The Transformative Power of Trustbuilding: Towards a Culture of Shared Responsibility

"The challenge of building trust across divides is universal and inescapable. Can we move from a culture of blame and avoidance to an acceptance of shared responsibility for a new future?" - Initiatives of Change International
By Rob Corcoran /
Feb 2, 2020
The Transformative Power of Trustbuilding: Towards a Culture of Shared Responsibility

This is an excerpt from Rob Corcoran’s book Trustbuilding: An Honest Conversation on Race, Reconciliation, and Responsibility, published by University of Virginia Press.



'We can all think of people whom we regard as being "inside" our circle and others who are "outside."

Those we exclude may represent another culture or religion, or a different political viewpoint.

They may be people who demand justice, or who hold economic or political power.

Living as trustbuilders means going towards those whose worldview is different from our own and who challenge our assumptions, people who irritate us, even people whose very presence threatens our sense of comfort and security.

Connecting fragmented communities demands the best of everyone: liberals and conservatives, immigrants and established populations, city dwellers and suburbanites, the young and the seasoned. Each person counts.'

'The scale and complexity of problems facing communities in transition, and the emotionally challenging task of healing historic wounds can appear overwhelming. There are no quick fixes.

The Richmond experience suggests that trustbuilders have at least two things in common: a willingness to move beyond blame to personal responsibility for change and a leadership style that encourages the highest qualities in those around them. Building trust is not a technique that can be taught; it is a spirit that is caught. It is a fruit of honesty and transparency of motive. This new style of citizen leadership offers a vision of hope and opportunity for everyone.'

Honest conversation involves specific steps which form the basis for the Community Trustbuilding Fellowship and for Initiatives of Change International’s Signature Trustbuilding Program. As described in Trustbuilding, they are:


1. Begin with ourselves

'Those of us who are impatient for change need a consistent set of values that are reflected in our personal lives and our public actions. Without this, there is loss of coherence and breakdown of trust. How can we ask others to make costly and courageous choices if we are not prepared to look in the mirror and put our own house in order? Put simply, we must model the change we expect of others. We call this values integration. Emphasis on personal responsibility breaks the cycle of denial, blame, and victimhood. It brings moral clarity without sanctimony by relying on what Michel Sentis and Charles Piguet call "the one universal language – a life lived out." Individuals become trustbuilders and creative change makers by being willing to take a fearless look at their own attitudes and behavior.' Trustbuilders, whether they subscribe to any specific faith, need an inner source of wisdom for guidance and to maintain perspective and equilibrium when the going gets tough.


2. Include everyone

Open and inclusive dialogue is at the heart of trustbuilding. In honest conversations, all stakeholders come to the table and remain engaged. The unflinching self-examination described above increases our ability to discern underlying factors and concerns. Important discernment questions for any community trustbuilding initiative are: What conversation is not taking place? What question do we fear to put on the table? Who must be part of the dialogue and how might we engage with them? Most of us feel more comfortable interacting with those who share our social background, political views or values. But little real change can occur if we deal only with those with whom we agree or demonize those with whom we disagree. Identifying underlying issues and creating safe space for formal or informal dialogue, where participants can listen deeply to others and ask themselves hard questions, are crucial in uniting divided communities. This deep dialogue moves individuals from simply an exchange of information to an experience of transformation.


3. Acknowlege history

The physical act of 'walking through history' is a vehicle for communities to come to terms with the demons of the past. According to Joseph V. Montville, 'Such a walk establishes an agenda for healing…it reveals the record of past hurts and allows the conscience of large numbers of people to give up avoidance and be activated in the most positive sense.' The ability to appreciate shared history and to view the story from the standpoint of the other side is a key to creating a new narrative. Other communities have found their own distinctive way of breaking the cycle of denial, guilt, and anger caused by unacknowledged and unhealed history. The 'walk' can be done in a variety of ways, but it always involves an accurate, respectful, and inclusive public telling of the story. Hannibal Johnson, author of The Black Wall Street, says the Richmond experience demonstrates 'a model of true community reconciliation in an inclusive, validating way, without sacrificing moral clarity.'


4. Build a team

A team working effectively for broad community change is constantly expanding its circle and building collaborative networks that transcend the usual boundaries of politics, class, ethnicity, and geography. John Gardner describes ‘networks of responsibility drawn from all segments coming together to create a wholeness that incorporates diversity.’ A team promoting trust must demonstrate authentic relationships in its daily life.

Failure to build a genuinely diverse network of trust weakens many worthy initiatives…Disconnected efforts, however noble and well-conceived, are doomed to failure…To achieve institutional change we need allies who are willing to share insights, knowledge, and access to key players and centers of power. Through inclusive dialogue we can hear each other’s stories and invite others to share our journey. In acknowledging painful history, we can move towards understanding, shared responsibility, and ultimately forgiveness and reconciliation. Through genuine partnerships and sustained teamwork, we can begin to build trust and to bring about change where it is most difficult and most needed.


© 2010 by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia.

Rob Corcoran is a trainer, facilitator, writer, and racial healing practitioner who has led trustbuilding workshops among diverse and polarized groups across North America and internationally.

He served as national director of Initiatives of Change USA and founded its flagship domestic program Hope in the Cities in Richmond, Virginia. 

His website is:

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