Category: Reflections and Ideas

Community Security and the Institutional Assumption


By John L. McKnight, 2021-01-12


Throughout America, communities are establishing task forces to respond to police abuse and the murder of Black citizens. These task forces have variously recommended cuts in police budgets and reform of systems for the selection of police officers, their training and discipline. Many task forces have broadened their recommendations to include relocating police functions to social service agencies that have purview over homelessness, mental health and social service work. This relocation is designed to assure that the police are able to concentrate time and resources on functions that are “properly” in their domain –community security and safety.

In this relocation of functions the key actors are two institutions –the police and human service agencies. There are some task forces that also give a nod to local neighborhoods by recommending intensified efforts at improving police-community relations.

For years there have been studies of the factors that are critical in creating and maintaining neighborhood safety and security. They consistently demonstrate that the principle determinant of local security is citizen relationships and the activities of their associations*. Therefore, any serious effort to deal with neighborhood security and safety will require a primary focus on local associational life rather than a reformed police department or locally engaged human service agencies.

If reform-oriented task forces want to be effective, they will necessarily have to consider the functions of local citizens’ associational life as a domain where safety and security functions can be relocated or newly performed **.

For those task forces willing to focus their basic work on neighborhoods and the associational life manifested there, a map of the functions of associations is useful. These functions include:
  • In times of emergency or crisis, associations are frequently able to respond more rapidly than institutions.
  • Associational responses tend to be individualized and personal rather than programmatic and institutional.
  • Associations elicit and use popular knowledge in their work while institutions tend to use technical information.
  • Associations are the site for citizen-based problem solving.
  • Associations create local power by aggregating individual concerns into the capacity for collective action.
  • Associations are citizen vehicles for collective advocacy.
  • Associations provide settings where leadership opportunities proliferate and, as a result many more leaders are identified and developed.
  • Associations provide the context for the interactive formation of community values and opinion.
  • Associations provide context for behavioral change best exemplified by Alcoholics Anonymous and other Twelve Step Programs.
  • Associational formation provides proliferating opportunities for new forms of civic engagement. The ease of formation creates many new relationships and initiatives that are evoked by demands of the times e.g. community security, local food production, health activities etc.
  • Associations provide mediating functions between institutions and individual citizens.
  • Associations have conceived and initiated the creation of many new institutions e.g. hospitals, universities, social services.
  • Associations are the principle site for care. They hold citizens together because each cares about the other, or they care about the same thing. Operating outside the market, a community’s associations are the primary indicator of what citizens care about enough to act collectively.

Once the functions of associations become the central focus of reform oriented task forces, they can ask four basic questions:

  1. How can our institutions support the associational functions?
  2. What institutional policies and practices have deterred or opposed the growth or power of local associational functions?
  3. What functions that police attempt to perform could be better performed by relocating them to newly empowered local associations?
  4. How can we re-orient our working map so that neighborhood associations are at the center and institutions act as a support unit for their activity?

******

The Institutional Assumption

The current police task force efforts are a useful example of the importance of how a question is framed. If the issue is framed by an institutional assumption that the police and agencies are the key actors in producing security, they will exclude the most important actor –the associational world.

Most questions of community well-being are framed as though any goal can best be achieved as the result of more effective institutional intervention and intensified institutional coalitions. It is this framing assumption that is the cause of many failed reforms.

In the pursuit of community security, health, education and child raising, ignoring the present or potential functions of associational life ensures that these issues will continue to be unresolved. ***


* See especially Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect by Robert J. Sampson

** For a more specific description of the associational world see The Four–Legged Stool: The Unique Functions of Associations in Community Life by John McKnight (2013).This can be found on the ABCD Institute website.

*** For a description of seven basic functions for which associations are critical to problem solving, see Neighborhood Necessities: Seven Functions That Only Effectively Organized Neighborhoods Can Provide by John McKnight (2013).This can be found on the ABCD Institute website.

Still on Top: A Manager’s Story


By John L. McKnight, 2020-12-08

He was a corporate leader in a big city, well known for his progressive views on corporate responsibility. Indeed, he had led the corporate community in efforts to achieve equity and engage neighborhoods.

In his latter days, he reflected on his efforts and their consequence. “You know, I’ve learned a lot about local communities over all these years. At first, we just ignored them although we did support the United Way and it had neighborhood concerns. Then, we began to get some pressure – advocacy groups and their demands. We responded by creating a foundation to give them money. And we developed some programs we thought would help them. Sometimes we combined our programs with those of other corporations and agencies in order to increase our impact. Then came this new idea that we could join with local groups and jointly produce good things.”

“All this looked good and felt good. But truth be known, there doesn’t seem to be much real neighborhood change. It just seems to me that local folks aren’t really taking a significant responsibility for local change. We’re still sitting on top, trying to figure out what to do so they can come to the top too.

While most institutional leaders would not describe their basic goal as enhancing neighborhood responsibility, this manage did. He said, “It’s a question of power. I can take responsibility because I have power. I think lots of those neighborhood folks don’t think they have power. And, while whatever we’ve done may have helped a little, it didn’t really give them more power. I’m still on top but my power hasn’t changed much in the neighborhood except for the jobs we provide.”

Dear reader, you live in a neighborhood. What would you tell this powerful person about enabling powerful neighborhoods? What makes them powerful?

There are some neighborhood people, wise in the ways of their neighbors, who say that there are two necessities that combine to create power.

First is the skill, capacities and abilities to create something. It means we have the capacity to get things done.

Second is the authority to do our work. We have the right to decide and control how to do it. And when we have the first two resources, a third capacity will emerge: responsibility. People take responsibility when they have capacity and authority because they are now invested with power.

So, if we understand this local wisdom, we are prepared to respond to the powerful man on top. The responsibility he seeks depends on our local capacity and authority. The two questions we can ask him are:

  1. What are you and your institutional allies doing that limits or degrades local capacity and authority? Stop doing that.
  2. What do you and your allies do or could do to support local capacity and authority? Do that.*

*For some possible institutional actions to enable powerful neighborhoods see Learnings 7, 8, 9, 13, 20, 21, 24 and 25 on John McKnight’s website at johnmcknight.org

Co-production: Always in Second Place


By John L. McKnight, 2020-10-12

It was the first meeting of a neighborhood organization’s Health Committee on Chicago’s westside. The six members met in the living room of Gloria Blunt’s home. After considerable discussion as to how to begin, Valerie Robinson said, “Why don’t we begin by telling what makes us healthy?” The notes of the meeting record six causes of health:

  • Having a garden
  • Playing games and sports outside
  • Going to church
  • Having safe drivers through the neighborhood
  • Having enough money for a good house and food
  • Dancing

Someone then said, “Well, what makes us unhealthy?” The notes indicate these answers:

  • Guns
  • Smoking
  • Being alone with big responsibilities
  • Falling
  • Overeating
  • Being stressed and angry

 At the next meeting a young doctor asked to sit in as an observer. Shortly after the meeting began, a Health Committee member asked him a question about her diabetes. This was followed by member-initiated discussions about:

  • Children’s illnesses
  • Helpful drugs and supplements
  • Vaccinations
  • Sleeplessness
  • Flu

 The third meeting focused on actions to increase access for medical care for children and vaccinations. In subsequent meetings, the members never returned to planning health actions that were in their own control – as they had during the first meeting. 

*****

There is a common litany of the five “determinants of health” measured by rates of mobility and mortality. They are:

  1. Individual behavior
  2. Group relationships
  3. Physical environment
  4. Income
  5. Access to medical systems

Most epidemiologists agree that the least important of these determinants is access to medical systems. The first four determinants of being healthy are outside the capacity of medical systems to deal with. However, the first four determinants are within the control of local neighborhoods and communities. Indeed, if they do not act on them, health will decline.

The health issue is often diverted from community action by issues of community relations with medical systems and their resources. This diversion happened with the neighborhood Health Committee. It proceeded to engage in partnership activities with the medical system. These activities were called “co-production.” Embedded in this partnership activity were some hidden assumptions:

We are not primarily in control of our health.

We need medical partners and their resources to be healthy

We will act as partners with the system

 This is not to pose as an either/or. It is to suggest an intentional order for analyzing any community concern including health. That order is a three-step process:

  1. What can we do with our neighborhood resources to deal with this issue? [1]
  2. What can we achieve with our resources and the support of an institution or system – co-production?
  3. What can only be achieved by an outside institution with its resources?

It is very clear that “co-production” is sometimes very useful. However, the problem with “co-production” is that it so often diverts or replaces the more important neighborhood capacity to increase health. This is why healthy communities ensure that “co-production” is second in line when community issues are dealt with. And this is also true for community functions such as security, education, raising the young, economy, environment and food.[2]

Finally, the three step process cannot be achieved if there is no neighborhood vehicle to take on the functions described above. The most significant vehicle is a powerful local neighborhood organization. The precursor of that power is community organizing. So, for those concerned with neighborhood well-being, support of strong community organizing and organizations is the necessary portal to the renewal of a neighborhood’s capacities to be the principle producers of its own future.

[1] For a guide to ensuring that neighborhood knowledge, capacities and resources are fully engaged before co-production is undertaken see Discovering Community Power 

[2] See Neighborhood Necessities for a review of neighborhood functions that cannot be replaced by institutions. 

Being Seen: Turning America Downside Up


By John L. McKnight, 2020-09-09

Many Americans of diverse persuasions feel that they are not “heard”. They express their grievances in various forms from demonstrating in the streets to posting on social media. The focus of their grievances is our large institutions – government, business, not for profit agencies.

There are two major characteristics of these institutions that makes them structurally unable to hear. The first is their scale, both the scale of the institution and the scale of the complaining population.

The major institutions are huge multi-layered systems and bureaucracies. They try to respond to the thousands of voices of constituents and customers with faceless internet boilerplate messages or by connecting them with a real but powerless person in the Philippian Islands. They are inherently unable to hear people because of their own scale and the millions seeking to be heard.

In addition, government is uniquely unable to hear the millions of Americans who vote but their candidate loses. They feel they are not heard.

In the case of government and nongovernmental institutions, the scale is such that for most people the idea of being heard is unrealistic. And those who are fated to “reform” the institutions so that they can respond meaningfully have a sad history of failure.

The second cause of institutional unresponsiveness is that by their nature they are remote and impersonal. There is no powerful real person within the institution who a citizen/consumer can engage. There is, instead, a non-person hidden behind the letters CEO, COO and CFO or the words Executive Director, Chairman or President. Those seeking to be heard are John and Jane, persons with personal concerns. However, they are fated to interact with a structure designed to be impersonal.

When we “institutionalize” something, we mean that there is now a structure within which a person is transformed to an entity called “employee”. They fill a slot. They are a replaceable part. The institution will move on without them. 

These employees are confronted by John or Jane who have a personal grievance and are often in pain. Within the institution they can’t engage a real person with the power to really hear them. Instead persons called John or Jane are transformed into clients or consumers – the most powerless status in society.

In the large-scale world populated with inherently impersonal institutions, even democratic societies are structured so that millions of citizens feel, accurately, that they are not being heard. These unheard people are structurally out of touch. The exception is those select people who are privileged. Privilege is a name for those with enough power to actually be heard. They “end run” the structural barriers. Traditionally, they are white, male and have a lobby.

****

It is useful to consider how people would come to know they were being heard: 

Is it through their vote where the minority are unheard?

Is it the result of receiving a form letter from a legislator speaking evasively when “no” is the answer?

Is it the official hearing where they are “heard” but the vote goes against them? 

Is it the corporate Customer Service Representative who is institutionally present while sending your message into a vaporous cloud of data?

Perhaps there is another way that people feel heard. We tend to think of “being heard” as the result of seeking authorizations, benefits, rights, services, etc. In this kind of “being heard,” we are consumers seeking institutional benefits. They have it. We want it. If we get it, we’re heard.

However, If we are citizens we are producers as well as consumers. The vehicle for most of our productions is our associations, clubs, organizations and churches. Here we live personally and collectively using our power to solve problems and create better ways of doing things. This happens because in this associational world, people of all persuasions hear each other. It is this local hearing that results in the creation of the infrastructure of local communities.

So, there is a power making domain in which people get heard by each other. Their shared voices result in something they can see. There is an immediate connection between their voices and the outcomes they collectively produce. Through this process there are millions of visible community benefits created and experienced by local citizens.*

While these benefits are pervasive in functioning neighborhoods and towns, they are largely unseen at the institutional level. If seen, viewed as “ nice but insignificant.”

It may be for many Americans an essential cause of their voicelessness is not that they are unheard but that they are unseen, unrecognized, unsupported or celebrated as they do the basic work of building our communities.

So, suppose we understood that the most basic working parts of our country are local – family, friends and neighbors joining together in groups that make up the base of society. If this base were the domain institutions could see as the most important space in America, they could put themselves in a new perspective. They would see themselves as servants of the local associational structure. They would act like servants – public servants, social servants and service sellers rather than acting like Lords who dominate their citizen servants through high scale remote impenetrable systems.

This transformation to a citizen-centered associational society would shift the functions and power of the institutions. The institutional questions would become:

  1. How can we get out of the way of citizens being producers?
  2. How can we step back so their power can grow?
  3. How can we support their work so that it is more powerful?
  4. How can we publicly report their powerful work every day in our media?
  5. How can we celebrate their work now that we see them as the central producers of our well- being and our future? 

To be heard I am acting as a supplicant and a consumer. However, to be seen I am a powerful creator in the associational world. When I am institutionally seen as part of the citizen center where I work with my neighbors, left and right, then I can sense my real power. I will feel much less aggrieved because the institutions around me will honor my capacities and support my being evermore productive. My complaints with the mega-systems will diminish because I am at the center of power. I have no one to complain to but myself. 

When we are “seen” we will realize much more clearly the significance of our collective capacities, our community building work and our power. We will take on more functions and authority as institutions step back and become our servants rather than our Lords.** And we won’t need to live lives of grievance, hopelessly dependent on powerful institutions with the basic inability to hear or see us.

* The actual examples of local public benefits can be seen at:

A Study of the Community Benefits Provided by Local Associations by John McKnight (2013), 

Directory of Spring Green Associations

Spring Green Study Questionnaire

** For a definition of powerful local function see Neighborhood Necessities: Seven Functions That Only Effectively Organized Neighborhoods Can Provide by John McKnight (2013).


At the start of any asset-based initiatives, the identification of local assets is the essential starting point. Nonetheless, in many neighborhoods, most of these local assets are not recognized. Even though they are present they are not visible. This is the reason for the basic work of the ABCD Institute as it assists neighbors in making their local assets visible. We also assist in understanding how these assets can be connected in order to create new power and productivity.

At the center of this discovery process are the neighbors themselves. THEY are the primary local assets because they have the capacity to act together and the ability to connect their capacities, skills and knowledge in order to increase their well-being. 

It is true that the current virus is like a modern plague. And yet, it has a side effect that has made visible across North America our greatest community building assets!

This new visibility has happened on my own block. A neighbor three doors away sent an email to all the others on the block. She said that if we wanted to offer help or needed help, we could let her know and she would connect us. Eight neighbors responded immediately that they can help. As far as I can tell, two have asked for assistance.

Now, our local community builders are visible! We know who can connect us and we know who are the neighbors ready to act for our common good.

This new visibility is a bonanza for any community organizer wanting to stimulate new neighborhood associations at the local level. We need to identify the names of as many people on as many blocks as possible. Indeed, this could be a useful activity for ABCD Faculty and allied practitioners as they work in solitude.

We could create a local archive of those neighbors who want to foster the same kind of community response and organization that they demonstrated while the virus was here.

Toxicity seems to surround us. And yet, a treasure chest of thousands of gifted people have connected and acted in order to help us survive. After COVID-19 they will be waiting for new opportunities to act as powerful citizens once again. So who will identify them? And who will call them together in the future?

After the plague, they will be waiting for our call.

Institutional Precipitation


By John L. McKnight, 2020-03-03

It’s my understanding that in chemistry, a precipitant is a reagent that produces a reaction of which it is not a part. It is analogous to one form of institutional action in relationship to a local neighborhood.

Most neighborhood focused institutional actions involve introducing a substantive program that serves the interests of the institutions, Therefore, the people in the neighborhood are not involved in determining what should be done, how it should be done and who should do it. However, these three activities are critical if neighbors are to act as citizens defining and producing the future.

There is one possibility for institutions to enable citizen action if they can be a precipitant rather than a programmatic intervener. A precipitating action would avoid defining for neighbors what should be done, how it should be done and who should do it. However, it could act to precipitate citizens performing these three actions.

Two examples of institutional precipitation are:

1. Grants to Blocks

In Savannah, Georgia, the assistant city manager sent a letter to every household in the lowest income neighborhood in the city. The letter indicated that the city appreciated the community building efforts of neighborhood people and wanted to support those efforts wherever possible. It said that if the local resident wanted to do something that would improve life on their block, the city was prepared to provide any funding that might help their effort- up to $100. The resident was asked to send a one-page letter describing what they wanted to do and to identify at least two other residents that would join in implementation.

In the first year, 85 residents sent in a letter with their proposal and all were funded. The result of sending these letters each year had a cumulative effect that clearly transformed the neighborhood. 

The assistant city manager developed ways to celebrate these initiatives and he realized that the people who were signing the letters of proposal were the real leaders in the neighborhood.

This entire process is described in our publication, City-Sponsored Community Building: Savannah’s Grants for Blocks Story by Deborah Puntenney and Henry Moore (1998)

2. Idea Jam

In a neighborhood in Vancouver, Canada, a local settlement house publicized what they called an “Idea Jam.” It invited any resident in the neighborhood to come to a gathering with an idea about how the neighbors working together could make the neighborhood better.  At the event, the admission fee was having an idea for neighborhood improvement. The participants came together in various groups to discuss the ideas, how they might be implemented and who would be involved. Then they formed teams to implement the initiatives.

In both cases, institutions precipitated significant citizen action without intervening substantively. These two examples could provide a stimulus for the identification of other institutionally precipitated actions. These kinds of actions could then be described as case studies and used in training institutions on how they might take a different approach to the support of neighborhoods. 

What Counts?


By John L. McKnight, 2020-01-23

It’s useful to conceptualize what counts as a means of evaluation. Counting is a limited tool. It doesn’t really help much in determining whether there are new friendships and a web of mutual support creating a culture of interdependence, the goal of asset-based neighborhood organizing. Nonetheless, in understanding whether door-to-door asset- based organizing is fruitful, there are ways of counting things that provide useful, if limited, feedback that is satisfying to people who know by numbers. For of these numeric methods are:

1. Connections and Social Capital
The first step in utilizing the information from neighborhood questionnaires or community conversations is to establish connections. These could be:

One to one relationships.

More than two people being connected in a new association.

Individuals being connected to an existing association.

Individuals being connected to local institutions.

Each of these types of relationships can be counted and this information used to demonstrate “social capital.” Social capital is widely recognized as a major factor in all forms of well-being — health, security, knowledge, economy, etc. Robert Putnam, in his famous book called Bowling Alone spells out the many benefits of social capital. It’s worth looking at his chapters.

2. Action Outcomes
Many institutional and funding leaders are more interested in “outcomes” than they are in the increase in social capital. They want to know what happened as a direct result of the connections. In order to document these outcomes, it’s necessary to follow-up on each outcome so that the actions can be identified and quantified. For example, if the action of five relationships could be classified as promoting health, then we reach the level of generalization that is of greatest interest to most institutional people. We can say that the connections in the neighborhood show evidence of actions that produce health and it is “evidence based” activity.

3. Attitude Change
Connections and actions may result in a change in attitude by participants
and neighbors regarding the significance of the neighborhood. It is possible to measure attitude change by asking a series of questions at the beginning of an initiative and then following up within a year or so, asking the same questions to determine whether there has been a change. One measure of attitude change is called the “Sense of Community Index.” The responses to its questions can be counted up demonstrating the amount of change in attitude and the nature of that change.

4. Community Participation
One result of the connective process has been greater attendance at the meetings of the local neighborhood associations as well as greater presence at the meetings of city council or its committees. This increase may be difficult to count, but the observation of the officials chairing these meetings can be useful in demonstrating more participation in local democracy.


Many institutions, agencies, governments and companies seek to develop effective relationships with the neighborhoods or small towns that they serve. Often, these desirable relationships are called co-production, collaboration, cooperation, etc. The “co” in each of these definitions implies a parity of power, influence, or authority. However, in almost every case, institutions, agencies, governments and companies rarely achieve actual parity in their relationship. The institutions have money, technology and expertise that inevitably results in dis-parity. And usually, in a legal sense, whatever the “co” may be, it is the institution that has the legal final say. Therefore, “co” activities are almost always an unbalanced relationship.

How might a balance with parity be achieved? There are some interesting examples of authoritative experts, professionals and administrators whose role is necessarily in alignment and parity with the interests of those they serve.

Consider the airline pilot. She or he have great power, technology and expertise that none of their passengers share. Nonetheless, the pilots interests are in absolute alignment with their passengers because the passengers fate will be their fate.

Another example is the pastoral principle of Reverend John Perkins who founded the nationally influential Christian Community Development Association. It was his premise that the necessary precursor to a legitimate pastorate is that the pastor lives in the neighborhood where most of the parishioners live. Therefore, the pastor will have intensely accurate information about the local community and will live with the neighbors in experiencing the neighborhood reality.

Another example was a rule developed by Dr. Jerome Miller who directed the Massachusetts Department of Juvenile Corrections in the 1970’s. The most severe punishment in the system was sending young people to isolation cells. If an authority in a local reformatory sent a youthful inmate into isolation, Miller required the authority to spend several hours of each day in isolation with the inmate. The effect was to quickly change policy in terms of isolation.

In each case, the authority/expert personally experienced the consequence of her/his decisions and actions. In these cases, the “co” resulted in a parity of interests unequaled by the usual imbalance in co-production, collaboration, cooperation.

The reality is that very few people who have institutional authority are prepared to establish a local relationship where the consequence of their decisions will be the same as those they serve. Therefore, who should have the final say in “co-decision-making?” Should it be those who must live with a co-decision? Or those who do not? One way to resolve this dilemma is to stipulate, at the outset of the co-decision-making process, that those who must live with the decision have the final say or a veto. With this authority, they can act as citizen rather that supplicants or clients. And when the final authority of citizens acts as a counter balance to the money, technology and expertise of institutional authorities, the substance of the final decision will also change. As citizens learn that they have real power, “co” will now mean that they can be creators, designers, analysts, planners and implementers. And they will learn that the people across the table are their servants – public and not-for-profit.

Community Dreams: The Power of Citizen Authority


By John L. McKnight, 2019-12-03

For many years before Ronald Reagan’s administration, the Federal Government provided funds to Regional Health Planning Agencies. These agencies oversaw the area health planning focusing on medical systems and resources. The Reagan administration discontinued support for these agencies and many then sought to replace the Federal Funds.

On Chicago’s Westside there was great concern within this African American community that local hospitals would close or move away. Many felt that the Regional Agency had provided some control over the hospital exodus. Therefore, local neighborhood and activist groups convened to decide what they could do without the regional group’s helpful authority. 

They developed a plan to create their own citizen organization to replace the useful functions of the Federally supported agency. Near the conclusion of their planning meeting, there was a discussion of the name they should use for their new organization. Should it be the ‘Westside Health Committee’ or ‘Health Council’ or ‘Health Coalition’? Suddenly, a woman who was a wise elder from the community said, “In the past, the government was the authority but now they are gone. So, we have a plan to replace them. Now we are the authority. So, let’s call ourselves what we are – the Westside Health Authority.

The participants were unanimous in accepting the new name. Thirty years later, the Westside Health Authority (WHA) has provided shelter for all kinds of community building initiatives. They include student health career planning in local hospitals, building a large community Wellness Center, buying a closed hospital and turning it into a clinic. In addition, they created a neighborhood organization called “Every Block a village,” a housing rehabilitation organization employing local African American contractors and craftsman, a men’s group, a women’s group, youth organizations and, most recently, a “Good Neighbor Campaign” designed to reconnect residents in order to have a stronger community. 

Local leaders believe the title of “Authority” has been a vital factor enabling WHA in mobilizing and engaging citizen action. The idea that residents are the authority calls forth community dreams and replaces the tendency for neighbors to wait to fulfill the dreams of planners and institutions. 

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines an authority as “those who have control.” Local resident groups are usually defined as advisors, advocates, or co-producers but rarely as the people who are in control. However, a citizen authority calls forth a critically different role for residents. That role is to be the responsible party. Authority means you have responsibility because of your control. It is this power of residents to be responsible for their future that has proliferated the functions and the powers of citizen authorities like the Westside Health Authority. 

For those interested in more detail about the Westside Health Authority see:

http://healthauthority.org/

https://www.facebook.com/WestsideHealth/

http://healthauthority.org/good-neighbor-campaign-austin/

https://www.facebook.com/GoodHood5417/

In Search of the Tie That Binds


By John L. McKnight, 2019-11-07

One way of classifying associations is in terms of whether or not they are space-bounded. The greatest number of associations are not space-bound. However, our focus has been upon those associations where a neighborhood or small town provides the boundaries of our associational concern.

Most of the associations that are not space bound are based on affinity. They draw from a broad constituency of people with a common interest. The tie that binds them is their mutual interest and passion rather than the people next door.

The situation of associations bounded by space is quite different. Just because I live next door to several people does not mean that I see any basic affinity. So what is the tie that binds people on a block?

In recent years when I have met with a group interested in neighborhoods, I often ask the participants to identify whether they are over fifty. Then I ask them to describe their childhood experience in their neighborhood. The story is unusually common. Their story tells about how acceptable behavior was enforced and how they learned from and were supported by neighbors on the block. Then I ask people under 35 to describe their childhood experiences on their block. Their response is almost universally that the story the over fifty’s told was not their story. They don’t see the block as a point of primary relations because they were raised institutionally by outside systems.  They usually add that in their adult life they know very few of their neighbors.

An important question for people interested in collective/communal decision making, is what happened to the common relationships of only two generations ago? How did most North Americans in a very short period of time become isolated in space? (One aspect of this phenomena is, of course, what Bob Putnam was reporting in Bowling Alone).

The over fifty story tells us that people in a local place were in significant common relationships. One reason is that they saw these relationships as necessary in order to fulfill their needs. In some ways, the relational local network was a safety net. It must be that our current neighborhood isolation is the result of people not seeing that they need each other-- otherwise they would connect with each other. It is my hypothesis that the generational change in the neighborhood story results from the rapid transformation of local citizen producers to resident consumers. Today, people on a block see their needs being met by access to the marketplace, professionals and public programs. This process was magnified by the fact that neighbors who are women entered the marketplace and so the powerful daily presence of adults disappeared.  Therefore, the only residual manifestation of the old community is the annual block party.

I may lack vision, but I don’t think we can go back to the old neighborhood. If being a neighbor is to once again become meaningful, I think we are going to have to discover how to create a new way.

It is in this context of discovering new ways that I think we’ve been engaged in our relationship with the Kettering Foundation. In particular, I think we have discovered two new approaches to create ties that bind, enhancing both citizen productivity and decision-making.

The first is the initiatives convened by Kettering that has been named Asset-Based Neighborhood Organizing. This approach to isolated neighbors assumes that while people may not sense they need each other, each of them looks upon him or herself as endowed with gifts, skills, passions and knowledge that gives them their sense of personhood and value. However, there is no local structure or process that calls upon local residents to contribute these assets to their neighbors. The asset-based organizing process inspires local neighbors to identify their assets. It then invites the neighbors to contribute their assets by connecting with others who value the same attributes. The result is the creation of new affinity groups at the neighborhood level.  These affinities are always building local social capital, initiating creative activity and providing a means for solving local problems. In sum, it reverses the consumer trend and calls for the productive possibilities of relationships on the block. It reveals why we need our neighbors, but it starts with what we can contribute which is always self-satisfying and empowering.

This approach is now being tested in neighborhoods in Edmonton, Vancouver, West Palm Beach and Appleton. It provides a fantastic continuing learning opportunity.

The second initiative is the one that we identified through the Nebraska Community Foundation. For three years I have joined our faculty in working with that organization as it increases the decision making power in small communities.

The NCF has precipitated small groups of local citizens who have taken on the responsibility to approach local residents of some wealth and to ask them to contribute to a fund to support the future of their small hometown.  In many towns this method has created a substantial endowment for the community’s well-being. Once the local fund has begun to generate substantial income, the local funding group is faced with a task that is not fundraising—how should the money be spent to enhance the future of our small town? In many of these towns, the result is creating various methods of citizen engagement that creates a vision and guides the use of the money based upon the popular decision-making. The incredible thing is that the NCF has been so effective at precipitating these local groups that there are more than 250 of them, at least half in towns under 700 people. And at this point, they are a wonderful peer learning group of towns where new ideas come from effective local experiments rather that top down programs.

Conceptually, it is especially significant to learn that they are creating and then occupying the civic space in the community that is not filled by the town government. The space they fill is decision-making and investing for the future. I can now see how time limited how local governments are in the span of their decision-making. Everything is immediate and short term. There is no citizen vehicle to identify assets beyond public budgets and to make decisions about their allocation. I think that these local groups are a major invention and we will continue to follow their development and work with Kettering on helping others learn about the process.

One way of defining a citizen is a person who has the collective power to create a vision and the means to be the producer of that vision. The Nebraska experiment is creating a new means for visioning. The Asset approach is creating a new means for being productive. Each way is an experiment in creating local ties that bind. Prospectively, both ways could be synthesized.

***

In the broadest sense, what is ahead for me is understanding more and more about the possible new ties that bind—when they happen, how they happen and why.

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John L. McKnight
About John L. McKnight

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