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The Connected Community: Homecoming
Enjoy this excerpt from our new book, The Connected Community, by John McKnight and Cormac Russell
CHAPTER 1 - Homecoming
Rediscovering the Value of Community
From Consumerism to Localism
The Discovery stage starts with a question: What is currently distracting us from searching more deeply and appreciating more fully the resources we need for a Good Life that we have close to home? There are many possible answers to this question, but in this chapter, we’d like to nominate consumerism as the main culprit, the number one distracter from the value of what surrounds us. Here’s why: consumerism carries two related messages that dampen the impulse to discover hidden treasures in our own neighborhoods. These messages can be summarized as follows:
• Your Good Life is in the marketplace outside your neighborhood’s economy, first to be bought and then to be consumed.
• Local handmade and homemade solutions are not enough.
So the goods and services outside our communities, which can be packaged and purchased, are valued while local assets are subtly devalued. The difficulty here is that we pursue the things we value. That’s why our first step toward discovering what we have locally is to reverse the emphasis that consumer culture places on shop-bought alternatives to local assets. Here’s an anecdote to further illustrate this point.
John, one of the authors of this book, loves to visit the West of Ireland. When he travels there, he rents a little house near a lake. He enjoys fishing and so travels with an easily assembled fishing rod. On one occasion he didn’t have any bait, so he went to a little store in the local village and asked the gentleman there, “Do you have any bait?” The shopkeeper replied, “What do you mean by ‘bait’?” “Well,” John said, “like worms.”
The shopkeeper looked surprised. He said, “On your way into my shop, did you see those two big whitewashed stones at each side of the door you walked through? Well, if you go out there and turn one of them over, you’ll find a lot of worms; they’ll provide all the bait you need.”
This story offers a great life lesson: for the most part (there are exceptions to every rule), all around us there is almost everything we are looking for if we’re prepared to live within reasonable limits. That truth is hard to see if we think the way to have a Good Life is to buy it. That’s why, if we are only consumers, we will never see what’s there. To see what’s there, we must be crafty: creators, makers, producers.
Looking First to What We Have Before Seeking a Market Solution
In every community, the worms are the equivalent of the hidden treasures in our neighbors and neighborhood. They can be found in the local soil (the place and relationships) if we’re prepared to go digging to uncover them. The worms in this sense are what we need to live a vibrant and Good Life and to secure life’s necessities.
In John’s story, he took just enough worms, but not too many—an important reminder that in nature if you take too much you eventually destroy the ecology. The other important dimension of the story is that the shopkeeper did not try to sell John anything. This is an uncommon experience for modern consumers.
Before we enter the Discovery stage, we’ve got to ask, Would our current values take us outside the shop to search beneath the whitewashed stones, or would they prompt us to get into our car and drive toward a better Main Street store with more product options? The question is whether we take the bait and go shopping outside our local economies for our Good Life, or whether our personal values allow us to create even a little space for the possibility that some primary pieces of the jigsaw that make up a decent life are found close to home in the neighborhoods that surround us. We tend to search out what we value. So, before we can fully set off on a journey of Discovery in our neighborhoods, the first and most obvious question to ask is, Is there value in what’s local?1
Local Solutions in the Face of Global Challenges
In a world facing so many global crises, it is understandable to have doubts as to the power of local people to influence climate change, rising unemployment, economic challenges, and the ever-growing issues of loneliness and poor health. The dominant story is that local efforts don’t amount to much; real change happens in faraway boardrooms, not around kitchen tables and local shorelines. The future of our local economies and built and natural environments relies on what happens on Wall Street; not on our street. Our welfare is in the “invisible hand” of the marketplace, not in the hands of hardworking local businesses and the neighbors who act as patrons to the local economy by choosing to “buy local.” The same people who dismiss local economics also sneer at those engaged in the sharing economy, where, for example, car sharing in neighborhoods is chosen over car ownership. In this book we argue that the story that top-down big institutions are our best hope is half-baked; that story is written on a promissory note that has bounced over and over again. It is a story that has run its course, and in doing so has run us and our planet into a brick wall.
But there is hope. Take climate change, for example. Much of the energy we use to light our communities, run our cars, heat our homes, and power our local businesses comes from giant, distant, toxic, and nonrenewable sources of energy. The very real alternative is for local place-based communities to plan, finance, and produce their own local, renewable energy that is reliable, safe, and sustainable, and to do it in ways that bring a net financial return back to the local economy.
This is exactly what people living on the Scottish Isle of Eigg did in 2008, when they became the first placed-based community in the world to go completely off-grid. Today they rely solely on wind, water, and solar power. They are truly a Connected Community. They are also part of a grassroots movement for change in responding to the global climate crisis, because they are adding a new possibility to the “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle” call to action: Replace. They are replacing distant, polluting, nonrenewable sources of energy with community alternatives, and they are making honest money for their local communities while doing so, because they are getting paid for returning clean energy back to the mainstream grid.
We want to lift up the facts that so often get overlooked and invite you to consider your options with refreshed eyes. Year after year, labor market surveys in Great Britain show that people living in Connected Communities are four times more likely to find meaningful employment and build sustainable livelihoods through local networks than through a Job Center. Research on health highlights that people living in supportive communities increase their chances of being healthy by 27 percent. In his 2013 article in New Scientist, “When Disaster Strikes, It’s the Survival of the Sociable,” Robert Sampson, one of the world’s most respected social scientists on policing and public safety, tells us what the evidence proves: “stronger neighborhoods have significantly less crime.”2
And the virtues of localism don’t stop there. When sufficiently enterprising, local communities can punch well above their weight, producing decent livelihoods and vibrant economies that are the envy of the world. Consider what is unfolding on Fogo Island in Newfoundland, Canada.
By the early 1990s, after decades of intensive fishing, the northern cod stocks in Canada collapsed, dropping by more than 90 percent from 1962 to 1992. For the people of Fogo Island, Newfoundland, things changed drastically with this collapse of the fishing industry, the main employer on the Island. Facing a serious crisis and with little time to pivot, the community in Fogo staged a world-class comeback.
Zita Cobb is a central contributor to this Connected Community story. She grew up on Fogo Island with her seven brothers and her parents through the 1960s. Despite not having any running water or electricity until she was ten, she describes her childhood as idyllic and Fogo Island as her “salty Narnia” (referring to the fictional world portrayed by C. S. Lewis in his book series The Chronicles of Narnia).
Zita’s father, who had a deep understanding of ecology, saw from the start the jeopardy in which the “monster ships” that fished day and night were placing Island life. The economic model these outsiders lived by, in which they turned fish into money, with no regard to nature, culture, community, or sustainability, cast an ominous shadow over Fogo Island’s future. It was a mindset so utterly out of step with the Island’s barter system of trading fish for other essential goods—a strong feature of the economic life of the Island right through the 1960s—that most locals simply could not get their heads around this insanity. Concerned that this grotesque approach to making money was going to destroy all he and his fellow Islanders loved, he encouraged Zita to study business and figure out how the money system worked. This is the story of her homecoming.
Honoring her father’s wishes, Zita left Fogo Island in 1975 at the age of sixteen to study business at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario. Over the next twenty-six years, she enjoyed meteoric success in the business world, ultimately becoming the chief financial officer of a major fiber optics company. Zita retired in 2001 to pursue her interest in philanthropy. With a finely attuned business mind, years of extensive experience, worldwide connections, and a deep love for Fogo Island, she turned her philanthropic attention and personal gifts toward home shores. In 2003, she and her brothers Alan and Tony established the Shorefast Foundation, the aim of which is to build cultural and economic resilience on Fogo Island.
Up to this point, given that we’ve been challenging consumerism, you would be forgiven for thinking we are preaching anti-market economics. We are not anti-capitalism per se; we are, however, like Zita’s father was, concerned about the damage caused when markets become dislocated from local nature, culture, and community and start to dominate communities, ultimately leading them toward collapse. The Shorefast Foundation set out to renew Fogo Island’s economy in a profoundly different and better way, by re-embedding the marketplace in local culture and place.
Discovery Before Delivery
The Shorefast ethos is rooted in the belief that place, wherever it may be, is our most important gift. Respect for the integrity of place, culture, and community can be authentically achieved only by first committing to a deep period of Discovery. To deliver goods and services from the top down or to extract them from the outside in, with no regard for the visible and invisible assets of a place, is an act of desecration. Zita deeply understood this hazard, so before Shorefast delivered anything, they engaged in a patient process of making visible all the invisible assets and making valuable all those assets that were not yet sufficiently valued. The community-wide conversations invited Islanders to consider the following questions:
1. What do we know as a community?
2. What do we have as a community?
3. What do we love as a community?
4. What do we miss and what can we do about it?
These conversations happened at a pace that allowed trust to be built and were hosted in a way that lifted up that which was local, handmade, and homespun. Hospitality is naturally embroidered into the cultural fabric of Fogo Island life; the art of hosting has enabled the Island to maintain close-knit community connections over recent decades despite its economic challenges. In seeking to discover viable economic alternatives to fishing, the question What do we know as a community? was important because it illuminated something deeply valuable within Island culture that many Islanders took for granted. By shining a light on and appreciating its value, people were able to imagine ways of creating sustainable livelihoods through hospitality. It did not take much to go from there to answering the question, How can we use what we have to secure what we need?
In 2013, Shorefast built the Fogo Island Inn, a hotel now internationally renowned for its sustainable yet innovative design and all of whose operating profits are reinvested in Fogo Island through community projects and initiatives. Every part of the Inn, from its furniture to the food it serves, is locally sourced and produced, but with a clever twist. The Islanders are so confident in their own capacities and other local assets that they welcome design and innovation ideas from around the world.
You will see this over and over in the examples shared throughout this book. When you build a community from the inside out in the ways we describe here, contrary to what some may assume, you don’t create tribalism, you build resilience. This process includes a willingness to welcome the stranger and to invite new ideas and intermediate technologies (simple and practical tools that can be purchased locally or constructed from resources that are available locally) that don’t damage but rather enhance what can be created locally.
This level of openness was important because the next challenge was to attract the world to Fogo Island. Meeting that challenge is where the core principles identified by Shorefast shine through deep respect for and commitment to local skills, crafts, and traditions combined with world-class architecture and design. Shorefast has created an offer that attracts quality ethical and sustainable investment from all over, then they reinvest surpluses into the local economy, ensuring that the money keeps circulating within the community and generating new opportunities.
Today, many members of the Fogo Island diaspora are coming home, enrolling in the local school, and investing in the shared future of their Island community. What’s happening on Fogo Island is not about Zita or even about Shorefast. It is about Fogo Island and the inhabitants’ willingness as a community to do what the shopkeeper told John to do in the first story of this chapter: Turn over the stones and you’ll find all the bait you need.
In 2021, Zita became the first social entrepreneur to be inducted into the Canadian Business Hall of Fame, for the entrepreneurial elegance of Shorefast and the socially conscious business and philanthropy she stewarded through the Foundation.
Zita makes an important point when she says, “At the center of a community is its economy. If there’s no economy, there’s no community.” Her core gift is her ability to support people in discovering the hidden treasure that surrounds them and then turning that treasure into sustainable livelihoods.
We have had the privilege of meeting many people with values similar to Zita’s and have visited other communities that have gone on journeys similar to that of the Fogo Islanders. If they could speak with one voice to share their values, we imagine they would say something like this:
We are a part of this place, not apart from this place. We are not going to use it. We are going to co-thrive and co-create. We can live well as a part of this place if we do our part; we can’t live in it if we exploit it, because to exploit this place is to exploit ourselves—we are one.
Connected Communities like Fogo Island and the Isle of Eigg have discovered viable local alternatives to industrialized, standardized, and exclusively knowledge-based economies. In this book, we call those local alternatives neighborhood economies.
Neighborhood economies are founded on the following principles:
• Our commonwealth is discovered on the day we and our neighbors agree we have important work to do and if we don’t do it, it won’t get done.
• Trust and cooperation between neighbors are what get the key job done.
• Our wealth is in our gifts—of people, place, and culture. We organize to spend our money in ways that create a circular economy, and we recognize that our current neighborhood economy is usually like a leaky bucket. If we’re going to nurture our commonwealth, we need to plug the holes through which our money is leaking out and disappearing into distant economies never to return.
Key to the Good Life #1: The extent to which we personally flourish is tied to how much our neighbors and our neighborhoods are flourishing. It turns out that we are our brothers’, sisters’, and planet’s keepers. There is no such thing as self-reliance; we are all interdependent—which means our Good Life is found in our communities and local economies, not in distant marketplaces.
• • •
In this chapter, we lifted up the value of localism. Recognizing that one of the hidden dangers of consumer culture is that it sometimes baits us into overlooking local assets in favor of specialized external services or goods. And though local assets are not sufficient on their own to respond to all of life’s challenges, they are essential to a decent, satisfying, and inclusive life. The Good Life starts close to home, when we discover what we have around us and the power we have within us as makers and producers. By adopting the mindset of a producer, a maker, and a creator, not a passive consumer, we learn to resist the gravitational pull of consumer culture and keep at least some energy in reserve to discover the gifts of our local places.
In chapter 2 we take another step on the path toward Discovery by considering what maps we are using to explore the territory and by shifting from deficit-based maps, which start and stay with what is wrong, and toward asset-based community maps that start with what’s strong.
The Connected Community by John McKnight and Cormac Russell is due to reach the shelves on September 27. For the entire month of September, the publisher, Berrett-Koehler, has kindly agreed to offer a 30% discount to members of our various networks.
Please feel free to pass this offer on to those in your networks who you think would be interested.