Interview with John McKnight
by Laura Fulton on September 15, 2011
I had the pleasure of interviewing John about how we understand and enact community within the framework of our lives that exist in place-based communities, taking into account the complexities of our simultaneous allegiances to multiple communities. John also offers a reflection on his personal experiences with community.
Many people feel like they belong to several communities simultaneously (school, neighborhood, religious, ethnic, linguistic, and so on). Given that you place an emphasis on the importance of building relationships in neighborhoods, what are your thoughts on this?
I’m especially interested in neighborhood relationships because neighborhood is a space where most of us live our childhood. Being an adult often means that we become mobile and lose a sense of place. If we are interested in how a “village raises children,” a neighborhood and the relationships of neighbors become very important.
What can place-based or neighorhood communities and institutional communities (e.g. schools, workplaces, military units/bases, etc.) learn from each other?
We live our lives in two kinds of groups. One is groups that are held together with money – business, government and not-for-profit institutions. The other kinds are community groups that are held together by care, concern and commitment. Institutions need to learn how to support rather than command and replace community groups. The reason is that there are all kinds of functions that only community groups can perform. These are the functions that you can’t pay for. Therefore, if they don’t perform their unique functions, our institutions can only provide a counterfeit alternative, such as, service rather than care, medicine rather than health, schooling rather than wisdom, etc.
In your experience, what is the best example you have seen of youth contributing to community building?
Modern Western civilization developed a unique belief. It is the strange idea that the best way for young people to be prepared for adult citizenship is to keep young people with young people. This peculiar notion has many names – school, youth programs, youth organizations, etc. These are our ways of segregating young people by age and paying someone to raise them. As a result, our young people have very little experience in community building because they have very little contact with productive adults in productive settings. They enter adulthood largely incompetent in terms of experience with productive citizenship.
The alternative would be to structure our communities so that young people are constantly with adults who are active in their community and productive in their vocations. Unfortunately the examples are few and far between because we have committed ourselves to the idea that age segregation is a good thing. And the more of it the better. “We need more youth programs and youth workers and teachers and child psychologists.”
Much of your work emphasizes the social integration of people who come from different backgrounds. You have said that it is “our obligation to always ensure that the door is open.” How do we ensure that everyone feels equal ownership to the door, or that everyone’s door is equally open? In other words, how can we best address the inevitability of uneven power relations?
When I think about the importance of keeping the “door open,” it doesn’t seem to me to be a question about power. It is a question about hospitality. Hospitality is, classically, the welcoming of a stranger. It is a feeling that you have a relationship with people you don’t know. And, why would you have this kind of a feeling? Because, the stranger has come from over the horizon and knows about places you’ve never been, knows stories you’ve never heard, and tells you poems that light up your life. If your door is closed, you live an arid life. So, a good life depends on an open door. I suppose you could say that a good life depends upon whether you have the power to welcome people.
What was the most powerful experience in building community in which you were personally invested?
I left Ohio and went to Northwestern University in 1949. At that time eighty percent of all the students there belonged to fraternities and sororities. The goal of these Greek organizations was to “pledge” people who were like themselves. I can remember hearing a young woman in a sorority say of another woman, “She just isn’t a Pi Phi type of girl.” Their understanding of community was assurance of similarity and like-mindedness. They seemed the most boring people in the world to me and I despaired of living their way. Shortly after I arrived as a freshman, the University opened an International House, primarily for students from other countries. I had the good fortune of being admitted to that House. There, every relationship was the discovery of a person who had come from over the horizon and knew places I had never known, told me stories I had never heard, and taught me magical poems. I’m not sure I learned much in my classes, but I know that our House was the most powerful learning and community building experience of my life.