John McKnight is perhaps the most acclaimed community organizer in North America although in recent years his student Barack Obama seems to have attracted a fair amount of media interest himself. If you want to observe and understand the strengths and capacities of any neighbourhood or community read his book: Building Communities From the Inside Out. Besides being an inspirational speaker and penetrating policy analyst John has written two other books (Abundant Community and The Careless Society.) He is founder and Co-Director of the Asset Based Community Development Institute with Jody Kretzmann. Here is his response to: What would you like to become more visible in 2011? You can also Download Becoming Visible - the complete collection of 58 essays.
The Visible Neighbourhood
Increasing numbers of North Americans are neighbourless. They are, in reality, little more than residents occupying a house in an anonymous place. They often admit that they really don’t know the people who live around them – except to say hello. It is a regretful admission, but in their view, of no more consequence than failing to wash the windows of their house.
Failure to see the costs of not having real neighborhood relationships is the primary cause of our weak local communities. And it is this weakness that is eroding our ability to lead productive, satisfying lives in the 21st century.
In this century, we have entered an era when neighborhoods must take on significant new functions if our lives are to improve. These are the functions that our large institutions can no longer perform, because they have reached their limits. The medical system no longer has major consequence for our health. Most police leaders understand they have reached the limits of their ability to provide local security. An improved environment will be shaped less by laws than our own local decisions about how we heat, light, transport ourselves, and the amount of waste we create. The majority of our jobs are not going to be provided by large corporate systems. Small business will be the major job source in the future of new enterprise. Our mega-food systems provide high cost, wastefully transported, chemically grown produce that is slowly being replaced by locally produced and healthful food.
Of even more importance is the obvious limit of trying to pay our institutions to raise our children. Even though we say, “It takes a village to raise a child”, we actually outsource most of our child raising. They have become the children of schools, counselors, athletics, youth workers, therapists, McDonald’s, the electronic industries and the mall. And we call these villageless children the “youth probem.”
For all these reasons, it is now clear that the good life in the 21st century will have to be grown in the local neighborhood. Once we see the need for a strong, connected, productive local community, our basic building blocks are the skills, gifts, passions and knowledge of all our neighbors. It is these neighborly capacities that are most often unknown to us. It is making these capacities visible and connected that is the basic task of a functioning 21st century.
There are many ways to uncover the productive capacities of a neighborhood. One innovative approach is illustrative of the possibilities.
In a working-class African American neighborhood in Chicago, the neighborhood organization has initiated discussions at the block level with local residents regarding their gifts, skills, passions and special knowledge. An example of the information they are making visible is what has been found, for instance, about six randomly interviewed residents on one block.
The six people reported sixteen “gifts” including being good with kids, a good listener, effective organizer and skilled communicator.
Asked about their skills, the six reported fourteen, including knitting, light repairs, real state law, computers and cooking.
The twenty “passions” the neighbors reported included: skating, correcting building problems, decorating, jazz, gardening and photography.
Of special significance for a “village that raises a child” are the fifteen topics the six neighbors said they were willing to teach youngsters or interested adults. They include reading comprehension, computer technology, sewing, first aid, mathematics, skating, cooking, real estate and self-esteem.
These six residents did not know of most of their neighbor’s capacities, though they have lived on the block for some time. And no one had ever asked them about their abilities or whether they would share them.
The neighborhood organization has made the capacities of the neighbors visible. With 30 households on the block, imagine the rich treasures that will be revealed when these “gift” discussions are held with the neighbors in the other 24 households.
It is this hidden treasure chest that can be opened in any neighborhood in North America. Using these treasures requires connecting the capacities of neighbors. And those local neighbors good at organizing are the perfect local connective tissue.
If you are a person who has discovered and connected the productive capacity of your neighbors, I would love to hear from you. And if you are a neighbor interested in initiating the process of opening your neighborhood treasure chest, let me know, and I can share useful materials and, perhaps, connect you to other pioneer neighbors.
John McKnight firstname.lastname@example.org
CBC Radio Ideas did a three part series on John, Community and Its Counterfeits which remains one of their most popular transcripts.
Click to access my previous posts on John: Which Type of Community Organizer is Barrack Obama? and Abundant Community.
Please share and distribute to your friends and through your various networks, websites etc. I think you will agree – these are too good to keep to ourselves.