Powering America

In a neighborhood, people are empowered by the work they do together.  Often, they use this power to confront institutions and advocate for the neighborhood’s self-interest.  In this kind of action, power is understood as our ability to get someone else to do something for us.  This is the consumer power of confrontation.

The other kind of neighborhood power results when we come together to create something for ourselves — from ourselves.  This is the power of citizens engaged in community building.

Many of us think of power in terms of the confrontation approach.  Power is about advocacy, demands, negotiation and control.  On the other hand, community-building is often described as “nice and cooperative,” but not powerful.

In our book, The Abundant Community, we point out that there are at least six community-building characteristics of a neighborhood that empowers its residents:  cooperation, hospitality, generosity, kindness, forgiveness and accepting fallibilities.

Each of these qualities is a power and creates powerful results.

Kindness is the power to care.  A careless society is a weak society. It finally descends to callous practices and brutal disregard for its members.

Hospitality is the power to welcome.  A fearful society is frightened of strangers and weakened by its exclusions of the talents of strangers inside and outside its community.

Generosity is the power to give.  Powerlessness is greatest when we are denied the right to contribute and express ourselves.  That is why prison is so terrible, even though food, clothing and shelter are provided. There is no stronger punishment than denying a person’s power to give.

Cooperation is the power to join with your neighbors to create a future.  Every totalitarian system knows that the greatest threat is people working together in groups, small or large.  In those societies, the power to associate is called a conspiracy.

Accepting fallibility creates the power to enjoy each other in spite of our failures, deficiencies and differences.  It creates the glue that holds us together in spite of our nature.

Finally, forgiveness is the power to forget. Many communities have been weakened for centuries because of an event that happened in the distant past.  Until a community or its members can overcome a pervasive sense of grievance, that community will atrophy in a spirit of retribution.

It is these qualities of community that are the basic source of a nation’s power:

  • power to care
  • power to give
  • power to welcome
  • power to join
  • power to enjoy
  • power to forget.

These powers are abundant and available in every community. When they are manifested, they are more powerful than business or government.  That is why America’s recovery as a powerful nation finally depends on what we do on our own block.

~ John ~

About the Lead Author

John McKnight
John McKnight
John McKnight is emeritus professor of education and social policy and codirector of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at DePaul University. He is the coauthor of Building Communities from the Inside Out and the author of The Careless Society. He has been a community organizer and serves on the boards of several national organizations that support neighborhood development.

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