Harnessing and Harvesting “The Ignorant Perfection of Ordinary People”

Last week, I drove with friends and colleagues from Indianapolis to Cincinnati to attend the three-day Connecting4Community (“C4C”) conference, “a powerful gathering of master and apprentice change agents and social entrepreneurs across sectors and communities, from around the world.”

I came for many reasons and with many feelings. I was excited to see “elders” and friends who have shaped my thinking and my growth throughout the years, including John McKnightPeter Block and my friends Caitlin, Terri and Cheri, who do incredible work around inclusion and community organizing in Georgia. (See List of Speakers here)  I was eager to meet new folks in the field and hear their stories.


I came to see, as someone passionate about convening people myself, how these particular rockstars-in-the-field crafted our coming together. I also came to get a sense of what’s “new” — new learning, new challenges, new opportunities to shift the systems around us to more citizen-centered, bottom-up, effective ways of living and structuring our approaches to the problems we see around us. I came to be refreshed in a way that only these things can refresh me–finding solace, camaraderie, a community of my own among people who, unlike most of society, understand what I do without the need for a 1-hour explanation.

Finally, I came with a question and a doubt: going to yet another conference about “community-building,” was I going to learn the same old things? Was this going to be worth it?

On all fronts, I was not disappointed.

I’d be crazy to try and fit the whole of what moved, stretched or stung me into a single blog post, so this is an attempt to fly overhead at those big patterns and most striking moments of “ahA!” which have been resonating with me since I arrived back home Friday afternoon. I’ll do this in a series of blog entries, beginning with the two themes that framed and reverberated throughout the gathering.


“Management” vs. Community, Local Living and Mystery

Peter Block set the tone for the gathering with his opening words by laying out a distinction between the dominant culture and the “unnamed movement” of which we are a part. Of all the meetings going on that day in Cincinnati, and the world, Peter pointed out, most of them are about “making the world better through management” — ie. control, measurement, evidence, certainty. Underneath all of that is a belief in scarcity.

In contrast, what we are meeting about is a way of acting, living, and structuring things based upon a belief in abundance. Coming from all areas and sectors, we are each working to revitalize this over-commodified and over-managed. We’re doing this in our own corners of the world by experimenting with ways to reconnect people with each other, their neighborhoods and communities — and with the power of mystery and creativity in our lives and the world around us.

“The world wants to certify, and is based on certainty,” Peter offered. “That’s the world we’re trained in. The problem is, that world is incapable of caring for the common good — caring about how to reduce suffering, about the commons, poverty, raising a child — which we’ve given away in the last couple hundred years.”

To many of our dismay, key presenter and leader of the asset-based movement John McKnight was unable to attend due to poor health. While I was saddened not to see him — my first “gatekeeper” and mentor in this field — the poetic, compelling message he sent to us on that first day almost made up for his absence. An excerpt:

Management has emerged as the method by which tool-ruled life is controlled. Managers create systems that are power pyramids designed for a few to control many. Competition insures that control. Competition is a word that means “for me to win, you must lose.” It demands radical individualism that prohibits personal collective relationships that could threaten the pyramid and its technology.

The enemy of the senseless life is the world of the personal.  It is the world where we see each other and the magnificent natural world around us. Instead of glass screens creating images that we consume.  It is the world where we can hear each other’s stories and songs. Instead of electrically marketed noise. (…) It is the touch of the baby’s hand, the feel of a hammer and saw in the basement workshop, the caress of love, the touch of care. Instead of feel of false power created by touching a steering wheel or a gun.

[read full message here]


One of the key struggles we face, Peter added, is that within our movement and practice not to give in to the pressure to “reduce what we’re doing to a methodology that can be taught in an academic setting.” If we do that, we will ossify and lose the core spirit of the work. Peter referred to a an ongoing conversation he has with Harrison Owen, known for his “discovery” of Open Space technology, in which Peter — whose background is in Engineering — keeps bugging Harrison to acknowledge as a technique. During one such conversation, Harrison looked at Peter and said, “You’re sitting there. You think you’re a structure? You’re just an accidental combination of water and molecules.”


Rather than a methodology, community-building along with all of its many tags and headings, “is both a movement and learning a language of communal possibility.” Toward that end, we can develop “an alternative set of protocols for welcoming people in from exile.” In addition to what was offered by the people who would be speaking during the conference and the protocols they offered, such as Peter with his A Small Group work, Harrison Owen with Open Space, each of us came with valuable protocols and practices to add to the pot. Our purpose was therefore to share with each other, “what’s working for you?” This gathering and this movement is an ongoing harnessing, and harvesting, of “the ignorant perfection of ordinary people.”


“Don’t Wait to be Chosen”  

Creative, personal, community, people-powered versus managed, commodified, certified individualism — this would become a resounding theme throughout our three days, and it resonated with me as much as each “uncredentialed” change agent in the room. When we split periodically into small groups of three in order to process and connect around each powerful topic introduced, our facilitators reminded us, “Don’t wait to be chosen.”

Most immediately, this meant of course not to wait for a person to choose us for our group, but the deeper meaning struck me hard . . . Both this calling “not to wait” and the idea of ours as an “uncredentialed, unnamed” — but vitally necessary function — revealed to me that, deep inside, I’m still waiting to be chosen, named, legitimized from some outward source. Sometimes it’s larger society’s blessing I’m chasing— when I hesitate or squirm before the question, “What do you do?” Going deeper, I realized that day that I’m just as dependent upon the legitimization of those I look upon as mentors in my field . . . and what a stupid, stupid thing this is.

One of the greatest struggles I carried with me to Cincinnati is that of feeling blocked in my practices in community — that of both telling stories of bottom-up change and that of working to build relationships and discover assets, strengths and “abundance” within my own neighborhood. Since moving to Indianapolis, I’ve gotten what I sought: surrounded on all sides by some of the most amazing natural community-builders and innovators I’ve ever met (De’Amon Harges, Mike Mather and Anne Mitchell). While I found it such a blessing to be able to absorb their brilliance and try to mimic it first-hand, I also found myself stunted, held back, terrified in doing the work myself.

Just as I don’t need to wait for larger society to “bless” me with a widely recognized and celebrated title to do good, important work (and make a living doing so), I also don’t need to cower in the shadows of these “greats.” After all, what made them great was their courage to try things they didn’t know how to do and to follow the call in their hearts toward a possibility they knew existed but didn’t see around them — to follow gleaming threads into dark places, speak truth to power despite the quaking in their guts, and to push forward day after day to bring concepts into birth as real stories of concrete and undeniable world change.


The Power of Story and Relationship with Self

One resounding theme of the conference was the immense power of story to give life and power to the growing restlessness toward abundance-based thinking and doing that is surging from the ground level of our communities and countries.

Angeles shared three stories that bring to life three predominating themes throughout the history of humanity and of story: the story of Self, Relationship, and Community. Each story she shared struck me deeply, but the first got me in the gut:

A Story about Self-Work:

There’s an old story from Judaic tradition of the wise man Zusya, who went to mountain to pray and asked for guidance for his community. He came down from the mountain after three days and three nights and he was terrified. The community saw him for first time, said “Zusya, what did you find that you are afraid?”

“I now know what the angels will ask me on the last day. …They will not ask me what I contributed. What they will ask me is — (and put your name before this question) — ”the question they will ask me is, ‘Zusya, Zusya, why weren’t you Zusya?’”

What is getting in the way of what I already am?


In my small group following this rich session, I had the pleasure of sitting with two young women, Avi Kruley (Mount Madonna Institute,CA) and Rasmia Kirmani-Frye (Community Solutions, NY), and Rachel Clayton (Tamarack Institute).  Together, we unpacked our reactions to the story. Especially hard-hitting for us was the story of self — and, in addition, our shared story of this as often the hardest, most dysfunctional relationship in our lives.  We recognized the tendency across this and other “world-changing” fields for folks to burn out, often due to a lack of care for our own bodies, minds, or souls.  But how can we do anything good if that relationship is not healthy?

group chat

Perhaps the most healing part of this conversation was the last, when, at prompting from the facilitator, we spent time telling each other what we appreciated in one another. Sounds hoaky, right?  Well, despite how many times I’ve done this kind of thing, or had it done to me, it never ceases to be an extraordinarily powerful experience.  And, despite the fact that we’d only just met, each of us was able to pinpoint something of significant brilliance or value within the other, when asked.

The energy that I got from this exchange stays with me still today, almost deeper still than the fascinating concepts, stories and tools that were shared over those three days.  This reminded me that a) we are all hungry for this kind of appreciation, and that’s OK; and that b) people are willing and able to see and name each others’ gifts — it’s all about creating the space and the invitation to do so; and c) beyond any fancy set of rules or tools, this simple (yet sometimes scary) practice of seeing and naming gifts out loud to one another is one essential practice that must never be left out, and which never, ever gets old.

~ ~ ~

These were the words, stories, feelings and thoughts that launched our first day. More challenges and spaces would come . . . Among them, these were the questions that haunted, and haunt me, most, and which I’ll unpack in my next few blogs:

  • How do we look out for the “top-down” and other destructive habits of power within this movement?  How do we address patriarchy as it appears among us as women, people of color, or other marginalized groups?
  • How can stories be used as a tool for measurement?
  • How can we tell these compelling stories more broadly, effectively and collaboratively to shift the dominant narrative?

Please tell me — what strikes you most from these thoughts, ideas and stories?  In your own relationships and practices of community, what’s working for you?


Re-posted with permission from aprildoner.com.

Images (top to bottom): [1] Connecting4Community; [2-4] April Doner; [5-7] graphic recordings by Avril Orloff; [8] courtesy Angeles Arrien; [9] Avril Orloff; [10] April Doner. Home page image: Nomadic Lass.

About the Lead Author

April Doner
April Doner
April Doner lives and works as a Roving Illustrator, telling stories of community thriving, abundance, and people-powered change through writing, photography and art. Originally from the wave-kissed east coast of Florida, April has found her way to Indianapolis, IN to join community-based innovators De'Amon Harges and Anne Mitchell at Tesserae Learning. April is especially passionate about revealing and engaging the strengths of people, groups and neighborhoods who have been marginalized by labels of deficiency, and in working to redirect channels of faith and funding from deficiency-based approaches and into the lives of the "positive deviants"--the unseen and under-celebrated organizers, story-tellers, healers, artists and others who are actively making changes in their communities and neighborhoods. Through Tesserae and Aprilart Studios, she offers services to strengthen community including documentation, facilitation, trainings, workshops and consulting in Asset-Based-Community Development, Theory U and other practices, as well as a full range of artistic services. April is a Fellow with the Asset-Based Community Development Institute and a Steward of ABCD in Action.

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