John L. McKnight was raised a traveling Ohioan, having lived in seven neighborhoods and small towns in the eighteen years before he left to attend Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois. There, he had the good fortune to be educated by a faculty dedicated to preparing students for effective citizenship. He graduated into the U.S. Navy, where he had three years of “postgraduate” education in Asia during the Korean War.
McKnight returned to Chicago and began working for several activist organizations, including the Chicago Commission for Human Relations, the first municipal civil rights agency. There he learned the Alinsky trade called community organizing. This was followed by the directorship of the Illinois American Civil Liberties Union, where he organized local chapters throughout the state.
When John Kennedy was elected president, McKnight was recruited into the federal government, where he worked with a new agency that created the affirmative action program. Later, he was appointed the Midwest director of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, where he worked with local civil rights and neighborhood organizations.
In 1969, McKnight’s alma mater, Northwestern University, invited him to return and help initiate a new department called the Center for Urban Affairs. This was a group of interdisciplinary faculty doing research designed to support urban change agents and progressive urban policy. McKnight’s appointment was an act of heroism on the part of the university, as it gave him a tenured professorship, though he had only a bachelor’s degree.
While at the center and its successor, the Institute for Policy Research, McKnight and a few of his colleagues focused their research on urban neighborhoods. The best-known result of this work was the formulation of an understanding of neighborhoods focused on the usefulness of local resources, capacities, and relationships. This work was documented in a guide titled Building Communities from the Inside Out, describing an approach to community building that became a major development strategy practiced in North and South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia. As an aside, it was during this time that McKnight was one of the trainers of Barack Obama as he learned the skills of community organizing.
McKnight is also the author of The Careless Society, a classic critique of professionalized social services and a celebration of communities’ ability to heal themselves from within.
Currently, McKnight has joined Peter Block in practical explorations of how communities become “villages” with the capacity to raise their children.