Category: Reflections and Ideas
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).
By John L. McKnight, 2020-03-23
At the start of any asset-based initiatives, the identification of local assets is the essential starting point. Nonetheless, in many neighborhoods, most of these local assets are not recognized. Even though they are present they are not visible. This is the reason for the basic work of the ABCD Institute as it assists neighbors in making their local assets visible. We also assist in understanding how these assets can be connected in order to create new power and productivity.
At the center of this discovery process are the neighbors themselves. THEY are the primary local assets because they have the capacity to act together and the ability to connect their capacities, skills and knowledge in order to increase their well-being.
It is true that the current virus is like a modern plague. And yet, it has a side effect that has made visible across North America our greatest community building assets!
This new visibility has happened on my own block. A neighbor three doors away sent an email to all the others on the block. She said that if we wanted to offer help or needed help, we could let her know and she would connect us. Eight neighbors responded immediately that they can help. As far as I can tell, two have asked for assistance.
Now, our local community builders are visible! We know who can connect us and we know who are the neighbors ready to act for our common good.
This new visibility is a bonanza for any community organizer wanting to stimulate new neighborhood associations at the local level. We need to identify the names of as many people on as many blocks as possible. Indeed, this could be a useful activity for ABCD Faculty and allied practitioners as they work in solitude.
We could create a local archive of those neighbors who want to foster the same kind of community response and organization that they demonstrated while the virus was here.
Toxicity seems to surround us. And yet, a treasure chest of thousands of gifted people have connected and acted in order to help us survive. After COVID-19 they will be waiting for new opportunities to act as powerful citizens once again. So who will identify them? And who will call them together in the future?
After the plague, they will be waiting for our call.
By John L. McKnight, 2020-03-03
It’s my understanding that in chemistry, a precipitant is a reagent that produces a reaction of which it is not a part. It is analogous to one form of institutional action in relationship to a local neighborhood.
Most neighborhood focused institutional actions involve introducing a substantive program that serves the interests of the institutions, Therefore, the people in the neighborhood are not involved in determining what should be done, how it should be done and who should do it. However, these three activities are critical if neighbors are to act as citizens defining and producing the future.
There is one possibility for institutions to enable citizen action if they can be a precipitant rather than a programmatic intervener. A precipitating action would avoid defining for neighbors what should be done, how it should be done and who should do it. However, it could act to precipitate citizens performing these three actions.
Two examples of institutional precipitation are:
1. Grants to Blocks
In Savannah, Georgia, the assistant city manager sent a letter to every household in the lowest income neighborhood in the city. The letter indicated that the city appreciated the community building efforts of neighborhood people and wanted to support those efforts wherever possible. It said that if the local resident wanted to do something that would improve life on their block, the city was prepared to provide any funding that might help their effort- up to $100. The resident was asked to send a one-page letter describing what they wanted to do and to identify at least two other residents that would join in implementation.
In the first year, 85 residents sent in a letter with their proposal and all were funded. The result of sending these letters each year had a cumulative effect that clearly transformed the neighborhood.
The assistant city manager developed ways to celebrate these initiatives and he realized that the people who were signing the letters of proposal were the real leaders in the neighborhood.
This entire process is described in our publication, City-Sponsored Community Building: Savannah’s Grants for Blocks Story by Deborah Puntenney and Henry Moore (1998).
2. Idea Jam
In a neighborhood in Vancouver, Canada, a local settlement house publicized what they called an “Idea Jam.” It invited any resident in the neighborhood to come to a gathering with an idea about how the neighbors working together could make the neighborhood better. At the event, the admission fee was having an idea for neighborhood improvement. The participants came together in various groups to discuss the ideas, how they might be implemented and who would be involved. Then they formed teams to implement the initiatives.
In both cases, institutions precipitated significant citizen action without intervening substantively. These two examples could provide a stimulus for the identification of other institutionally precipitated actions. These kinds of actions could then be described as case studies and used in training institutions on how they might take a different approach to the support of neighborhoods.
By John L. McKnight, 2020-01-23
It’s useful to conceptualize what counts as a means of evaluation. Counting is a limited tool. It doesn’t really help much in determining whether there are new friendships and a web of mutual support creating a culture of interdependence, the goal of asset-based neighborhood organizing. Nonetheless, in understanding whether door-to-door asset- based organizing is fruitful, there are ways of counting things that provide useful, if limited, feedback that is satisfying to people who know by numbers. For of these numeric methods are:
1. Connections and Social Capital
The first step in utilizing the information from neighborhood questionnaires or community conversations is to establish connections. These could be:
• One to one relationships.
• More than two people being connected in a new association.
• Individuals being connected to an existing association.
• Individuals being connected to local institutions.
Each of these types of relationships can be counted and this information used to demonstrate “social capital.” Social capital is widely recognized as a major factor in all forms of well-being — health, security, knowledge, economy, etc. Robert Putnam, in his famous book called Bowling Alone spells out the many benefits of social capital. It’s worth looking at his chapters.
2. Action Outcomes
Many institutional and funding leaders are more interested in “outcomes” than they are in the increase in social capital. They want to know what happened as a direct result of the connections. In order to document these outcomes, it’s necessary to follow-up on each outcome so that the actions can be identified and quantified. For example, if the action of five relationships could be classified as promoting health, then we reach the level of generalization that is of greatest interest to most institutional people. We can say that the connections in the neighborhood show evidence of actions that produce health and it is “evidence based” activity.
3. Attitude Change
Connections and actions may result in a change in attitude by participants
and neighbors regarding the significance of the neighborhood. It is possible to measure attitude change by asking a series of questions at the beginning of an initiative and then following up within a year or so, asking the same questions to determine whether there has been a change. One measure of attitude change is called the “Sense of Community Index.” The responses to its questions can be counted up demonstrating the amount of change in attitude and the nature of that change.
4. Community Participation
One result of the connective process has been greater attendance at the meetings of the local neighborhood associations as well as greater presence at the meetings of city council or its committees. This increase may be difficult to count, but the observation of the officials chairing these meetings can be useful in demonstrating more participation in local democracy.
Who Should Have the Final Say in Community Decision-making: Learning from Pilots, Pastors and Guards
By John L. McKnight, 2020-01-23
Many institutions, agencies, governments and companies seek to develop effective relationships with the neighborhoods or small towns that they serve. Often, these desirable relationships are called co-production, collaboration, cooperation, etc. The “co” in each of these definitions implies a parity of power, influence, or authority. However, in almost every case, institutions, agencies, governments and companies rarely achieve actual parity in their relationship. The institutions have money, technology and expertise that inevitably results in dis-parity. And usually, in a legal sense, whatever the “co” may be, it is the institution that has the legal final say. Therefore, “co” activities are almost always an unbalanced relationship.
How might a balance with parity be achieved? There are some interesting examples of authoritative experts, professionals and administrators whose role is necessarily in alignment and parity with the interests of those they serve.
Consider the airline pilot. She or he have great power, technology and expertise that none of their passengers share. Nonetheless, the pilots interests are in absolute alignment with their passengers because the passengers fate will be their fate.
Another example is the pastoral principle of Reverend John Perkins who founded the nationally influential Christian Community Development Association. It was his premise that the necessary precursor to a legitimate pastorate is that the pastor lives in the neighborhood where most of the parishioners live. Therefore, the pastor will have intensely accurate information about the local community and will live with the neighbors in experiencing the neighborhood reality.
Another example was a rule developed by Dr. Jerome Miller who directed the Massachusetts Department of Juvenile Corrections in the 1970’s. The most severe punishment in the system was sending young people to isolation cells. If an authority in a local reformatory sent a youthful inmate into isolation, Miller required the authority to spend several hours of each day in isolation with the inmate. The effect was to quickly change policy in terms of isolation.
In each case, the authority/expert personally experienced the consequence of her/his decisions and actions. In these cases, the “co” resulted in a parity of interests unequaled by the usual imbalance in co-production, collaboration, cooperation.
The reality is that very few people who have institutional authority are prepared to establish a local relationship where the consequence of their decisions will be the same as those they serve. Therefore, who should have the final say in “co-decision-making?” Should it be those who must live with a co-decision? Or those who do not? One way to resolve this dilemma is to stipulate, at the outset of the co-decision-making process, that those who must live with the decision have the final say or a veto. With this authority, they can act as citizen rather that supplicants or clients. And when the final authority of citizens acts as a counter balance to the money, technology and expertise of institutional authorities, the substance of the final decision will also change. As citizens learn that they have real power, “co” will now mean that they can be creators, designers, analysts, planners and implementers. And they will learn that the people across the table are their servants – public and not-for-profit.
By John L. McKnight, 2019-12-03
For many years before Ronald Reagan’s administration, the Federal Government provided funds to Regional Health Planning Agencies. These agencies oversaw the area health planning focusing on medical systems and resources. The Reagan administration discontinued support for these agencies and many then sought to replace the Federal Funds.
On Chicago’s Westside there was great concern within this African American community that local hospitals would close or move away. Many felt that the Regional Agency had provided some control over the hospital exodus. Therefore, local neighborhood and activist groups convened to decide what they could do without the regional group’s helpful authority.
They developed a plan to create their own citizen organization to replace the useful functions of the Federally supported agency. Near the conclusion of their planning meeting, there was a discussion of the name they should use for their new organization. Should it be the ‘Westside Health Committee’ or ‘Health Council’ or ‘Health Coalition’? Suddenly, a woman who was a wise elder from the community said, “In the past, the government was the authority but now they are gone. So, we have a plan to replace them. Now we are the authority. So, let’s call ourselves what we are – the Westside Health Authority.
The participants were unanimous in accepting the new name. Thirty years later, the Westside Health Authority (WHA) has provided shelter for all kinds of community building initiatives. They include student health career planning in local hospitals, building a large community Wellness Center, buying a closed hospital and turning it into a clinic. In addition, they created a neighborhood organization called “Every Block a village,” a housing rehabilitation organization employing local African American contractors and craftsman, a men’s group, a women’s group, youth organizations and, most recently, a “Good Neighbor Campaign” designed to reconnect residents in order to have a stronger community.
Local leaders believe the title of “Authority” has been a vital factor enabling WHA in mobilizing and engaging citizen action. The idea that residents are the authority calls forth community dreams and replaces the tendency for neighbors to wait to fulfill the dreams of planners and institutions.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines an authority as “those who have control.” Local resident groups are usually defined as advisors, advocates, or co-producers but rarely as the people who are in control. However, a citizen authority calls forth a critically different role for residents. That role is to be the responsible party. Authority means you have responsibility because of your control. It is this power of residents to be responsible for their future that has proliferated the functions and the powers of citizen authorities like the Westside Health Authority.
For those interested in more detail about the Westside Health Authority see:
By John L. McKnight, 2019-11-07
One way of classifying associations is in terms of whether or not they are space-bounded. The greatest number of associations are not space-bound. However, our focus has been upon those associations where a neighborhood or small town provides the boundaries of our associational concern.
Most of the associations that are not space bound are based on affinity. They draw from a broad constituency of people with a common interest. The tie that binds them is their mutual interest and passion rather than the people next door.
The situation of associations bounded by space is quite different. Just because I live next door to several people does not mean that I see any basic affinity. So what is the tie that binds people on a block?
In recent years when I have met with a group interested in neighborhoods, I often ask the participants to identify whether they are over fifty. Then I ask them to describe their childhood experience in their neighborhood. The story is unusually common. Their story tells about how acceptable behavior was enforced and how they learned from and were supported by neighbors on the block. Then I ask people under 35 to describe their childhood experiences on their block. Their response is almost universally that the story the over fifty’s told was not their story. They don’t see the block as a point of primary relations because they were raised institutionally by outside systems. They usually add that in their adult life they know very few of their neighbors.
An important question for people interested in collective/communal decision making, is what happened to the common relationships of only two generations ago? How did most North Americans in a very short period of time become isolated in space? (One aspect of this phenomena is, of course, what Bob Putnam was reporting in Bowling Alone).
The over fifty story tells us that people in a local place were in significant common relationships. One reason is that they saw these relationships as necessary in order to fulfill their needs. In some ways, the relational local network was a safety net. It must be that our current neighborhood isolation is the result of people not seeing that they need each other-- otherwise they would connect with each other. It is my hypothesis that the generational change in the neighborhood story results from the rapid transformation of local citizen producers to resident consumers. Today, people on a block see their needs being met by access to the marketplace, professionals and public programs. This process was magnified by the fact that neighbors who are women entered the marketplace and so the powerful daily presence of adults disappeared. Therefore, the only residual manifestation of the old community is the annual block party.
I may lack vision, but I don’t think we can go back to the old neighborhood. If being a neighbor is to once again become meaningful, I think we are going to have to discover how to create a new way.
It is in this context of discovering new ways that I think we’ve been engaged in our relationship with the Kettering Foundation. In particular, I think we have discovered two new approaches to create ties that bind, enhancing both citizen productivity and decision-making.
The first is the initiatives convened by Kettering that has been named Asset-Based Neighborhood Organizing. This approach to isolated neighbors assumes that while people may not sense they need each other, each of them looks upon him or herself as endowed with gifts, skills, passions and knowledge that gives them their sense of personhood and value. However, there is no local structure or process that calls upon local residents to contribute these assets to their neighbors. The asset-based organizing process inspires local neighbors to identify their assets. It then invites the neighbors to contribute their assets by connecting with others who value the same attributes. The result is the creation of new affinity groups at the neighborhood level. These affinities are always building local social capital, initiating creative activity and providing a means for solving local problems. In sum, it reverses the consumer trend and calls for the productive possibilities of relationships on the block. It reveals why we need our neighbors, but it starts with what we can contribute which is always self-satisfying and empowering.
This approach is now being tested in neighborhoods in Edmonton, Vancouver, West Palm Beach and Appleton. It provides a fantastic continuing learning opportunity.
The second initiative is the one that we identified through the Nebraska Community Foundation. For three years I have joined our faculty in working with that organization as it increases the decision making power in small communities.
The NCF has precipitated small groups of local citizens who have taken on the responsibility to approach local residents of some wealth and to ask them to contribute to a fund to support the future of their small hometown. In many towns this method has created a substantial endowment for the community’s well-being. Once the local fund has begun to generate substantial income, the local funding group is faced with a task that is not fundraising—how should the money be spent to enhance the future of our small town? In many of these towns, the result is creating various methods of citizen engagement that creates a vision and guides the use of the money based upon the popular decision-making. The incredible thing is that the NCF has been so effective at precipitating these local groups that there are more than 250 of them, at least half in towns under 700 people. And at this point, they are a wonderful peer learning group of towns where new ideas come from effective local experiments rather that top down programs.
Conceptually, it is especially significant to learn that they are creating and then occupying the civic space in the community that is not filled by the town government. The space they fill is decision-making and investing for the future. I can now see how time limited how local governments are in the span of their decision-making. Everything is immediate and short term. There is no citizen vehicle to identify assets beyond public budgets and to make decisions about their allocation. I think that these local groups are a major invention and we will continue to follow their development and work with Kettering on helping others learn about the process.
One way of defining a citizen is a person who has the collective power to create a vision and the means to be the producer of that vision. The Nebraska experiment is creating a new means for visioning. The Asset approach is creating a new means for being productive. Each way is an experiment in creating local ties that bind. Prospectively, both ways could be synthesized.
In the broadest sense, what is ahead for me is understanding more and more about the possible new ties that bind—when they happen, how they happen and why.
By John L. McKnight, 2019-11-04
One of the unfortunate results of assigning responsibility for marginal people to institutions and professionals is that citizens lose their capacity to incorporate marginal people. Over the years, I’ve observed an increasing intolerance for marginal people in a neighborhood. We say they “need professional help” and send them elsewhere. This, of course, increases the homogeneity and like -mindedness of people in a neighborhood.
An interesting question is how we could increase the tolerance of local people for people they consider deviant. By deviant, I mean, in particular, people with labels such as developmentally disabled, mentally ill, physically disabled, single welfare mothers, gay and lesbian people, people of different ethnicities and races, drug users, etc. While each of these is clearly a distinctive group of labeled people, what I’ve seen to be most common is that people do not know them personally. They see them through the lens of the label.
One thing I have learned in our work is how efforts to include developmentally disabled people have worked. The guiding principle is to never aggregate people with the same label in the community. The institutional aggregation of developmentally disabled people evokes the label rather than the individual capacity. The very successful efforts to introduce these people into some aspect of community life have depended upon their being connected individually around their capacities, gifts, skills, etc. The principle effect of labeling is, of course, to de-individualize human beings. The primary connectedness at the community level is essentially personal and individual.
There may be an important learning here as to methods that include rather than exclude at the local level. It would be interesting to have a collection of case studies and stories about how individuals from all these labeled categories have contributed to the life of the community through their individual gifts. A starting point might be to review the literature of the Inclusion Press that is exclusively dedicated to methods for including people who are called mentally or physically disabled.
The current concern about diversity might better be defined as a concern with exclusion of labeled people. The greatest diversity in any local community is the gifts that the members have. If we focus on the gifts of everyone, then this valuable asset may be more effective in overcoming exclusion than efforts to talk about our categorical differences.
By John L. McKnight, 2019-10-20
The essence of most associational groups is that they are composed of a group of people who care about each other and/or the same thing. By its very nature, this affinity creates outsiders. For example, a voluntary association of Cook County Labrador Retriever Owners creates affective relationships between these dog owners while also excluding owners of poodles. This is a reality and not a “problem” to be fixed. Because of these affinity-based associations, they tend to be parochial and exclusive. This orientation doesn’t foster openness to others. In fact, their affinity is not enhancing diversity.
A friend of mine believes that the heart of our social problems is “like-mindedness.” If he’s right, the nature of associational affinity is one cause of the problem.
One way that I have seen that partially deals with the affinity dilemma is the creation of a local association of associations. This creates all kinds of new and “different-mindedness” connections. I don’t have a lot of examples of such an association of associations. However, the clearest implementation of this method was the original approach of Saul Alinsky. He was a Tocquevillian and taught his organizers to get as many associations as possible together in their neighborhood organization so that it would be broadly representative of the community. Unfortunately, his methodology has deteriorated in recent years becoming “church based organizing” where the structure is built on five to ten local churches and their pastors. I think the reason for this is that it is very difficult to bring together forty associations. However, among the forty are the churches and they are the one association that has money. In order to pay an organizer, you need local money that can’t be controlled by outsiders. Five to ten churches can contribute enough to sustain an organizer. But, the resulting organization doesn’t promote wide engagement and the opportunity for “different mindedness.”
It might be useful to have a Kettering gathering on the local examples/possibilities of “different mindedness” which may be the way serious citizen dialogue can develop in relatively homogeneous places.
By John L. McKnight, 2019-10-10
In many neighborhoods, local associations establish a schedule of meetings and the focus is on what should happen at that time. One of Saul Alinsky’s inviolable rules was “never meet to meet.” He knew that local associations “wear out” if they are a space in time that must be filled with something. Rather, he told organizers to have meetings when it was clear that there was something to be done so that the focus was on the substance rather than an agenda.
I’ve recently observed two alternatives to meeting-driven associations. The first we found in our study of associations in Spring Green, Wisconsin. It was interesting to note that most of the groups focused on environmental and conservation issues had large email lists. A small “idea” group at the center of the organization rarely called a meeting of the “email membership.” Instead, they used the internet for three activities that might have traditionally been communicated through meetings. The activities are:
- Alerting members to public policy issues where their advocacy could enhance the organizations purpose.
- Providing educational information that would enhance the knowledge of the members.
- To notify members of specific activities to be held at a certain time and place, frequently doing work to improve the environment at a particular site.
The second alternative involves the activities of our Asset Based Neighborhood Organizers. Their local Block Connector identifies capacities that residents want to contribute to the community’s well-being and the Connector joins these people together. Here, the organizational function is one of creating local groups without calling meetings.
The meeting issue at the local level is often a problem because they rarely keep a significant number of people involved. They become routinized and participants are only those with a huge tolerance for meetings.
It might be interesting to hold a learning exchange that examines the changing approaches to the functions of meetings.