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John McKnight


The Gifts of Strangers: Understanding the Benefits of Diversity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Losing by Playing the Blame Game

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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Transparency and Trust: From Looking in to Being in

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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A Citizen-Centered Culture: A Tale of Two Neighborhoods

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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Creating Trust: The Unique Power of Associations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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The Institutional Assumption: The Myth That Creates Failed Reforms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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How Institutional Leaders Can Transform Their System into a Member of Local Neighborhoods

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

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

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

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

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Chief Mike Butler on Five Keys for Institutional Transformation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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


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Waiting to Contribute: The Key to Maximizing Citizen Participation

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 abcdinstitute.org. 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.


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Effective Police Reform: The Transfer of Authority

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, abcdinstitute.org, under Publications and Learnings, Community Security. Direct link: https://resources.depaul.edu/abcd-institute/publications/publications-and-learnings/Pages/default.aspx#_communitysecurity


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ABCD, Jazz and the Structure of Powerful Communities

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


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Enabling Productive Neighborhoods: The Role of a New Kind of Leader

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).


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The Neighborhood Is the Center

Their August 4, 2020 guest was DeAmon Harges, named by the Kettering Foundation as one of eight most influential neighborhood organizers on the ground today.

View a video of the discussion and view a transcription of this discussion on Abundant Community

For more on DeAmon and his work, view his author page here. 

Going Further

Over the years, John and Peter have hosted online conversations with community-building pioneers as their guests. These conversations originally appeared on John and Peter’s Abundant Community site.

Ownership in a Future That Works for All

Their June 16, 2020 guest was David Korten, founder and president of the Living Economies Forum and co-founder and board chair emeritus of YES! Magazine.

View a video of the discussion and view a transcription of this discussion on Abundant Community

For more on David and his work, view his author page here. 

Going Further:

Over the years, John and Peter have hosted online conversations with community-building pioneers as their guests. These conversations originally appeared on John and Peter’s Abundant Community site.

A Conversation with John McKnight

“Many people think democracy depends on an informed electorate,” he noted in a recent conversation with National Civic Review contributing editor Albert Dzur. “To be informed they should deliberate together—the mode exemplified by the New England town meeting. I think that kind of associational activity is important but relatively rare. I don’t think Tocqueville was thinking about associations that were deliberative, and I don’t think there were very many of them.” Most associative life, McKnight suggested, is built around groups of people who come together because they have an affinity. Their focus is less often on “what to do” than “how to do it.”

View a transcription of this discussion between John McKnight and Albert Dzur on Abundant Community

Over the years, John and Peter have hosted online conversations with community-building pioneers as their guests. These conversations originally appeared on John and Peter’s Abundant Community site.

The Neighborhood as a Sacred Place

In his keynote talk for the Parish Collective’s Inhabit 2020 At Home Conference, John draws on insights from Walter Brueggemann and Dave Chapelle to explain how participants can turn their neighborhoods into sacred places.

When John asked him what makes a sacred place, Brueggemann said: A sacred place is where there are deep memories of both great suffering and glad forgiveness and where there are big promises not yet kept but still trusted. From Chapelle, John borrows an analogy of death as the incineration of a great library: Everything we have to share, everything we have to give, everything we have to tell is gone and our memory can become ashes.

But, John says, if we have a sacred place where these three gifts become manifest and visible, we will create a culture that carries forward and we will not be in ashes. We will be in community as each of our neighborhoods manifests our memories. We create a collective memory, a culture. Our neighborhood becomes a place where stories are told and gifts are given and suffering is shared.

Peacemaking Powers and the Culture They Create

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.


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Beware of “Community”: An Amoeba Word

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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Discovering the Source of Power

“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.

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Community Security and the Institutional Assumption

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

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 johnmcknight.org

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