You have probably been part of a group project before. Maybe one of your classmates slacked off, leaving you with the burden of finishing the project. So it’s understandable that people would be skeptical of the idea of an online, crowd-sourced, unending encyclopedia that is written and edited by the masses. But 20 years after its founding, Wikipedia has more than 55 million articles in 309 languages and is visited by hundreds of millions of people daily. Over 300,000 “Wikipedians” volunteer their time to edit and revise and write and argue about every single word on Wikipedia — it’s possibly the largest group project in history.
Wikipedia is a huge cultural achievement and testament to the power of people working together for a cause. There’s something fascinating about so many people coming together for a goal and project larger than themselves.
In 1985, Live Aid, a benefit concert held in multiple countries connected through satellite and television broadcasts, brought the world together to raise funds for relief for the famine in Ethiopia. An estimated 1.9 billion people tuned into the concert from over 150 nations around the world. That was almost 40 percent of the world population!
Some of the most remarkable moments when a group of people work together toward a common goal are ones where the work transcends even the moment itself.
After World War II, Germany was split between eastern and western Germany. To dissuade people from leaving eastern Berlin, eventually a long, winding, and bleak wall was built.
Consisting of a 3.6 meter high concrete barricade, 302 watchtowers and 20 bunkers, this wall was guarded day and night by soldiers with orders to shoot anyone attempting to cross. In total 138 people died attempting escape in the 28 years this wall was standing. The wall became a global symbol of communist repression and division between democratic West Germany and communist East Germany.
A wave of mass demonstrations and protests leading up to 1989 put pressure on Soviet-run East Germany to allow citizens to travel freely. On the evening of Nov. 9, 1989, East Germany announced it would loosen restrictions on travel permits. The announcement brought thousands of East Berliners to the wall. A sea of people gathered, eager to travel across the border, and surprised the border guards. The crowd began chanting “Tor auf!” meaning (“Open the gate!”). The guards decided to drop the gate and the throng of people swarmed through and spontaneously began working together, using sledgehammers, other tools, and even their bare hands to dismantle the concrete wall in a powerful and symbolic act. People saved pieces of the wall to remember this historic moment for years to come.
After the fall of the Wall, pressure continued to mount until finally, in October of 1990, Germany was finally reunited. Today there are still parts of the wall up as a reminder that division can be overcome when people come together for a common cause. One piece of graffiti on the wall reads: “Forget not the tyranny of this wall, nor the love that made it fall.”
The fall of the Berlin Wall was a large-scale public work that transcended one moment and one nation. Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was a young physicist in Communist East Germany when the Berlin Wall fell, said in a speech celebrating the event’s 30th anniversary: “The Berlin Wall, ladies and gentlemen, is history, and it teaches us: No wall that keeps people out and restricts freedom is so high or so wide that it can’t be broken down.”
People gathered together and acted in the name of an idea bigger than themselves – freedom. This public moment involving thousands of people became a powerful symbolic act of hope and unity.
There is something powerful about standing together, rejoicing together, mourning together, or reaching out toward freedom together. These shared experiences elevate our spirits and point to realities beyond ourselves that we can participate in, here and now.
In a world that is increasingly divided, there is a need, even a hunger, for these types of public, symbolic, and transcendental acts of unity and hope. Where are they found today?