Neighbors As Citizens Making Democracy Work

Conversation with John McKnight, Peter Block and Guest David Mathews

TalkShoe Radio  ~  February 16, 2016

Chris Whitten: Welcome to another conversation with John McKnight and Peter Block. For those of you who don’t know, John and Peter are the authors of The Abundant Community. Their work joins the movement to support neighborhoods in discovering their capacity to create a strong local economy, raise their children, sustain their health, and care for each other. Each of their guests is a social pioneer who is inventing an alternative future based on the gifts and capacities of its citizens.

Our special guest today is David Mathews, President and CEO of the Kettering Foundation. For more than three decades, David has led the foundation’s work with communities and institutions who are trying to solve local problems, with their primary research question being “what does it take to make democracy work as it should?”

John McKnight: Welcome, everybody. It’s a great privilege to have Dave Mathews, an old colleague, join us.

Dave, I think both Peter and I have thought it’s very significant that you’ve had positions in all kinds of walks of life. We wondered how you came from where you were as a young man to the kind of ideas and thinking that are expressed in, for instance, your latest book, Ecology of Democracy? What’s the journey?

David Mathews: Well, in many ways it hadn’t been a long one and I now find myself often back where I started. My roots are in a small community, not the center of prosperity in the country, in the rural South. It’s the kind of community my friend Harper Lee wrote about in To Kill a Mockingbird.

My great-grandfather was a populist legislator close to the farming people of the county, which is about all we had. I don’t think there were more than two or three people in the whole county that had any significant money. My grandfather was a school superintendent who was bothered by the inequity between the rural schools, where you were lucky to get five months of instruction, and those within the small towns where you might get seven or eight. So that experience has stayed with me and I guess I’ve taken it wherever I’ve gone.

My dear friend William Howard Taft IV, who was with me in government [service], says, “You know you always do the same thing. You just get different people to pay for it.”

John McKnight: Your intense focus on the question of democracy working at the local level, how’d you get there in particular?

David Mathews: Well, a couple of ways. One, there’s so many definitions of democracy but we’ve started with the original one. It’s significant that for the Greeks –– who didn’t invent democracy, they just invented the language for it –– Democracy is really the cumulation of survival lessons going back to the earliest parts of human history.

But the Greeks were good at naming it and they chose two words. One word they chose was the word for a name for a village, a Doric village: demos. So Democracy referred not to individuals but to people collectively.

The other word they took from the vocabulary of Zeus: power. Not just any kind of power, but sovereign or supreme power. And they put those two words together.

They had tried earlier reforms to codify their laws. They were having problems with the sole rulers coming up and they needed to make some definitive statement about who was really in charge. What was the final authority for what happened in their communities? Their answer was the people collectively, and they got the power through the things that they produced.

There’s a lot of talk now about empowering people but if I empower, which one of us really has the power?

Peter Block: Exactly.

David Mathews: It seems to us the only way you have power is to be able to make something, to do something, to produce something. You can’t think of a powerful person in history that didn’t make or do something. So the question we worked on in our research is how people come to have power. How they make things collectively that make life collectively a little bit better. That abstraction has a lot of meaning for us today because our democratic system is in trouble.

You know democracy has always been a challenge in the sense it’s always been in trouble. We were just talking before this show about this [2016 US presidential] election. It really, to us, reveals how deeply alienated people are from the political system. Their loss of confidence in our major institutions, and not just government, has been recorded for a long time. Now it seems to have spilled over into anger and the withdrawal of legitimacy from politics. That’s very different, difficult rather, for a democratic system because it depends and gets its legitimacy from people. I mean, if the system weren’t considered legitimate, you couldn’t hire enough police and tax collectors to make the machinery of government work.

So democracy is not an abstract question now; it’s a very real question, and not just in the US. You know in the 80s and 90s we went through some amazing, often velvet, revolutions in which authoritarian regimes collapsed; but the road back to democracy has been difficult. Think about the Arab Spring…

In some cases, some would say a complete turnaround and they would point to Russia. The Middle East is an object lesson in how badly things can go. So democracy’s in trouble and the major institutions are in trouble. And that, to our mind, brings us to where you and Peter are: back to the community, back to neighbors, back to the places where people live. If there’s going to be any restoration of the system, it’s not likely to restore itself, and have to look for where the restoration might come from and people think it’s not just us. Some recent research that we’ve done suggests that people think it has to begin where they live and work and raise their families. In a word, in communities.

Peter Block: Now I noticed that one thing that you’ve written here. You say that, “Politics is not simply passing legislation and electing representatives. It’s about creating opportunities for citizens to make choices together on issues that concern them most.” If we think about that locally, creating opportunities, I’d just like your thoughts on Kettering’s role in creating opportunities, or facilitating or enhancing the opportunities, for that kind of decision making.

David Mathews: Well, as you know, Kettering’s a research organization even though we’re called a foundation. As we followed this thought that power comes from the work used in producing things, then we began to ask ourselves how this work is done. It turns out that work is done pretty much the same way whatever the work is, and wherever it’s done. I mean, somebody’s got to agree that there’s a problem.

Somebody’s got to make some decisions about how to deal with it. Somebody’s got to marshal the resources. Somebody’s got to organize the effort, and in the best of all worlds, folks need to learn from what they do because they’re going to have to do it all over again when the next problem comes along. So there’s nothing exceptional about those things –– those things happen every day in every community. They don’t necessarily happen in ways that give people power.

For example, take something seemingly inconsequential like who gets to the name problems and how do they describe them? I mean that goes on. Newspapers are always saying, the local wise person is saying that the problem is this. The names often have a lot to do with what people really care about. They’re named in professional terms, which is fine for big institutions, but people see problems in terms of the way those problems affect what they care about every day. What they care about for their family. So naming problems in terms that reflect what people care about makes a big difference. It takes something routine and turns it into an opportunity for people to exercise power.

So we’ve looked at all of the things that people do in the work they have to do to produce things and asked ourselves, “Where are their opportunities in the ordinary routines of life?” We found them in unexpected places, like something as seemingly ordinary as who gets to name the problems and how they name them.

John McKnight: Peter, I know you’ve been interested in that question as well.

Peter Block: It’s huge. Some beautiful things you’re saying, David. Could you give me an example of how problems get named in professional terms for me?

David Mathews: Oh, all the time. Have you looked at the clean water report in your newspaper lately? If you can make heads or tails of that, I would be- even with all of your learning, I would be surprised. Expert terms are very important for the kinists who work to see that the Cincinnati water is not like the Flint, Michigan water, okay?

Peter Block: Exactly.

David Mathews: So no problem with that. But for people, what they care about is not what the milliliters of this, that, or the other, they care about something basically human. Safety for themselves and their family.

Peter Block: Exactly.

David Mathews: So to make the water safe, we put things in it. We put chlorine in it, for example, to kill bugs and that’s often debated in terms of whether there is too much chlorine or too little chlorine or whether there should be any chlorine at all. But it’s not a chemical question, it’s a question of what we are willing to do to be safe. How much risk are we willing to take? Are we willing to have things added to our water that seem to make them safe? That’s a difficult question. That’s a question of judgment and there are no experts on questions of judgment. Often people have to decide those questions.

Unfortunately when the debates are about milliliters of that or something technical there’s no room for people to do anything because they are intentionally, but very surely, screened out of a debate that’s carried on by and in professional terms. As a result they look at what’s in the newspaper and in the experts’ reports and they say, as folks in the South used to say, “That’s not my dog in that fight,” and they don’t care.

John McKnight: Yeah.

Peter Block: You know, I think it’s very powerful what you’re saying. A friend of mine was Mayor of Cincinnati, and I met with his father once.

We got to talking about the news and how the narrative defines who we are in many ways. I asked him, “We’re going to start an alternative journalism [initiative] in Cincinnati. How might you contribute?” He said, “I only want one job. I want to decide what constitutes news.” I thought that was very, very wise and in a way, [with] the storytellers we have now, like you say, it’s either highly professional or very sensational.

David Mathews: We have a case study in our files that might be of interest to you because it’s about Cincinnati.

Do you remember when Cincinnati was suffering from race riots and nearly every guru who could come to town and advise you came. Billy Graham, Al Sharpton, you remember that?

Peter Block: 2001.

David Mathews: Yeah.

Peter Block: 2001, absolutely.

David Mathews: Well, a little group from Cincinnati came to see us and said, “We’re in terrible shape. We need you to come to Cincinnati and hold some forums for us.”

And we said no. They said, “Well why?” We said, “You don’t need us, you can do them yourself there for there are people in Cincinnati who know about our work.” So they began to hold neighborhood forums.

Peter Block: Yes.

David Mathews: And the WHILA, white liberal community, wanted to talk about race. A lot of African Americans in Cincinnati were saying, “Well, we could do something about jobs” or “What about the police?” or “What about the schools?” So these neighborhoods got together and they set themselves to the task of deciding something that they could to in their neighborhood that would make a better life for all folks in Cincinnati. There were hundreds of them. I don’t know how many.

Peter Block: Over 300.

David Mathews: Yeah, it created an organization called Neighbor to Neighbor. The newspaper at the time had a very imaginative and helpful editor and on the editorial page there was a cartoon and there were all of these signs about Cincinnati can’t do this and Cincinnati can’t do that. There was a little placard from the forums that said simply, Cincinnati Can.

Peter Block: Yes.

David Mathews: It was an amazing story.  We went back later though, or were asked back, to talk to some of the leading lights in Cincinnati and nobody remembered it.

Peter Block: I think the other thing that strikes me as very powerful in what you said is that peoples’ alienation. Well, maybe it’s a question.

You know, you talk about people feeling alienated in democracy, it may be in more trouble than we imagined. And then you said citizens producing something. You think people are probably alienated because they feel they’ve stopped being producers of something?

David Mathews: Well, that’s where local action. What’s missing is the sense that we can make a difference.

Hopefulness. And the country bogs down when we lose that can-do spirit. It’s always been characteristic of America. What people are finding is that getting together with their neighbors to do something––it may not save the world, but it teaches an important lesson that people, when they combine their forces, can in fact do something.

There’s a story in one of the reports we have just gotten about a community and the schoolhouse was peeling and the paint was falling off. It looked terrible. And so a group of people––you know, the school board didn’t have any money and couldn’t get to it––the folks in the neighborhood got together and got their paint scrapers and their brushes and got a little paint and they repainted the school. Some said, “Well, this is nice, but that’s really not going to save the community.” Folks said, “You don’t understand. The purpose of the project was not to get paint on the walls of the building. The purpose of the project was to demonstrate that when we got together we could make a difference.”

John McKnight: Do something. Yep.

Peter Block: Beautiful.

John McKnight: Dave, one of the things that I’ve noticed over the years in terms of neighborhoods and the kinds of collective action is that there tends to be action that is focused on advocacy: trying to get institutions to provide or do things, for schools to do things better, the city to do things better. A lot of politics has to do with the means by which that advocacy can take place, and then there’s direct advocacy. So a lot of thinking about the politics of community tends to end up with advocacy, but you keep using the word “productivity.” Advocacy, it seems to me, in place, in neighborhoods, is really sort of a consumer movement. It’s saying, “You teach my children. You make me healthy, medical system.”

David Mathews: Yeah.

John McKnight: So the role you’re talking about, seems to me, is not ommonly recognized, right?

David Mathews: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

John McKnight: And the heart of the matter, so much of what we talk about in terms of powerful citizen action, is advocacy to get institutions to be responsive.

David Mathews: Yeah, yeah.

John McKnight: I’d like you to reflect on the balance of the production versus the consumer advocacy.

David Mathews: Well, there’s nothing wrong with advocacy. It’s very American…

We’re all advocates of one thing or another. But I think what’s missing is the recognition that the community itself is an educational institution.

John McKnight: Right.

David Mathews: The community itself is an educational institution and people not recognizing that don’t tap into the educational resources of the community, which begin in families and extend on to all kinds of entities. So they go to the institutions hat-in-hand and they are successful sometimes and not successful others. But in any case, the educational forces in the community go untapped.

There is a case study in Lexington, Kentucky, of some kids who are in one of these alternative schools and they spend a lot of time with their heads down on the table trying to get a nap. So some principal teamed up with a guy that owns a farm for old, retired Kentucky Derby winners and he takes the kids to this racehorse farm and they begin to learn a little history. Did you know that [some of] the first … Kentucky Derby winners were African Americans? Well, nobody knew that. I may have the numbers wrong but the ratio is right. Then they throw in a little biology and a little zoology. Pretty soon kids who are asleep at the table are up and looking and patting the horses and learning. So here’s a resource in a community. Who would have ever thought that a racehorse farm was a school?

But it is. And who would’ve thought that just folks who were running the stables were teachers? They are and can be. So that, it seems to me, is what we’re missing. The community is the educational institution, the school is there to support it. We’ve got it completely turned around.

John McKnight: Yeah.

Peter Block: Wow.

David Mathews: We think it’s just there to support the schools. No, it’s the other way around. And speaking about effective advocacy, there’s a story about a community that was having problems with drugs. You know, it was a tough neighborhood and they would run the drugs. The police would come and they would run the drug dealers out and then they would return. So finally a little neighborhood association … calls and says the drug dealers are back and the police chief says, “You know, that’s a real dangerous neighborhood and we’ve got a lot of other stuff to do but we’ll be there as soon as we can.” And the leader of the neighborhood said, “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of it ourselves.” And the police chief said, “We’ll be there in fifteen minutes.” Okay now, when citizens are productive, when citizens can do things, whether it’s educate or increase safety, they are much more effective advocates because they’re not just consumers.

John McKnight: Well, I know Kettering has publications and you have often spoken about the fact that certainly over the last two generations, we’ve seen evermore the sense at the local level that the basics of life are institutionally produced. Not that the community is an educator…

David Mathews: Yeah.

John McKnight: But school has an monopoly on education, right? And the medical system has a monopoly on health…

David Mathews: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

John McKnight: … which is obviously not the case. So that we have seen, it seems to me, a process by which institutional growth has had as one of its effects, the translation of community functions over into institutional production.

David Mathews: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

John McKnight: And I wondered, have you seen that and what do we do about that?

David Mathews: Well, I think that what we’re dealing with is the perception that the schools are the educators and we can just turn the kids over to them, or that the medical center is the source of health and we can just turn things over to them. There probably was a time when professionals in those fields thought that.

John McKnight: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

David Mathews: But I’ve just been looking at some matters that have to do with health. As you know, John, I spent some time in the federal government looking at the massive health establishment that the federal government has. But what’s happening in that field is that they realized that health is more than medicine. That there are things that physicians can do and things that they can’t do, and that if people don’t utilize their own capacities to stay well, do some early check-ups, do some preventative … then all of these advanced medicines and technologies aren’t going to help us. So there’s been a small but, to my mind, very important turn toward what I call the behavioral indications of health.

John McKnight: Right.

David Mathews: Obamacare has started some initiatives in which the health professionals are now working with folks to keep them from going back in to the emergency rooms, following up. So there’s some interesting developments there.

John McKnight: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

David Mathews: I wish there were more in education.

There are also some in economic development. We talked earlier about our twenty years or so of working with groups in Cuba. One of the strongest things they have are their communities. and communities have a lot to do with the economy. I mean that’s what Den Xiaoping based the economic revolution in China on. So communities, the character of a community, relates very directly to the strength of the economy, to the quality of the education people, to their health, certainly to their ability to be resilient to natural disaster.

The community is just significantly undervalued but there is a lot of research coming in now that says that is absolutely wrong. That the community is more than just a place where people live.

John McKnight: You know, I was talking––you know, I started my life as a neighborhood organizer in Chicago [about 60 years ago]––I was talking to another ancient organizer fairly recently and he said, “In most neighborhoods, what we were doing was finding the places where people were together and bringing those entities together.”

“They were the family and the extended family. They were the church. They were the school, and they were the political organization.”

And then he said, “What’s happened since then which makes community organizing, or neighborhood organizing, so difficult is that the families are much more fragile and under the gun.”

“And many are one parent families,” and he said “The churches and the church attendance is down.”

David Mathews: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

John McKnight: And he says, “The schools just don’t seem to be able to, even when we put pressure on them, to educate our kids.”

“And politics has moved the political system, as bad as it might’ve been, the machine, but it’s moved into a television screen.”

David Mathews: Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah.

John McKnight: So he’s saying the very basis around which collective life takes place at the neighborhood level has weakened and that certainly true of the associational sector in general that Putnam was documenting.

David Mathews: Yeah, yeah.

John McKnight: So thinking seriously about collective action for production at the local level, the structures that once had those capacities seem to have weakened a great deal. Now where do we go with that?

David Mathews: You are right that there’s been serious deterioration in a lot of the social structures. But human beings are social animals. They’re going to congregate, they’re going to associate someway.

John McKnight: Yeah.

David Mathews: What we’ve been interested in are the kind of the below the radar screen networking activities that are there. We didn’t know what to call them because they weren’t organizations, so we finally just called them blobs because they were amorphous in shape and there do seem to be a lot of those just folks getting together.

Nothing formal about it. Maybe helping people realize they have the power to do that and the power in doing that is one of the challenges that we ought to take up. But your comments remind me of a question that we were toying with, and maybe you have some thoughts about it, is that one argument––in fact Elinor Ostrom, our neighbor over here in Indiana, won the Nobel Prize for showing it was more than an argument––[is that] these big institutions, schools and hospitals, and police forces, they really can’t be effective without what she calls a co-production of public goods by citizens working with citizens.

So in a simple sense, if people in a neighborhood don’t care about crime, you can’t hire enough police.

I remember stories from my grandfather of his school days, you know, very small little school. But you couldn’t go to school unless you knew how to read and write. So why send your kid to school who can’t read and write? So the family had to do it, the co-production of reading.

And you’re right that … we have deferred to these large institutions. Which turn out to be kind of like the Wizard of Oz, not as powerful they seem.

John McKnight: Yeah. All right.

Peter Block: I would, before we take a break for questions, [go into] the poverty conversation, something that interests me a great deal. And if it seems in some ways that, it’s been intractable. So even though our region may do well, the number of people who are marginalized stays the same or grows, and I’m wondering, the answer always seem to be more institutional involvement, more job training, now we’re going to start sending kids to school at the age four and three…

David Mathews: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Peter Block: What do you think would be a co-productive or alternative way of thinking about the people on the margins and people that we [call] the working poor––I’m not even sure I want to call a person poor, because it defines them as a economic unit and it ignores everything else about them. What are your thoughts, Dave, about that?

David Mathews: It seems to me that John McKnight is a true genius and his argument that people who appear to others to be on the margins, they may not know they’re on the margins, but to others on the margins, [they] have assets that there are things that they can do.

Peter Block: Yep.

David Mathews: That no human being is absent some inherent power and to recognize those assets and not to continue to focus on their needs and that they’re on the margins. I mean, it’s not to be––you can’t look at a person who’s hungry and say that’s a figment of their imagination, it’s not.

John McKnight: Yeah.

David Mathews: But, on the other hand, to ignore that they have capacities seems to me to be tragic and it’s John who’s done a great service by calling attention to that.

Peter Block: Right, I agree.

John McKnight: And, Dave, one of the things that we’ve been looking at and trying to support, is five different neighborhoods where local residents, probably a person on each block as a starter, have begun to go door-to-door and ask people, “What do you have that you would be willing to contribute to the well-being of this community?” And they have some categories that they ask.

And one of the things that everybody who does this comes back with, and in great surprise, is that no matter what level of income the neighborhood is, what you can see is that most people, if you ask them questions like, “What gifts do you have? What skills do you have? What do you care about the most? What would you be willing to teach?” will give you three or four answers to each of those on average.

In neighborhoods that people would say, you know, are violent, bereft neighborhoods, we know you can go door-to-door and find in almost any household at least one and often two or three people who have something that they think is of value that they can offer if just nobody ever asks.

So this kind [of] movement ahead is one that assumes that the dilemma we have is people are waiting to contribute.

But nobody’s asking. So what we’re trying to look at is, what are the asking processes that seem to begin to make visible what folks have to contribute and collectivize those interests. That’s the really hopeful things to me.

Peter Block: I want to stop for a minute if we could. We’re forty minutes into it and, Chris, maybe you could invite people if they have questions or comments and remind them how to do that so that we could give people a chance to join the conversation. Could you do that Chris?

Peter Block: There was a chat comment that when we talk about co-production, are we inadvertently reinforcing our economy’s overvaluing of productivity and taking connectivity for granted? Would one of you like to comment on that?

David Mathews: Yeah that’s straight out of Elinor Ostrom’s [work]. I don’t think that’s what she meant by co-production. She was simply looking for a word to talk about what people can make, what they can make.

You can substitute the word “making” for “production” if you like and you’ll have the gist of what she was arguing.

Peter Block: The other question: In listening to you, John and I and colleague Walter Brueggemann just wrote a book about departing from the consumer culture.

Is that part of what’s happening now? Do you think that’s part of what, underneath the radar, people are kind of withdrawing? Do you think that’s too idealistic or dreamy a thought or…?

I just saw an ad for glasses that said the average woman now has twenty-seven pairs of shoes but only one pair of glasses. Why don’t we do something about that? It just seemed kind of stunning to me that I need twenty-seven pairs of glasses now. What are your thoughts about this notion of an alternative to a consumer culture, Dave?

David Mathews: Well, it’s part and parcel, I think, of the way citizens are seeing and often see themselves. The consumer movement really resonates with people––I mean, that’s what we all do, and the notion of citizens as producers more than consumers.

The notion of citizens as agents more than clients. The notion of citizens who make things and gain power by making things, that’s not prime time.

That’s why we emphasize it so much in our work. And John is reporting, some of his research, when you begin to talk to people as though they were teachers and not just consumers of education, it resonates with them, they like it. They pick up their shoulders.

Peter Block: True.

David Mathews: When people are dealt with in terms of their indigenous capacities, it’s transforming.

Peter Block: Mm-hmm (affirmative) yes.

David Mathews: That’s where we need to work.

John McKnight: Dave, one other thing I was wondering about is when you think about collective decision making that results in making and producing something at the very local level the question that I think is pretty large question at the present time, if you think locally, is that we have come to have a kind of mobility that has resulted in people who are residentially in a place tend to be like-minded.

David Mathews: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

John McKnight: And so that raises the question––let’s say that however they come together collectively and become producers, that’s good, but where does diversity fit into this question of collective decision making?

David Mathews: In our work we’ve been struck how diverse supposedly demographically homogeneous groups are.

So. you know, even within ourselves we are diverse. We are a variety of opinions and things that we care about. This notion that there is, that we are homogeneous and that the homogeneity is defined by skin color or something else, I’m beginning to kind of wonder about that. The- we see groups who all look alike but they don’t think alike. I mean, in my family for example, I’ve never seen a more outrageous group of independent thinkers and we’re all supposed to be alike.

John McKnight: Yeah.

David Mathews: So maybe, you know, we need to appreciate our own diversity more.

John McKnight: Yeah. And you know this kind of worked where the groups are doing in neighborhoods asking people what they have to contribute, you can go right down a block and ask everybody, “What’s your most significant gift?”

Ask thirty people. Twenty-nine of the responses will be different. So that when you look at the capacity side of people’s life, that reveals the diversity, right?

David Mathews: Yeah, good.

John McKnight: And it may be that when you look at public issue side, you may begin to see collectivity.

That is, the block divides into Democrats and Republicans, but if you think of them as individuals with collective possibilities, there’s great diversity.

David Mathews: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Peter Block: I think the idea of like-mindedness may be a marketing convenience––you know Generation X, Generation Y, mostly is marketing people trying to figure out who are they and how are we going to sell to them. All those things sold on like mindedness, you’re saying underneath the surface, is just a concoction.

David Mathews: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Peter Block: Chris, why don’t you let somebody make a comment or ask a question.

Chris Whitten: Hi, California, you’re on. Give us a name and make your comment or give us a question.

Peter Koestenbaum: Yeah, Peter Koestenbaum.

I’m calling to acknowledge what you’re doing. I’m a philosopher and one of the themes that you get out of philosophy is that people spend their lifetime congregating with each other. They spend it in relationships. On the other hand, they know that when push comes to shove, they’re all alone. This conflict between community and isolation is, according to some, the very source of mental illness or mental confusion. That will never go away. And I just want to acknowledge from the bottom of my aging heart that it’s wonderful to hear you speak. You speak from experience and it’s therapeutic just to be part of this conversation. I think you need to hear that from the heart.

It’s not a question, it’s an acknowledgment. Thank you.

Peter Block: Thank you, Peter.

Chris Whitten: Southwest Ohio, you’re on.

Speaker 7: Hi, this a slightly different question but also relates to communities, and it’s a question about how nowadays it seems as if communities are becoming much more coalesced around hating others or hating not people. And I’m just wondering what sort of things would help strengthen communities so they could avoid having that sort of coalesce into either mob thinking or you know, the mass hate thinking that seems to be happening?

David Mathews: Well, a lot of our research is on people trying to make really difficult decisions. I remember one case with a group in Israel, Citizens Accord, it consists of ultra-orthodox Jews, secular Jews, Bedouin Arabs, Palestinians, so there are at least four, if not five or six differences in the group. They’ve tried to understand one another and they’ve done all of the dialogs and I’m sure those have helped some. As is obvious, they haven’t helped enough. So they’re doing something very simple now, which is they’re not trying to like one another, they’re just trying to solve some problems together, okay? I live in this community, the water doesn’t work, we don’t have jobs, the schools aren’t good, whatever it is. They’re getting together to see if in that community these groups can do something. Not because they agree. Not because they are alike one another. Not because they like one another, but because they need one another.

John McKnight: Yeah.

David Mathews: Once they realized that they need one another, it begins to change the dynamics in the community. I’m encouraged by that. I think that it’s fine to love our fellow man and to agree all the time and to not hate but until that glorious day comes when that is the norm, we’re just going to have to figure out how to work together. And once we try to do that, we can’t escape the fact that we need one another.

John McKnight: I think there are two keys in that wonderful story. One is that we need to be face to face and personal to get away from abstractions that lead to stereotypes and hate. The second thing is that we need to be together, working together on something. I think that those two things are the key to an effective approach to dealing with what appears to be diversity but could emerge into commonality.

David Mathews: Yeah there’s a wonderful Nelson Mandela quote on our walls. He says, “You know, when you begin to work with your enemy, he becomes your partner.”

John McKnight: Great. Yeah, yeah.

Peter Block: Beautiful. Beautiful.

We’re pretty much at the point of completion here. I wonder if John or David, if there’s anything final you’d like to say about this conversation or just kind of tie a knot to what’s been a wonderful, wonderful time together.

David Mathews: Well, the great thing about it to me, Peter and John, is that there is no knot to tie. That democracy is a journey, it’s not a destination, and it will always be a struggle. That it’s a great pleasure personally and for our folks here to have some people to talk to who don’t roll their eyes up at the ceiling when you start in talking about community and democracy. That’s great.

John McKnight: I think that’s why it’s been a great pleasure to have you with us. I think that you’ve had a major effect on the United States in spreading that sense of what makes democracy work and I want to say thanks for an awful lot of people for what you’ve done.

David Mathews: I appreciate that.

Peter Block: I want to echo that too, Dave. Thank you so much for what you stand for, for  all the different you’ve gotten to pay for doing the same thing. And it’s a great gift for us and a great inspiration, so thank you very much.

Chris, you want to close it out?

Chris Whitten: Yes. David, many thanks. And thanks to our listeners. If you’d like to know something more about Kettering Foundation, please visit

We also want to invite you to join us next time, on March 8, when Peter, John, and Walter Brueggemann will be talking about their new book that was mentioned, An Other Kingdom: Departing the Consumer Culture. Until then, please visit our website Stay in touch with us.


Going Further:


About the Lead Author

David Mathews
David Mathews
David Mathews was elected to the Kettering Foundation’s board of trustees in 1972 and became its president and CEO in 1981. Prior to his work there, David served in the Ford administration as secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), where he worked on restoring public confidence in government and reforming the regulatory system. From 1965 to 1980, he taught history at the University of Alabama, where he also served as president from 1969 to 1980, an era of significant change and innovation, including the integration of the institution. David serves on the boards of a variety of organizations, including the Gerald R. Ford Foundation, National Issues Forums Institute, Council on Public Policy Education, and Public Agenda. He has received numerous awards, including a citation as one of the Ten Outstanding Young Men in the Nation, United States Jaycees; member, Alabama Academy of Honor; Nicholas Murray Butler Medal in Silver, Columbia University; Educator of the Year, Alabama Conference of Black Mayors; and the Brotherhood Award, National Conference of Christians and Jews. He was inducted into the University of Alabama College of Communication and Information Sciences Hall of Fame in 2004 and into the Alabama Healthcare Hall of Fame in 2006. In 2007, the Alabama Center for Civic Life was renamed in his honor as the David Mathews Center for Civic Life. He is the recipient of 16 honorary degrees. David has written extensively on such subjects as education, political theory, southern history, public policy, and international problem solving. His most recent book, The Ecology of Democracy: Finding Ways to Have a Stronger Hand in Shaping Our Future (Kettering Foundation Press, 2014), focuses on how the work of democracy might be done to put more control in the hands of citizens and help restore the legitimacy of our institutions. For more on the book, visit

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