Bestselling authors John McKnight and Peter Block offer compelling new understanding of how and why community has been lost in our neighborhoods, cities, and society and what ordinary citizens as well as leaders and professionals can do to restore it.
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.
Peter Block was born in Chicago and spent most of his early years in the Midwest. After college, he went to New Jersey and was involved in the early days of creating the field of organization development. This entailed some years at Exxon Research and Engineering Company and then the formation of a consulting firm with Tony Petrella. Marvin Weisbord joined in 1971, and the firm did pretty well until, Block says, “we all got into our sixties and either retired or moved in other directions.”
In 1980, Block started Designed Learning, a training company that offers workshops based on the ideas in his books. It still thrives and works to help staff people in organizations to have more influence and impact.
In 1995, Block got involved with city government and city managers through conferences held by the Innovations Group based in Florida. This led to his interest in building community, which has been his obsession ever since. Block met McKnight at a community conference convened by Police Chief Mike Butler in Longmont, Colorado. This is where their common view of the world became obvious to both of them, which eventually culminated in writing this book.
Block has written seven other books, including Flawless Consulting, The Empowered Manager, Stewardship, Freedom and Accountability (with Peter Koestenbaum), The Answer to How Is Yes, and Community: The Structure of Belonging.
The community work is now centered in Cincinnati, Ohio, where Block has been a citizen since 1998. He is engaged in developing a civic engagement network called A Small Group, plus a series of other projects working on building the capacity of this urban community to value its gifts and see its own possibility.