Peter Block and John McKnight with Wayne Hurlbert - Part Two

Excerpts from Peter and John's comments on The Abundant Community – Part Two

This is the second part of the transcribed excerpts from Peter and John’s interview with Wayne Hurlbert of Blog Business World. In Part One, they explored the background and conceptual foundations of The Abundant Community.  Here, they talk about community-building in action and some of the ways to start new conversations with neighbors and begin building a future together.

Mr. Hurlbert: How can people within a community nurture voluntary, self- organizing, and sustainable associations and connections within the community? Is one of the places to start there with families and neighbors to form the bases of beginning that transformation to a new community?

Excerpts from John and Peter’s comments:

Neighborhood Building

The problem with what we are talking about is, it’s too simple. We lack a model, we lack independent variables. Basically, what we need is within walking distance and what I’m looking for can be found within the four or five houses in every direction. It begins by going outside the house, sometimes with a friend and asking people in your neighborhood, What do you like to do? What are you interested in? What are you willing to teach? What would you like to learn?

It’s a connecting function. Social fabric will come from people being useful to each other. The first step may be people knowing each other, so some neighborhoods have some kind of getting-to-know-you function: a block party, a picnic, sitting outside in the summer cooking. People who like dogs find each other; people who like gardening, and children, and cars find each other. That’s kind of like-minded association which is very useful.

Neighborhood building is more than getting to know each other.

It can’t stop there. It is more than getting to know each other, there is a job to be done. We have a function, this neighborhood has a function, a family has a function. A dysfunctional family is a family where nobody has anything to do, not that they don’t get along.

In the urbanization of our lives the family has reduced its function to become a fundraising and transportation center. The evening meal has become a fast-food experience. We’re really trying to say that the neighborhood is the space where social fabric and the possibility of another form of satisfaction can be found.

Once you decide that, then people will have a new  conversation with their neighbors such as, what are your gifts, what are your interests, what are your skills, is there something you’re willing to teach? That kind of conversation has the possibility of creating a more satisfying future.

Economy of Abundance

Satisfaction is born of a sense of abundance, despite what surrounds you. If you want to know what abundance is, you’ve got to know your neighbor. If you are engaged with your neighbor, you know what kinds of gifts they have. They are people who are wonderful at listening, or they have a lovely voice, or know about how jeans are created; they also have skills: they can fix motorcycles, or they play the guitar or they know how to show children how to make all kinds of toys.

Or you know they have a passion for children or are concerned about pollution in the local neighborhood, and you also know they have four things that they could teach. If you knew all that about each neighbor, then you would see what the abundance in that community is. If you just knew thirty households on an average block, and knew the passions of the people that live in those households, that kind of information is transforming.

Too often what is abundant is invisible, where advertising is hammering us over the head every day by telling us we do not have enough, and making visible what is scarce. So the process of building community is to make visible the abundant gifts, skills, capacities and passions of local people, and connect them. That’s the future, a future of not just a satisfying life, but in a sense the renewal of the citizen’s capacity to have some kind of vision and produce something rather than them being this kind of poor, sad creature called a client or a consumer.

The Objections to Neighborhood

We are in this conversation in many places, and usually it doesn’t go that well. People say, “This makes sense, but…” And the “but” has to do with time and privacy. One of the costs of a consumer society and a productive and efficiency-driven culture is that time has disappeared. Nobody sings the song “I’m biding my time because that’s the kind of guy I am.” We have made time a scarcity.

The Sabbath was created as an answer to the restless productivity of the other six days. Originally, in the Old Testament, the Sabbath was not a time so much for worship; it was a time for some relief against the culture of empire, of productivity and of hard work. The Sabbath represents the possibility of a stance against time scarcity, of not having time, of needing time.

In some sense, time, and speed, and the drumbeat of productivity are an escape from relationship. An escape from intimacy, an escape from contact, and even an escape from our freedom.

We have yielded to a twenty-four-seven culture. Always on call. Which means you never rest, you are constantly vigilant. You’re waking up in the middle of the night making sure the fire is still burning, and solving family problems in your mind. The core difficulty in what we’re talking about is for people to come to terms with whether or not time scarcity is inevitable, or whether it’s a choice. Without confronting the question of time — and its sister, speed — community doesn’t have a chance.  

In the United States, on average, households have the television on seven-and-a-half hours a day. A significant percentage of children’s time is spent on computers and electronic games. The same is true for adults in terms of all the non-work uses of the computer. If you just looked at the average family that says “we have no time for relationships” or examined productivity in the community and measured for a week the amount of time they have to sit in front of a machine that has some symbols on it, or some pictures, you would begin to see that a choice has been made. It is not true that most people don’t have time for community, their time for it has been replaced by time for relating to electric equipment.

Mr. Hurlbert: How can local leadership be nurtured and developed to help an abundant community? And, do we need to redefine what constitutes community leadership to, perhaps, someone who reaches out?

Leadership

One way of thinking about local leadership is to understand that what has always created relationships is some person, organization or culture that values connections. We are learning that the idea of a connector may be even more significant than the idea of a leader; I think your question implies that. There are places where leaders and somebody up front are very useful; but the missing piece in the local community are the actors who are willing to go next door, aren’t afraid of their neighbors, aren’t afraid of invading their privacy and are prepared to introduce themselves and become friends. People willing to learn about all the things that each has to offer. People who are willing to recruit others to do the same thing, begin to weave a set of relationships around the abilities and gifts of the local people. So that, in sum, they can begin to produce the neighborhood functions that we thought we could buy.

This implies that leadership is an act of initiation; it’s not an act of control or role modeling or vision. And if you’re looking for leadership don’t look to the large buildings, because that is where systems are – the system values and the system way of being are in effect. Just ask, “Where is somebody initiating something?” That is leadership.  

Privacy

In addition to time, privacy is big concern. We might think of a new conversation with a neighbor, but we don’t want to invade their privacy. This very common barrier to a strong neighborhood. It makes your house into a fort. Overcoming the sense that I am invading my neighbor’s privacy by meeting them, and engaging them and enjoying them, and learning about them ––this is a threshold issue. It may be that this story about privacy is basically an excuse for not doing anything. It’s a way of protecting yourself from really becoming a significant part of your local community.

What we are learning is that if two people together on a block will go and talk to their neighbor, all three have a lot more confidence in the transaction because the two are encouraged by each other and the one they are meeting begins to feel as though there is something more here going on than just one person.

It is a pretty simple methodology to begin to overcome our sense that our house is our castle. The castle is the language of empire and individualism. The idea that the basic unit of an effective society is me and therefore relationships with other people are really not essential. An I-centered home doesn’t have an open door.

Fallibility

In addition to time and privacy, the wish for perfection is another obstacle to building social fabric. The dominant culture, symbolized by the system world, longs for perfection. In institutional life you hear “Failure is not an option.” “I’m a can-do kind of guy,” “Don’t come to me with problems, come to me with solutions.” The contempt for human fallibility is also expressed in the longing for the perfect body, supposedly a hedge against our mortality.  

What is private and a problem is something that I now take to a professional. We begin to hear more and more people say, “That person needs professional help, your child needs professional help.” Every time the fallibility of our neighbor, of ourselves, of our children, of the other children is sent over to a confidential professional, a counselor, psychiatrist, or psychologist, the ability as a community to know how to live with and support somebody’s fallibility is lost.

We have seen some studies in neighborhoods where they have introduced developmentally disabled people, by that label, back into the community. The biggest question people ask is, What will we do we do with them? They have been so far removed from local communities that people grow up with no experience with people who have differences, even though they came from that same neighborhood.

This family and neighborhood incompetence has been created by professionals who take away all the knowledge of how to help people with their fallibilities. This secrecy around our vulnerability robs communities of the wonderful ability to say, “I see that you have this kind of a problem, but I love you just the same.” “We can do this because we had a son who had that same kind of problem, and let me tell you what we did.” So that the knowledge is with us, and the care is with us, and not exiled into the professional world. Real communities accept their fallibility and their vulnerability.

Mr. Hurlbert: Are there political structures within the community that are both formal and informal that need to be brought on board? Or, perhaps, should a person be working separately from those existing systems? What is the solution there?

The Role of Systems

You always put the answer at the end of your question — I would say, “Exactly!” This is not an argument against political structures, or systems, or traditional leaders. It’s an argument against our first-step dependence on them. There are some things that cities can do: they can create spaces, they can create community gardens, they can support neighborhood councils, they can stop repressive laws and ordinances.

There are ways system policy can help. Government can offer incentives for local people in a neighborhood to get together. They will give you some money to do something if it’s good for the neighborhood. So there is the domain of political, or leadership, or institutional action that we could talk about. But it’s kind of a third conversation, and the first conversation is, What can we here do to produce the future that we’re looking for? If it’s a problem child, or a neighborhood problem, or a safety problem, or a land problem, what capacity do we have to act on our own? Then you can ask, What can we do with institutions and leadership? And then third you ask, Is there some kind of advocacy we can engage in to try to get policies and practices more supportive?

In the end, it’s about democracy.

The purpose of a democracy isn’t to allow us to vote; its purpose is to give us the power of freedom of expression, and freedom of association. The reason for that freedom is so that we together can produce the future. So the most political act of all is a group of people with a vision, who are coming together to make it come true; and that’s what a citizen is. The idea of democracy is not that you can buy more stuff in the so-called free market. That was not ever contemplated as what democracy is about. Democracy is about the freedom to have a vision and make the future come true, not buy it.

Hear the hour-long interview at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/waynehurlbert/2010/11/24/peter-block-john-mcknight-the-abundant-community

Excerpts from Wayne Hurlbert Radio Interview with Peter Block & John McKnight
Station: Blog Business Success, Blog Talk Radio
Host: Wayne Hurlbert
Show Name: Peter Block & John McKnight: The Abundant Community
Air Date: 11/24/2010

Transcription by: William Lambeth

Home page photo by Quinn Dombrowski