John L. McKnight

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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. 

* * * * *

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.

One form of community organizing involves local citizens in collective action focused on issue. Issues emerge from tensions and contentions. They reflect the dissatisfaction or anger felt by local residents.

Often, “citizen participation” is used to indicate the number of dissatisfied people who act in public to resolve an issue. However, the number of people participating depends upon how many are strongly dissatisfied or very angry. Among this select number of people, there are many who are disaffected but unwilling to act in public. Therefore, “citizen participation” about most issues is necessarily limited to those who are both dissatisfied and are also willing to act in public arenas. *

There is another approach to community organizing that seeks participation on the basis of a citizen’s desire to contribute to the common good. There motive for engaging is not about contention or issues. It is about their desire to share their own capacities for the common good.

In this form of organizing, the collective participation is based upon the identification and mobilization of the community building and problem-solving capacities of local residents and the associations they create to achieve the common good.

In this form of organizing, some neighbors visit each household on their block to find out which gifts, skills, interests and knowledge their neighbors value about themselves. Then they are asked whether they would be willing to share these capacities with their neighbors and/or their neighbor’s children.

One indication of the nature of local citizen capacities is the following “capacity inventory” completed on 20 blocks of the Jefferson Park neighborhood in Menasha, WI.

This table demonstrates both the number and nature of the neighbors with capacities they are willing to share. The numeric potential for participation and action around these capacities is much greater than the parallel issue-oriented inventories.

The capacity-oriented organizing has a second kind of civic engagement that it incorporates. These are the clubs, churches, organizations, groups and associations to which the local residents belong. These groups are usually smaller, face-to-face associations where the members do the work and they are not paid. They are the infrastructure for local engagement. An example of this infrastructure is the inventory of civic engagement among the associations in the rural community of Spring Green, WI. There, a group of residents found the following 62 associations with names. (This list does not include the numerous informal associations that do not have public names).

When the small local  research group had completed conducting this inventory, one member observed, “I never realized all these groups are here. Once you see them all you realize that if they disappeared our town would die.”

Once this associational inventory was completed, the group interviewed the chair of each association. One set of the questions they asked involved showing the chairperson a list of civic functions that some associations perform. The following table shows a list of those functions. The associational leaders were asked which functions their group performed and which functions they would perform if asked.

Column 1 in this chart indicates associations already involved in civic activity. Column 2 indicates associations that their leader said would engage in new civic functions if asked. For example, 15 associational leaders said their group was involved in welcoming newcomers. Leaders of 21 other associations said their group would engage in welcoming newcomers if asked. If the average size of these associations is 25 members, that means that in the Spring Green area of 6,000 people there are 525 potential welcomers representing 11% of the residents who are prepared to act in their community. Very few issues can activate that many people in civic engagement.

This community-based research indicates that there is great potential for wide-spread increases in civic engagement if the focus is on individual contributions and the associations those individuals create.

If we want to have much more citizen participation, the local residents and their associations need to be invited to contribute what they have that they value. Practically speaking, this invitation needs activing residents who take on two functions.

The first is the role of a connector. These are residents who identify the capacities of their neighbors and see the multiple possibilities of new productive activities when they are connected.

The second activator is the role of “precipitator” – neighbors who invite and connect the associations to undertake the new functions they have said they would participate in.

In every neighborhood, there are many people who have these connecting and precipitating skills. The basic community building and power creating practice is engaging and supporting local residents who will intentionally take on these functions.

A detailed guide to initiating these forms of creating widespread civic participation can be found in the publications of the ABCD institute at See Publications on Associations and Connecting Assets.

Finally, there is much current concern about the polarization among U.S. citizens. However, it is these same “polarized” people who are prepared to share with their neighbors in behalf of the common good. The positive possibility for America is to promote the sharing of capacities. This shared experience is critical in renewing our ability to see the value in each other and reasserting our power to create and problem solve together.


* This is not to say that this form of issue advocacy is not important. However, for the reasons indicated it is, by its nature, limited in the number of neighborhood people actually participating.

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

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