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John McKnight


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. 


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/good-neighbor-campaign- austin/


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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.

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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A Guide to Government Empowerment of Local Citizens and Their Associations (Learning Twenty-one)

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

In his legendary analysis of American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that, “the more government stands in the place of associations, the more will individuals, losing the notion of coming together, require its assistance: these are causes and effects that unceasingly create each other.”1 In effect, he is describing a closed hydraulic system. As the government, or any large institution, takes over community functions, power is relocated and institutions grow stronger as the associational communities lose power and become more dependent. Today, many kinds of institutions are seeking to engage and empower citizens and their associations. However, many are not clear about the nature of the citizen power they seek to enable.

Tocqueville reminds us that acting in association, citizens take on three powers: …Power to decide what is to be done
…Power to decide how it is to be done
…Power to mobilize themselves to produce the outcome they have defined.

These three are the powers to decide what to do, how to do it and who will produce it. The last century has seen these three powers flow from community to institutions. For example, Jamie Vollmer, in his book, “Schools Cannot Do It Alone.”2 documents over 85 new functions assumed by schools since 1900. The majority are functions previously performed by associated citizens in their neighborhoods. Similarly, Robert Putnam in “Bowling Alone” documents the precipitous decline of American associational life since 1970.

The reality is that we have actually seen a century of community disempowerment as community power and functions have flowed to institutions. This transfer of functions from the neighborhood to institutions and the marketplace has created a consumer society where once productive citizens have become clients and consumers.

The costs of this functional transfer is that most institutions try, for money, to do what productive associations of citizens could do more effectively and less expensively. Seven of these functions include safety, health, enterprise, food, ecology, raising children and the provision of care.3

For institutional leaders concerned about their dysfunctional efforts to replace uniquely local functions, we can learn about alternatives from some wonderfully inventive institutional experimenters. While we have yet to recognize a common name for these experimenters, they act like precipitants or catalysts. Intentionally, they do not become involved in the local power to decide what is to be done, how it is to be done or who shall do it. They recognize that to interject their authority in any of these three functions is actually disempowering. Therefore, they act in ways that result in powerful associational action that would not have happened without their action. Paradoxically, they are initiators of citizen action that empowers associational functions rather than replacing them. And they benefit by initiating local invention and problem solving that their institutions could never equal. Five examples of institutional precipitators are:

  1. In Savanna, Georgia the municipal government sent a letter to the residents in a low- income neighborhood saying that it wanted to support efforts for block level improvements. They asked interested residents to write a brief letter describing the initiative they wanted to undertake. The letter needed to be signed by at least two people on the block who would also be involved. If the initiative required some money in order to be fulfilled, up to $100 would be available.Initially, people from 80 blocks responded by indicating what they wanted to do, how they would get it done and who on the block would do it. They usually indicated the specifics for which they needed some money.

    The result was more improvement in the neighborhood than had been achieved from a sizable block grant. Of even more importance, the city was able to know who were the natural leaders in the community because they were the people who signed the proposing letter. Subsequently, the city engaged in supportive activities that increased

  2. In a small town in Quebec province, when residents came to the Mayor and told him about a problem, he asked them how the problem they had defined could be solved. Then he asked who would join them in solving the problem. In recognition of their initiative, the Mayor “officialized” them by making them an official problem solving committee of the city with the ability to meet in the council meeting room and to call on the council if they needed additional resources.
  1. In Edmonton Canada, a group of neighbors began to meet with people on their block to find out what skills, abilities and interests they had. Then they began to connect neighbors with similar interests, creating one-on-one matches as well as new associations. The civic results of this connecting process were so impressive that the City “seconded” (lent) an employee to work under the direction of the neighbors’ group. This assistance was invaluable because the volunteering neighbors had somebody available full time to take on administrative and technical tasks. 6
  2. In St. Paul, Minnesota, the city government outlined a series of functions that it was performing in neighborhoods. It offered neighborhoods the power to take on these functions for the amount of money that the city had used to carry them out. This unusual process of “de-functioning” reallocated authority, responsibility and money based on local citizens’ response. And the citizens were free to improvise their own methods of implementation.
  3. In Chicago, an alderman delegated his decision-making power to the block organizations in the ward. They were informed of legislative issues to be decided by the city council. Then they were able to discuss their position and cast their block’s vote with the alderman. He then voted the way the majority of the participating blocks desired. He delegated his power to decide, creating something like an informed referendum that made clear to local citizens that they had a real voice and public power. 7

In each of these cases, local citizens and their associations created community benefits by taking on new functions and in each case, institutional leaders led by stepping back so that the neighborhoods and the city could each be more effective. These experimenters started with the common assumption that their principal role was to enable local citizens and their associations to become more powerful and productive. As a result, they have developed unique ‘precipitating’ tools. Through their work they are creating a new approach to empowerment that reaches beyond more traditional empowerment methods that involve hearings, consultations, community advisory boards or even co-production. Their methods are doubly powerful because they not only enhance the productive capacity of local citizens and their associations, but they are also gaining the community-wide benefits of new citizen creativity and problem solving.

  1. Tocqueville, Alexis de, Democracy in America, Vintage Books, New York, NY, 1945.
  2. Vollmer, Jamie, Schools Cannot Do it Alone, Enlightenment Press, Fairfield, IA, 2010
  3. See www.abcinstitute.org, Publications, Neighborhood Necessities: Seven Functions That Only Effectively Organized Neighborhoods Can Provide by John McKnight (2013).
  4. See www.abcinstitute.org, Publications, City-Sponsored Community Building: Savannah’s Grants for Blocks Story by Henry Moore.
  5. See www.abcdinstitute.org, Publications, A Guide for Government Officials Seeking to Promote Productive Citizen Participation by John McKnight (2019)
  6. See www.abcinstitute.org, Publications, Asset Based Neighborhood Organizing: The Method of the Abundant Community Initiative in Edmonton, Canada by Kim Hopes, John McKnight and Howard Lawrence (2015).
  7. The Forty-fourth Ward Assembly: an Experiment in Neighborhood Democracy, Greta Salem, Center for Urban Policy, Loyola University of Chicago, Chicago, IL 1980.

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A Guide for Government Officials Seeking to Promote Productive Citizen Participation (Learning Twenty)

John McKnight

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

Some years ago I attended the annual Canadian Conference of Community Development Organizations. Several hundred groups were attending. The convener of the conference told me that the best community “developer” in all of Canada was at the conference. He pointed toward a middle aged man named Gaeton Ruest, the Mayor of Amqui, Quebec.

I introduced myself to Mayor Ruest and asked about Amqui. He said that it was a town of about 6,000 people on the Gaspe Peninsula amid the Chic Choc Mountains. It is located at the intersection of the Matapedia and Humqui Rivers. These rivers are the richest Atlantic salmon rivers on our continent and Amqui is the regional center for fishing for these salmon.

Gaeton invited me to visit his town and a year later I was able to do so. I found that all the people in the town were French-speaking. A great deal of the economic base of the community was from fisher people who came to fish for the rare Atlantic salmon.

Walking down the street with Gaeton, two men approached him. There was a long conversation in French, which I did not understand. After they were finished Gaeton explained to me what had happened. He said that the town had put nets on salmon streams in order to keep them near Amqui and accessible to the fishing guides. The two men reported that somebody was cutting the nets to let the salmon go upstream where they could poach them. Gaeton responded, “That’s terrible. What do you think we can do about that?”

The men thought for a while and then told him three things they thought could be done. Gaeton replied, “Is there anybody who could help you do those things?”

“Yes,” they responded. “We know a couple of other fisherpeople who could help.”

Gaeton said, “Will you ask them to join you to meet with me at City Hall this evening?” They agreed.

That evening I joined Gaeton at the meeting with four concerned people. He insisted that their discussion be held in the City Council’s meeting room.

Gaeton led a discussion of how the group could deal with the salmon poaching problem. By the time they were done, they had specific plans and specific people committed to carrying them out.

Then, Gaeton asked, “Is there anything the City can do to help you with the job?” The participants came up with two ways the city could be helpful.

Gaeton then said. “I am making you the official Amqui Salmon Preservation Committee. I want you to hold your meetings in the City Council Meeting Room because you are official. I want you to come to City Council meetings and tell the Council people how you are coming along.”

The convener of the National Association of Community Development Organizations told me that the process I just observed was repeated over and over by Gaeton who was a longtime mayor. As a result, the convener said that in Amqui, hidden away in the Chic Choc Mountains, almost all the residents had become officials of the local government and the principle problem solvers for the community.

Every public official can learn a great deal from the Mayor of Amqui. He starts with the premise that the residents are principle problem solvers. This means they have the best ideas about what needs to be done. It also means that they have the best knowledge regarding who can do what needs to be done.

Working on the basis of these assumptions, the Mayor’s, functions involved:

  • Listening carefully to the problem definition and solutions of citizens
  • Convening residents to develop a plan of action involving themselves and their ideas.
  • Offering to supply support for resident initiatives rather that assuming the City was the problem solver in the community.
  • Making residents into official actors with responsibility and authority over their initiative.
  • Creating an experience that will lead residents to feel they have ownership in the community.

Amqui flourishes because the Mayor acts on three principles:
…First, determine with residents whether problems can be resolved by the citizen’s acting together using their own community resources.
…Second, can the municipality enhance the collective citizen resources by providing supportive municipal assets.
…Third, there will be some problems that cannot be resolved with citizen resources, even if supported by government assistance. In these cases, the municipality must take full responsibility.

The sequence of these three steps is critical, if citizen participation and production is to be achieved. The first question needs to be: can citizens define the problem, create solutions and implement the solution. The last question is what must the municipality do.

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The Mother of Science (Learning Nineteen)

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

“Nothing, in my opinion, is more deserving of our attention than the intellectual and moral associations of America. The political and industrial associations of that country strike us forcibly; but the others elude our observations, or if we discover them, we understand them imperfectly because we have hardly ever seen anything of the kind. It must be acknowledged, however, that they are as necessary to the American people as the (political and industrial) associations, and perhaps more so. In democratic countries the science of association is the mother of science; the progress of all the rest depends on the progress it has made.” – Alexis de Tocqueville Democracy in America

While there may not be any University Departments of Associational Science, Tocqueville still commends us to study their nature and functions because of their critical role in a democracy. Indeed, the practice of associational life is often viewed as the “school for democracy.” As we study associations, it is useful to begin by understanding the topography of the associational domain – the space not occupied by commercial, governmental or not for profit institutions.


An association can be understood as a club, group, or organization of people where the members do the work but they are not paid. They may have a paid member like a convener, organizer or pastor. However, the essential work is produced by members who act, within associations as citizens.

Associations are as varied as the human interests that lead people to create them. They include American Legion posts, book clubs, sports leagues, senior clubs, choirs, 4-H clubs, advocacy groups, etc. These organizations are the core of a democratic society because they are the means by which free people make power by acting together. This is why the first amendment of our Bill of Rights identifies our primary freedoms as free speech and free association and assembly.

Examples of Associations

In practice, associations may be informal or formal. An informal association could be a group of women who meet each Saturday morning at a diner where they have coffee. They are an association, but they have no public name.
The more formal associations are characterized by having names and, frequently, officers. A useful typology of modern associations is:

  1. Addiction Prevention and Recovery Groups
    1. Drug Ministry/Testimonial Group for Addicts
    2. Campaign for a Drug Free Neighborhood
    3. High School Substance Abuse Committee
  2. Advisory Community Support Groups (friends of…)
    1. Friends of the Library
    2. Neighborhood Park Advisory Council
    3. Hospital Advisory Group
  3. Animal Care Groups
    1. Cat Owner’s Association
    2. Humane Society
  4. Anti-Crime Groups
    1. Children’s Safe Haven Neighborhood
    2. Group
    3. Police Neighborhood Watch
    4. Senior Safety Groups
  5. Block Clubs
    1. Condominium Owner’s Association
    2. Building Council
    3. Tenant Club
  6. Business Organizations/ Support Groups
    1. Jaycee
    2. Local Chamber of Commerce
    3. Economic Development Council
    4. Local Restaurant Association
  7. Charitable Groups and Drives
    1. Local Hospital Auxiliary
    2. Local United Way
    3. United Negro College Fund Drive
  8. Civic Events Groups
    1. Local Parade Planning Committee
    2. Arts and Crafts Fair
    3. July 4th Carnival Committee
    4. Health Fair Committee
  9. Cultural Groups
    1. Community Choir
    2. Drama Club
    3. Dance Organization
    4. High School Band
  10. Disability/Special Needs Groups
    1. Special Olympics Planning Committee
    2. Local American Lung Association
    3. Local Americans with Disabilities Association
    4. Local Muscular Dystrophy Association
  11. Education Group
    1. Local School Council
    2. Local Book Clubs
    3. Parent Teacher Association
    4. Literacy Council
    5. Tutoring Groups
  12. Elderly Groups
    1. Hospital Seniors Clubs
    2. Westside Seniors Clubs
    3. Church Seniors Clubs
    4. Senior Craft Club
  13. Environmental Group
    1. Neighborhood Recycling Club
    2. Sierra Club
    3. Adopt-a-Stream
    4. Bike Path Committee
    5. Clean Air Committee
    6. Pollution Council
    7. Save the Park Committee
  14. Family Support Group
    1. Teen Parent Organization
    2. Foster Parents’ Support Group
    3. Parent Alliance Group
  15. Health Advocacy and Fitness Group
    1. Weight Watchers
    2. YMCA/YWCA Fitness Groups
    3. Neighborhood Health Council
    4. Traffic Safety Organization
    5. Child Injury Prevention Group
    6. Yoga Club
  16. Heritage Groups
    1. Black Empowerment Group
    2. Norwegian Society
    3. Neighborhood Historical Society
    4. African American Heritage Association
  17. Hobby and Collectors Group
    1. Coin Collector Association
    2. Stamp Collector Association
    3. Arts and Crafts Club
    4. Garden Club of Neighbors
    5. Sewing Club
    6. Antique Collectors
  18. Men’s Groups
    1. Fraternal Orders
    2. Church Men’s Organizations
    3. Men’s Sports Organizations
    4. Fraternities
  19. Mentoring Groups
    1. After School Mentors
    2. Peer Mentoring Groups
    3. Church Mentoring Groups
    4. Big Brothers, Big Sisters
    5. Rights of Passage Organizations
  20. Mutual Support Groups
    1. La Leche League
    2. Disease Support Groups (cancer, etc.)
    3. Parent-to-Parent Groups
    4. Family-to-Family Groups
  21. Neighborhood Improvement Group
    1. The Neighborhood Garden Club
    2. Council of Block Clubs
    3. Neighborhood Anti-Crime Council
    4. Neighborhood Clean-up Campaign
  22. Political Organizations
    1. Democratic Club
    2. Republican Club
  23. Recreation Groups
    1. Kite-flying Club
    2. Bowling Leagues
    3. Basketball Leagues
    4. Body Builders Club
    5. Little League
  24. Religious Groups
    1.  Churches
    2. Mosques
    3. Synagogues
    4. Men’s Religious Groups
    5. Women’s Religious Groups
    6. Youth Religious Groups
  25. Service Clubs
    1. Zonta
    2. Optimist
    3. Rotary Clubs
    4. Lions Clubs
    5. Kiwanis Clubs
  26. Social Groups
    1. Bingo Club
    2. Card Playing Club
    3. Social Activity Club
    4. Dance Clubs
  27. Social Cause/ Advocacy/ Issue Groups
    1. Get Out the Vote Council
    2. Peace Club
    3. Hunger Organizations
    4. Vigil Against Violence
    5. Community Action Council
    6. Social Outreach Ministry
    7. Soup Kitchen Group
  28. Union Groups
    1. Industrial (UAW)
    2. Crafts Unions (Plumbing Council)
  29. Veteran’s Group
    1. Veterans of Foreign War
    2. Women’s Veterans Organizations
  30. Women’s Groups
    1. Sororal Organizations
    2. Women’s Sports Groups
    3. Women’s Auxiliary
    4. Mother’s Board
    5. Eastern Star
    6. Associational Functions
  31. Youth Groups
    1. After School Group
    2. 4-H
    3. Girl and Boy Scouts
    4. Junior Achievement
    5. Campfire Girls

The functions of associations are numerous and diverse. Primarily they serve the self-interests of the members. People associate because they care about each other and/or they care about the same things. The “glue” that holds them together is mutual care rather that money which is the “glue” which holds institutions together.

Beyond fulfilling immediate self-interests, associations are also schools for citizenship providing space for practice in public affairs and civic life. This participation often involves the exercise of three powers:
…the power to decide what needs to be done.

…the power to create a method to do it.
…the power to implement their solution themselves or by recruiting their neighbors, other associations and institutions to join their effort.

In engaging in these three steps, they are acting powerfully, experiencing the meaning of citizenship and their own efficacy.

Self-efficacy is further enhanced by those associations that have vertical structures that allow them to express themselves at the regional, state or federal level. Examples would be the United Auto Workers, American Legion and League of Women Voters.

These tiered associations are intermediary bodies connecting individuals and their associational concerns to institutions with other capacities and forms of power. In this way, the local associations become a magnifier of each member’s voice and the concerns they advocate.

The Efficacy of the Collective Work of Local Associations

While most associations provide some form of community benefit, the aggregate of their work is the infrastructure of communities. A study of the collective community benefits of local associations was supported by the Kettering Foundation in 2012 and conducted by the Asset- Based Community Development Institute. The study involved an extensive analysis of 62 associations in the small Wisconsin town of Spring Green, WI (population 1,600). The summary of this study illuminates the collective efficacy of multiple associations as they create (unintentionally) the infrastructure of community life through citizen decision making and action. The study’s summary outlines the collective impacts:

Parallel Functions of Associations and Service Institutions

Reviewing the data, one is impressed by the diversity and density of the associations as well as the multitude of functions and benefits they provide. One hypothesis is that their frequency is related to the relative absence of local institutions providing social services. Spring Green is in the southwest corner of the county while the county seat and many social services are physically located in the northeast. Consequently, there are almost no social service facilities and very few resident social service professionals. The result may be that the numerous associations providing services have emerged to fill the institutional absence.

The Associational Safety Net

It is clear from these data that the associations have created a dense system of service, providing personal and social support. The study makes visible the rich infrastructure of associational production of wellbeing that is usually invisible to policy makers or service providers. This “invisibility” limits both an understanding of the community safety net or the policies that could support, enhance or expand the associational system and its productivity.

The Web of Associational Relationships

The study reveals a complex network of relationships surrounding each association. 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. This dense vertical and horizontal web is, in itself, a structure that provides several community benefits.

  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


  5. The entire structure is the community generator of social capital.

The Learning Functions of Associations

Associational benefits are often classified as creating relationships that enable activity. However, it is significant that the most frequent reason given by interviewees as to why residents join their group is classified as “learning.” When asked what the major benefit residents get from their association, once again the most frequent classification is “learning.” With the exception of only one group (a book club), the learning is the result of an activity. In this sense, the associations are providing experiential learning, a powerful pedagogy distinct from most classroom learning. This learning through association is a form of adult continuing education that deserves further study and recognition as a major source of community knowledge.

Fundraising and the Culture of Care

In many communities, the major fundraising activity is the United Way. This agency gathers most of its funds through institutions that solicit their employees for contributions. In Spring Green, there is no United Way. This may be the reason that one third of the associations studied indicated that they engaged in “charitable giving and drives.” Contrasted with the United Way process, this associational giving involves the members in deciding who should receive the money as well as direct personal knowledge or engagement with the recipient. This personalization of giving supports a community culture of care that is not present with a system of annual contributions at the workplace.

Associations and Power

It is significant that only 8 of the 60 associations indicated they have engaged in advocacy with some level of government regarding an issue. In a majority of these cases, the advocacy involved the village government. There is a theory that associations are “mediating institutions,” providing a means for local individuals to gain collective power in dealing with larger, distant institutions such as the higher levels of government. These data from this study indicate that this mediating function is not prevalent. Further study could focus on the other means of advocacy that local people use to influence the state and national government. However, it may be that the local associations are understood as tools for empowerment through the production of community benefits rather than vehicles seeking outside help. While “power” is often understood as the ability to effectively advocate for change, a power of equal importance is the ability to create change with the resources of the community–principally the web of local associations.

The Future

In Yoni Appelbaum’s article titled, “Losing the Democratic Habit” (Atlantic Magazine, October 2018) he observes that:

“Like most habits democratic behavior develops slowly over time, through constant repetition. For two centuries, the United States, was distinguished by its mania for democracy. From early childhood, Americans learned to be citizen by creating, joining and participating in democratic organizations. But in recent decades, Americans have fallen out of practice, or even failed to acquire the habits of democracy in the first place.

The results have been catastrophic. As the procedures that once conferred legitimacy on organizations have grown alien to many Americans, contempt for Democratic institutions has risen.”

This dire warning urges us to develop the science of associations. We can do no less than understand and share broadly the associational habit that is the core of democratic practice and community well-being.

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The Civic Legacy of Saul Alinsky (Learning Eighteen)

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

In 1946, Saul Alinsky published “Reveille for Radicals.” It described the methods he used to create a neighborhood organization that gave a powerful new public voice to the exploited residents in a Chicago neighborhood.

His methods quickly spread to many working-class and low-income neighborhoods across the United States. Today, his approach is still the most common methodology used by urban neighborhood organizations.

“Alinsky style” organizations have been most widely known for their activist methods of institutional confrontation. A classic example is neighborhood groups invading the offices of a Mayor and releasing rats that they caught in their alleys. The rats were there because the city had failed to consistently pick up the garbage. The local media loved these kinds of “actions” and so they became the public hallmark of Alinsky organizations.

While this public confrontation has been most visible, much less noticed have been the unique methods used to create the neighborhood organizations. These methods involved new forms of civic organization and action.

There are at least two elements of the Alinsky method that are important civic inventions. They manifest the processes that enhance and enlarge the authority of local citizens.

The first of these elements recognizes local voluntary associations as vital sources of collective citizen action. Before Alinsky’s methods became popular, if there was a local neighborhood organization it was usually a small group of residents who purported to speak for the neighborhood.

Instead of organizing individuals, Alinsky focused on coalescing the local clubs, groups, organizations and churches – the voluntary associations. The resulting new neighborhood organization was basically an association of associations. This form of organization greatly increased the number of residents involved in the group, ensuring that it was much more representative than an organization of a few self-selective individuals. The association of associations also led to defining mutual concerns for the common good of the associated

residents. Also, because the association defined the concerns of a large number of associated residents, it was a powerful public voice for those who often had been voiceless and unheard.

The second civic contribution of the Alinsky method was a simple practice called a “one-on- one.” This activity involved neighbors in visiting other residents on their block and engaging in a discussion regarding deeply felt concerns or issues. This information provided useful guidance for setting the agenda of the neighborhood organization. The discussion also created a relationship of trust between the neighbors. Trust is the bedrock necessity for effective associational life. This trust manifested itself in the willingness of neighbors to join collective neighborhood actions focused on the collective personal concerns of the residents.

The Alinsky focus on associations and resident concerns recognized the vital civic function of the world of the personal and its collective manifestation in associations. This world contrasts with the institutional world. To “institutionalize” something is to depersonalize it. Institutionalization ensures that the system will function regardless of which person is involved.

It is also true that institutional participation depends upon money – a paycheck. In the associational world of civic engagement, participation depends upon personal trust.

Tip O’Neill famously said, “All politics is local.” Alinsky added that politics’ local manifestation depends upon the personal trust that “glues” residents together in civic associations that magnify their power to create, produce, advocate and vote.

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