Repairing Community

In my ancestors’ native Scotland, there were people who were exiled or outcast from their clan.  They were called “broken men.”  They faced a sad destiny wandering the mountains and moors without a community of support or the protection of law.

In our era there are also many “broken people” without an effective surrounding community of support.  They include millions of Americans who no longer live in a place surrounded by their relatives.  They have lost the daily support of the powerful circle of kinship.  Likewise, millions of Americans have left the church of their youth and are no longer surrounded by supportive communities of faith.  Now, many of these “broken people” live in neighborhoods where they are also disconnected from their surrounding neighbors. They are the genuinely “broken people” of the 21st century, people without communities of kin, faith or place.

To compensate for the loss of the necessities provided by a community of support, they seek alternatives.  The first of these is the local “market.”  They try to buy the support they need from shopping centers and professionalized services.

The second alternative is the government where they seek the money for “social security.”  This money provides access to the market where they hope to buy a senior life — some in places called “independent living centers.”

These broken people have become isolated dependencies of corporations, professionals and governments.  They have no local community of support, and their families have no functions other than consumption. This is why their families so predictably fall apart in a ritual called divorce — the final step toward total isolation.

The collapse of so many American families has not gone unnoticed by caring professionals. Indeed, family collapse is in itself a new market.  From family therapy to parenting classes, divorce counseling and “family centered” social services, paid intervention is the professional response to a family’s functionless isolation.  The professional seems to believe that the purchase of more services will restore personal capacity, family competence and community benefits.  Of course, what is being purchased is counterfeit, because it is more of the same consumer process that has resulted in the brokenness in the first place.

We see the result in “mall kids” and gangs — youth seeking supportive community because they find none in the broken adults who surround them.  These casualties of broken adults are mislabeled “the youth problem.”  The real problem is a “broken community” problem. And no amount of purchased services will put the pieces together again.

We are hard up against the fact that productive relationships among neighbors are the only real possibility to repair the brokenness.  As we create functions for families surrounded by supportive neighbors, the youth and divorce problems will recede.  The reason is that we will become civilized.  Every family and local neighborhood is a miniature civilization.  That civilization creates a culture — the way a people in a place have learned, through time, to live together.

It is that culture that allows neighbors to say:

“Together, we have created our way. Here is what our families do.

Here’s how we raise our kids.  Here’s what we do for one another that makes life easier and eases our hard times.

We are a real community, powerful, connected and caring for each other.

Nothing can break us apart.”

~ 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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