts the technological impulse. Rather than do the slow work of developing human-scale economies that would be sustainable with natural resources, our culture prefers quick, scalable chemical technology. Because it's cheaper, faster, and more productive we manufacture carcinogenic chemicals to spray over giant fields of homogenous croplands and never consider the long-term human or ecological costs.

3. "Problem-solving by live intelligence."

Often before we stop and think about a problem, we pop out our phones and look up "best practices" – what is everyone else doing? Berry pointed out that if you look something up, that it is by definition generalized. It cannot be a local solution for a local problem. He is concerned that we are losing the ability to simply look at a problem together and think well about how to solve it.

4. "If you love, you'll learn."

If you care about a place you will commit yourself to learning how to serve it well. This applies to the environment, to the people, and to the culture. (This is why at Openfields we believe data – including stories – matter.)

Berry's work is prophetic for any leader willing to rethink economic and community "development". For more on this topic, listen to Capita's podcast, "Health as Membership" in which Joe Waters speaks with leading voices about alternative ways to define success in community health.


I left my time with Wendell Berry concerned about how far my own work drifts from these essential principles of human work. I also left inspired to rethink the ways we conduct our work and to share what we are learning.