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Becoming Trustworthy (Learning Twenty-eight)

We hear that Americans are polarized. Nationally, there is not of enough trust to bridge the national chasm. Yet in our small towns and neighborhoods, it is often difficult to find strong community wide divisive polarity. Instead there is usually a nearly invisible trustfulness that allows the residents to collectively do the necessary work of producing community well-being.
A critical source of this trustfulness is the result of the experience of doing community work together. This work is most often manifested through local clubs, groups organizations, faith groups and associations. This collective work depends upon the experience of being productive – to be able to say, “We did that” or “We made that.” This ability to make a collective vision manifest is the essence of what it means to be a citizen: One who has an idea and with other citizens makes it come true. This experience requires investment of the substance of oneself. This involves commitments, skills, time and money. When this experience of mutual investment takes place, the trustful infrastructure of community emerges, born of community work.
There are two citizen methods that usually precede productive community work. First, is deciding what is to be done. Second is deciding who should do it. These are the precursors of the doing that creates experience in community work. However, they are activities whose tools are words. On the other hand, the collective productivity is a deeply felt experience engaging highly valued capacities and talents. This experience has the quality of being handmade and homemade. It is within our capacity and control.
These qualities remind us of Gandhi’s small hand driven spinning wheel. After he led the political revolution the industrial revolution emerged. Gandhi then advocated that every Indian should spend at least half an hour each day with a small hand spinning wheel. This daily work would collectively keep the community productive and free of the dependence on British-made industrial fabric that would lead to a new kind of functionless servitude.
In a Gandhian parallel, without local citizen productivity, large systems will replace community functions. In this way we lose the context for trust-making as we become pitiable ex-citizens transformed into dependent consumers and clients.

Gandhi’s spinning wheel symbolized the relationship between small simplicity and liberty. His wisdom also applies to trust-making. Local trust is nurtured by knowing that small is beautiful, simple is elegant and together they are powerful.
The productive work of the citizen experience most often depends on keeping the number of people small enough that each can know the name of the other. When the scale grows too large the need for manager and money emerges and the productive citizen experience is slowly replace by the executive, manager or professional.
Gandhi’s spinning wheel also spoke to the importance of “local doability.” Grand plans can be beyond our capacities and therefore we don’t try or fail or turn the work over to a professional.
So, one explanation for trustful communities is that their work is small scale and their activity appears to be simple.
This small scale and uncomplex process is usually seen by professionals, managers and academics as inconsequential at most and “nice” at most. The powerful meaning of collective citizen experience is largely unnoticed because it seems to have no high-scale visibility or policy consequences or impact.
Gandhi might say that these institutionalized people can’t see, understand or value this citizen productivity because they don’t have a spinning wheel. They don’t experience each day the power of making the thread that creates the fabric of community. The community fabric is most evident in the small and simple work of associations, clubs and organizations. While they may seem inconsequential they produce:
• The basic functions that create local well-being.
• A sense of efficacy and power among local citizens.
• The social capital that leads each of the particular citizen activities to have multiple outcomes.
• The advocacy ability to change institutional policies and practices. One example is the work of small groups of La Leche League mothers who were able to force the American Academy of Pediatrics to end their support of commercial infant formula and endorse breast feeding instead.
• Movements of aggregated associations that resulted in greater change than any high-scale systems could imagine or achieve. These associational aggregations powered the civil rights, woman’s, environmental and LGBTQ movements.
• The small simple context where trust is generated by the mutual experience of engaging in the community work that makes a community work.

Rather than being inconsequential, this associational world is the vital center of citizen production that is the foundation of our democracy – powered by trust.
In our Capitol of mistrust, perhaps we can give each of our elected officials a hand powered spinning wheel. That would provide them with the experience of spinning their unique thread and then weaving it into the fabric of democracy. Then, the experience of productive, small and simple work can create the trust that underlays all productive common democratic work.
Does anyone out there have a spare hand-driven spinning wheel? If you could give it to your senator perhaps you can get a charitable deduction and save the nation as well.

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The Base of Powerful Movements- Understanding the Role of Local Associations (Learning Twenty-seven)

John McKnight

Co-Founder, Asset-Based Community Development Institute

Senior Associate, Kettering Foundation

At this time when the American crisis has become nationally visible, a movement has emerged. Its manifestation is visible on streets across the country. Suddenly, the discussion is about the future. What are the right demands? How should they be implemented? 

Some of the experience that can guide us today is embedded in the civil rights movement of the sixties.  That movement is remembered today by its leaders whose voices endure. Voices like those of Rosa Parks, Dr. King, Ella Baker,  Medgar Evers and John Lewis. One attribute of each of these people is that they were heard because they came from associations in their community and spoke for their members and allies. They grew out of churches, local chapters of civil rights groups, neighborhood organizations, choirs, some unions, supportive extended families, etc. When these leaders spoke it was not for themselves. But they were the voice of committed groups and local citizens. This constituency had three powerful effects.

First, it kept leaders anchored, relative and responsive. They were not free agents. 

Second, it gave leaders they “people power” so their voice was not merely listened to. It was a voice respected because of the associational power behind their voice. 

Third, their leaders’ voice did not quickly fade away after the marches stopped. They had staying power because of the continuity of the concern of the associations for which they spoke. 

Their continuing associational focus resulted in major civil rights legislation and significant institutional policy change. The change these associated people achieved changed lives and opportunities. Their struggle was not in vain. 

Today’s marchers stand on the shoulders of thousands of small groups whose members have now grown old and many have passed on. Today’s marches reignite the voices that have now grown hoarse of silent. And America’s possibility is that this time the movement will finally achieve those changes that will allow us to breathe free. 

This is written by a voice from the past. My hope is high even though there are powerful diversions and delusions created by the world of the media and internet. Nonetheless, my hopes are high because if the movement is anchored in the small world of community and its local associations it will have the power to finally overcome.

And finally, to all the white sisters and brothers, it is vital to add your voices. But the real ask is to identify all the associations, groups, clubs and organizations to which you belong and to bring them into the movement. There, they will feel the joy and security that comes from living in a just society.

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Exploring the Ecology of Neighborhoods (Learning Twenty-six)

John McKnight
Co-founder, Asset-Based Community Development Institute

A common definition of ecology is that it is the relationships of groups of living things and their environment. While the word was first used in the science of biology, it has more recently come to be used for the interrelatedness of almost everything, including communities.

Applied to local human communities, we hear of the “ecology” of a family and its network. We also recognize the ecology of the three basic institutions – the relationships of government, not for profit corporations and business organizations. However, there is a local ecological domain manifested in the relationships of local associations – the groups, clubs, and organizations that are usually small face-to-face groups of citizens who do their work without pay. We call them “voluntary associations” because their work is outside the marketplace.

To understand the ecology of associations, consider the human structures of locality. At the primary level is the individual, their family kinship network and allied friends. At the secondary level are the voluntary associations, formal and informal. These groups are collective expressions of the interests, identities, causes and affinities of local residents. They are the primary sites where the work of citizenship occurs. The tertiary level of locality is the neighborhood institutions. These organizations of paid people have their own distinctive interests and functions. The institutional networks and relationships are intensively studied by graduate schools of management. The collective efficacy of the associational domain is much less studied and often not even recognized as the secondary social structure in society.

To understand the associational domain and its relationships, a few basic features of the associational terrain helps us find our way in understanding associational ecology.

The Prevalence of Associations
Thought of as the secondary social structure in a neighborhood, neither neighbors nor social scientists usually see the collective space occupied by associations. This is usually because they are thought of as informal, impermanent, unstructured and consequently unimportant. This combination of factors commonly leads to associational “invisibility.” Therefore, their interrelationships are not a serious question to be examined.

One exploratory study of associations in a town of 5,600 people found at least 81 associations with names. This indicated at least one association for every 70 people. Other studies of associational prevalence in varied localities are appended as Exhibit 1.

While these “associational maps” are preliminary probes, they suggest that in local communities, making visible the associational domain can provide the elements of an eco-map and an opening to understanding the primary work of citizens.

The Web of Associational Relationships
Once the associational prevalence becomes visible the nature of their interrelationships can be identified. At least five primary relationships emerge. First, each association creates a context for relationships that empower each member. Second, the associations have relationships with each other when they engage in collective initiatives. Third, some associations have relationships with regional, statewide or national organizations. Fourth, many associations have relationships with local non-­‐governmental institutions including businesses and not-for-profit groups. Finally, the associations have relationships with governments, primarily at the local level.

The Civic Benefits of the Associational Web
The dense, vertical and horizontal associational web is in itself a structure that provides several community benefits. These include:
1. The structure is a network that communicates information among the community actors.
2. The information creates the basis for partnerships, coalitions and joint activities.
3. The network enhances the effectiveness of both the institutions and associations.
4. The connections between associations and institutions facilitate bridging as well as bonding.
5. The entire structure is the community generator of social capital.

The infrastructure of Communal Well-being
As the intricate ecology of associational relationships is manifested it produces the social capital that is the primary necessity for well-being. These include:
• The vehicle for problem solving and community invention.
• The primary connections that create the power to decide and act as advocates.
• A safety net of services and funds
• The continuity of care for the vulnerable
• The individual knowledge that, when shared, enables mutual education among adults as well as local children.
• The support of a community culture that identifies “our way” reflected in stories, ceremonies, rituals and celebrations.

Finally, the key to this ecosystem is human relationships with each other and a place. The activating force within the associational domain is connectiveness. It’s manifestation in practice is the person, group or institution that precipitates connections non-hierarchically. This “connector” is often the spark that energizes the community’s capacity to create a culture for the common good. And another name for the associational ecosystem is the common good. We are common people living in an inescapable ecos where each of us knows and celebrates our interconnected commonality.

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[1] Several guides to identifying local associations are included in the list of publications of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute (abcdinstitute.org). They include: Voluntary Associations in Low In See ABCD Institute website (abcdinstitute.org), Publications, A Study of the Community Benefits Provided by Local Associations.come Neighborhoods; New Community Tools for Improving Child Health; Getting Connected.

[2] See ABCD Institute website (abcdinstitute.org), Publications, A Study of the Community Benefits Provided by Local Associations.

The Power of Disability

Al Etmanski talks about what he learned about making change in the world from collecting the stories for his latest book, The Power of Disability.

View a video of the discussion on Abundant Community

View a transcription of this discussion on Abundant Community

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

Related:

About every six weeks for the last five years, John and Peter have hosted online / dial-up conversations with community-building pioneers as their guests. These conversations originally appeared on John and Peter’s Abundant Community site.

The Invisible Is Becoming Visible

At the start of any asset-based initiatives, the identification of local assets is the essential starting point. Nonetheless, in many neighborhoods, most of these local assets are not recognized. Even though they are present they are not visible. This is the reason for the basic work of the ABCD Institute as it assists neighbors in making their local assets visible. We also assist in understanding how these assets can be connected in order to create new power and productivity.

At the center of this discovery process are the neighbors themselves. THEY are the primary local assets because they have the capacity to act together and the ability to connect their capacities, skills and knowledge in order to increase their well-being.

It is true that the current virus is like a modern plague. And yet, it has a side effect that has made visible across North America our greatest community building assets!

This new visibility has happened on my own block. A neighbor three doors away sent an email to all the others on the block. She said that if we wanted to offer help or needed help, we could let her know and she would connect us. Eight neighbors responded immediately that they can help. As far as I can tell, two have asked for assistance.

Now, our local community builders are visible! We know who can connect us and we know who are the neighbors ready to act for our common good.

Our local community builders are visible! We know who can connect us and we know who are the neighbors ready to act for our common good.

This new visibility is a bonanza for any community organizer wanting to stimulate new neighborhood associations at the local level. We need to identify the names of as many people on as many blocks as possible. Indeed, this could be a useful activity for ABCD Faculty and allied practitioners as they work in solitude.

We could create a local archive of those neighbors who want to foster the same kind of community response and organization that they demonstrated while the virus was here.

Toxicity seems to surround us. And yet, a treasure chest of thousands of gifted people have connected and acted in order to help us survive. After COVID-19 they will be waiting for new opportunities to act as powerful citizens once again. So who will identify them? And who will call them together in the future?

Thousands of gifted people have connected and acted in order to help us survive. After COVID-19 they will be waiting for new opportunities to act.

After the plague, they will be waiting for our call.

 

Photo of neighborly greeting by Julie Filapek on a walk through the Erb Park Neighborhood, Appleton, Wisconsin. Used with permission. Home page image: Kevin L O’Mara

Journalism with Community at the Center

Eve Pearlman talks with John, Peter and other social innovators about the how journalism can create empathy and advance a citizen agenda.

View a video of the discussion on Abundant Community

View a transcription of this discussion on Abundant Community

For more on Eve and her work, view her author page here. 

Related:

About every six weeks for the last five years, John and Peter have hosted online / dial-up conversations with community-building pioneers as their guests. These conversations originally appeared on John and Peter’s Abundant Community site.

Community Dreams: The Power of Citizen Authority (Learning Twenty-five)

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

For many years before Ronald Reagan’s administration, the Federal Government provided funds to Regional Health Planning Agencies. These agencies oversaw the area health planning focusing on medical systems and resources. The Reagan administration discontinued support for these agencies and many then sought to replace the Federal Funds.

On Chicago’s Westside there was great concern within this African American community that local hospitals would close or move away. Many felt that the Regional Agency had provided some control over the hospital exodus. Therefore, local neighborhood and activist groups convened to decide what they could do without the regional group’s helpful authority.

They developed a plan to create their own citizen organization to replace the useful functions of the Federally supported agency. Near the conclusion of their planning meeting, there was a discussion of the name they should use for their new organization. Should it be the ‘Westside Health Committee’ or ‘Health Council’ or ‘Health Coalition’? Suddenly, a woman who was a wise elder from the community said, “In the past, the government was the authority but now they are gone. So, we have a plan to replace them. Now we are the authority. So, let’s call ourselves what we are – the Westside Health Authority.

The participants were unanimous in accepting the new name. Thirty years later, the Westside Health Authority (WHA) has provided shelter for all kinds of community building initiatives. They include student health career planning in local hospitals, building a large community Wellness Center, buying a closed hospital and turning it into a clinic. In addition, they created a neighborhood organization called “Every Block a village,” a housing rehabilitation organization employing local African American contractors and craftsman, a men’s group, a women’s group, youth organizations and, most recently, a “Good Neighbor Campaign” designed to reconnect residents in order to have a stronger community.

Local leaders believe the title of “Authority” has been a vital factor enabling WHA in mobilizing and engaging citizen action. The idea that residents are the authority calls forth community dreams and replaces the tendency for neighbors to wait to fulfill the dreams of planners and institutions.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines an authority as “those who have control.” Local resident groups are usually defined as advisors, advocates, or co-producers but rarely as the people who are in control. However, a citizen authority calls forth a critically different role for residents. That role is to be the responsible party. Authority means you have responsibility because of your control. It is this power of residents to be responsible for their future that has proliferated the functions and the powers of citizen authorities like the Westside Health Authority.

For those interested in more detail about the Westside Health Authority see:

http://healthauthority.org/

https://www.facebook.com/WestsideHealth/

http://healthauthority.org/good-neighbor-campaign- austin/

https://www.facebook.com/GoodHood5417/

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Who Should Have the Final Say in Community Decision-making: Learning from Pilots, Pastors and Guards (Learning Twenty-four)

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

Many institutions, agencies, governments and companies seek to develop effective relationships with the neighborhoods or small towns that they serve. Often, these desirable relationships are called co-production, collaboration, cooperation, etc. The “co” in each of these definitions implies a parity of power, influence, or authority. However, in almost every case, institutions, agencies, governments and companies rarely achieve actual parity in their relationship. The institutions have money, technology and expertise that inevitably results in dis-parity. And usually, in a legal sense, whatever the “co” may be, it is the institution that has the legal final say. Therefore, “co” activities are almost always an unbalanced relationship.

How might a balance with parity be achieved? There are some interesting examples of authoritative experts, professionals and administrators whose role is necessarily in alignment and parity with the interests of those they serve.

Consider the airline pilot. She or he have great power, technology and expertise that none of their passengers share. Nonetheless, the pilots interests are in absolute alignment with their passengers because the passengers fate will be their fate.

Another example is the pastoral principle of Reverend John Perkins who founded the nationally influential Christian Community Development Association. It was his premise that the necessary precursor to a legitimate pastorate is that the pastor lives in the neighborhood where most of the parishioners live. Therefore, the pastor will have intensely accurate information about the local community and will live with the neighbors in experiencing the neighborhood reality.

Another example was a rule developed by Dr. Jerome Miller who directed the Massachusetts Department of Juvenile Corrections in the 1970’s. The most severe punishment in the system was sending young people to isolation cells. If an authority in a local reformatory sent a youthful inmate into isolation, Miller required the authority to spend several hours of each day in isolation with the inmate. The effect was to quickly change policy in terms of isolation.

In each case, the authority/expert personally experienced the consequence of her/his decisions and actions. In these cases, the “co” resulted in a parity of interests unequaled by the usual imbalance in co-production, collaboration, cooperation.

The reality is that very few people who have institutional authority are prepared to establish a local relationship where the consequence of their decisions will be the same as those they serve. Therefore, who should have the final say in “co-decision-making?” Should it be those who must live with a co-decision? Or those who do not? One way to resolve this dilemma is to stipulate, at the outset of the co-decision-making process, that those who must live with the decision have the final say or a veto. With this authority, they can act as citizen rather that supplicants or clients. And when the final authority of citizens acts as a counter balance to the money, technology and expertise of institutional authorities, the substance of the final decision will also change. As citizens learn that they have real power, “co” will now mean that they can be creators, designers, analysts, planners and implementers. And they will learn that the people across the table are their servants – public and not-for-profit.

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Servants of Citizenship: Understanding the Basic Function of Newspapers in a Democracy (Learning Twenty-three)

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

There are many ways of thinking about the functions of newspapers: investigator, commentator, informant, entertainer, agitator, etc. Another way is to think of the newspaper as a servant of citizenship. While that function sounds abstract, there are quite a few newspapers that primarily fulfill this function while supporting a staff as well.

One of these papers is The Home News located in the small Wisconsin community of Spring Green (pop. 1,600). The paper is a weekly that usually has 16 pages.

An analysis of its August 28, 2019 edition’s coverage of Spring Green* demonstrates the nature of a citizen serving press.

There are six kinds of information contained in this edition:

  1. Providing information about legislative bodies.Articles include the agenda for the next Spring Green City Council meeting as well as an extensive report (minutes) on the last meeting. Another article is an extensive report (minutes) of the County Board which has jurisdiction over Spring Green.
  2. Providing Information about public institutions.Three articles include reports from the school superintendent, the police chief and the librarian. They discuss issues, programs and opportunities.
  3. Providing useful, non-partisan information about public issues.The local public utility company has proposed installing a major electric transmission line across the area covered by The Home News readership. During the last year there has been considerable citizen activism opposing the transmission line. The paper has regularly reported on these citizen actions. In August, the State Public Service Commission voted to allow the transmission line to be built. This Home News has a major article reviewing the history of the citizen engagement. The article includes extensive statements from advocacy groups and legislators on both sides of the issue.
  1. Providing opportunities for a citizen forum debating public issues.
    In this issue two citizen letters give extensive information and argument regarding redistricting and gun law reform.
  2. Providing information regarding activities of citizen associations.
    The basic democratic vehicles for citizen action are the local association – small, face-to- face groups that collectively create the common good without being paid. In this issue the work of 14 associations are reported:

    • The Community Garden Committee contributed a significant amount of produce to the local Food Pantry.
    • A group of citizens held a “brat fry” to raise money for the Community Garden.
    • The Rural Musicians Forum will hold a concert.
    • An association of gardeners, Blooming Buddies, seeks advice on plantings aroundthe library.
    • The Local Arts Council created an artistic display at the library.
    • The Alzheimer Society will hold a discussion on communication with people whohave dementia.
    • A group supported by a local family trust has organized a series of lectures at theOctagon Barn. The next lecture will be a report on peace-making.
    • The local Arts Council has organized a hymn sing at a local church each monthduring the summer.
    • The LMP Club is presenting a gathering for people who enjoy Lego, Minecraftand Pokémon.
    • The Harrisburg Historical Society has restored the old Harrisburg School and itwill be open on Sundays during the summer.
    • The Art Fair Committee raised considerable money and is seeking proposals forgrants to local associations.
    • The Care Givers Club will hold its monthly meeting.
    • Alcoholics Anonymous will hold its regular meetings.
    • ALANON will hold its regular meetings.
  3. Other Spring Green Information reported in this issue:
  • There are three columnists with weekly articles about nature, gardening and local happenings.
  • There are two pages of sports reporting on the first high school football game and the four summer little league teams’ results.
  • There is the weekly report of the menu at the senior center.
  • There is an obituary column.In summary, five of the six categories of reporting are articles that either provide information needed by an informed citizenry or document citizen opinions and report the collective action of local citizens. From a functional perspective a majority of the non-commercial print in the Home News is specifically citizen serving.

    This analysis documents the visible functions of the Spring Green newspaper. However, there is a less visible function which is the fact that the paper is a mirror in which the residents can see themselves and their community. The mirror shows them a government that is theirs, public institutions that are accountable, citizens speaking up and numerous citizen associations creating the community’s common good. This mirror reflects a town where residents are authoritative, responsible and creative. It is this image that is essential to creating a culture of contribution and democratic participation.

    On the same day that the Home News was published, August 28, 2019, The Chicago Tribune, a major metropolitan newspaper, also mirrored that city in its daily Chicagoland Section. There were nine articles:

  • Four articles documented crime and drug issues.
  • Three articles reported on public issues:- A major review of the first 100 days of the new mayor’s administration.
    – A suburban Representative announces support of impeaching the President. – Initial steps to sell the State office building in Chicago.
  • Three articles reporting on local activities including the closing of a drive-in restaurant, a railroad schedule change and a school dealing with lead in its water.A comparison of the two newspapers’ particular content is not appropriate because of the geographic scale they cover. It is possible, however, to compare the mirror they provide that shapes citizen perceptions of the community and actions they have taken or can take.

From a citizen perspective, citizens first see mirrored the crime, deviance and even “evil”* around themselves. Instead of information that reflects and engages citizen power, the mirror creates fear.

The second set of articles mirror public life as actions taken by officials. There are no stories of actions taken by citizens. Their associations are absent. They see themselves as dependents.

The third set of articles are about localities and each reports bad news: a business closes, railroad gives less service and school experiences lead poisoning. The mirror reflects the community as a place of troubles.

The Chicagoland Section reflects a city where residents are fearful, dependent and troubled. It is this kind of mirror that promotes a disabling culture where citizens pull back from public life and grow cynical about their society. However, in Spring Green, once a week, the residents see themselves in a different mirror. It is a mirror that reflects citizens who are not fearful, dependent and troubled. Instead the Home New reflects citizens who are informed, engaged and, above all the creators of their community.

One might conclude that we should reform the big city newspaper so that it can be a mirror enabling citizenship. That is an improbable proposal. Every journalism school teaches and every big city journalist believes that bad news is the news. Good news items are thought of as “puff pieces.” High scale journalists act on the hidden assumption that the large institutions of government, corporations and agencies provide the important news. However, as Alexis de Tocqueville reported in his 1835 masterpiece, “Democracy in America” the vital center of America’s unique democracy is not these institutions. It is the citizen power created by its associations. As long as the high scale journalists remain captives of their institutional illusion, their mirror will continue to disable a citizen powered democracy. There is, however, a remedy. It is not reforming big newspapers. It is the proliferation of citizen mirrors like the Home News and hundreds of other small-town papers.

These citizen mirrors are desperately needed in the neighborhoods of big cities. There was a time when there were many urban neighborhood papers. Most have died and without a citizen mirror, the power of community creativity and responsibility has dissipated. Urban neighbors are left to see themselves in the distorting mirror of the mainline press.

So, can there be a new movement that will resurrect citizen-centered local newspapers. Perhaps a movement could emerge if there was a coalition in every city where neighborhood activists, local businesses and journalism schools could create a renewal process where local neighborhood papers can be viable once again. Who is interested in the rebirth of a local neighborhood press that is a servant of citizenship and community?

* The newspaper also covers, in a similar manner, four smaller surrounding communities – Plain, Lone Rock, Clyde and Arena.

* The lead headline under “Chicagoland” news reads, “Nurse Sentenced in ‘Evil’ Plot to Kill Romantic Rival.”

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It Doesn’t Take a Village to Raise a Modern Child: The Economic, Political and Cultural Socialization of Young Americans (Learning Twenty-two)

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

At a County Board Meeting in California, a commissioner said, “We’ve got a proposal here asking for money to support another youth program. I vote no. Our real problem is that we always pay to keep young people together when what we really need is for them to be associated with adults.”

A Chicago neighborhood leader, concerned about the local “gang” problem said, “The gangs aren’t the problem. The problem is that our youth have lost connection with the grown-ups.”

A suburban mother complains that her daughter spends most of her free time at the mall with her friends.

These three observations are particular manifestations of a widely recognized youth culture. It has, in significant measure, been generated and exploited by the marketplace. Then, this age- based culture has been enhanced and institutionalized by schools and youth programs that intentionally organize young people’s lives around the daily experience of age-based segregation. In a sense, this process can be understood as adult communities “out-sourcing” their youth to segregating institutions and markets. As a result, there are very few neighborhoods, towns or villages that actually take part in collectively raising their children.”

While there are many negative results of this age-based segregation, perhaps the most consequential is the loss of the adult community’s ability to introduce the young to the economic, political, cultural and spiritual worlds that surround them. The experience of acting as a citizen or an economic producer or a creator outside the youth culture or as a political participant is largely delayed until an emancipatory event called graduation.

This has led many people to ask whether it is possible in this consumer society filled with age- segregating institutions for a “village to raise its children.” Are the adult members of the village capable of introducing and engaging it’s young to the experience of unsegregated life?

There are, of course, many exceptional villages where this experiential integrated life is available to the young. Many of these places are communities where the historic integrative role has survived.

However, ask members of local neighborhoods and villages how they collectively raise their children and in most, silence will prevail until someone points to the schools. In truth, most villages have long since lost the memory of how to introduce their young to the knowledge, collective wisdom, associational productivity, enterprising skills, and “small p” political life. It is not that they don’t have the capacity to do this work. It is that they have forfeited this

community function to the age-segregating world of consumer culture, educational institutions and youth programs.

Is it possible for these villages to recover their roles as knowledge producers and providers of integrated experiential learning? Fortunately, the answer is positive. There are villages and neighborhoods experimenting with modern approaches to recovering their capacity to raise their children. Often, they begin by identifying the knowledge of local residents. A current example is the knowledge of residents on two blocks of a working-class neighborhood in a small midwestern city:

Village Knowledge

  1. Customer service
  2. Acts of kindness
  3. Cooking soup
  4. People skills
  5. Accounting
  6. Cooking
  7. Baking
  8. Farming
  9. Animal care
  10. Excavating
  11. Human resources
  12. Jack of all trades
  13. Heart and soul of people
  14. Gardening
  15. Volunteering
  16. Writing
  17. Playing violin
  18. Making good friends
  19. Working in a Thrift Store
  20. Gay subculture
  21. Raised gardens
  22. Landscaping
  23. Horses
  24. Family life
  25. Working with kids
  26. Event planning
  27. Crafting
  28. Creating safe neighborhoods
  29. Hunting
  30. Fishing
  31. Shooting safety
  32. Working on trucks
  33. Carpentry
  34. Homebuilding
  35. Saving the bees
  36. Handyman
  37. Neatness
  38. Welding
  39. Tree cutting
  40. Bike riding
  41. Working on cars
  42. Soccer
  43. Swimming instructions
  44. Remodeling homes
  45. Mowing grass
  46. Singing
  47. Dealing with bullying
  48. Dealing with anxiety
  49. Dealing with binge eating
  50. Stand-up paddle boarding
  51. Sociology
  52. Anthropology
  53. Veterans Services
  54. Reduce/reuse/recycle practices 2
  55. Working with elderly
  56. IT skills
  57. Painting rocks
  58. Designing T-shirts
  59. Kayaking
  60. Walking
  61. Coloring
  62. Hamster care
  63. Fostering children
  64. Writing children’s books
  65. Prosthetics
  66. Dog training
  67. Basic maintenance of houses and cars 68. Mathematics
  68. Writing songs
  69. Football
  70. Riding and fixing motorcycles
  71. Building self esteem
  72. Dealing with mental illness
  73. Recovering from alcoholism
  74. Writing recipes
  75. Karaoke singing

It is especially significant that only 10 of the 72 topics are those that schools typically teach. And of even more importance, connecting neighborhood young people to this pool of knowledge establishes many new youth-adult relationships. In the aggregate, this process revives one fruitful way for villages to once again raise their children.

In addition to knowledge of individual residents, the village also has collective knowledge held by its clubs, organizations and associations. A typical example of these “knowledge banks” is this list of associations in a small midwestern town with a population of 1,600.

4PeteSake
American Legion Post 253
Badgerland Girl Scout Troop 2669
Bloomin’ Buddies Garden Club
Cub Scout Pack # 38 Spring Green
Bunco Babes
Christ Lutheran Church Community Theater Association (Gard) Concerned Citizens of the River Valley
Cornerstone Church of Spring Green
Driftless Area Book Club
FFA Organization (at River Valley High School)
Friends of Governor Dodge State Park
Friends of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway (FLOW)
Friends of the Spring Green Community Library
Green Squared Building Association
Greenway Manor Volunteers
Habitat for Humanity, Lower Wisconsin River
Knights of Columbus
Knitters at Nina’s
Kops for Kids
Mew Haven, Inc.
Miracles on Hoof
Mostly Mondays Poetry Society
Older & Wiser Land Stewards (OWLS)
Pineland Association
River Valley Area Community Choir
River Valley Boosters Association (athletics)
River Valley Mom’s Group
River Valley Music Boosters
River Valley Players
River Valley Soccer Association
River Valley Stitchers
River Valley Youth Football Club
Rural Musicians Forum
River Valley High School Alumni Band
River Valley High School Madrigal Choir & Jazz Vocal Group

River Valley High School Senior Service Learning Class Skills USA (at River Valley High School)
Solstice Jazz Band
Spring Green Area Arts Coalition

Spring Green Area Chamber of Commerce Spring Green Area EMT District
Spring Green Area Fire Protection District Spring Green Area Historical Society Spring Green Arts & Crafts Fair Committee Spring Green Cemetery Association

Spring Green Community Church
Spring Green Community Food Pantry Spring Green Dog Park
Spring Green Dolphins
Spring Green Farmers Market
Spring Green Film Club
Spring Green Golf Club, Inc.
Spring Green Lions Club
Spring Green Literary Festival
Spring Green Senior Citizens Club
Stitch ‘n Bitch
Unity Chapel, Inc.
Wyoming Valley School Cultural Arts Center

Youth connected to any of these associations learn the skills of collective decision-making and democratic practice in addition to the substantive interests of the group. Examples of the integrated experiential learning available from local associations include:

  • A knitting club teaches finger knitting to children.
  • Rotary Club members teach a youth group how to run a meeting.
  • Local college band members offer a Saturday learning event for new, fifth grade band students.
  • A voluntary association of emergency medical technicians offers an after-school first aid clinic.
  • A motorcycle club offers free rides to kids and their parents around a parking lot.
  • A Veterans for Peace group member gives a talk at the local middle school.
  • A group of retired teachers volunteer to have their monthly lunch at a local elementary school a few times per year to spend time with kids.
  • A master gardeners association starts a school garden.
  • An informal group of neighbors who like to jog together offer a week-long track and field “tournament” for neighborhood children.
  • A genealogy enthusiasts group offers to work with youth who want to research their family history as part of a school assignment.
  • A high school chess club teaches the game to fourth graders.
  • An annual music festival hires high school students to design and contribute to social media and other marketing strategies.
  • A neighborhood association seeking a mural to cover a graffiti-laden wall creates an opportunity for neighborhood youth interested in art to learn about the neighborhood from the local historical society. With that information, they design and paint the mural to reflect both the past and the future of the neighborhood, with guidance from a professional mural artist/educator.
  • A neighborhood association organizes neighbors to teach middle school students how to provide lawn care services. Neighbors teach lawn mowing, hedge trimming, and weeding skills. Other neighbors offer their lawns as practice sites. The association helps the young people market their services in the neighborhood.
  • The organizers of a front porch music festival dedicate one porch to youth performers, and seasoned gig musicians also performing at the event provide the young people with tips on pursuing future performance opportunities.
  • The Rotary Club creates a special role for youth participants to connect with local business owners and learn about community issues.
  • A fourth of July Parade Committee asks youth to be involved in the planning. 15
  • A neighborhood association establishes a youth-led committee to take on projects of their choice.
  • A local chapter of the League of Women Voters invites youths to get involved with voter registration efforts.
  • “Friends of” the neighborhood park hold a youth summit to identify priorities and organize youth activities to improve the park.
  • A community theatre group invites a young person to learn about and assist with lighting and set design.
  • An environmental group requests that a youth with visual art skills attend a community forum on river water quality and create a drawing that captures all of the dreams people have for a healthy river.
  • A Parent-Teacher Organization invites high school students to come back to their elementary school to design and lead a school event.
  • American Legion members invite a middle school band to perform at a Memorial Day service.
  • A local poet’s group creates an open-mic poetry event for high school students and provides one-on-one feedback sessions.
  • A quilter’s club partners with a church youth group to make a prayer quilt together for a grieving family.
  • The local historical society invites and trains high school students to help with primary research, interviewing residents who lived through a local natural disaster.
  • The local conservation club helps a high school student do field research on water quality for a school project.
  • A bowling league organizes an intergenerational team tournament.
  • An environmental justice group trains youths to make presentations about asthma and air pollution.
  • A string chamber ensemble invites strong youth musicians to perform with them in concert.
  • A canoeing club invites families with young children who live nearby the boat launch to ride along and learn about canoeing.
  • A local makers space opens the doors to teen inventors twice per month.
  • Youth are invited to take charge of children’s activities at a neighborhood National Night Out celebration.

Local businesses, not-for-profit organizations and government entities also can provide valuable experience and knowledge as the following list indicates:

  • A church Bingo game invites teenagers to participate as guest callers.
  • The Boys & Girls Club organizes an afternoon walking tour to nearby businesses including a book store, yarn shop and candy store. At each location students learn something about how the business works “behind the scenes.”
  • Students at a vocational high school form a credit union using skills they have learned from a local credit union’s staff. Anyone from the school or community can invest, and upper classmen teach incoming freshmen how to keep the business running.
  • A local food pantry asks for help from youth in designing a new logo.
  • Construction firm staff teach young people how to use graph paper and architectural rulers to design a building.
  • The owner of a yarn shop offers a free month-long knitting workshop for neighborhood middle schoolers.
  • Bank employees share the power of compound interest with elementary students through a marshmallow game in math class.
  • A municipal community planning department engages youths in focus groups to inform comprehensive planning, and invites a team of youths to participate in data analysis.
  • A neighborhood café owner meets with a group of youth entrepreneurs to answer questions about starting a business.
  • A salon volunteers to teach skin care to adolescents.
  • A yoga studio offers trauma-informed yoga practice for youths in a residential facility.
  • Middle school cafeteria staff invite seventh graders to plan a menu and quantities within a budget for one week of school lunches.
  • A rental property owner teaches graduating high school students about their tenant rights and responsibilities.
  • A garden center sponsors, and staff supports, middle schoolers to install a butterfly garden at their school.
  • A graphic design company works one-on-one with high school entrepreneurs to create a logo and business card.
  • Neighborhood teenagers are hired to work at an understaffed library.
  • A municipal Parks Department creates a youth Advisory Council which learns from Parks staff how to raise and manage funds for youth projects, publish a youth-focused newsletter, design and plant gardens, and organize activities for younger children.
  • Experienced students enrolled in a literacy program are trained to become teachers for students just entering the program.
  • A group of middle-schoolers who started a recycling program in their school help their old elementary school do the same.
  • A group of small retail businesses work together to create a labor pool of neighborhood teenagers to call upon for part-time, seasonal and on-call work.
  • A senior center invites youths to teach smart phone skills.
  • A commercial business association invites neighborhood teens offering services (babysitting, lawn care, pet care, etc.) to be part of the local business directory and attend meetings.
  • A local political party creates internships for youth to learn about and participate in campaign work.
  • A real estate agents professional group invites ten high school students to shadow ten real estate agents for a day, and attend one of their group lunch events to learn about the profession.
  • A Habitat for Humanity chapter enlists teens to do physical inventories of housing stock in target neighborhoods.
  • A performance auto shop invites teens with mechanical ability to intern for the summer.
  • A local hospital invites teens to job shadow.
  • A mayor’s office creates a high school internship in Communications and Policy.
  • A police department offers ride-alongs to high school students interested in a career in law enforcement.
  • A fitness center offers a once/month teen night with personal trainers to help develop personal exercise routines.
  • An ethnic grocery offers a food tasting event and kid-friendly recipes for local parents with young children.
  • A hardware store offers a tool library and club for youths working on do-it-yourself projects.
  • A sexual assault crisis center creates internship positions, educates and supports high school students who want to tackle toxic masculinity in their schools.
  • A bakery invites a preschool class to make bread and learn how commercial baking equipment works.
  • A nature center supports a “youth crew” that works with staff to design and lead environmental projects.

The local farmers’ market engages high school students in inventorying weekly crops offered by vendors, visiting other area farmers’ markets for comparison, and recommending new kinds of vendors to strengthen the market in future years.

The obvious point is that outside the mall, school and youth programs, any neighborhood is rich in associational and institutional experiential learning resources.

Connecting youth interests with these three community resources results in several benefits: …First is the knowledge gained by youth that is not available in schools.
…Second are the skills learned that are not in school curricula
…Third is the experience of participating in the social, economic and political life of the community.

…Fourth are the special relationships that develop when youth are connected to adults in productive roles. This heals the brokenness of an age-segregated community.
…Fifth is the village would become stronger as it enjoys the productive vitality and energy that it’s young people contribute.

As a village recovers and manifests its capacity to integrate youth into productive life, an unintended side effect usually emerges. The village will learn that it does not have a “youth problem.” Instead, the adults will learn that what they have is a “community problem” that grew out of allowing its young people to be raised in a segregated culture created by a marketplace, schools and youth programs. Solving that community problem will result in a village with the new power to raise its children.

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