John L. McKnight

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Category: Reflections and Ideas

It's been 40 years since Jody Kretzmann and I began the research that resulted in the publication of Building Communities From the Inside Out (The Green Book).  It sparked what we now know as the ABCD movement worldwide. 

I have written a new monograph, because at 92, many people have asked me what we have learned as a result of ABCD's work. It is called, From Reform to What Works: Moving from the limits of institutions to a culture powered by neighbors. I think it is a very useful summary of the most important learnings from those years.


Pass it on if you know somebody who might be interested.


The Stewards of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute indicated that the development of a neighborhood culture is the new frontier for ABCD work. The following list is a result of their understanding of culture building activities that reach beyond the implementation of programs. The activities below do not each stand alone. They are the threads that together create a community fabric from which a culture will emerge.

What do your neighbors do together that creates an enduring culture?

1. Recognizing Significant Life Events

A. When someone dies? How does the block join in mourning and memorializing the
person and their neighborhood contributions?

B. When a baby is born into the neighborhood? How does the block join in recognizing
and celebrating?

2. Raising Children

A. How do families in the neighborhood play together? (Street games, organized
sports, music, dance, barbecues, etc.)

B. How do you identify and use the capacities and abilities of neighborhood young

C. When children graduate from elementary, high school or college?

D. What does the neighborhood do to facilitate young people learning from the
knowledge of the adult residents?

3. Helping Your Neighbors

A. How do the neighbors encourage a tradition of local sharing? (Sharing food,
equipment, child support, advice etc.)

B. To grow food locally?

4. Using Special Skills and Capacities of Neighbors

A. How does the neighborhood identify the capacities that each neighbor has to
contribute to neighborhood improvement?

B. How do you identify and involve the connectors on your block?

5. Strengthening the Neighborhood

A. What do the neighbors do together for fun?

B. What are the activities that have increased neighbors’ sense of community and
experience of belonging?

6. Creating a Neighborhood Identity

A. How did your neighbors identify the geographic space that they feel is the boundary
where they are responsible for the well-being of people who live there?

B. How have your neighbors developed a tradition of greeting and talking to each other
when meeting on the street or across yards?

7. Insuring Inclusiveness

A. How does your neighborhood welcome new people?

B. How has your neighborhood found ways to recognize and celebrate the differences
among themselves? (Race, ethnicity, nationality, identity, gender, orientation etc.).

C. How do new neighbors learn about the community culture and how they can

The Connected Community: Homecoming

By John McKnight, 2022-09-08

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.

Fogo Island

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.

Neighborhood Economies

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.

Download the Connected Community letter to learn more about the book and how to order with the discount.

Please feel free to pass this offer on to those in your networks who you think would be interested. 

One argument for diversity is that is ensures participation and creates the power of being heard. It is expressed by the popular maxim, “Nothing about us without us.” Implicit in this idea is that those outside must come inside in order to ensure that their self-interest is served.

There is another way of understanding the value of diversity. It does not focus on the importance of the outsiders gaining equal participation. Instead it focuses upon the benefit the outsider brings to the group. It recognizes that, in welcoming the stranger, the group becomes more powerful by adding the outsider’s capacity.

At least five kinds of group benefits can occur from “welcoming the stranger”:

  1. The stranger is an outsider and knows different cultures. These are cultures where people do things in a different way. The stranger knows about these ways – different games, songs, poems, food, languages, inventions and faith -- each a potential opening and opportunity for the group.
  2. The stranger knows how their people or the other people they know make decisions. These different ways of deciding can provide opportunities for overcoming our own barriers to effective discussions and actions.
  3. Coming from a different association, ethnicity, nation, or local culture, the stranger knows about different ways of achieving the common good. If we come from a culture based on hyper-individualism, their knowledge can create a more balanced community practice.
  4. The stranger’s knowledge and practices will often surprise This surprise reflects our reaction to a different way that is based on a different vision for the future. These visions of the outsider offer new ways for us to imagine our own future.
  5. As the stranger shares their knowledge and practices, trust is built with the outsider. It is that trust that is the foundation of democracy.

 These five community benefits are unavailable without diversity. Achieving that diversity depends upon groups practicing hospitality. As a practice, active hospitality requires an invitation to the outsider and the stranger – an offering to become associated with us in many, many ways.

 One of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute’s wisest Stewards was Judith Snow. She had only the power to move the muscles in her thumb and face. She transported herself within a wheelchair. To most people she said she was a strange outsider. However, to anyone who had met her, she was the wisest person they had encountered.

 Judith said most community groups look inward, their vision obscured by the wall of like-mindedness. That is why, above all, they should have a “welcome at the edge.” Otherwise, they will never receive the gifts that only strangers can bring to their group.

Losing by Playing the Blame Game

By John McKnight, 2022-05-12

If you attend the meetings of many neighborhood organizations, their focus is mainly on local issues. These often include unruly youth, dangerous alleys, graffiti, lack of jobs, dangerous police, drug sales, belligerent local merchants, the incompetent teachers in the school, lack of space for a community garden, unreasonably high city fines and the unresponsiveness of city officials, etc.

After identifying the issues, the deliberation that follows centers on who’s to blame for each issue and what can be done about changing them. Typically, the blame falls on police, youth workers, teachers, merchants, local officials, landlords, etc. As a result, the groups’ action requires them to have enough power to influence or change the practices of blame worthy local institutions and professionals.

There is an alternative path. It is pursued by some neighborhood groups that identify issues but they don’t then ask, “Who’s to blame?” Instead, their first question is, “As organized residents on this block, what do we have to do with these issues? What are the issues that we can deal with using our own capacities and resources?”

They know that they are both creators of issues and have the neighborhood power to solve many of them with their local resources. Taking this path leaves organized residents to act first as powerful problem solvers rather than starting out as blamers, complainers, supplicants, dependencies or beggars. Instead, they start by recognizing that neighbors have work to do that only they can do.*

They know, for example, that police are very limited, at best, in making them secure. They know this because they have experienced a succession of police initiatives that have come and gone with very limited effect. They understand that they have to do their part of the work if the neighborhood is to be secure. ** When the discussion turns to what they can do together with their resources to be secure, healthy, knowledgeable, employed, economically thriving and welcoming they become actors, producers, creators and problem solvers – the essential role of citizens with work to do. On the other hand, when they initially take the typical blaming path they will forget that they are the primary force for problem solving. And that if they don’t take on work that only they can do together, they will suffer the consequence of being isolated, unproductive and unsupported families.


* This primary work is to maintain and extend seven basic functions of a neighborhood: security, health, education, ecology, food, economy and care of children. See Learning #9 - Refunctioning at

** The Great American City by Robert Sampson is a major study of changing Chicago neighborhoods. He finds that, “Increases in collective efficacy in the latter part of the 1990’s significantly forecasts decreases in crime during the decade of 2000-2010…”

One explanation for the failings of our democracy is that government is not trusted. One aspect of the national dialogue on restoring trust in government suggests that a critical reform is government transparency. The proposition is that the work of government must be visible rather than opaque or hidden. As citizens, we should be able to look inside the government so we can understand what it is doing. It is this ability to understand that can lead to trust.

In practice transparency takes several forms. It may mean disclosure – making visible that information required by law or administrative rules. It may mean making government practices visible through “hearings” where citizens are engaged in direct contact and dialogue with elected or administrative officials inside the system. It may mean the willingness to make visible institutional mistakes and failures rather than covering them up.

Each of these and other traditional transparency reforms place the citizen as an outsider looking into a system. Transparency becomes a word for how much you can see from the outside. Each method has limited effect on trust-building because the citizen is a supplicant trying to see inside rather than sitting at the table inside where they are part of the government process itself.

One example of transparency where citizens are acting inside rather than observing from the outside is the practices of the Police and Fire Departments of Longmont, CO. There, retired Chief Mike Butler’s efforts to creating a trusting relationship with citizens began by opening up the department so that the community could come inside.

The Police headquarters was re-designed so a citizen felt it was a welcoming place rather than a secure fortress.

Then citizens were invited to become part of the department’s internal process. This meant that all the residents of the City were invited to sit at the table in department meetings dealing with:

  • The hiring of police officers.
  • The promotion of police officers.
  • Oversight of the disciplinary process.
  • Staff meetings.
  • The development of a long-range strategic plan where several thousand residents participated.
  • Implementation of the long-range plan.
  • Developing and implementing training.

The department treated media reporters just like other citizens, encouraging them to come inside so that they could easily report on the engagement of the department and local residents. This provided even wider citizen knowledge of the work going on inside the department and in the neighborhoods.

In each of these processes high school students were intentionally involved. The schools supported this student engagement and authorized a new course conducted by police officers.

As the department invited citizens to engage in its internal processes, the citizen participants began to see that the Department was a vulnerable organization that had limits. As a result, citizen participants began to recognize that they had responsibilities for community problems that the police could not address. As a result, local residents and their associations began to take responsibility for new functions that included:

  • Citizens, including high school students, facilitated conversations between victims and offenders enabling restorative justice.
  • A process called SOMOS (we are) was facilitated by local Spanish speaking residents to resolve disputes between citizens and police officers.
  • A citizen group was formed by residents to take on functions previously performed exclusively by police officers.
  • Citizens assisted in investigating certain types of crimes.
  • Local citizens assisted in supporting those struggling with mental illness or addiction.
  • Citizens assisted the department with administrative assignments contributing their expertise, especially in the field of IT.

It is significant that the transparency that brought people inside developed the trust that led residents to take on new functions that only citizens can perform. In this sense, the department’s openness was a major factor in strengthening neighborhood functions and authority. It is these new community functions and the relationships they created that had more to do with neighborhood safety and security than the presence of police. Nonetheless, it was the Police Department that precipitated the community change that created increased security and trust.

For those concerned about trust in government, Longmont’s lesson is that officials should be vulnerable enough to risk opening up their system so all the citizens can engage the government from the inside. And as inside participants, genuine trust can be created and, seeing the structural limits of the system, citizens can recognize they have responsibilities, power and authority to perform their unique neighborhood functions.

The Dutch Association of Mayors invited me, as a representative of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute, to visit their 20 largest cities and share an asset-based approach with neighborhood leaders in each city.

In one of the first cities I visited, the chair of one neighborhood organization said, “I’m glad you’re here because we really don’t do anything but throw a party twice a year. We need to do something, to have a purpose. Now we are totally useless and have no power.”

He went on to explain that in his city the municipal government hired one full-time person to assist each neighborhood. He said their “neighborhood guy” was an excellent person and if anything needed to be done, he did it or used city resources to get it done.

Then he described his neighborhood as a “city dependency” and he said, “We are powerless and unproductive, isolated except for our gathering at two parties each year. On the other hand, the neighbors know that if they want something done, our accessible neighborhood worker can usually do it using his resources and contacts.

As I moved on to other cities, I met a woman who was chair of another local neighborhood organization. She was full of pride and immediately told me of one of the “victories” of her group. She said that for longer than anyone could remember, early every morning a householder from each home would go out in front of their house with a broom, mop and a bucket of water. Then she said, “They cleaned the streets.” They would mop their half of the street in front of their house, rake the small parkway between the street and their sidewalk and sweep the sidewalk itself. Over the years, she said neighbors got to know each other very well as they worked together. As a result, they had taken on other community work – beginning years beyond memory. They managed the plants in the neighborhood, planting decorative flowers in the narrow parkway and occasionally installing new bushes or trees. Then, and no one knew when it started, they formed a children’s cooperative in the neighborhood. Neighbors took care of all the children on the block. They bought children’s food collectively and had someone on call to stay or play with children - usually a neighborhood senior.

 Then she told me the neighborhood “victory” story that gave her so much pride. Several years ago, she said, the city announced they had bought street sweepers and would clean the streets in their neighborhood. She said, the neighbors were shocked. How could the City had ever thought of disrupting their community tradition? It only took a day for the neighbors to organize a protest at City Hall. The neighbors “shocked” the City Managers with their anger about the street sweepers. At the end of the protest the City officials agreed they would never sweep the streets in their neighborhood. I can still feel the power and pride she felt because of what she and her neighbors did.


While her story is specifically about street cleaning, it is also a story about neighborhood culture where people felt they had work to do by cleaning streets, nurturing the environment and supporting children.

A culture is a way a people have learned, through time, to survive in a place. In this sense the first neighborhood has no culture; no way to survive. As its chair wisely observed, there was no productive citizen culture. Instead, the neighbors were a group of people isolated in houses and dependent consumers. They had no role as productive citizens.

A citizen is a person who may vote, but her/his real power is in their ability to create a community vision and bring that vision to life by acting collectively in association with each other. Citizen work is sustained by a culture – the common knowledge that here in this place we have work to do together.

Perhaps the point was best made by the leader in the second neighborhood. When I asked her why all the neighbors insisted on cleaning the streets, she said, “Because they are our streets. It’s our way, each day, of feeling the power of working together.”

It is not difficult to distinguish the functions of physical tools from each other. No one uses a saw to drive a nail into a piece of wood. Likewise, no one attempts to cut a piece of wood with a hammer. One can readily see both the parts and functions of these tools. They can be used to build a house.

There are also social tools. Two of these tools exist in every neighborhood. They are the local institutions and the associations. Both are composed of groups of people. They differ in that people in institutional groups are paid for their work while associational groups are not. The two social tools also differ in structure. Institutions are usually graphically represented as a triangular hierarchy:

Associations are often graphically represented by a horizontal circle of members:

These two tools help build communities rather than houses. The work that each can do, like a saw and a hammer, is quite distinctive. This is because of the nature of their unique structure and resulting practices.

Associations, both formal and informal, have three practices that are inherent to their structure. The first is that they are groups that gather face to face. This creates a personal culture. This contrasts with the institutional culture where the personal is replaced by the professional role where one in not supposed to “become involved with their client.” Also, a significant reason for having institutions is to depersonalize functions so that the institution can continue on regardless of the person who holds any position. This institutional depersonalization is central to the continuity of the institution which places structure over personalism.

The second aspect of the associational culture is practices that create intimacy. The Latin root for intimacy is “making know from within.” It is the knowledge of the perspective and values of the other members. This knowledge is the assurance that the unique voice and intention of each member is heard. It is often created or enhanced by the experience of the association’s collective decision making and the mutual work that results.

The value of intimacy is rarely studied by people seeking to earn an MBA. Instead, intimate relations are often seen as irritants, problems and barriers for institutions. When the unique assets of employees become “known” and manifested, the result is seen as an institutional problem. For example, consider leaders of automobile companies. They have no use for intimate knowledge of the unique assembly line worker. And certainly, they do not want the workers uniqueness to become behaviorally manifested. Instead, they want the potentially unique “intimate worker” to place the same bolts on the same bolt heads so that the automobile tire will be secure and not fall off. They want to have this work done repetitively and exactly. Their culture is not about intimacy. It is about standardization – the opposite of the uniqueness of the worker.

The third associational practice is maintaining the right size. Here, the rule is “small is beautiful.” Beyond a certain number of members or participants, personalization and intimacy begin to fade away. This is because the possibilities of “knowing” personally and intimately about the other members becomes literally impossible at a certain scale. In a room of 50 people is it nearly impossible to be personal and intimate. In a room with 15 people we can be personal and intimate. The appropriate scale for effective associations occurs when each member can know the other personally and intimately so that the unique gifts, skills and knowledge can be “known” to all.

On the other hand, the institutional assumption is that “bigger is better.” “Scaling up” is the goal. “Scaling up” means we have decided not to be personal or intimate. Big is necessarily impersonal.


Each of the three associational practices are interrelated. The right size is necessary to the practice of the personal and intimate. All three practices create a culture – a way of getting the work of neighborhood done. As this culture emerges the essence of trust is created. Trust becomes the outcome of the three associational practices. Trust grows from these practices. They precede trust. They are the nest from which trust is hatched.

There is a reason that trust is generated associationally rather than institutionally. Institutions are groups of people held together by money. Trust is not required. For example, universities are institutions often described “communities of scholars.” However, the day a university stops paying the scholar that community will disappear.

Associations, on the other hand, are groups of people who are not paid. They are held together by trust, the glue that holds society together. Within society, associational life is the primary trust builder because of its three practices that manifest a trustworthy society.

Some scientists study the stars, and that is good. However, in his book, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville, the great chronicler of America society reminds us that the science of associations is the “mother of all science.”

Associational science reveals the nature of our nature and the trust that protects us from polarization.

There is a curious cultural myth in modern societies that holds that a good life is achieved by consumption of the products of institutions and professionals. This superstition believes, for example, that health is in a medical system, safety is in the criminal justice system, your knowledge is in a school, child raising is a function of youth-serving agencies and schools, nurturance is in a supermarket, justice is in government, etc.

This illusory belief system is based on the “institutional assumption” that people are responsible for consumption while institutions and professionals are responsible for producing their well-being. The numbers that measure the relationship of these two responsibilities is called the Gross Domestic Product.

This misleading institutional belief has resulted in reform efforts that are largely ineffective managerial and technological shuffling of the chairs on the deck of systems.

The reason for the ineffective shuffling of chairs is that the “institutional assumption” has led many to ignore the basic determinants of well-being. Take for example the health of people. The epidemiological evidence is that there are five primary determinants of health:

  1. Individual behavior
  2. Associational relationships
  3. Physical environment
  4. Economic status
  5. Medical interventions

The epidemiologists suggest that 13-15% of people’s health, measured by morbidity and mortality rates, is attributable to medical systems. That means that 85% of health status is determined by the first four factors. The medical system has no control over these four determinants. So, if we want to stop shuffling chairs and make a real change in health status, we would start by focusing on the determinants of health rather that the reform of medical systems.

This non-institutional approach begins by examining the condition we seek to deal with, e.g. health, security, knowledge, justice, etc.

Then we can ask, for example, about the determinants of health. The list of five determinants identified above make clear that the major actors and locales for change are in the community and especially the neighborhood where behavior, associational relationships and physical environment are in significant control of organized neighbors. If we begin by identifying health sources, we will relocate useful health activities from medical systems to neighborly production.

This process of disengaging from the “institutional assumption” while starting with the conditions and their determinants is not limited to health. It is equally applicable to other neighborhood conditions including education, security, enterprise, food, ecology, and children. Indeed, leaders of many of the institutions purportedly responsible for conditions of well-being are finally publicly identifying the capacities of neighborhoods and local communities as the critical actors in providing well-being. Many medical leaders are saying their systems have major limits in providing health and they urge community action as the most significant health activity.  The same is true of many criminal justice leaders who recognize their limits to deal with local violence and point to neighborhood action as the critical missing piece. Leaders of other institutions are also admitting the limits of their capacity to create neighborhood well-being. Indeed, some of these leaders are transforming their institutions into a resource supporting citizens to be producers of well-being. For one example, see How Institutional Leaders Can Transform Their System into a Member of Local Neighborhoods

The alternative to the “institutional assumption” is understanding the determinants of our conditions and recognizing that effective solutions occur when we start with the assumption that productive local citizens are the principal producers of well-being. This is the “community assumption” that puts citizens at the productive center of society and institutions as support units for neighborhood associations.


In our institutionalized society children are mainly trained in the arts of consumerism. This is most apparent during the Holiday Season. The focus on consumption is intense beginning on Black Friday. Conspicuous consumption is at its cultural apex. Children are encouraged to fulfill their consumer responsibilities by focusing on toys. Their consumer role is reflected in two basic holiday questions: How many toys will I get, and will I get more than my friends and siblings?

Supposing the society saw children as the producer of toys – the “community assumption” at work. In 1890 in a small rural one room schoolhouse in Sauk County, Wisconsin, children were toy producers. Lydia Cormack, an elderly woman who had attended the school in those days remembers what the community children did:

“At school girls and boys played together at baseball, townball, draw base, pump-pump-pump-a-way, fox and geese and ante-over. There was no end of fun and one reason for this was that the boys and girls made their own playthings. That in itself, was great fun. Never a bat or ball, sled or wagon, wheelbarrow or cart, a snowshoe, vaulting pole, bow and arrow or springboard, but they first had to design and make it." * 

This wise old toy builder could lead us to ask, “Where is the community workshop in our neighborhood where kids can be producers – hopefully joined by adults escaping consumerism.”

She could also lead us to ask, “What are the kids learning at our local school? Are they learning to be productive citizens or are they just sad little consumers of presumed expertise?”


* “Good Old Golden Rule Days: A History of One Room Schools in Sauk County, Wisconsin” The Rural Schools Research Committee, 1994.

By John McKnight - Co-Founder, Asset-Based Community Development Institute, Senior Associate, Kettering Foundation

And Mike Butler - Retired Public Safety Chief, Longmont, Colorado

Traditionally, these Learnings share knowledge we have gained from innovative neighborhood and local institutional leaders. This Learning is different because in it a great institutional innovator speaks for himself. 

The innovator speaking here is Mike Butler, Retired Public Safety Chief of Longmont, Colorado. He oversaw police, fire, and other social services for 26 years in the City of Longmont (population 97,261 in 2019). 

In this Learning, the Chief describes his approach to transforming the Department into a neighborhood support unit enhancing more powerful social capital. 

The reason he is speaking for himself is because the transformation he describes could apply to many other institutions including city governments, education systems, social service agencies, public health systems, religious institutions, etc. 

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Chief Mike Butler on Five Keys for Institutional Transformation

Opening Up/Transparency – Initially, we modeled this with our staff. Opening up meetings for anyone to attend; realigning the organization so that our staff could become part of the decision-making process (at all levels both big and small); teaching and education regarding business literacy removed much of the mystery on “how things got done;” making it safe for people to take risks and make mistakes; creating a culture of accountability where personal and peer accountability became paramount. All of this led to our staff feeling more comfortable and less threatened with the residents of our community significantly greater involvement in everything we did – from attending staff meetings; assisting in the development and modification of policies and procedures; assisting in the hiring and other personnel decisions (including one of the last bastions of mystery – our discipline process); engagement in our strategic planning processes; and to assist in actually providing services; and much more. There was not an organizational arena that our residents were not engaged in. 

The Right People for our Mission – We not only shifted our hiring profiles to recruit for new and enlightened skill sets but also for women and men who believed they could bring their goodness to our community; who had the wherewithal to utilize our enforcement powers judiciously and more selectively; who were oriented towards wanting to cultivate and sustain personal relationships; who were service-oriented; who could easily and wanted to choose personal accountability; and who had the capacity to apply a variety of responses in their interaction with often messy human circumstances, etc. 

Redefining our Role in the Community – We became surfacers and activators of social capital. We shifted from a mindset of enforcers in the community (often referred to as the thin blue line) to partners with the people in our community. We dislodged ourselves from the hip of the criminal justice system and connected much more with the heart of our community. We saw ourselves as catalysts for strengthening families, neighborhoods, various parts of our community and those people who resided in the margins (folks struggling with addiction, mental health, unsheltered, victims of crime and others who believed they were voiceless.

Personalization and Belonging – We created a culture of belonging and personal relationships. We believed that in a society so disconnected and isolated that if we could encourage people to feel and believe they belonged, they would want to become more engaged and make a difference. This applied to both the cultures of our organization and our community. The hoped for sequential residual was if our public safety staff (police and fire) felt and believed their voices counted and their thoughts mattered and that they were appreciated and valued, they would model that relationship dynamic in our community with our residents, various neighborhoods and the community at large. 

Change Model/ Strategy – The change model we utilized in both our organization and our community was firmly based in recognizing the goodness that was present and expanding that goodness with the understanding that the expanded goodness would eventually crowd out the negative, the perceived deficiencies, the unwanted behaviors, and develop environments and a culture in which selflessness, personal responsibility, respect, and service to others would become more apparent and integrated within individual people, our organization, our neighborhoods, and perhaps especially in those who committed crimes in our community (with some exceptions).

The leadership model shifted from top-down, command and control all enshrouded with the free flow of numerous rules and regulations to one of leaders working in partnership with our staff and creating a culture of openness and safety in which people believed their voices counted and their thoughts mattered. 

We shifted our response in our community from one of merely reacting to small fires and problem solving to one of preparing for future shifts and changes in social issues, demographics, various cultures and even types of crimes. We became very futures-oriented in our approach to all the above- mentioned practices. We became much more reliant on state-of-the-art futures research, long range strategic planning, and just generally thinking ahead. This model of planning and preparation for the future assisted greatly in minimizing and eliminating many crises that other police departments encountered, provided us a blueprint for the paths and algorithms we needed to consider, encouraged our staff to think and become more innovative, and as an unintended consequence, made us a significant fertile ground organization that grantors and foundations were eager to fund for new service delivery models, programs and novel perspectives. On this last point, the venture capitalists in the world of public funding were much more willing to “place their bets” and invest in us. As a side note, many of our staff became leading trainers and educators around our nation in many of the various aspects of what some have called progressive policing.

All of the above-mentioned made our public safety department a highly desired place to work. Our reputation for high standards, innovation, a place that valued opportunities for their staff, a model of trust and partnership with our community, and overall credibility in the public safety field additionally led to more personal aspirations and ownership on the part of our staff and our community. 

* * * * *

For a more detailed description of Chief Butler’s innovations, watch: The Transformation of the Functions of Communities and Police (video) or visit the ABCD Institute website/Publications & Learnings/ Community Security/ The Transformation of the Functions of Communities and Police.

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