Photo: 40,000 feet in the Sky

Is the Public Square Somewhere 40,000 Feet in the Sky?

Posted on December 22, 2022 by Michael Zimmerman, TPF Fellow 2021/23
There’s something remarkable that’s been happening for society since the beginning of commercial aviation. The entire experience of air travel creates new realities up in the sky, where strangers sit next to each other, in close proximity, and more often than not, they strike up a conversation and learn about one another. Lived experiences are shared, laughs can be heard, and meaningful exchanges are possible. Something magical continues to happen 40,000 feet up.

On a brisk cold wintry December afternoon at LaGuardia Airport in New York, the sun shone brightly on the tarmac as planes took off and landed. People traveling far and wide were passing through the very same terminals to await their flights. As passengers were invited to line up for boarding, strangers gathered, and small talk ensued. “Where are you headed? Do you live in Sarasota? Visiting? Where in the area do you live? What brought you to New York?” A community started to form.

At the adjacent gate, a flight was delayed, and another community formed. One passenger took on the role of the chief communicator, sharing updates. Another became the caretaker, seeing if passengers needed help. Caring squads jumped in to help parents keep an eye on their kids so they could grab food or use the restroom. Others offered food/water to older adults and assisted them with their carry-on baggage. The passengers found ways to help the collective flight unit as they navigated the uncertainty of potential outcomes.

Despite hearing how “polarized” our country is, it has never failed to surprise me how the polarized come together from all walks of life to help each other in the wake of air travel complications. Beautiful bonds form in these situations. Does our society need more flight cancelations and delays to see the value of what we can do when we confront challenges together?

What about the passengers on United Flight 93, whose plane was hijacked on 9/11? The passengers knew of the other hijacked planes used as guided missiles into the World Trade Center, and they sensed the doom of what was about to come. Heroically, those passengers banded together to stop the terrorists from crashing the plane into the U.S. Capitol. Tragically, the plane went down in a remote area of PA. However, these strangers made the brave decision to fight the hijackers. The outcome of their selfless communal decision saved the lives of many in Washington, D.C. While this is an extreme example of how bonds quickly form on planes, it’s important to note their power and how feeling a sense of camaraderie and togetherness with other passengers is quite unique and special, in tragedy and celebration. These bonds still form every day from 40,000 feet up in the sky.

How can that openness people feel when entering their short-term community on a plane be brought down to ground level?

Can members of communities create spaces where people can civilly engage as they do on a plane? There are fascinating ways to approach convening community members for conversations about challenges.

While it wasn’t on a plane, The Patterson Foundation hosted Rich Harwood with The Harwood Institute for community conversations in DeSoto and Sarasota counties. It feels different when communities come together to listen, share perspectives, and discuss ideas. When we see each other in person, it humanizes the experience. We see other faces, hear their voices, and they see and hear us too. Behind a computer screen, we express opinions freely but feel less accountable to the others in those online spaces. In person, we see the other and respond differently. We are more civil, similar to how we behave on planes (most of the time). As communities continue their conversations, maybe what’s missing is that opportunity to make the community gatherings like a plane ride. Many ideas are being shared and incubated civilly 40,000 feet up, with one destination. Perhaps Philanthropy can fly us to better places, making new and unexpected friends along the way. The sky’s the limit!

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