By John L. McKnight, 2021-05-13
Sal Alinsky, one of the Godfathers of neighborhood organizing, enjoyed asking people, “What is a leader.” Usually, no one gave the answer that he had in mind and he said, “A leader is somebody who has followers.” By that he meant that at least they were people who had vision, solutions, special skills and the ability to inspire.
There is another kind of leader who precipitates groups of productive citizens who have vision, solutions, skills and the ability to inspire. Henry Moore, who was the Assistant City Manager of Savannah, Georgia was a great example of the second kind of leader.*
Henry had been administering block grant programs designed to improve neighborhoods by spending several million dollars. However, as time passed he felt that the improvements that he implemented faded away and that residents had been taught to depend on him for neighborhood improvement. Even though he had spent millions, he found that the money and his programs had little lasting effect.
In 1993 Savannah won an award of $20,000 dollars as an exemplary city. There were no strings attached to the money. Henry could spend it any way he chose.
Reflecting on his position, he felt he had been acting as “King Henry,” the ruler of failed efforts. Therefore, it occurred to him that if he could find a way to take off his crown and place it on the heads of neighborhood residents, they might do a better job than he of neighborhood improvement.
He decided that one way to transfer the crown would be to reward neighbors for engaging in productive activity that improved their neighborhoods. Therefore, he sent a letter to the households in the lowest income section of Savannah. The letter said that he appreciated the work neighbors had been doing and wanted to support them in their improvement initiatives. They could receive this support if they wrote him a one-page letter describing an initiative on their block that would improve the life of the residents. He asked them to identify what they would do, how they would do it, who would do it and the result they wanted to achieve. Then, he said, if they needed any money in addition to what they were going to do, he had up to $100 that he could contribute to the effort and they should indicate what they needed any money for. Then, they also needed to add to their letter the names of at least two other residents who would be involved in the initiative.
That year, he received 70 letters describing productive local activities. No one asked for the entire $100. (So, you know that no agency was applying). The proposals would say that they needed $63.22 to buy canvass and thread to create a family flag for each household.
At the end of the year, Henry Moore invited all of the neighborhood producers to a grand dinner at the finest hotel in Savannah. He urged each little group to create a display describing their initiative and to bring it to the hotel where it could be set up in a large display room. These displays gave all the participants an opportunity to see a diverse set of additional possibilities for their own neighborhood.
The dinner celebrated all the participants. The mayor spoke and awards were given to a few groups who undertook outstanding initiatives. As Henry looked out across the room with more than 200 productive neighbors, he observed, “Now I have found the real leaders in Savannah. I am their servant and tonight they were crowned.”
This collegial meal was followed by morning sessions in which the local leaders were invited to begin making decisions about what they were going to do next year. And he indicated that he could make it possible for them to have $500 or less if they undertook a more ambitious activity. He also arranged for them to have training opportunities in community development if they thought that would be helpful.
Five years later when they held the annual neighborhood celebration for productive leaders, there were 715 people in the room – each having been involved in a small team creating a better life on their block.
During the fifth year, I visited Henry Moore and he said, “Let’s go out and you can see the neighborhood.” We got in his car and as he was driving he said, “Tell me when we get to the neighborhood.” I said, “I don’t think I can do that because I’ve never been there.” “You’ll know when we get there,” Henry said. And I did know.
I could see all the new trees, flowers, block signs, banners, newly painted houses. I could not see the newly engaged young people, the city newspaper articles describing the renewed activity in the neighborhood, the local associations that became involved in initiatives, the greatly increased participation of residents in city planning and development activities. And I could not see the immense pride that had emerged throughout the neighborhood.
Henry learned that on every block there were neighbors who believed they could make things better and knew the other people who would join them. Henry emerged as a new kind of leader who inspired local residents to inspire each other to envision and implement the work of productive citizenship.
Henry Moore has passed on but his legacy has spread around the world. His students have learned how to “lead by stepping back.” **
* For a detailed description of his work see: City-Sponsored Community Building: Savannah’s Grants for Blocks Story workbook by Deborah Puntenney and Henry Moore (1998).
** Henry Moore describes his transformation in: Leading by Stepping Back: A Guide for City Officials on Building Neighborhood Capacity by Henry Moore and Deborah Puntenney (1999).
By John L. McKnight, 2021-04-07
In a neighborhood, people are empowered by the work they do together. Often, they use this power to confront institutions and advocate for the neighborhood’s self-interest. In this kind of action, power is understood as our ability to get someone else to do something for us. This is the consumer power of confrontation.
The other kind of neighborhood power results when we come together to create something for ourselves – from ourselves. This is the power of citizens engaged in using their communities’ assets.
Many of us think of power in terms of the confrontation approach. In this way of thinking, power is about advocacy, demands, negotiation and control. From this perspective, the second strategy is often viewed as “nice and cooperative but not powerful.”
There are at least six powerful characteristics of neighbors that empower their neighborhood:
cooperation, hospitality, generosity, kindness, accepting fallibilities and forgiveness.
Each of these qualities is a power and creates powerful results:
Cooperation is the power to join with your neighbors to create a future. Every totalitarian system knows that the greatest threat is people working together in groups, small or large. In totalitarian societies, the power to associate cooperatively is called a conspiracy.
Hospitality is the power to welcome. A fearful neighborhood is frightened of strangers and greatly weakened by its exclusion of the talents of strangers inside and outside the community.
Generosity is the power to give. Powerlessness is greatest when we are denied the right to contribute and express ourselves. That is why prison is so terrible, even though food, clothing and shelter are provided. There is no stronger punishment than denying a person’s power to give.
Kindness is the power to care. A careless society is a weak society. It finally descends to callous practices and harmful disregard for its members.
Accepting fallibility creates the power to enjoy and work with each other in spite of our failures, deficiencies and differences. It creates the glue that holds us together in spite of our human nature.
Finally, forgiveness is the power to forget. Many communities have been weakened for centuries because of events that happened in the distant past. Until a community or its members can overcome a pervasive sense of grievance, that community will atrophy in a spirit of retribution.
Each of these qualities is abundant among neighbors and when they are combined they create peace in a place.
Today we are troubled by violence nationally, as well as in neighborhoods. Locally we frequently respond by funding paid anti-violence workers. We ask them to deliver peace to the neighborhood. And skilled and committed as they are, they have had minimal impact over the years. This is because it is neighbors together who have the power to create peace. It can’t be delivered from the outside.
This peaceful creation emerges when neighbors of all ages become associated and decide how they can manifest these six great powers. And as a result of this manifestation they will unintentionally create a culture that calls forth these peacemaking powers in each neighborhood. And as time passes, the neighborhood will have a history – a story of its own.
This is the story of a neighborhood in a city in Sweden. The neighborhood, like many in Sweden, is a subsidized housing development of about 5,000 people, perhaps 1,700 households. It was once described as a “cold, aging, unsafe place.” A new manager was hired to see if there was some way to improve the development. He first noticed that there were some people who didn’t seem to have anything to do. He thought that there needed to be an incentive for these people to create a better neighborhood. And, because he had come from the field of marketing, he felt that creating a brand name should be part of the incentive.
He then bought a hundred yellow jackets with the emblem of a flame and the words, “FIRE SOUL” printed on the jacket. He also arranged to have a vacant room painted yellow with the Fire Soul logo on the wall.
Then, he told a couple of people who seemed to have nothing to do that he could give them a jacket if they would do something to make the neighborhood better, but they had to conceive and do it themselves. Several people accepted his offer and singly or jointly undertook a creative improvement initiative. When they were done, he gave them each a jacket and told them that they could gather any time in the Fire Soul room. He asked that they wear the jackets frequently and to tell their friends and neighbors how they got them. “Tell them,” he advised, “that they could become Fire Souls too.”
The Fire Soul idea caught on and more and more people created initiatives, wore jackets, gathered in the Fire Soul room and invited their neighbors to become Fire Souls too. Eventually, the neighborhood valence shifted and the question for some residents became, “Why aren’t you a Fire Soul?”
One Fire Soul told the others that some people weren’t becoming involved because they were isolated and lonely. So, they posted flyers throughout the development advertising a free luncheon for lonely people. About 80 people showed up and each was invited to become a Fire Soul. Many undertook an initiative and joined the social gatherings in the Fire Soul room.
One Fire Soul noticed that only adults were wearing the jackets. She proposed that the children should have the opportunity to contribute their talents and gifts. So, the Fire Souls bought 100 yellow T-shirts and each had a logo that said, “Sparks.” The children were excited to contribute and create – just like adults. Even two and three-year-olds became Sparks.
The Fire Soul room became the heart of the community filled with stories and a sense of celebration.
Finally, the manager was able to observe that the neighborhood had become safe and that it had its own story. And that is the story that is written above. It is a story about the power of cooperation, hospitality, generosity, kindness, accepting fallibilities, forgiveness and the culture shift they created.
Social scientists might say this is a story of the rich “social capital” created by coalescing peaceable capacities. And, it is this social capital that creates proliferating effects beyond even peace and security. This is because the Fire Souls were also increasing the health, knowledge, economic viability, environmental integrity and child-raising capacities in the neighborhood without intention. Instead, they were guided and mobilized by a culture of contribution.
By John L. McKnight, 2021-03-04
Many current programs, policies, plans and initiatives are described as fostering “community” engagement, “community” participation, “community” co-production, “community” coalition, “community” power, “community” capacity etc. While each has “community” in common, in particular the word is used to reference such diverse entities as the residence of Chicago, the collectors of Brazilian stamps, scholars who study amphibians and a network of skydivers. This diversity of meanings demonstrates that the word “community” tells us almost nothing about the object referred to. “Community” is what social historian Ivan Illich called an “amoeba word,” referring to a constantly shape-shifting form with no constant boundaries. He said, “These ‘amoeba words’ are like a stone thrown into a conversation that makes waves, but never hits anything.
Frequently, “community” efforts fail or flounder because they don’t hit anything. They have no specific clarity as to what the shape of their “community” is. So, when they seek to involve the “community” they often create a wave that hits nothing. Many of the “community” engagers specifically mean “neighborhood” when they use the word – a space-bound, place-based definition. It is within this relatively small space that they seek engagement and change. But what do they want to engage in this space? Specifically?
One way of being specific is to identify the basic elements of the neighborhood. These elements are the actionable assets in this place. There are at least six of these assets in most neighborhoods." *
- The talents of the individual residents
- The groups of individuals pooling their talents through associations
- The very local institutions:
- Governmental Institutions– libraries, post offices, schools, parks, etc.
- For-Profit Institutions – barber shops, restaurants, bowling alleys, copy shops, etc.
- Not-for-Profit Institutions – a youth center, a clinic, churches, a neighborhood arts center, etc.
- The land and improvements that create the physical environment of the place
- The daily exchanges among residents including giving, sharing, bartering, trading, buying, selling etc.
- The neighborhood story that provides a cultural base for preserving heritage and remembering what has been done in the neighborhood that worked.
These six assets are the basic building blocks in a neighborhood. They are sensible. You can see them, hear them and touch them unlike “community” which has no sense.
Of course, these six elements do not stand alone. They are intricately interconnected. Their power grows as they are increasingly connected. Indeed, almost every story of “community” improvement is about unconnected assets becoming connected.
This asset-based understanding of a “community” called neighborhood allows the “community” helping classes to say with clarity and specificity, “We know about neighborhood assets and how their connection creates power. That’s why our “community work” is designed to support local connectedness. We evaluate ourselves by whether residents and their associations are more powerful because of our supporting engagement.”
* For further information regarding neighborhood assets see Building Communities from the Inside Out by John Kretzmann and John McKnight, ACTA Publications, Chicago, IL, 1993
By John L. McKnight, 2021-02-04
“Agency” is a rather obscure word used in some circles in society. To better understand the word, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary translates in more popular language as meaning “the capacity, condition or state of exerting power.”
In this era when some people speak of the loss of agency, they more plainly mean the loss of capacity to exert power. This loss is usually focused on the changing relationship between citizens and their governments. The unspoken assumption is that the personal sense of power is embodied in the citizen/government relationship and that when the relationship is unsatisfactory, people grow angry.
While this is an interesting argument with some merit, it is an institutionalist view of society. There is another way of understanding a person’s sense of power, a.k.a. agency. This alternative perspective was made clear at a meeting in Minneapolis of people who descried themselves as “community organizers.” * Each was asked how people they organize feel power. The responses were:
The list is especially illuminating in at least two ways. First, government was never mentioned even though the specific question asked was, “How do people feel powerful?”
Second, almost all of the sources of power are relational – individual and collective. The absence of these relationally powerful manifestations is called isolation or loneliness. This isolated form of powerlessness was demonstrated in a now famous Vancouver Foundation study of the most important issues of concern in Vancouverites’ lives. The most frequent primary issue was loneliness rather than issues such as security, education, health etc.
A parallel study by Robert Putnam in his illustrious book, Bowling Alone, indicated the decline of participation in the primary local social structures for relationship building – neighborhood-level formal and informal associations.
The Minneapolis research suggests that many local citizens feel power grows from personal relationships. The Vancouver study suggests that these relationships are not experienced by thousands of residents who feel isolated instead of connected. The Putnam study indicates that the associational means of converting isolation to connectedness is in decline.
So, suppose we said that the anger we observe nationally grows significantly from the dissatisfaction millions of people feel because they are locally disconnected from each other.
Indeed, it may be, metaphorically, that the declining associational world is the drying up of the basic spring of democracy. Downstream we see the river of public discontent that results from the diminished spring. However, the river will not lose its visual pollution until we focus on the tangible local sources of power that create a real sense of “agency” - the local relationships that make people feel powerful, connected and satisfied.
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:
- How can our institutions support the associational functions?
- What institutional policies and practices have deterred or opposed the growth or power of local associational functions?
- What functions that police attempt to perform could be better performed by relocating them to newly empowered local associations?
- 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.
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:
- What are you and your institutional allies doing that limits or degrades local capacity and authority? Stop doing that.
- 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
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
Someone then said, “Well, what makes us unhealthy?” The notes indicate these answers:
- Being alone with big responsibilities
- 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
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:
- Individual behavior
- Group relationships
- Physical environment
- 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:
- What can we do with our neighborhood resources to deal with this issue? 
- What can we achieve with our resources and the support of an institution or system – co-production?
- 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.
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.
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:
- How can we get out of the way of citizens being producers?
- How can we step back so their power can grow?
- How can we support their work so that it is more powerful?
- How can we publicly report their powerful work every day in our media?
- 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),
** For a definition of powerful local function see Neighborhood Necessities: Seven Functions That Only Effectively Organized Neighborhoods Can Provide by John McKnight (2013).