Peter Block and John McKnight with Wayne Hurlbert – Part One

Excerpts from Peter and John’s comments on The Abundant Community – Part One

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

Introduction by Wayne Hurlbert:

In The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods, Peter Block and John McKnight book describe the invisible but immeasurable impact that consumerism has had on families and communities.

Purchases of essential products are made from outside the community, and services and necessities of life are often outsourced. Because people look outside of their own circle of friends and neighbors for products and services, and the satisfaction they see, they think of themselves as consumers, and not as citizens or members of local communities. The authors offer an alternative concept for creating a satisfying life, and they share the possibility that result from forming a community that nurtures the families as citizens.

Mr. Hurlbert: What was the background to writing The Abundant Community?

We come from different worlds.  John has spent his life trying to understand communities and what they are good for, what they are useful for. And Peter tries to understand systems, and has tried to imagine and document ways to humanize them. Our thinking intersects at the point where we realize that the system world has reached its limit.

Excerpts from John and Peter’s comments:


When you come to this realization, it becomes clear that all the efforts to achieve education reform, health care reform, government reform, economic reform, fiscal reform are missing the point. They are destined to produce nothing new for those that have become dependent on them.

Systems are not amenable to reform. You can reconfigure them all you want, cut costs, merge, roll out new missions and vision, but this will not produce reform. It will make systems more efficient, help them survive, but not reform them. This is looking for reform in all the wrong places. It is the space outside systems in neighborhoods and families, the space some call “civic space,” where reform can occur. This is where there is a possibility to take back and produce the kind of life we want, because systems have reached their limit.

System Limits

The book is not really a critique of systems, but to say that systems cannot raise a child, they cannot keep us safe, they cannot create a local economy, they cannot take care of the people on the margins, they can’t take care of the land. And so if we keep looking to systems for what is really in our hands, then we are going to be eternally frustrated.

The challenge for us is to say, Well, if systems cannot raise a child, who can? How do we give some thought and form and affirmation to the fact that a child needs to be raised by a neighborhood? I am safe because a neighborhood keeps me safe, not the police. I am healthy because of my own habits and the people around me, not the medical industrial complex. For elders, those on the margin, the disabled, and people recovering from mental illness –– the care they need is from friends, not from professionals.


Another way of casting it is that economics, the mode by which systems operate, is the study of scarce resources. This is different from a study of abundance. There is a whole sector in everybody’s life, a whole domain in our relationships and our community, where what one needs for satisfaction is abundant. That which is not scarce is outside of the world of economics and the systems it has produced.

Authentic reform begins the moment we recognize the abundance in our communities… 

Authentic reform begins the moment we recognize the abundance in our communities and mobilize to let that abundance flow again because what stops the flow is the idea of scarcity. We are wedded to scarcity economics, and every bit of news about the future of our well-being in the western world has to do with what’s happening economically in the financial markets, international trading, the GNP.

That world functions well for what it is designed to do, which is to establish wealth and spur productivity. At the same time it is just that world that has, by its nature, created such disparity in the world. 

By exalting and romanticizing the scarcity economics and the system way, we ignore the world of abundance. We relegate to human interest, psychology and the domain of spirituality the study of those things such as our gifts, our capacities, our abilities, our interests, our passions, our associations, our neighbors, our generosity and our capacity to care. These are the functions that we can put together in a way that economic world can’t.

Care vs. Service

What this takes is a neighborhood. If we step back think about it a bit, we will recognize this. One of the ways of thinking about it is to acknowledge the fact that people want to be cared for, they want to take care of each other. The world of care is a world of abundance. I can care for all my neighbors, I can care for all my family.

However, there is a substitute for care, it is called service. That’s to seek someone that I will pay in lieu of care. I don’t believe I can take care of my children, so I pay for people to provide that service. They call themselves care providers, but they aren’t. They are professionals getting paid to intervene in peoples’ lives. They replace the world of community and primary relationships where care prevails, with service.

One of the narratives of the modern society is that people don’t care for each other, they don’t take care of each other, we have evolved away from care into service. There is evidence of this: we have created large numbers of nursing homes more and more schools and youth programs. We demand more police and correctional facilities. We have abandoned what we have in abundance for that which is scarce. Reforming nursing homes and police will not produce better outcomes. It is really a distraction from building stronger neighborhoods and citizen capacities.  

Neighborhood Functions

Too many of us are rather isolated from our neighbors. So what the community could provide is neighbors who care for our children. They can know who my children are. If my children wander farther than one block from my house, there might be people that know my child and if the child does something wrong they say, Stop that –– and they don’t worry about a lawsuit. The point is that neighborhoods can keep us safe. We can know each other and feel free to make requests of each other. We can know one anothers’ gifts and passions. Most of this does not exist in our modern neighborhoods.

Neighbors now are people who live nearby; they are not people whom I depend on to help me do things that are most satisfying about life. In the United States, most neighborhoods have been emotionally vacated. If you ask most people, Where do you find your social connections and support for what matters to you?  they say, Well, I get in my car to find it; I get it electronically. We have lost a walking-distance experience of what it takes to raise a child, care for those on the margins and be safe. To care for each other.  

If the function of a neighborhood is lost, that means it is there for the finding.

This isolation, this failure to provide basic functions in our local community relationships, is pretty new. It’s not something that we have to invent anew. In my experience, if you are talking to a group of people who are thirty-five and over, and you ask them about their childhood, very commonly they’ll say, Well, when I was a child in the small town where I was, or in the city neighborhood, if I did anything wrong out on the block, or on a street, or in the neighborhood, my mother would know about it in five minutes.

You hear this over and over again, and then they tell about how neighbors would take kids to a museum or how they would organize kickball on the local street. You hear from older people in Canada and in the United States, this description of a set of relationships which supported the development of children and also provided a social context and a sense that there are some rules in the world.

You can say to the same people, tell me about your neighborhood today. And they’ll talk about the neighborhood the way we have been talking about it. They’ll say, Well, we don’t know our neighbors anymore, we’re isolated, I’m afraid of the kids, sort of; I don’t know who they are. So in thirty to forty years, this shift has taken place. There is nothing, however, that we don’t have today that wasn’t there thirty to forty years ago. It is that we don’t recognize the abundant resources that we have because we have gone over into the market. We’ve decided that the way you live a life is to buy it.

Consumer Society

The consumer job title is recent. It really grew in the middle part of the last century, and started with products and shoes. Productivity reached a stage where fourteen percent of the factories could make all of the shoes required for the whole US. This excess capacity was a problem. The solution was to convince people they need more shoes. And I think what’s happened is, the consumer of things has migrated into the consumer of services. To the point where now when our child is born, we begin a long process of surrounding that child with services, systems, coaches, counselors, schooling, all designed to service them into a successful life.   

Virtual Life

There is research that says people have bought the idea that electronics can provide a wide range of satisfaction and be an adequate substitute for relationships. More and more of our lives are engaged, rather than in relationships with people around us, in relationship to a television tube, in a relationship to a computer and electronic games. A growing percentage of time is in the electrical world of television, computer, electric games and handheld devices.  

These are derivative ways of relating to people. Ways in which you can’t touch, smell, feel and really see the person. We call it a virtual world, a replacement part for the real world. These derivative electrical relationships take up a lot of space in our lives that was once filled with human relationships.

Time and Speed

This is not evil or wrong. Nobody sits down across from somebody and says, “Excuse me but I’d rather watch television.” What has happened is the world of commerce and making a living has made speed and cost and efficiency the dominant values of the modern culture. So as soon as I am kind of a restless productivity machine, then I will look to those things that are quick and easy. My example is that now I can communicate very quickly with my daughters; I still don’t have much to say to them, but I can not say something to them much more efficiently. The obsession for productivity, which is the major output of systems, has so dominated our culture that the habit and desire for productivity has taken over and dominated our experience.

Gifts and Capacities

The latter half of the book tries to remind people of the paths that you would take if you were going to engage in the basic renewal of the confidence and the capacity and the function of local neighborhoods. It is not mysterious. It calls for us to understand what we have in terms of our gifts, our skills, our capacities, our interests and our passions.

It asks us to take these seriously. To discover with as much interest as we give to institutional reform, how to make visible and put these together. What gifts and interests do we have right here to help raise our children? What can we do together that will encourage a much more healthful future for us rather than a world of children, for instance, who are growing in obesity almost daily and who are going to be the diabetics of the future?

When we weave together our capacities, we can do all of those things. It requires connectedness, and we suggest that the three basic elements for any community and its rebuilding is to understand the gifts, make the connections that create the associations that allow us to be productive, and assure that we always are hospitable at the edge so we don’t create strangers. In those three basic resources, which are plentiful and in all of us, we have what we need to rebuild our communities.

Social Fabric

What is at risk is the social fabric of our society. The breakdown of social fabric has important consequences. The financial crisis and all the so-called reform movements are signs that the system world is in trouble, and part of that trouble comes from the breakdown in the experience of community.  

Robert Putnam wrote the famous book called BowlingAlone. What he was interested in was the fact that in southern Italy, people had very few formal and informal associations, connected groups of people carrying on all kinds of activities, celebrations and functions. But in northernItaly they did have a rich associational base. Then he began to do research that demonstrated that a key reason that there was so little business development in southernItaly was that they didn’t have a rich associational life.

His study has become very famous, because it suggests that a rich fabric of community associational life is the nest from which enterprise develops. The support system is there, the relationships are there, and what you need then is some invention but the invention is taking place in a connected space. As the erosion of the local associational space occurs, there is a decline in our ability for our nation and our people to generate new enterprises because the nest isn’t strong, it isn’t a hatching nest.

Gift Mindedness

What builds social fabric is gift mindedness. An easy way to think about gift mindedness is to think about the glass half-filled with liquid, and you can say it is half empty or half full; gift mindedness is the ability to see the full half. “Needs focused” deficiency mindedness is to look at the empty half. In a consumer world the question is, What don’t you have? In a community building world the question is, What do you have?

Gift mindedness is the culture that says look at all that we have here, among us and between us and all the things we can do with that. It’s the opposite of people being deficiency minded. The service world looks at a neighborhood and focuses on its needy people. They do a needs survey. They figure out how many bad houses they have, how much heart disease they have. How many of them can’t see well without glasses.

A gift-minded community is one that says we start with what we have…

A gift-minded community is one that says we start with what we have, and in its connections we can perform all kinds of useful functions. Then, maybe we’ll still need something from the outside. But, you don’t know what you need from the outside until you know what you have inside. So gift mindedness says we know what we have.

If you provide human services, the only way to get money is to be needs- and deficiency-minded. My doctor is not interested in me being healthy — my friends are, but my doctor isn’t. Deficiency mindedness produces the linguistic habit of labeling people. We call somebody homeless or a bi-polar schizophrenic, but that’s not who they are. Now this is not to deny that people suffer, and have done things wrong, and have gotten in trouble.

The question is, What is the most useful way to look at a person, what is the most useful way to focus on them? What you see is what you get more of, so if you see a homeless person, if you see an ex-offender, you will get more of that, and that’s not who these people are. I’ve had people come to me and say, My name is John, I’m homeless. And I think, That’s not who you are, why would you introduce yourself that way?

You’re introducing yourself as a deficiency. I don’t show up and say, My name is Peter and I’m housed. The deficiency label produces an empty context and a world where nothing really changes. Gift-mindedness is a choice to focus on the possibility of a person. This is a philosophical stance. It’s a question of what kind of world you want to create. A world of deficiencies and services, or do you want to create a world of gifts and possibilities and care? It’s a shift in consciousness as much as it is a list of what to do.

Hear the hour-long interview at

Excerpt 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

About the Lead Author

The Latest

Drawing from Indigenous Wisdom: Centering Life in Society & Economy

Building a "next system" to supplant the current systemic drivers of our economic and political crises should include the...


More Articles Like This