John L. McKnight

State or Province:



what are your gifts and talents?:

why do you want to join abcd in action?:

Category: Reflections and Ideas

Effective Police Reform: The Transfer of Authority

By John L. McKnight, 2021-07-20

In order to respond to demands for police reform, local governments across the United States have created special committees to develop new policies to eliminate police abuse and misconduct. Usually composed of citizens and government members, their common goal is to make recommendations that will reorder the police relationship with local residents and their neighborhoods.

Thus far, these reform proposals have most frequently involved four approaches:

The first is to “tighten-up” the command structure giving more authority and control to the police administration. This effort attempts to give more “teeth” at the top including new sanctions, penalties and incentives to control police behavior.

A second set of proposals attempts to create a new “interface” between the police and neighborhood residents. Its form is to develop new variations on the common practice community policing.

A third approach recognizes that a significant number of police calls involve domestic abuse, homelessness and mental health issues. Almost every police chief recognizes that their response to these community disruptions is largely ineffective because they are repeatedly responding to symptoms rather than causes. Therefore, most of these responses will result in continuing calls about disruptions from the same people. Here, the most common reform is to propose the transfer of responsibility over these issues to social service agencies with presumed experience in dealing with such problems.

A fourth reform is to establish police review boards or enhance or change the nature of the members of the board. However, these changes usually result in advisory recommendations to the police administration.

While each of these reforms have some efficacy, they have been implemented for many years in many police departments with limited effect, as the current police abuse crisis demonstrates. One reason is that these reforms are designed to increase the authority and control of those in charge of a system called law enforcement. Each is a variation in the use of control, power and authority to “manage” the problem of institutional relations with local constituents. The unstated assumption is that deviance, disruption and discord in the neighborhood can be managed if local systems have enough authority and technology to do their job.

An alternative understanding is that civil disruptions are issues most effectively resolved by local citizens, their families, their associations and the institutions they control. Indeed, in many neighborhoods with issues called a “youth problem” experienced neighbors will also insist that they have a “community problem.” These neighbors understand the limits of police and human service efforts to fix their community problem. As one local resident asked at a neighborhood meeting, “How many police officers will it take in our neighborhood so our youth problem will go away?”

This local understanding of community security raises the question of whether the people in the neighborhood believe they have or actually have authority to create local security.

A different approach to police “reform” is to create neighborhood relationships where authority is transferred to the local community. An exemplary practice of this approach was carried out by now retired Police Chief Mike Butler of Longmont, Colorado. He decided to distance his department from acting as an agent of the criminal justice system. He moved to relocate the Department as a community support organization enhancing local neighborhoods’ ability to deal with disorder. His local police officers skilled in supporting community problem solving were called Master Officers and were the highest paid in the Department. These officers had annual performance reviews that included local neighborhood leaders in evaluating their performance.

The department developed skills in promoting neighborhood capacities to deal with issues such as homelessness, mental illness, and domestic abuse. This is a significant contrast with most reform proposals where local issues are transferred from police to social service agencies rather than to neighborhoods. Most of Butler’s reform policies could be evaluated by determining where authority was relocated. *

As police reform committees across the country develop their proposals, the critical issue is how much new authority will neighborhood groups have. And secondly, how much support can the police department give to enhance the use of that authority. Then, as Chief Butler has said, “The metric utilized to determine effectiveness would be gauged by how much less the police are needed by residents and neighborhoods as the police officers encourage neighborhood self-sufficiency and sustainability"


*For an extensive interview with Chief Butler outlining many additional aspects of his reforms, see: The Transformation of the Functions of Communities and Police: An interview with Retired Chief Mike Butler, Longmont, Colorado located on our website,, under Publications and Learnings, Community Security. Direct link:

In my lifetime, I have met two public officials who had an incredibly different vision for their organization. The first was Jerome Miller who was responsible for the Massachusetts Juvenile Reformatories. He decided that his reformatories not only did not reform, they were the worst thing you could do to youth to stop them from reforming. Therefore, he closed his reformatories and placed the youth in all kinds of community settings. As a result he enabled communities to be responsible for people called “troubled youth” and achieved incredible reforms in the lives of thousands. His story is in his book titled, “Last One Over the Wall.”

The second great visionary is Mike Butler, the now retired Chief of Police of Longmont, CO. He has a vision for the role of police and communities that has been much more effective than most of the current police reform efforts. Our recent three-part interview with him is linked below. I know it it lengthy, but his vision and its implementation can be a great guide for leaders of any institution. Therefore, I really encourage you to take the time to listen because I think you can use this as part of a training for institutional leaders of every sort.

Just to tempt you a little bit Longmont is a City of about 70,000 with one third of the residents being Latinx. Mike Butler’s vision includes a shift of police away from the criminal justice system and toward being community members. While most police departments hire people with police or military experience, Mike’s department hired only one person with police experience out of every eight hires. He had master officers who worked directly in neighborhoods and were paid more than any other police in the department. And that’s just a start.

Mike Butler, the recently retired Chief of Police of Longmont, Colorado, is interviewed by John McKnight of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute and Dr. Albert Dzur, professor of Political Science at Bowling Green University. The interview is divided into three sections for ease of listening. However, the revolutionary nature of Chief Butler’s activities depends on watching all three. 

During the first year of the Covid pandemic, many neighborhood organizations and block clubs stopped their traditional face-to-face meetings. Nonetheless, in many locations these groups spontaneously initiated innovative community activities. In many neighborhoods with no community groups, new and unprecedented initiatives were initiated. 

One example of these local innovations is a neighborhood of 800 households in the older industrial city of Menasha, Wisconsin. A report on the pandemic responses in that neighborhood indicated that the following creative activities occurred:

  • Forty residents responded to a telephone invitation to provide help to neighbors in need.
  • An outdoor “jump-around” party on one block evolved into a parade on many blocks where residents were joined by neighbor-owned classic cars.
  • Distribution to neighbors of 200 loaves of bread contributed by a food pantry.
  • A recognition of the neighbors who were “essential workers” by tying blue ribbons around trees bordering the street.
  • A neighborhood Memorial Day parade was created because the city had called off its official parade.
  • Built two “mansion-size” outdoor food pantry houses stocked by neighbors.
  • Six local businesses agreed to sell fundraising candy bars with the proceeds going to help keep the food pantries stocked.
  • The annual Boy Scout Food Drive was cancelled so local Boy Scout families organized a neighborhood food drive that collected contributions from nearly 100 local residents.
  • On New Year’s Eve, there was a party in the local park for all residents. It included bell ringing and neighbors making resolutions for the year ahead.*

One active member in the neighborhood noted that all these activities occurred without any face-to-face formal meetings and only one collective Zoom gathering. 

While meetings are one method for making citizen decisions at the neighborhood level, at this and many other places there have been very few or no meetings in person or virtually. However, as the Menasha report indicates, there were many decisions being made resulting in many forms of citizen mobilization and action. If there were very few meetings of any kind, how can we explain the process by which the decisions were made that preceded countless local initiatives.  

Perhaps an analogy can be useful. Consider a jazz club in a big city. It’s 2:00 am and the jazz musicians work is done in most clubs. However, some musicians want to keep on playing so they go to a club that is licensed to be open after 2:00 am – an “after hours” club. Three or four jazz musicians gather at the club and set up their equipment at the front of the room. Some players know some of the others while some don’t know any of the others. 

Suddenly they begin to play a wonderful jazz piece. They have no music and most don’t know some of the other players. How can this happen? They are creating music that is so free, innovative, open ended – and yet perfectly coherent. The musicians play together and play individually with no apparent structure or order. In this they are like the neighbors in Menasha, Wisconsin. 

The innovation and improvisation that happens in jazz occurs because there is an invisible structure encompassing the players. The structure has three elements: a melody, a key and a rhythm. That’s why, before they begin, one musician says, “How about ‘Don’t Get Around Much Anymore’ in B-flat” The others nod and the drummer sets the time. The three-part structure is now manifest and improvisation can take place within it. 

Is there an analogous structure that can help us understand how the invisible innovative decision making occurred in Menasha without decision making meetings or apparent traditional leadership?

A way of understanding the invisible neighborhood structure is to focus on the context where the dispersed decision making occurs. It is a context that creates a structure enabling innovative citizenship to emerge.

The context has three elements:

  1. Communality
    The residents in the area have a common affinity. Regardless of other resident differences or disagreements, these place-based common affinities can grow from the desire to enjoy, celebrate, entertain, etc. It can be a crisis such as the pandemic. It can often be a possibility – we want to create a park. It may be a fear such as the threat of gentrification. It can be the love of the place – our place remembered in stories that inspire and capture successful neighborhood activities in the past.

  2. Individual Capacities
    Every neighbor has a belief that they have some special and significant gift, talent, skill or knowledge.** This belief is often the core of their sense of self-worth. It is this self-worthiness that residents are willing and often waiting to contribute in behalf of their own particular community. These capacities are the basic community building tools.

  3. Connectivity
    The local capacities of most neighbors are latent. There must be some precipitant that brings them to life. That precipitant is connectivity. Through the connection of neighbors’ capacities power is created, citizenship emerges and democracy is lived.


The invisible structure of productive communities where decision making and leadership are dispersed comes from a neighborhood with unique commonalities, unique capacities and common connectivity. In these kinds of places where citizen creativity is visible what is not usually present in any traditional form is a central leader or formal decision making. Nonetheless, a focus on the structure needed for citizen productivity can provide an appropriate framework for understanding the beautiful civic music being played in the Menasha neighborhood and in millions more like it. They are creating leaderful and decisionful democracies. 


One reason that the ABCD movement has spread is because it is based upon the community structure that provides the “nest” from which power is born and grows.

We share knowledge, experience and stories that make visible the three C’s – Commonality, Capacity and Connectivity. This basic ABCD work nurtures the community structure that enables creative, productive and inclusive neighborhoods.

* For a detailed account, see the full report: A Neighbor-Based Pandemic Response: Jefferson Park Neighborhood, Menasha Wisconsin.  

** For an example of the capacities of neighbors in the Jefferson Park neighborhood in Menasha, Wisconsin, see Jefferson Park Neighborhood Gifts

Sal Alinsky, one of the Godfathers of neighborhood organizing, enjoyed asking people, “What is a leader.” Usually, no one gave the answer that he had in mind and he said, “A leader is somebody who has followers.” By that he meant that at least they were people who had vision, solutions, special skills and the ability to inspire.

There is another kind of leader who precipitates groups of productive citizens who have vision, solutions, skills and the ability to inspire. Henry Moore, who was the Assistant City Manager of Savannah, Georgia was a great example of the second kind of leader.*

Henry had been administering block grant programs designed to improve neighborhoods by spending several million dollars. However, as time passed he felt that the improvements that he implemented faded away and that residents had been taught to depend on him for neighborhood improvement. Even though he had spent millions, he found that the money and his programs had little lasting effect.

In 1993 Savannah won an award of $20,000 dollars as an exemplary city. There were no strings attached to the money. Henry could spend it any way he chose.

Reflecting on his position, he felt he had been acting as “King Henry,” the ruler of failed efforts. Therefore, it occurred to him that if he could find a way to take off his crown and place it on the heads of neighborhood residents, they might do a better job than he of neighborhood improvement.

He decided that one way to transfer the crown would be to reward neighbors for engaging in productive activity that improved their neighborhoods. Therefore, he sent a letter to the households in the lowest income section of Savannah. The letter said that he appreciated the work neighbors had been doing and wanted to support them in their improvement initiatives. They could receive this support if they wrote him a one-page letter describing an initiative on their block that would improve the life of the residents.  He asked them to identify what they would do, how they would do it, who would do it and the result they wanted to achieve. Then, he said, if they needed any money in addition to what they were going to do, he had up to $100 that he could contribute to the effort and they should indicate what they needed any money for. Then, they also needed to add to their letter the names of at least two other residents who would be involved in the initiative.

That year, he received 70 letters describing productive local activities. No one asked for the entire $100. (So, you know that no agency was applying). The proposals would say that they needed $63.22 to buy canvass and thread to create a family flag for each household.

At the end of the year, Henry Moore invited all of the neighborhood producers to a grand dinner at the finest hotel in Savannah. He urged each little group to create a display describing their initiative and to bring it to the hotel where it could be set up in a large display room. These displays gave all the participants an opportunity to see a diverse set of additional possibilities for their own neighborhood.

The dinner celebrated all the participants. The mayor spoke and awards were given to a few groups who undertook outstanding initiatives. As Henry looked out across the room with more than 200 productive neighbors, he observed, “Now I have found the real leaders in Savannah. I am their servant and tonight they were crowned.”

This collegial meal was followed by morning sessions in which the local leaders were invited to begin making decisions about what they were going to do next year. And he indicated that he could make it possible for them to have $500 or less if they undertook a more ambitious activity. He also arranged for them to have training opportunities in community development if they thought that would be helpful.

Five years later when they held the annual neighborhood celebration for productive leaders, there were 715 people in the room – each having been involved in a small team creating a better life on their block.

During the fifth year, I visited Henry Moore and he said, “Let’s go out and you can see the neighborhood.” We got in his car and as he was driving he said, “Tell me when we get to the neighborhood.” I said, “I don’t think I can do that because I’ve never been there.” “You’ll know when we get there,” Henry said. And I did know.

I could see all the new trees, flowers, block signs, banners, newly painted houses. I could not see the newly engaged young people, the city newspaper articles describing the renewed activity in the neighborhood, the local associations that became involved in initiatives, the greatly increased participation of residents in city planning and development activities. And I could not see the immense pride that had emerged throughout the neighborhood.

Henry learned that on every block there were neighbors who believed they could make things better and knew the other people who would join them. Henry emerged as a new kind of leader who inspired local residents to inspire each other to envision and implement the work of productive citizenship.

Henry Moore has passed on but his legacy has spread around the world. His students have learned how to “lead by stepping back.” **


* For a detailed description of his work see: City-Sponsored Community Building: Savannah’s Grants for Blocks Story workbook by Deborah Puntenney and Henry Moore (1998).

** Henry Moore describes his transformation in: Leading by Stepping Back: A Guide for City Officials on Building Neighborhood Capacity by Henry Moore and Deborah Puntenney (1999).

Peacemaking Powers and the Culture They Create

By John L. McKnight, 2021-04-07

In a neighborhood, people are empowered by the work they do together. Often, they use this power to confront institutions and advocate for the neighborhood’s self-interest. In this kind of action, power is understood as our ability to get someone else to do something for us. This is the consumer power of confrontation.

The other kind of neighborhood power results when we come together to create something for ourselves – from ourselves. This is the power of citizens engaged in using  their communities’ assets.

Many of us think of power in terms of the confrontation approach. In this way of thinking, power is about advocacy, demands, negotiation and control. From this perspective, the second strategy is often viewed as “nice and cooperative but not powerful.”

There are at least six powerful characteristics of neighbors that empower their neighborhood:

cooperation, hospitality, generosity, kindness, accepting fallibilities and forgiveness.

Each of these qualities is a power and creates powerful results:

Cooperation is the power to join with your neighbors to create a future. Every totalitarian system knows that the greatest threat is people working together in groups, small or large. In totalitarian societies, the power to associate cooperatively is called a conspiracy.

Hospitality is the power to welcome. A fearful neighborhood is frightened of strangers and greatly weakened by its exclusion of the talents of strangers inside and outside the community.

Generosity is the power to give. Powerlessness is greatest when we are denied the right to contribute and express ourselves. That is why prison is so terrible, even though food, clothing and shelter are provided. There is no stronger punishment than denying a person’s power to give.

Kindness is the power to care. A careless society is a weak society. It finally descends to callous practices and harmful disregard for its members.

Accepting fallibility creates the power to enjoy and work with each other in spite of our failures, deficiencies and differences. It creates the glue that holds us together in spite of our human nature. 

Finally, forgiveness is the power to forget. Many communities have been weakened for centuries because of events that happened in the distant past. Until a community or its members can overcome a pervasive sense of grievance, that community will atrophy in a spirit of retribution.

Each of these qualities is abundant among neighbors and when they are combined they create peace in a place.


Today we are troubled by violence nationally, as well as in neighborhoods. Locally we frequently respond by funding paid anti-violence workers. We ask them to deliver peace to the neighborhood. And skilled and committed as they are, they have had minimal impact over the years. This is because it is neighbors together who have the power to create peace. It can’t be delivered from the outside.

This peaceful creation emerges when neighbors of all ages become associated and decide how they can manifest these six great powers. And as a result of this manifestation they will unintentionally create a culture that calls forth these peacemaking powers in each neighborhood. And as time passes, the neighborhood will have a history – a story of its own.

This is the story of a neighborhood in a city in Sweden. The neighborhood, like many in Sweden, is a subsidized housing development of about 5,000 people, perhaps 1,700 households. It was once described as a “cold, aging, unsafe place.” A new manager was hired to see if there was some way to improve the development. He first noticed that there were some people who didn’t seem to have anything to do. He thought that there needed to be an incentive for these people to create a better neighborhood. And, because he had come from the field of marketing, he felt that creating a brand name should be part of the incentive.

He then bought a hundred yellow jackets with the emblem of a flame and the words, “FIRE SOUL” printed on the jacket. He also arranged to have a vacant room painted yellow with the Fire Soul logo on the wall.

Then, he told a couple of people who seemed to have nothing to do that he could give them a jacket if they would do something to make the neighborhood better, but they had to conceive and do it themselves. Several people accepted his offer and singly or jointly undertook a creative improvement initiative. When they were done, he gave them each a jacket and told them that they could gather any time in the Fire Soul room. He asked that they wear the jackets frequently and to tell their friends and neighbors how they got them. “Tell them,” he advised, “that they could become Fire Souls too.”

The Fire Soul idea caught on and more and more people created initiatives, wore jackets, gathered in the Fire Soul room and invited their neighbors to become Fire Souls too. Eventually, the neighborhood valence shifted and the question for some residents became, “Why aren’t you a Fire Soul?”

One Fire Soul told the others that some people weren’t becoming involved because they were isolated and lonely. So, they posted flyers throughout the development advertising a free luncheon for lonely people. About 80 people showed up and each was invited to become a Fire Soul. Many undertook an initiative and joined the social gatherings in the Fire Soul room.

One Fire Soul noticed that only adults were wearing the jackets. She proposed that the children should have the opportunity to contribute their talents and gifts. So, the Fire Souls bought 100 yellow T-shirts and each had a logo that said, “Sparks.” The children were excited to contribute and create – just like adults. Even two and three-year-olds became Sparks.

The Fire Soul room became the heart of the community filled with stories and a sense of celebration.


Finally, the manager was able to observe that the neighborhood had become safe and that it had its own story. And that is the story that is written above. It is a story about the power of cooperation, hospitality, generosity, kindness, accepting fallibilities, forgiveness and the culture shift they created.

Social scientists might say this is a story of the rich “social capital” created by coalescing peaceable capacities. And, it is this social capital that creates proliferating effects beyond even peace and security. This is because the Fire Souls were also increasing the health, knowledge, economic viability, environmental integrity and child-raising capacities in the neighborhood without intention. Instead, they were guided and mobilized by a culture of contribution.

Beware of “Community”: An Amoeba Word

By John L. McKnight, 2021-03-04

Many current programs, policies, plans and initiatives are described as fostering “community” engagement, “community” participation, “community” co-production, “community” coalition, “community” power, “community” capacity etc. While each has “community” in common, in particular the word is used to reference such diverse entities as the residence of Chicago, the collectors of Brazilian stamps, scholars who study amphibians and a network of skydivers. This diversity of meanings demonstrates that the word “community” tells us almost nothing about the object referred to. “Community” is what social historian Ivan Illich called an “amoeba word,” referring to a constantly shape-shifting form with no constant boundaries. He said, “These ‘amoeba words’ are like a stone thrown into a conversation that makes waves, but never hits anything.

Frequently, “community” efforts fail or flounder because they don’t hit anything. They have no specific clarity as to what the shape of their “community” is. So, when they seek to involve the “community” they often create a wave that hits nothing. Many of the “community” engagers specifically mean “neighborhood” when they use the word – a space-bound, place-based definition. It is within this relatively small space that they seek engagement and change. But what do they want to engage in this space? Specifically?

One way of being specific is to identify the basic elements of the neighborhood. These elements are the actionable assets in this place. There are at least six of these assets in most neighborhoods." *

  • The talents of the individual residents
  • The groups of individuals pooling their talents through associations
  • The very local institutions:
    • Governmental Institutions– libraries, post offices, schools, parks, etc.
    • For-Profit Institutions – barber shops, restaurants, bowling alleys, copy shops, etc.
    • Not-for-Profit Institutions – a youth center, a clinic, churches, a neighborhood arts center, etc.
  • The land and improvements that create the physical environment of the place
  • The daily exchanges among residents including giving, sharing, bartering, trading, buying, selling etc.
  • The neighborhood story that provides a cultural base for preserving heritage and remembering what has been done in the neighborhood that worked.

These six assets are the basic building blocks in a neighborhood. They are sensible. You can see them, hear them and touch them unlike “community” which has no sense.

Of course, these six elements do not stand alone. They are intricately interconnected. Their power grows as they are increasingly connected. Indeed, almost every story of “community” improvement is about unconnected assets becoming connected.

This asset-based understanding of a “community” called neighborhood allows the “community” helping classes to say with clarity and specificity, “We know about neighborhood assets and how their connection creates power. That’s why our “community work” is designed to support local connectedness. We evaluate ourselves by whether residents and their associations are more powerful because of our supporting engagement.”

* For further information regarding neighborhood assets see Building Communities from the Inside Out by John Kretzmann and John McKnight, ACTA Publications, Chicago, IL, 1993

Discovering the Source of Power

By John L. McKnight, 2021-02-04

“Agency” is a rather obscure word used in some circles in society. To better understand the word, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary translates in more popular language as meaning “the capacity, condition or state of exerting power.”

In this era when some people speak of the loss of agency, they more plainly mean the loss of capacity to exert power. This loss is usually focused on the changing relationship between citizens and their governments. The unspoken assumption is that the personal sense of power is embodied in the citizen/government relationship and that when the relationship is unsatisfactory, people grow angry.

While this is an interesting argument with some merit, it is an institutionalist view of society. There is another way of understanding a person’s sense of power, a.k.a. agency. This alternative perspective was made clear at a meeting in Minneapolis of people who descried themselves as “community organizers.” * Each was asked how people they organize feel power. The responses were:


The list is especially illuminating in at least two ways. First, government was never mentioned even though the specific question asked was, “How do people feel powerful?”

Second, almost all of the sources of power are relational – individual and collective. The absence of these relationally powerful manifestations is called isolation or loneliness. This isolated form of powerlessness was demonstrated in a now famous Vancouver Foundation study of the most important issues of concern in Vancouverites’ lives. The most frequent primary issue was loneliness rather than issues such as security, education, health etc.

A parallel study by Robert Putnam in his illustrious book, Bowling Alone, indicated the decline of participation in the primary local social structures for relationship building – neighborhood-level formal and informal associations.

The Minneapolis research suggests that many local citizens feel power grows from personal relationships. The Vancouver study suggests that these relationships are not experienced by thousands of residents who feel isolated instead of connected. The Putnam study indicates that the associational means of converting isolation to connectedness is in decline.

So, suppose we said that the anger we observe nationally grows significantly from the dissatisfaction millions of people feel because they are locally disconnected from each other.

Indeed, it may be, metaphorically, that the declining associational world is the drying up of the basic spring of democracy. Downstream we see the river of public discontent that results from the diminished spring. However, the river will not lose its visual pollution until we focus on the tangible local sources of power that create a real sense of “agency” -   the local relationships that make people feel powerful, connected and satisfied.

* While the invitation to attend this meeting was citywide and gender neutral, those organizers who voluntarily attended were 34 women and 1 man.

Community Security and the Institutional Assumption

By John L. McKnight, 2021-01-12

Throughout America, communities are establishing task forces to respond to police abuse and the murder of Black citizens. These task forces have variously recommended cuts in police budgets and reform of systems for the selection of police officers, their training and discipline. Many task forces have broadened their recommendations to include relocating police functions to social service agencies that have purview over homelessness, mental health and social service work. This relocation is designed to assure that the police are able to concentrate time and resources on functions that are “properly” in their domain –community security and safety.

In this relocation of functions the key actors are two institutions –the police and human service agencies. There are some task forces that also give a nod to local neighborhoods by recommending intensified efforts at improving police-community relations.

For years there have been studies of the factors that are critical in creating and maintaining neighborhood safety and security. They consistently demonstrate that the principle determinant of local security is citizen relationships and the activities of their associations*. Therefore, any serious effort to deal with neighborhood security and safety will require a primary focus on local associational life rather than a reformed police department or locally engaged human service agencies.

If reform-oriented task forces want to be effective, they will necessarily have to consider the functions of local citizens’ associational life as a domain where safety and security functions can be relocated or newly performed **.

For those task forces willing to focus their basic work on neighborhoods and the associational life manifested there, a map of the functions of associations is useful. These functions include:
  • In times of emergency or crisis, associations are frequently able to respond more rapidly than institutions.
  • Associational responses tend to be individualized and personal rather than programmatic and institutional.
  • Associations elicit and use popular knowledge in their work while institutions tend to use technical information.
  • Associations are the site for citizen-based problem solving.
  • Associations create local power by aggregating individual concerns into the capacity for collective action.
  • Associations are citizen vehicles for collective advocacy.
  • Associations provide settings where leadership opportunities proliferate and, as a result many more leaders are identified and developed.
  • Associations provide the context for the interactive formation of community values and opinion.
  • Associations provide context for behavioral change best exemplified by Alcoholics Anonymous and other Twelve Step Programs.
  • Associational formation provides proliferating opportunities for new forms of civic engagement. The ease of formation creates many new relationships and initiatives that are evoked by demands of the times e.g. community security, local food production, health activities etc.
  • Associations provide mediating functions between institutions and individual citizens.
  • Associations have conceived and initiated the creation of many new institutions e.g. hospitals, universities, social services.
  • Associations are the principle site for care. They hold citizens together because each cares about the other, or they care about the same thing. Operating outside the market, a community’s associations are the primary indicator of what citizens care about enough to act collectively.

Once the functions of associations become the central focus of reform oriented task forces, they can ask four basic questions:

  1. How can our institutions support the associational functions?
  2. What institutional policies and practices have deterred or opposed the growth or power of local associational functions?
  3. What functions that police attempt to perform could be better performed by relocating them to newly empowered local associations?
  4. How can we re-orient our working map so that neighborhood associations are at the center and institutions act as a support unit for their activity?


The Institutional Assumption

The current police task force efforts are a useful example of the importance of how a question is framed. If the issue is framed by an institutional assumption that the police and agencies are the key actors in producing security, they will exclude the most important actor –the associational world.

Most questions of community well-being are framed as though any goal can best be achieved as the result of more effective institutional intervention and intensified institutional coalitions. It is this framing assumption that is the cause of many failed reforms.

In the pursuit of community security, health, education and child raising, ignoring the present or potential functions of associational life ensures that these issues will continue to be unresolved. ***

* See especially Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect by Robert J. Sampson

** For a more specific description of the associational world see The Four–Legged Stool: The Unique Functions of Associations in Community Life by John McKnight (2013).This can be found on the ABCD Institute website.

*** For a description of seven basic functions for which associations are critical to problem solving, see Neighborhood Necessities: Seven Functions That Only Effectively Organized Neighborhoods Can Provide by John McKnight (2013).This can be found on the ABCD Institute website.

Still on Top: A Manager’s Story

By John L. McKnight, 2020-12-08

He was a corporate leader in a big city, well known for his progressive views on corporate responsibility. Indeed, he had led the corporate community in efforts to achieve equity and engage neighborhoods.

In his latter days, he reflected on his efforts and their consequence. “You know, I’ve learned a lot about local communities over all these years. At first, we just ignored them although we did support the United Way and it had neighborhood concerns. Then, we began to get some pressure – advocacy groups and their demands. We responded by creating a foundation to give them money. And we developed some programs we thought would help them. Sometimes we combined our programs with those of other corporations and agencies in order to increase our impact. Then came this new idea that we could join with local groups and jointly produce good things.”

“All this looked good and felt good. But truth be known, there doesn’t seem to be much real neighborhood change. It just seems to me that local folks aren’t really taking a significant responsibility for local change. We’re still sitting on top, trying to figure out what to do so they can come to the top too.

While most institutional leaders would not describe their basic goal as enhancing neighborhood responsibility, this manage did. He said, “It’s a question of power. I can take responsibility because I have power. I think lots of those neighborhood folks don’t think they have power. And, while whatever we’ve done may have helped a little, it didn’t really give them more power. I’m still on top but my power hasn’t changed much in the neighborhood except for the jobs we provide.”

Dear reader, you live in a neighborhood. What would you tell this powerful person about enabling powerful neighborhoods? What makes them powerful?

There are some neighborhood people, wise in the ways of their neighbors, who say that there are two necessities that combine to create power.

First is the skill, capacities and abilities to create something. It means we have the capacity to get things done.

Second is the authority to do our work. We have the right to decide and control how to do it. And when we have the first two resources, a third capacity will emerge: responsibility. People take responsibility when they have capacity and authority because they are now invested with power.

So, if we understand this local wisdom, we are prepared to respond to the powerful man on top. The responsibility he seeks depends on our local capacity and authority. The two questions we can ask him are:

  1. What are you and your institutional allies doing that limits or degrades local capacity and authority? Stop doing that.
  2. What do you and your allies do or could do to support local capacity and authority? Do that.*

*For some possible institutional actions to enable powerful neighborhoods see Learnings 7, 8, 9, 13, 20, 21, 24 and 25 on John McKnight’s website at

Co-production: Always in Second Place

By John L. McKnight, 2020-10-12

It was the first meeting of a neighborhood organization’s Health Committee on Chicago’s westside. The six members met in the living room of Gloria Blunt’s home. After considerable discussion as to how to begin, Valerie Robinson said, “Why don’t we begin by telling what makes us healthy?” The notes of the meeting record six causes of health:

  • Having a garden
  • Playing games and sports outside
  • Going to church
  • Having safe drivers through the neighborhood
  • Having enough money for a good house and food
  • Dancing

Someone then said, “Well, what makes us unhealthy?” The notes indicate these answers:

  • Guns
  • Smoking
  • Being alone with big responsibilities
  • Falling
  • Overeating
  • Being stressed and angry

 At the next meeting a young doctor asked to sit in as an observer. Shortly after the meeting began, a Health Committee member asked him a question about her diabetes. This was followed by member-initiated discussions about:

  • Children’s illnesses
  • Helpful drugs and supplements
  • Vaccinations
  • Sleeplessness
  • Flu

 The third meeting focused on actions to increase access for medical care for children and vaccinations. In subsequent meetings, the members never returned to planning health actions that were in their own control – as they had during the first meeting. 


There is a common litany of the five “determinants of health” measured by rates of mobility and mortality. They are:

  1. Individual behavior
  2. Group relationships
  3. Physical environment
  4. Income
  5. Access to medical systems

Most epidemiologists agree that the least important of these determinants is access to medical systems. The first four determinants of being healthy are outside the capacity of medical systems to deal with. However, the first four determinants are within the control of local neighborhoods and communities. Indeed, if they do not act on them, health will decline.

The health issue is often diverted from community action by issues of community relations with medical systems and their resources. This diversion happened with the neighborhood Health Committee. It proceeded to engage in partnership activities with the medical system. These activities were called “co-production.” Embedded in this partnership activity were some hidden assumptions:

We are not primarily in control of our health.

We need medical partners and their resources to be healthy

We will act as partners with the system

 This is not to pose as an either/or. It is to suggest an intentional order for analyzing any community concern including health. That order is a three-step process:

  1. What can we do with our neighborhood resources to deal with this issue? [1]
  2. What can we achieve with our resources and the support of an institution or system – co-production?
  3. What can only be achieved by an outside institution with its resources?

It is very clear that “co-production” is sometimes very useful. However, the problem with “co-production” is that it so often diverts or replaces the more important neighborhood capacity to increase health. This is why healthy communities ensure that “co-production” is second in line when community issues are dealt with. And this is also true for community functions such as security, education, raising the young, economy, environment and food.[2]

Finally, the three step process cannot be achieved if there is no neighborhood vehicle to take on the functions described above. The most significant vehicle is a powerful local neighborhood organization. The precursor of that power is community organizing. So, for those concerned with neighborhood well-being, support of strong community organizing and organizations is the necessary portal to the renewal of a neighborhood’s capacities to be the principle producers of its own future.

[1] For a guide to ensuring that neighborhood knowledge, capacities and resources are fully engaged before co-production is undertaken see Discovering Community Power 

[2] See Neighborhood Necessities for a review of neighborhood functions that cannot be replaced by institutions. 

   / 4