The Covid-19 pandemic didn’t cause many of the biggest problems facing our society, but it sure called them out: The isolation, loneliness, divisiveness and anxiety that has led to an unprecedented spike in suicide, overdoses and mental illness. Greenwich resident and The Nantucket Project (TNP) cofounder Tom Scott is seeking to arrest the downward spiral through a groundbreaking social platform called the Neighborhood Project. Officially launched in 2020, tnp.us takes the heart of the Nantucket Project (a four-day thoughts and ideas festival held each fall) and brings it to a wider audience.
Throughout the country, small groups of people (the neighborhoods) gather virtually to view short films, hear speakers, discuss ideas and commit to a daily practice of self-care. At its core, the Neighborhood Project aims to foster community, connection and conversation. Or as Tom says, “The answer is conversation. No matter what the question.”
We recently caught up with Tom between TNP podcasts to talk about his latest venture.
What’s the concept behind the neighborhood project?
“The Neighborhood Project started in 2019 as a video book club that met in homes around America. We’d send out a video once a month for groups to screen and then talk about. The idea for the virtual platform began that fall, and the real work began in early 2020. Covid came along in March. Like everyone else we didn’t see that happening. The platform, tnp.us, launched in October. We had a robust membership push through the end of 2020, and then in early 2021 we took a pause from adding new members to revisit what was working and what we could improve on.” [As of press time, the platform is once again open for new members.]
What is the core mission?
“Meaningful conversation changes everything. Meeting regularly with a group of friends is as powerful a thing that exists. I had arrived at a place in my life where it was so clear to me what this world needs right now is conversation and what it lacks is conversation. The irony of the digital world is that it redefines conversation and destroys it in the process. If you look at all the things the world is suffering from, at the root is isolation. The Neighborhood Project is all about connection.”
When did you know you were onto something?
“I’ve long felt that as the world kept evolving into this messy social media world, we were getting less and less healthy vis à vis meaning. The irony is I’ve become close with the founder of the Ted Conference, Richard Saul Wurman. He’s a great guy. He’s in his 80s now. He said to me once, ‘The most valuable things you will create are conversations.’ That was in reference to the Nantucket Project. Back then, the comment just didn’t land with me as solidly as it should have.”
What sparked the idea for the Neighborhood Project?
“There was a woman from Greenwich who wanted us to come out to her house and show her friends a video version of what we do on Nantucket every year. She had invited a group of friends, fifteen people, who didn’t know anything about us. They watched forty minutes of stuff. I expected questions: ‘How do I get tickets?’ ‘How do I get there?’ But a woman looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, ‘I don’t have meaningful conversations anymore.’ And I said, ‘Whoa, can we do this again with another group of people, and I’ll bring more videos.” That was three and a half years ago.”
How does it work?
“The site is divided into three ideas: Gather, wonder, practice. The gather part is a coming together to discuss ideas. The wonder is what happens when you sit with a group of people and talk freely. Last week, one of the groups I’m involved with focused on the question, “Is there a God?” That was powerful. The practice is a section called Kaleida, where we give members the chance to engage in certain daily practices [meditation intention, gratitude, service, etc.] that can improve their lives. Once you are a member, you can join open groups or create a group of your own. Sometimes the conversations are kicked off by a film, other times you might have a speaker. The live groups always met once a month, but when we went virtual, meeting once a week is fairly normal. I am part of three groups that meet regularly.”
How does your experience as the cofounder of Nantucket Nectars feed into this latest endeavor?
“There was an innocence there. Nantucket Nectars was a group of amateurs creating something together as a team. That process is nothing more than a series of conversations. In some ways, the beauty of what I learned as a young person remains the same. I’m still only as good as the people I interact with on a regular basis. This idea of navigating life, which is what we are hoping we can offer people, is the same thing. It’s all about building a path to answers and processes that can improve you. That’s the hope.”
I’ve heard you say, “Zoom owns the conference room, we hope to own the living room.” What do you mean by that?
“To sit with a group of people and share with them is a version of magic. To come together with a spirit of wonder, to humbly learn together—that has the power to change everything. Add a practice and you’re on your way to a healthier you. When we do things together, we tend to do things. When we do them in isolation, we tend to fade.”
How do you encourage members to stay true to the spirit of the mission?
“At the heart of each neighborhood is an ethos of intention and generosity. During the first few meetings there is a modeling that takes place, a preamble in which we outline the rules of the road, reminding people that listening is an action word.”
What’s next for the Neighborhood Project?
“If I were to say to somebody, ‘You know what’s really important right now? Conversation.’ I’m not sure how that lands. Books like The Secret and The 4-Hour Work Week, those are things that catch on. This idea of community and conversation is so obvious but so misunderstood. It’s our job to educate people on the definition and power of sitting in a circle and talking. To the extent that we can bring people in to see it and try it, we can be an important movement for people and the world.”