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.

Embracing Deviance

By John L. McKnight, 2019-11-04

One of the unfortunate results of assigning responsibility for marginal people to institutions and professionals is that citizens lose their capacity to incorporate marginal people. Over the years, I’ve observed an increasing intolerance for marginal people in a neighborhood. We say they “need professional help” and send them elsewhere. This, of course, increases the homogeneity and like -mindedness of people in a neighborhood.

An interesting question is how we could increase the tolerance of local people for people they consider deviant. By deviant, I mean, in particular, people with labels such as developmentally disabled, mentally ill, physically disabled, single welfare mothers, gay and lesbian people, people of different ethnicities and races, drug users, etc. While each of these is clearly a distinctive group of labeled people, what I’ve seen to be most common is that people do not know them personally. They see them through the lens of the label.

One thing I have learned in our work is how efforts to include developmentally disabled people have worked. The guiding principle is to never aggregate people with the same label in the community. The institutional aggregation of developmentally disabled people evokes the label rather than the individual capacity. The very successful efforts to introduce these people into some aspect of community life have depended upon their being connected individually around their capacities, gifts, skills, etc. The principle effect of labeling is, of course, to de-individualize human beings. The primary connectedness at the community level is essentially personal and individual.

There may be an important learning here as to methods that include rather than exclude at the local level. It would be interesting to have a collection of case studies and stories about how individuals from all these labeled categories have contributed to the life of the community through their individual gifts. A starting point might be to review the literature of the Inclusion Press that is exclusively dedicated to methods for including people who are called mentally or physically disabled.

The current concern about diversity might better be defined as a concern with exclusion of labeled people. The greatest diversity in any local community is the gifts that the members have. If we focus on the gifts of everyone, then this valuable asset may be more effective in overcoming exclusion than efforts to talk about our categorical differences.

The Affinity Dilemma

By John L. McKnight, 2019-10-20

The essence of most associational groups is that they are composed of a group of people who care about each other and/or the same thing. By its very nature, this affinity creates outsiders. For example, a voluntary association of Cook County Labrador Retriever Owners creates affective relationships between these dog owners while also excluding owners of poodles. This is a reality and not a “problem” to be fixed. Because of these affinity-based associations, they tend to be parochial and exclusive. This orientation doesn’t foster openness to others. In fact, their affinity is not enhancing diversity.

A friend of mine believes that the heart of our social problems is “like-mindedness.” If he’s right, the nature of associational affinity is one cause of the problem.

One way that I have seen that partially deals with the affinity dilemma is the creation of a local association of associations. This creates all kinds of new and “different-mindedness” connections. I don’t have a lot of examples of such an association of associations. However, the clearest implementation of this method was the original approach of Saul Alinsky. He was a Tocquevillian and taught his organizers to get as many associations as possible together in their neighborhood organization so that it would be broadly representative of the community. Unfortunately, his methodology has deteriorated in recent years becoming “church based organizing” where the structure is built on five to ten local churches and their pastors. I think the reason for this is that it is very difficult to bring together forty associations. However, among the forty are the churches and they are the one association that has money. In order to pay an organizer, you need local money that can’t be controlled by outsiders. Five to ten churches can contribute enough to sustain an organizer. But, the resulting organization doesn’t promote wide engagement and the opportunity for “different mindedness.”

It might be useful to have a Kettering gathering on the local examples/possibilities of “different mindedness” which may be the way serious citizen dialogue can develop in relatively homogeneous places.

The Dilemma of Meetings

By John L. McKnight, 2019-10-10

In many neighborhoods, local associations establish a schedule of meetings and the focus is on what should happen at that time.  One of Saul Alinsky’s inviolable rules was “never meet to meet.” He knew that local associations “wear out” if they are a space in time that must be filled with something. Rather, he told organizers to have meetings when it was clear that there was something to be done so that the focus was on the substance rather than an agenda. 

I’ve recently observed two alternatives to meeting-driven associations. The first we found in our study of associations in Spring Green, Wisconsin. It was interesting to note that most of the groups focused on environmental and conservation issues had large email lists. A small “idea” group at the center of the organization rarely called a meeting of the “email membership.” Instead, they used the internet for three activities that might have traditionally been communicated through meetings. The activities are:

  1. Alerting members to public policy issues where their advocacy could enhance the organizations purpose.
  2. Providing educational information that would enhance the knowledge of the members.
  3. To notify members of specific activities to be held at a certain time and place, frequently doing work to improve the environment at a particular site.

The second alternative involves the activities of our Asset Based Neighborhood Organizers. Their local Block Connector identifies capacities that residents want to contribute to the community’s well-being and the Connector joins these people together. Here, the organizational function is one of creating local groups without calling meetings.

The meeting issue at the local level is often a problem because they rarely keep a significant number of people involved.  They become routinized and participants are only those with a huge tolerance for meetings.

It might be interesting to hold a learning exchange that examines the changing approaches to the functions of meetings.

The Problem With Problems

By John L. McKnight, 2019-10-01

At a Kettering meeting with City Managers, I was struck by how universally the focus of relationships with community was “problems.” Certainly, problems are one way of defining a part of the kinds of relationships government or any institution might have with a neighborhood and local people. However, the possibilities of productivity are also limited by the idea that what we are about is problems. 

In the five communities where we have Asset-Based Neighborhood Organizers, two of which are supported by local government, people are associating the name for the main activity as “connecting.” The connections are not about problems. They are about possibilities and creativity. They result in collective action growing out of the desire people have to make their neighborhood ever more livable. It is probably the case that if these newly connected people were engaged by institutions around problems that require meetings the whole activity would begin to wither away.  

It is important to recognize that the language we use to define the purpose of an association or meeting often puts people in a box that limits their productivity. The “problem” box usually focuses on a negative aspect of community and a resolution provided by institutions. The asset-based approach is a box that usually focuses on creativity produced by citizens. One of the reasons we may have so little productive citizen creativity at the local level is that people buy into the belief that the purpose of getting together is to deal with a problem. There is another purpose that is probably more important and that is engagement that mobilizes citizen creativity and contributions. Perhaps we need a name for this. It is not problem solving. It is mobilization of creative vision.

Some years ago I attended the annual Canadian Conference of Community Development Organizations. Several hundred groups were attending. The convener of the conference told me that the best community “developer” in all of Canada was at the conference. He pointed toward a middle aged man named Gaeton Ruest, the Mayor of Amqui, Quebec.

I introduced myself to Mayor Ruest and asked about Amqui. He said that it was a town of about 6,000 people on the Gaspe Peninsula amid the Chic Choc Mountains. It is located at the intersection of the Matapedia and Humqui Rivers. These rivers are the richest Atlantic salmon rivers on our continent and Amqui is the regional center for fishing for these salmon.

Gaeton invited me to visit his town and a year later I was able to do so. I found that all the people in the town were French-speaking. A great deal of the economic base of the community was from fisher people who came to fish for the rare Atlantic salmon.

Walking down the street with Gaeton, two men approached him. There was a long conversation in French, which I did not understand. After they were finished Gaeton explained to me what had happened. He said that the town had put nets on salmon streams in order to keep them near Amqui and accessible to the fishing guides. The two men reported that somebody was cutting the nets to let the salmon go upstream where they could poach them. Gaeton responded, “That’s terrible. What do you think we can do about that?”

The men thought for a while and then told him three things they thought could be done.

Gaeton replied, “Is there anybody who could help you do those things?”

“Yes,” they responded. “We know a couple of other fisherpeople who could help.”

Gaeton said, “Will you ask them to join you to meet with me at City Hall this evening?” They agreed.

That evening I joined Gaeton at the meeting with four concerned people. He insisted that their discussion be held in the City Council’s meeting room. 

Gaeton led a discussion of how the group could deal with the salmon poaching problem. By the time they were done, they had specific plans and specific people committed to carrying them out. 

Then, Gaeton asked, “Is there anything the City can do to help you with the job?” The participants came up with two ways the city could be helpful. 

Gaeton then said. “I am making you the official Amqui Salmon Preservation Committee. I want you to hold your meetings in the City Council Meeting Room because you are official. I want you to come to City Council meetings and tell the Council people how you are coming along.” 

The convener of the National Association of Community Development Organizations told me that the process I just observed was repeated over and over by Gaeton who was a longtime mayor. As a result, the convener said that in Amqui, hidden away in the Chic Choc Mountains, almost all the residents had become officials of the local government and the principle problem solvers for the community. 

Every public official can learn a great deal from the Mayor of Amqui. He starts with the premise that the residents are principle problem solvers. This means they have the best ideas about what needs to be done. It also means that they have the best knowledge regarding who can do what needs to be done.

Working on the basis of these assumptions, the Mayor’s, functions involved:

  • Listening carefully to the problem definition and solutions of citizens
  • Convening residents to develop a plan of action involving themselves and their ideas.
  • Offering to supply support for resident initiatives rather that assuming the City was the problem solver in the community.
  • Making residents into official actors with responsibility and authority over their initiative.
  • Creating an experience that will lead residents to feel they have ownership in the community.

Amqui flourishes because the Mayor acts on three principles:

…First, determine with residents whether problems can be resolved by the citizen’s acting together using their own community resources.

…Second, can the municipality enhance the collective citizen resources by providing supportive municipal assets.

…Third, there will be some problems that cannot be resolved with citizen resources, even if supported by government assistance. In these cases, the municipality must take full responsibility.

The sequence of these three steps is critical, if citizen participation and production is to be achieved. The first question needs to be: can citizens define the problem, create solutions and implement the solution. The last question is what must the municipality do.

We have had an Education Workgroup for some time. It has involved 9 neighborhoods involved in identifying knowledge assets of local residents and connecting them with local young people. One member of the group, Julie Filapek, has prepared a wonderful report on what these groups have found in terms of neighborhood knowledge and how they have gone about connecting that knowledge to young people. 

To view the report, A Guide to Identifying and Sharing a Neighborhood's Educational Assets with Young People

The asset-based research reported in "Building Community From The Inside Out" is an analysis based upon what may be the largest database ever collected of successful neighborhood improvement initiatives. Over 4 years, a research team at the ABCD Institute at Northwestern University collected reports of these initiatives in 20 North American cities. Over 2000 cases were documented based upon neighborhood residents' responses to the question, "Can you tell us what local residents have done together that has made things better."

Each of these cases was then analyzed to identify the basic resources used to achieve the neighborhood improvement. Based on this review, the data demonstrated that regardless of the goal of each initiative, five resources were variously used. The research team named these resources "assets.” They are the neighborhood building blocks used in over 2000 successful neighborhood initiatives. A detailed description of these assets and their use is the subject of "Building Communities From The Inside Out."*

The analysis of the initiatives revealed a second finding. Every initiative involved the connection of local assets that had not been previously connected. And the data also demonstrated that these connections required an "activator"- an individual, association or institution that initiated the connection.

The ABCD research provides clear evidence that the basic ingredients of successful neighborhood initiatives involve the identification of local assets and their active connection. Therefore, an evidence-based proposal for a neighborhood initiative should show that it will identify local assets and activate their connection.

A workbook that guides local project initiators through an asset-based planning's process that assures evidence-based methods is "Discovering Community Power.”

Two other invaluable resources regarding the evidence-based question are:

  1. ABCD Faculty member Tom Dewar's ABCD publication titled "A Guide To Evaluating Asset-Based Community Development,” available on our website under publications.

  2. The ABCD Institute has been unique among groups fostering community development because of its special focus on the first two assets - capacities of individuals and their means of empowering that asset, local associations. As we support the work of the associational world, we are enhancing the production of "social capital." This "capital" is the result of the very act of associating as citizens, no matter what the associational purpose. The concept is that in working together voluntarily we produce all kinds of wellbeing, independent of the stated purpose of our group because we produce social capital.

The best evidence for this proposition is in Robert Putnam’s groundbreaking study, "Bowling Alone.” Putnam had over 100 assistants combing the research literature to identify the benefits of associational life. This research produced strong evidence that associational activity improves education, child welfare, safety, neighborhood productivity, economic wellbeing, health and democracy (see Section 4). The documented research is cited throughout the book and is invaluable in showing how the ABCD focus on enhanced local associational activity has multiple outcomes that, in sum, may be more significant than the stated goal of a particular initiative, e.g., a group of children learning how to use local assets to create a garden will also have improved physical and mental health because of their new associational relationships.

*A sixth asset, stories, was identified after the publication of this book. See “The Four Essential Elements of an Asset-Based Community Development Process,” page 5.

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John L. McKnight