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John McKnight


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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Money and the Civic Impulse (Learning Seventeen)

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

When you enter the storefront office of a neighborhood organization in Montreal, the first thing you see is a large sign:

The Chairperson of this neighborhood organization explained that the sign is an attempt to remedy their “grant dependency.” This dependency had once led the group to believe that if they wanted to get anything done, they first needed a grant. The hidden assumption became that without outside money, their citizens organization was impotent.

As a result of this dependency, the leadership developed the four criteria on the sign. It became the group’s guide to a new understanding of the resources necessary to get things done.

The first question asks whether the group’s goal could be achieved without money. Is there a combination of local civic resources that, if connected and mobilized, could achieve the goal?

The second question asks whether the residents and local merchants might have the money that is needed? One measure of the authenticity of a local neighborhood organization is whether local citizens and their enterprises will financially support the neighborhood group’s activities.

The third question asks whether there is something the neighborhood could create or produce that would be valued enough that outside money might invest in it. It recognizes that when the neighborhood people are “first investors,” the outside money is secondary while the second investor/funder has increased security that their money will be productive.

The fourth question is intentionally stark: Must we be a beggar? The blunt phraseology is designed to push back against a “grants mentality.” It makes clear that the last resort of a group of citizens is to act like a client. The word client comes from the Latin cliens, a person who is a follower, a retainer or dependent.

The Montreal group recognizes that there can be many ways to immobilize citizen engagement and one of the most powerful can be outside money, even that purported to be available for citizen engagement.

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The Power of Proliferating Associations (Learning Sixteen)

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

Most local associations are small affinity groups whose members jointly accomplish their purposes without being paid. Their forms can range from a local American Legion Post to a softball team to a conservation club, etc. When they are created, they are

As the association undertakes its work, it depends on two attributes of the members if it is to achieve its purposes:

  • The capacities talents and abilities of each member.
  • The mutual trust of the members with each other.

Through time, many associations grow in membership. The growth may increase the capacity of the group. However, beyond a certain number of members, the association may diminish in its effectiveness. This is because the associational essentials of trust and mutual knowledge cannot be maintained beyond a certain scale.

As the group expands from 10 to 100 individuals, each member has less and less trust building mutual experience with the others. And each knows less and less about the associational building capacities of the others. Because of the inherent limitations of going to scale, often the associational members feel the need for a “centrifugal force” in order to keep or pull them together. Commonly, the response is to create an administrator, convener, or executive – someone all can trust and who can keep track of the unique capacities of each member. This person will usually need to be paid so the funding issue emerges. This is followed by the necessity to have tax exemption. In this way this association slowly transforms itself into a small institution with a developing culture of a system rather than an association.

This process is, of course, the positive process by which we have created many of our important institutions such as hospitals, universities, social agencies, etc. Obviously this has been a beneficial process. However, the nature of these hierarchical systems loses the community building power of trust based, capacity enabling citizen associations.

It is, of course, not inevitable that associations will evolve into institutions as they face the issue of growth. There is another approach to dealing with the problem of scale, an approach that preserves the essential associational characteristics of trust and shared mutual capacities. This approach might be called proliferation rather than institutionalization or replication. It is a process that frequently emerges when a founding group recognizes the special power of their being a small group but also see that what they have learned to do could be usefully learned by others. Therefore, they support or stimulate more small groups with similar purposes. However, they do not create a centralizing or hierarchical system. Rather, they spawn a proliferation of small groups, each with their uniquely skilled members and with mutual trust as the cohering force.

One well-known example of such a proliferating group process is Alcoholics Anonymous. There are countless AA groups around the world and almost no central entity. The members recognize that beyond a certain scale, the intensely personal trust and mutual contribution with be lost.

Another example is La Leche League – proliferating small groups of mothers enabled by trust and mutual capacity. They do have a small central organization but it is a support unit held in check by the dispersed power of the local groups.

There are many other examples of proliferating small associations including:

  • Associations of “home schooling” parents that often link together in

    decentralized associations of associations for mutual support, learning, and

    assistance to newly formed groups.

  • Parent associations of children labeled “developmentally disabled” who create

    linked associations of associations supporting each other and newly forming


  • Neighborhood organizations that create links through their annual convening as

    Neighborhoods USA where they share learnings and inform newly created


  • “Church planting” groups of churches that foster new local efforts to create

    small-scale centers of faith.

  • Black Lives Matter, an alliance of local groups with no central structure or

    hierarchy although they are guided by 13 principals.

    Nationally, there are undoubtedly hundreds of thousands of these “flat proliferated associations”. Many of them perform functions that parallel those of institutions e.g. health, education, addictions, recovery, care for vulnerable and marginal people, civil rights, neighborhood wellbeing, etc.

In many cases the cumulative effect of the actions of “flat proliferated associations” achieve more desirable outcomes than the parallel institution. And they achieve this outcome in spite of having very little money and/or paid employees or experts.

Consider the measurable increase in health status resulting from associational social capital compared to that of institutionalized medical activity. Robert Putnam’s data in Bowling Alone demonstrates that social capital formation is more consequential in improving health status than medical systems. In this sense associations are low-input and high-output “producers” while institutions are generally high-input and low-output methods of achieving a healthy population. Therefore the proliferation of associational groups is the most efficient and effective way of enabling a healthy neighborhood or nation.

In terms of utility and productivity there are some other significant distinctions between the nature and functions of proliferated associations compared with institutionalized systems:

  • Institutions are believed to provide continuity of functions while associations are thought to be more fleeting and ephemeral. However, if one considers local faith-based groups as essentially proliferated associations, many have proven to endure for centuries.
  • Institutions operate on the premise of scarcity and money is their mode of rationing benefits. The proliferated associations operate in the context of abundance. Their basic resource of citizen capacity, care and knowledge are abundant.
  • Institutions operate within the context of the economics of scarcity. Therefore, their essential mode of behavior is competitive. The competitive model is antithetical to the survival of proliferated associations. Both individually and collectively, the associational mode is necessarily cooperation.
  • By their very nature, every association is creating social capital that provides numerous ancillary individual and community benefits that are not necessarily related to each association’s purpose. The proliferating process in itself is always increasing the benefits of social capital in the lives of more and more people.
  • In the world of engineering a measure of effectiveness and efficiency is a process

    that has reduced inputs and increased outputs. One way of understanding the parallel process of institutions and associations is to use the engineering standard.

  • The most serious decision making discussions require face-to-face interaction. Beyond a certain associational size, universal participation becomes practically impossible. There are too many people for everyone to speak. This is why the proliferating associations are so critical for an inclusive democracy. They provide an ever-expanding potential for universal access to the deliberation. On the other hand, institutions cannot provide the structure for a universalizing voice in shaping public goals.

Considering the unique and powerfully beneficial effects of associations and their proliferated work, it is important to consider the factors that enable and enhance the proliferation of associations and the links and networks of these groups. Are there initiatives that see their basic task as enhancing the proliferation of associational functions and inventions?

Also, to what degree are the effects of increasing institutionalization of community functions a significant deterrent to associational proliferation? What could be done to limit these institutional barriers? Would there be any institution willing to take on this task? Or is it one of the essential functions of the proliferated associations to push back the institutional barriers?

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Associating Associations: The Power of Convening (Learning Fifteen)

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

Because most associations are affinity groups of like-minded people, the potential for dialogue about issues is small. The focus of most associational discourse is about how to manifest their like-mindedness. There is, however, a context in which associations engage in discussions about public issues because they usually have some diversity of viewpoints. This occurs when they come together as a group – an association of associations. This creates enough diversity that contending views (or tensions) emerge.

An example of the dialogue created by associated associations was the Chicago Neighborhood Innovations Forums convened by The Center for Urban Affairs at Northwestern University. For several years, twenty neighborhood associations were convened every six weeks at a retreat center. The convened associations were often different depending on their interest in the topic of discussion.

The topics to be discussed were determined by an advisory group of neighborhood organizations. They tended to fall into two categories. The first was issues of common concern. The second was innovations created by neighborhood groups from across the United States. The topics of discussion are listed below. Those focused on innovation are preceded by an asterisk.

The Place of Local Community Organizations in Decisions About City Expenditures in Their Neighborhoods

*Building a New School/Community Partnership through the Participation of Local Schools in Economic and Community Revitalization of Their Neighborhoods

Organizing for Chicago School Reform
*The Neighborhoods’ Options in the Energy Crisis
Neighborhood Economic Interests in Chicago’s Mandatory Waste Separation Ordinance Developing an Affordable Housing Agenda for the Nineties
Illinois School Reform Legislation Bill #18-39
*Credit Unions as a Tool for Community Development

*Rethinking the Welfare Dollar: New Initiatives by Local Community Groups

*Issues in Local Ownership and Control: The Prospects for Community Land Trusts in Chicago Neighborhoods

*Neighborhood Responses to the Drug Trade

*Expanding Opportunities and Creating Community Change Through Small Groups

*New Directions in Community Strategic Planning: Thinking Through and Taking Charge

*New Directions in Community Organizing

Local Community Stakes in State Economic Development Policies and Programs: Building an Agenda for the Future

*Community Gardening: A Community Building Tool

The Role of Community Organizing in Chicago Public School Reform

*Neighborhood Initiatives for Improved Transit to Work

The Future of Neighborhood Health Planning for Chicago’s West Side Corridor

Developing a Comprehensive Plan for Chicago Westside Strategy on Drugs

Building a Neighborhood Agenda

Neighborhood Capital Budget Group Board/Staff Annual Retreat

*Neighborhood Innovations in Financial Services as a Base for Community Economic Development

Resources for the Neighborhood Agenda

Public Policy Development for the Campaign for a Drug-Free Westside: Strengthening Prevention, Treatment and Enforcement

The Greening Network: Past-Present-Future
*Strategies on Developing a Chicago Association of Local School Councils

Planning for the Comprehensive Housing Affordability Strategy for the City of Chicago *Exploring Governmental Initiatives for the Neighborhood Agenda
*Exploring Women’s Initiatives to Build Multicultural Relationships in Chicago Chicago: Where Have We Been? Where are We? Where Do We Want to Go? Community Policing: Where Do We Go From Here?

Youth Policy Forum I

Youth Policy Forum II

The discussions of issues tended to focus on what to do. The discussions on innovations focused on how something might be newly created. These two categories reflected key functions of associations – public decision-making and creative innovations. Both are essential to the democratic process.

These discussions resulted in the creation of 13 sustaining groups of associations focused on acting on their discussions. These working groups made major contributions to neighborhood well being and public policy, often over a lengthy period of time.

This kind of forum is an example of the power of convening. While many institutions are interested in enabling neighborhoods, they tend to focus on interventions and see convening as a means to their ends. An even more productive function could be to act as a neutral convener.

There were two distinctive features in the convening of the Neighborhood Innovations Forums. The first was that the neighborhood groups defined the questions they wanted to discuss rather than relying on institutions to define or join in to defining the questions. As a result, built into the discussions was the participant’s motivation to act because the questions were those the associations themselves cared about.

The second distinctive feature was that the participants were all neighborhood organizations. With a few rare exceptions, representatives of agencies, business and government were not invited. The result was that the discussions placed responsibility and accountability for action on local citizen organizations. The presence of institutional representatives would have diminished associational accountability and, predictably, resulted in finger pointing and institution blaming.

There usually came a time when the forum groups met with institutional actors. However, this was after the groups had first become clear about their agenda and had determined how their own resources could be used in implementing issue or innovation decisions. This process

reflected, in practice, the basic sequential planning process for productive neighborhood groups:

  1. To achieve our purpose, what resources do we have in the neighborhood that will allow us to deal with our issue or innovation with no outside resources?
  2. Using our own resources, what purposes can we fulfill if there are also some outside resources to support our work?
  3. Finally, which purposes do we have that depend entirely on outside resources?

In this sequence, citizen capacity for productivity is the primary question and institutional roles are understood to be supportive of these capacities.

Finally, there are many possible institutions that could convene local associations including universities, local governments, community centers, some social service agencies, civic organizations, chambers of commerce, etc. The unusual aspect of this type of convening is that the institution needs to set aside its own substantive priorities while recognizing the critical value of increasing the social capital and productive capacity of local citizens.

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Local Associations as Schools for Democratic Practice (Learning Fourteen)

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

It is clear that most associations are created to enable the purposes of people who are “like-minded”. Whether it is an association of people who collect the stamps of Israel or who gather because of their common love of bowling, what they have in common is the “glue” that holds them together. They associate because they care about the same thing and/or they care about each other.

The activities of these “like-minded” associations tend to focus on administrative matters, arrangements for activities, making their advocacy more effective, and increasing the visibility of the group and its purposes. Rarely do these groups have tensions or divisions that one might describe as small “p” political.

Where might one look for associations where decisions of a political character require resolution? One such venue is neighborhood associations and block clubs. They often engage in decisions regarding local property, security, municipal services, local youth, etc. It is usually the case that there are diverse viewpoints that need to be resolved. One reason for these differing viewpoints is that each homeowner/renter chooses a residence because of their unique individual situation. They infrequently are involved in identifying the interests of their neighbors before they choose a household. Therefore they tend to be much more diverse in their interests and confront quite diverse neighborhood questions. As a result, most neighborhood organizations and block clubs are engaged in serious resident political discussions embedded in diverse self-interests. As these local associations grapple with diverse views and multiple concerns, they act as experiential educators about democratic practice.

A useful question might be to identify other associations where their “unlike-mindedness” requires decision-making through dialogue, debate, discourse, deliberation, etc.

Local associational decision-making, whether “like-minded” or not, tends to be a bonding process. The focus is internal. However, there is also the question of associational bridging. When do more parochial local associations have the motive to bridge? Most commonly in cities there are associations of neighborhood associations. These coalitions provide another level of learning about the democratic process because they multiply the nature of the issues and the nature of the constituents.

Another useful question is what other kinds of associations tend toward creating bridging structure, and where are there associational bridging structure among diverse, rather than “like-minded” groups?

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Differentiating the Functions of Institutions and Associations: A Geometry Lesson (Learning Thirteen)

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

In the community-building world, a significant number of local initiatives fail because the participants are not clear about the difference between the functions of associations and institutions. This failure most often occurs when institutions attempt to take on functions that are actually better performed by associations.

Associations are defined as smaller, often face-to-face groups where the members do the work and they are not paid. Their geometric form is symbolized by a circle. Typical examples include block clubs, veteran’s organizations, gardening clubs, advocacy groups etc.

Institutions are defined as groups of paid people in formal, hierarchical organizations. Their form is symbolized by a triangle. They come in three organizational forms: for profit, not for profit and governmental.

Just as a hammer and a saw each perform distinctive functions, circular associations and triangular institutions have forms appropriate to their functions. In order to clarify these distinctive functions, it is useful to outline the unique nature and capacity of institutional and associational forms of organized people. The chart below is a summary illustration of the distinctive capacities of each form.

Institutions are triangular constructions because their essential purpose is to provide a means by which a few can control many. This is why most institutional organization charts have one person at the top and many people at the bottom. This control function is valuable whenever we need uniformity and standardization as in mass production. The “glue” that holds the people in institution together is money.

Associations are flat and circular because their function is to synthesize the unique interests of each participant and their continuity depends upon the choice to voluntarily participate. The glue that holds them together is trust.

The purpose of institutional control is to produce “lots of the same things” – goods or services.

While some associations may produce goods, they are rarely mass-produced. Instead, they are handmade and homemade. Therefore, they are the product of what people care about.

While care is sometimes described as being provided by service institutions, this is a misuse of the meaning of the word care. Care is the freely given commitment, from the heart, of one person to another. For example, “He cares about his spouse and his neighborhood more than anything else.” No institution can produce care in this traditional meaning. On the other hand, care is the essential necessity of an association’s continuity. It will not survive unless it provides an opportunity for its participants to care for each other and/or care about the same thing.

In recent times, institutions have laid claim to care because it is one of the deepest of human motives. Nonetheless, institutions cannot care. For example, Medicare doesn’t care. It is a group of people organized in a triangle to regularly send out checks to doctors and patients.

Whenever institutions purport to care, they are actually performing a function accurately called service. When they attempt to become the “providers of care,” they are actually manifesting counterfeit care that can reduce genuine associational care in communities.

Institutions require many clients or consumers in order that the “lots of the same things” they produce will be purchased. Associations neither produce nor need clients or consumers. Instead they need citizens

Institutions are designed to meet what they call needs. Actually, they need needs because without them their system of control is useless.

Associations do not need needs. Instead, they need the capacities of citizens who may also have deficits. Institutions need those deficits in order to have clients or consumers. Associations ignore deficits in order to mobilize the capacities of citizens.

The most common reason for failure of neighborhood based initiatives is triangles attempting to provide choice, care, citizenship, and capacity. In this confused effort, they not only fail to perform essential associational functions, but they can also promote the decline of associations by claiming that they can do what only associations can do.

It is important to recognize that institutional triangles have appropriate and necessary functions. If we want to fly an airplane we cannot do it in an associational form. We cannot have a pilot who says, “Well folks, we are all here. Where should we go?” At the same time, if we want to have citizens creating and implementing a vision for their neighborhood’s future, we cannot get an institution to do it for them. Instead they must fulfill a role called citizenship and use their principal tool – associations.

There are seven distinctively associational functions in local places. These are functions that, if unperformed, will create a widespread decline in the well-being of neighbors and increase their dependence on inadequate institutional substitutions.

First, our neighborhoods and associational relationships are the primary source of our health. How long we live and how often we are sick is determined by our personal behavior, our social relationships, our physical environment, and our income. As neighbors, we are the people who can change these things through our associated activity. Medical systems and doctors cannot. This is why epidemiologists agree that medical care counts for less than 15% of what will allow us to be healthy. Indeed, most informed medical leaders advocate for community health initiatives because they recognize their systems have reached the limits of their health-giving power.

Second, whether we are safe and secure in our neighborhood is largely within our local domain. One landmark study shows that there are two basic determinants of our local safety. One is how many neighbors we know by name. The second is how often we are present and associate in the public outside our houses. Police activity is a minor protection compared to these two community actions. This is why most informed police leaders advocate for block watch and community policing. They know their limits and call out to the neighborhood residents for associational solutions.

Third, the future of our earth – the environment – is a major neighborhood responsibility. The “energy problem” is a local domain because how we transport ourselves, how we heat and light our homes, and how much waste we create are major factors in saving our environment. That is why the associational movement is a major force in calling us and our neighbors to be citizens of the earth and not just consumers of the natural wealth.

Fourth, in our villages and neighborhoods, we have the power to build a resilient economy – less dependent on the mega-systems of finance and production that have proven to be so unreliable. Most enterprises begin locally – in garages, basements, kitchens, and dining rooms. As neighbors, we have the local power to nurture and support these enterprises so that they have a viable market. And we have the local power to create credit unions that capture our own savings so that we are not captives of large financial institutions. We also are the most reliable sources of jobs. Word-of-mouth among neighbors is still the most important access to employment. The future of our economic security is now clearly a responsibility, possibility, and necessity for the associational neighborhood.

Fifth, we are quickly learning that part of our domain is the production of the food we eat. We are allied with the local food movement, supporting local producers and markets. In this way, we will be doing our part to solve the energy problem caused by transportation of food from continents away. We will be doing our part to solve our economic problems by circulating our dollars locally. And we will be improving our health by eating food free of poisons and petroleum.

Sixth, we are local people who must collectively raise our children. We all say that “it takes a village to raise a child”. And yet, in modernized societies, this is rarely true in neighborhoods. Instead, we pay systems to raise our children – teachers, counselors, coaches, youth workers, nutritionists, doctors, McDonalds, and iPhones. We are often reduced as families to being responsible for paying others to raise our children and transporting them to their paid child-raisers. Our villages have often become useless; our neighbors responsible for neither their children nor ours. As a result, we all talk about the local “youth problem”.

There is no “youth problem”. There is a “village problem” of adults who have forgone their responsibility and capacity to join their neighbors in raising the young. There is a remarkable recovery movement that joins neighbors in sharing the wealth of children. It is our greatest challenge and our most hopeful possibility.

Seventh, locally we are the site of care. Our institutions can only offer service – not care. We cannot purchase care. Care is the freely given commitment from the heart of one to another. As neighbors, we can care for each other. We can care for our children. We can care for our elders. And it is this care that is the basic power of a community of associated citizens.

Health, safety, economy, environment, food, children, and care are the seven special capacities of local associations. They are the unique functions of local associations. When local associations fail to fulfill these functions, institutions and governments cannot provide a substitute. Their “triangular” capacities mainly create counterfeits, palliatives, and dependency.

Tocqueville said that “in democratic countries the science of association is the mother of science: the progress of all the rest depends upon the progress it has made.” The progress he commends depends on our ability to understand the unique and critical functions of associations and our ability to create and multiply their ability to perform their unique functions.

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