The Futility of Reform: Departure for Another Way

John and Peter November 19, 2019 Webinar

The Futility of Reform: Departure for Another Way
Conversation with John and Peter ~ November 19, 2019

Dr. Jerome (Jerry) Miller was appointed director of the juvenile correctional system in the state of Massachusetts in the 1970s. After attempting to reform the system, he decided that approach was so institutionally counterproductive that he would close down the 11 reformatories under his direction.  In “The Futility of Reform: Departure for Another Way” John and Peter talk about how to depart a reform mindset based on eight principles which emerged from Jerry Miller’s work.



Peter Block: Thank you all for coming, showing up. I liked Becky’s introduction. All during the year we have many interesting guests, however today we have John and Peter, the two of them. And it’s a special day, John, I understand you have a birthday tomorrow. He’s going to be 88, and more important, this is a warning for people in the Chicago and Spring Green area, that John passed his driver’s license. So drive extra carefully all of us.

John McKnight:
Slowly. Slowly.

Peter: Anyway, welcome John, it’s always a joy. So let me begin in context. Most of us on this call come because we have in mind the disparities in the world, we have in the mind the economically isolated, we have in mind and in our hearts the wealth disparity, well being, health disparities. And so a lot of you on this call, and many of you I know, have given your life to say, “What will change this world? What’s going on?” The larger world seems to be headed in directions that are confusing, to say it kindly. So we thought we’d talk about the nature of transformation and try to talk about it in a different way that we’ve been thinking about lately.

  A lot of times, in my work of workshops, you ask people what’s the crossroads you’re at in this stage of your life and the number one question is, “Where can I go? How long do I have to stay in the job I’m in now?” And usually that question, to me, never takes you anywhere, because the next boss is going to be pretty much like the boss you have today. So the subtext of this is about departure, there’s really no place else to go. And so the challenge for us is to say if we want to have an impact and reduce the suffering and increase the wellbeing in the world. How do we think about, in dramatic terms, but think about it in terms of the job we’re in now. And so what we’ll describe in a few minutes is people who have managed to change the nature of the work they’re doing without having to leave, without having to change places.

  The metaphor is the exodus story; our friend Walter Brueggemann basically says the modern narrative, the dominant totalizing narrative of today is that we’re still working for Pharaoh. We still live in a world of restless productivity. We still live in a world where no matter how much you have it’s not enough, no matter how much you deliver you have to deliver more, more for less. And after 400 years of 398 years, I don’t know how long the trip actually took the Israelites, finally they found a way to leave Egypt. And the challenge in leaving Egypt was when they said, “Oh where are we going to go.” They said, “It’s called a wilderness.” And if you asked Walter what’s in the wilderness, a place with no visible means of support, which is kind of a metaphor for saying there is no safe place to go.

  But that becomes our job. And to me the modern Pharaoh is the consumer culture, it’s a culture. It’s based on scale, on speed, on costs, on bots, on automation, on convenience. And anything that’s more convenient seems to find a market. So we’re questioning if that’s the consumer culture. To me that is the belief system we have now, that more control or more clarity. We have standardized curriculums for our high schools. We have STEM programs. We have all this kind of thinking, to me is a culture. And that to me produces the economic isolation and the disparities in existing worlds. So how do we depart that without changing jobs?

  So that’s the theme for the day, is the notion of departures. It’s different than revolutions. Revolution is popular to use, but mostly it’s one group of people who think the world would be better if they ran the world. Not if we changed how the world was run, just that we ran the world. Reform is another popular notion, but reform means we’re just going to take the management world, the consumer belief system we have, and we’re going to make it more efficient, we’re going to run it better. And so school reform has meant, for the last 15 years, bring in more military and business executives to run schools and then we’ll shape them up. And unfortunately the outcomes aren’t much different.

  We’re starting with the notion that reform doesn’t really change anything, it just makes what we’re doing more efficient, less costly. And so we’ve adopted the notion, or newly experimented, of departure. It’s the same way I can stay in place and yet run something with a different mindset than the one I inherited or have been doing for a while. And so what John wants to do is to talk about some people that have done that, and some principles for people that have said, “I can depart the existing institutional reality that I’m in,” because most of us are institutionalized. And then here’s some examples of where it’s happened. Did I leave anything out John?

John: Sounds good. A lot of us I think are in situations where we think of ourselves as reformers. And there is a place for reform, but the interesting question in the Biblical story is they were living in servitude and maybe Joseph was trying to reform the Pharaoh’s empire. But there came a time when they decided that reform wouldn’t work, they’d have to leave. And in leaving they were deciding on another way. And one of the things that I think all of us who have been in institutions need to do is to think about, is our reform working? And if we decide it isn’t really working what would we do?

  And perhaps the most vivid story that I’ve been involved in, involved Dr. Jerome Miller, Jerry Miller. He was a professor of social work at Ohio State University. And in Massachusetts they had 11 reformatories for young people. And they became so corrupt, so violent, so base. I remember, among other things, if a kid ran away, when they came back they broke a finger as the penalty for running away. And there were many other examples of that kind of institutional behavior.

  So when Jerry Miller was interviewed, and they decided to make him the director of the reformatories in Massachusetts he came into a pretty bad place, clearly in need of reform. And for two years he was involved in all kinds of changes in terms of personnel, practices, leadership, professionalization. And he did everything that anybody in the reformatory field would think you ought to do to make a good reformatory. I knew him, and he told me that after two years he was reading the annual report that was going to be put out about what had happened since he had been there, and they told about all kinds of wonderful programs and initiatives. But on the last page it also had an indication of what the recidivism rate was. And the recidivism rate was almost the same as it had been before he came, when they were breaking kid’s fingers.

  And he sat there, and he said to himself, “I’ve done everything that a good professional could do in the ideology of good prison work. And I know nothing more to do.” And he thought, “Maybe I should quit.” But then he said, “No. No. I am running a professionalized institution that is the worst possibility for making lives better for young people.” The worst. Even though professionally it could be measured as the best. And he said, “I decided there must be another way,” and I like that, another way. So he decided to find the other way by closing down the institutions, very quickly.

  And when all 11 were closed down, later he wrote a book about what happened. I really encourage you all to read it, it’s called Last One Over the Wall. Turn off the lights, we don’t have anybody here anymore in reformatory. So if you read the book you can begin to see that here’s a person who found another way, rather than reform. And briefly the first thing that happened to him was that he decided he should never evaluate anything other than how the clients, or the consumers felt about what was going on.

  And so he insisted in talking with the young people in the reformatory, in private, about what it was that his reforms had done for their lives. And so the evaluation point was the people affected, not the programs, not the professionalization. And he realized at the end of two years, when he saw those figures, that the kids had constantly been telling him, “Our lives are really not changed in any essential way.” So that was the first thing. Pay attention to the people affected. Forget about all this formal evaluation process and professionalization. Listen to the people who are affected.

  And that led him to decide they have to have another way. Now how would you go another way if you decided your institution was the worst of possibilities, even rendering harm? And then he decided, because he didn’t know another way, he decided what he would do is rather quickly close the places down and turn to the larger community and offer them opportunities to join the lives of young people, sort of like an RFP for Massachusetts saying, “We’ve got kids that you exiled from your communities, and try to pay us to raise them. And we’re a market for troubled kids. We don’t want to do that anymore. So we’re going to take the money with us and we can use it if you need money to begin to take on the lives of these kids.”

  And for instance, one of the first things is the University of Massachusetts agreed that a lot of these kids could come and live on campus in the dormitories with the students who were there, as a way of having a new set or relationships, and a new context, and a new meaning of what their lives were. And he got responses from groups who were interested in the arts, people who were interested in sports, people who were interested in children, people who had experience with dealing with people who act in ways that don’t seem to be acceptable, but you don’t have to lock them up. And a lot of them he returned home. So he had no plan, but he had a belief that if the community were called on, it had all kinds of ways that it could deal with young people, any of which would be better than the way his reformatories were doing.

  He had a few principles as he was doing that. And the first of course was listen to the people who are affected. The second was, focus on the people who are thought to be the most damaged. Start with the kids in the reformatory that’s the worst. Because if you find another way for them, then all the other 10 reformatories looked easy. And people would see that you knew something about what to do ahead. Look for diverse alternatives that are small and dispersed and represent all kinds of methods by which people make life worth living.

  And then he had another very important insight, and that was can you take the money that is spent on each kid, on a per capita basis, and take that money with them so that the institution won’t go on, and on, and on. Get the money out of the institution, attached to the young person.

  I remember he told me about one kid who was with a student at the University of Massachusetts. And the two of them came to him and they said, “You know Pan American Airlines will give you a year-long ticket in which you can go to any city in the world where they have an airport, and it costs $3,000.” Now Jerry said we were spending $17,000 on them, so why not say, “Yeah. Why don’t you two go around the world,” which is what they were proposing, “For a year. I can pay for the tickets and we can give you enough money that if you don’t live high you’ll be able to make it.” And both of them came back transformed. A new life. A transformative use of public resources in behalf of achieving goals that the reformatory never achieved.

  So I think that’s sort of a summary of the way he approached things. But he did not allow himself to be stopped by the fact that he didn’t know clearly another way. But he believed that if one looked to the community as the source of creativity, of a new life, of ways that kids could change their lives, that the community had ways and would respond. And that’s how he found another way in the community as against the way that was the place he wasted himself on reform.

  So Jerry is a great lesson for us. Looking at his life I have always felt, supposing your legacy was that from a place where youth were tortured, you opened up a transformative new way of doing it because you stopped reforming and started looking at young people and saying, “What changes in their lives from their point of view.” So that’s the Miller story. Read the book. And I think, as I read it, it challenges me to ask, in terms of the things that I’ve involved with that didn’t work, what would be another way? And maybe you can trust in the community for that way. Peter.

Peter: I think sometimes it seems when people do radical things, and you’ve said they don’t have a plan, that they went from high structure to no structure. It seems to me he had a strategy and his strategy was to reimagine whether a smaller scale experience for the people he cared about might be more productive. A smaller scale experience might be more uniquely adapted, whether it’s taking a trip around the world or staying in a university dormitory. And so I think the Pharaoh’s way, or the empire way is to look at cost, and scale, and say, “How many people can we get in one place and how can we watch them more efficiently?”

  Another movement, when Reagan shut down the mental health institutions in California, what happened was they moved them into the prisons. And the largest mental health facilities we have now are prisons, in New York and other places. So I think the idea that small scale … I think the fact that he said, “Are there people out there who will come to us and say, ‘We want to try different ways of being and reconnecting.'” So it wasn’t just send them into the streets, let them fend for themselves. Because part of the cost of institutionalization is how isolated we become. So he was really saying how do we get these young people reconnected.

  The other radical thing, which Tim Vogt is doing, and others, is saying, “Well instead of putting the dollars into more services, we’re letting the dollars follow the designed experiences of the people we care about.” And so for years Judith Snow got the Canadian government to give her $60,000 a year, and let her decide how to spend that in her own interest. Instead of deciding who you can hire and here the money goes straight to the service provider.

  And I think another example of people who have changed it is the youth advocacy program, that you know about. And so they have a goal to keep kids out of … they don’t call them reform school, but keep them out of prison. And they say, “Let’s put money into neighborhood hands.” And so for every youth that we’re concerned about that’s surfaced in the system, we’re going to pay $14 an hour to a mildly trained neighbor who’s going to give attention and care to the family of those youth with the single goal of keeping them out the judicial system. And to me these are mental, strategic departures that take the non-professional who can give support and presence to a family and a youth, keep the youth in the family at all costs. So there’s kind of a theme to what departure looks like, and in most cases it’s going to be re-imagining the alternative to grabbing people together for the sake of scale. And believing we need highly trained professionals.

  Now there are some places you do need highly trained professionals, but we know that in healthcare only 15% of our health is affected by the medical system. So if you get people like Deb Puntenney in Rochester, who’s departing the normal thinking, working for a health foundation. And she says, “You know what, we’re going to go in neighborhoods where they have a health problem and we’re not going to talk about health. Because that would just lead us to more services, more decentralized clinics. Instead we’re going to talk about what can you do to make this neighborhood better, and engaging people with each other, building social capital.” Her health foundation is improving health without ever using the word, or more services.

  I think there’s a theme, and we can talk about Tim in a little bit. The other thing with the Pharaoh of the empire is what we call people. As soon as I call you a consumer it implies that you can buy something that’s going to satisfy you. And the reality is, in a consumer world, it’s based on dissatisfaction. As soon as I buy something I realize I need another one. I was at breakfast with a friend of mine, Ed, and he said, “I looked at my shoe closet the other day and I realized I had five good dress-up pair of shoes. And it occurred to me maybe I’ll never buy another pair of shoes in my lifetime.”

  That is a departure moment that says it’s the consumer, the customer, that framing … It’s also in the measures. Jerry had to invent new measures of well being for the citizens and youth that he cared about, because it’s not like they weren’t a problem, they just needed a different measure. And they’re called population measures, how are people doing. The measures we have for our culture now are strictly economical, gross domestic product. And so if you want to depart you say, “Well there are other ways to measure impact on the population we care most about.” And it’s not going to be how many years of school, how safe is your neighborhood, how high is your income. It’s got to be something else that has to do with community and building community.

John: Peter, one other thing before we leave Miller, that he believed he was doing, which was much more transformative than even the story itself is. It was his view that the reason he wanted to put kids back in the community is because he said, “You made these kids. And then, because you don’t like them you send them over to us and pay us to keep them in exile.” So in the larger sense what we’re really trying to do is to say, “The community itself has to change in its understanding, in its responsibility for their own children.” In fact he told me one time that he’d like to divide the city up into eight blocks. Give the eight blocks their share of the money that was used to send kids into exile and say, “here’s your resource base for you to change yourself, change yourself so that you won’t be producing the kind of kids that you produce.”

  And I thought that was an incredibly transformative notion that he was stopping real change by running a reformatory. He was allowing communities to throw their children away when they didn’t like them. So in a profound way I think the great lesson that he has to offer, and a lot of the community initiatives involved, is recognizing that we are the primary resource for the engagement of our people who we lived with and we created and we should be responsible for. Profound.

Peter: You know you can’t preach people into transformation. I think that was a value system he had. But there are very structured ways that this is happening. Restorative justice is now in schools doing restorative practices. And if they find different conflict mediation skills among teachers, the number of kids that are put on suspension goes way down. So it’s not to say that people don’t like these kids so I’m going to warehouse them, is a harsher statement than I would make. It’s not, “I don’t like the kids,” it’s that I don’t have the connection, the social capital to know how to embrace these kids in a functional way. And so youth advocacy programs somebody just says, isn’t that just creating another empire? Well it’s not. Empires have to be centralized. Empires are people that know what’s best for others.

  What’s radical about Jerry was he decided he did not know what’s best for these kids. That was the real slavery of the Israelites, is they had no agency or ownership of what they thought was best for them. So they gave up the land and the cows. So most of these departure stories are people that said, “How do we get communities and maybe give them restorative practice skills to keep kids in the classroom? How do we keep kids out of jail by having someone in the neighborhood who has some relationship skills helping a family cope better?” Because usually kids that get in trouble, it’s a measure of them feeling outside.

  I think as a community we have to confront the question, how do we embrace the deviants? We have a situation in my neighborhood where people are uncomfortable with people asking them for money all the time, and once in a while it gets violent. So we said, “What are we going to do about this?” And the first thing we did was say we’re going to call them park and bench people. We’re not going to call them addicts. We’re not going to call them mentally ill. We’re not going to call them criminals. We’re going to say they basically are living on parks and benches, and how can we over time develop a relationship with them rather than calling the police and saying, “Get these people out of my sight.” So the institutional side would say that they’re dangerous and need to hire somebody to protect me.

  What you know from your work all these years, John, that the safe neighborhood is where neighbors have an eye on the street, and police are needed but rarely. So you put most of your attention, and your storytelling, and your narrative. And I think this is what the exodus story is about, in the hands of neighbors figuring out how they’re going to make their place better. And then once in a while they need a perfection.

John: That naming question that you just mentioned, I think is absolutely critical. What’s the language. And that would lead you to another great non-reformer, a woman in Vancouver named Ann Livingston. Her husband had been addicted, and I think passed on. And she was aware that there were two choices that were presented to her husband. One was jail, and the other was treatment. And for most people neither work. But we still call them addicts, and addict takes on a negative term. So she stimulated the organization in Vancouver of the East Vancouver Association of Drug Users. We’re putting it up front. And it was a vehicle by which they now could not be chased into treatment or jail, but could create, even though they had the label, their way, another way. And they called it harm reduction.

  It was adopted by the city of Vancouver, and now its spread all over the United States. So it was very interesting that she, in a sense, was not trying to reform the addict, she was trying to create an environment where the addicts had the chance to be productive workers within the society. They became crossing guards, and they had an economic development corporation, still do. So I think another way of thinking about it is, let’s ask if there’s another way of seeing people who look deviant, but what we’re going to do is to not focus on the deviance. And will we go another way if we don’t focus on the deviance? The other way is harm reduction, and you can find it in almost any city in the United States. It’s trickled down from Canada to us.

Peter: I think the labeling is huge. And the labeling is most carried by how we measure. The impact that she had was about 70% less people died who were users in Vancouver after she started the harm reduction program, safe injection sites. We had her on our program and I foolishly expressed my bias by asking, “Ann, now did this impact the nature of their addiction? Did it impact their use of drugs?” And she said, “Gee Peter, that’s a question we never asked.” And I thought, “Whoops. That was an answer I never expected, and it told me something about my point of view.” And I thought that really dramatized her departure.

  Now we’ve been going about half an hour. I wonder, Becky, if you want to invite people to make statements. Maybe the question is, if you’re on this show with us you’re probably engaged in some kind of departure. There’s some kind of shift in thinking that you’ve decided to bring into your work that wasn’t demanded or persuaded. So if you have questions, if you’d like to make comments. If you think John and I are talking about a world that really doesn’t exist, we’ll take your side, I’m warning you right now. But maybe you could make the invitation Becky.

Becky: Sure. I’d be happy to welcome anyone on camera who has something to add to today’s discussion. And what we would invite you to do is to use the hand raise function on Zoom to let me know that you’re interested in either coming on camera or coming on audio to ask a question or make a comment. In the mean time I do have a question from David who’s on the call. And he’s wondering if either you, Peter, or you John are going to appear at a conference in 2020? Because if so he would like to be there.

Peter: The answer is yes, we are going to appear at a conference in 2020. The time, date, subject, and the wearing apparel to be determined. But we have made a commitment to hold a gathering in the second quarter in Chicago. And if you’ll let us know, David, thank you for the question, we would love to have you in the room. And we want to hold a conference that’s not a conference, it’s more a gathering where people come and share. We don’t have the date yet, but that’s a nice question.

  Somebody who’s in the chat mentioned, is it Bella, micro board association that’s currently supporting direct funding solutions for nearly 2,000 people. And see I think this is something so profoundly radical, to say, “I’m going to give you the money in service of your own wellbeing.” Will some people abuse that money? Of course, but that’s happening now anyway. Okay.

Becky: So I have invited Luz on to join the call.

Luz: I have joined your webinar for quite a while, but I am very interested in the topic because I am a member of a covenant community, charismatically, so it’s a faith based community. And we do a lot of problem, actually counseling, to youth who have migrated here, came from the Philippines, left by their parents who work abroad. And then the parents came here in Canada they were able to be sponsored and brought here. The problem is these children are carrying baggage. So there will be a lot of problems. And they don’t basically get into institution like that, but it is the same stream of problems that youth encounter. And it is right to say to institutionalize them or just put them in prison will not help, because we have already labeled them as somebody bad. They are not bad in that sense, but they were misguided.

  And the problem is, unless you’re able to listen to their problem, what made them do such crime, if it’s a crime or whatever, is we have failed to listen. Listening is always very important. In my community we do one on one counseling, and we try to bring and understand why the family has been going through a lot of problems. Because you go to a country, which is very different from your culture, and you come in to a country where the language is not something that you are familiar with. And so when you go to school they will isolate you, bully you, and laugh at you. And that happens frequently. And if you are not able to find out and help them, then eventually they will be part of gangs, and eventually be criminals. And it’s all because there’s a breakdown in family. It will always be a family problem.

  In fact, if I were to run this country, if the children are accused of crimes or whatever, I will call the parents and say, “What have you been doing?” Maybe you were just trying to earn money and have a lot of material things and not knowing that what you are actually missing is your children.

Peter: So Luz, let me interrupt you for a second. Thank you so much. So you have a couple of theories. You said instead of institutionalizing these people, I would ask you what can you call them that would honor and respect them? But then you’re saying that they need to be listened to, as if listening was an action step. And they could be listened to, you don’t need a paid professional to listen to them. You have a religious group it sounds like that’s taken on the practice of saying, “If we can listen and understand,” and I think that’s a very powerful strategy.

  And then you want to engage the family. I would add that in addition to calling the family you could call the neighbors, because in other times the neighbors were the ones that kept me straight. So I think the fact that you’re saying instead of labeling them and calling them something, to listen to them, to find people in their own vicinity, call it family or other ways than just giving them a label and having a professional take care of it. Thank you so muchfor joining us.

John: When you think about these young people you posed the question as to why all of the problems are on the school. And I can see that a lot of people would say, “Well we’ve got to reform the school.” But it may be that the school is the only place they could be where nobody will listen to them. They’re going to teach them, not listen to them. And so you’re at that place that Jerry Miller was at in a sense, if you see it that way. And that is, maybe we need another way than this school. And what would that be like? What would a neighbor’s school be?

  I was just recently talking to a neighborhood organizer who said that a church had moved out of the neighborhood that had a wonderful facility. And what they’re planning to do is to create a neighbor’s school in which the neighbors will be the teachers, and in relationship with the young people because they’re all there in that neighborhood. So the community is beginning to say, “We are the alternative in that sense, and we’re being called to this function.” And I think that’s just thrilling. Can you imagine a neighbor’s school? I think relationships there could be much different than the kinds of things that a bureaucracy produces.

Peter: Thank you Louse. So Yassir would you like to say something?

Yassir: Hi there. Thank you for the opportunity. Just a little bit of background, I’m originally from Cincinnati and was a big fan of A Small Group and a lot of your work, Peter. And even the Elementz center downtown. I got married and went Abu Dhabi for a couple years and was fortunate enough to travel across the world to 40-some countries. And now I came back and we’re living in Portsmouth, Ohio, which is a community which has been ravaged by the opioid crisis and is a community that has some young people that would like to take the community in a different direction, and hopefully that will happen.

Yassir: I hope that I can play some kind of role here, although I’m not clear what yet. But my question about what both of you had mentioned was, it seems like the task is so overwhelming. And when I read the different wisdom traditions, the Judaic tradition, the Christian tradition, and the Islamic tradition, it seem like most of the prophetic figures took their communities and started a new community somewhere else so that they would be away from the structures of oppression. Have you given that any thought? I’m sure you have. Is that something that could work as creating a model and then inviting people into replicating that model?

Peter: I don’t know if you have to leave town to do this. But there’s a whole co-housing movement. There’s pocket housing. Every discipline has a path into this. And so you can think of different ways of housing and architecture. Your role is really a convening role, I would say, which you know.  “How do we get the people that you’re concerned about together and talk about what choices do we have that are in our hands?” And you’ll have to start small and go slow, which is the most painful thing.

  The fear is that there’s a huge utopian movements in this country from time to time. And they didn’t last very long because they were revolutionary in that they would create a Utopian village, especially in New York State, and then they’d just recreate what they left behind. So the Massachusetts Bay Colony was the first organized thing to start in this country, and all they did was recreate England, except the people in Massachusetts were in charge.

  So I think you’re a convener, you’re a collector. A neighborhood, a place does give you an organizing context that’s extremely powerful, but it doesn’t have to leave town, because where are you going to go you know.

John: I think also where you can engage people in the idea that they have a lot of possibilities to find another way. Two of them that I think consistently appear are, first off, that they all have capacities, skills, and gifts that if they arrange them in relationship to each other in effective ways they will have created another way. And throughout community there are all kinds of associations, clubs, and groups. And each of them is a group of people with input, but we’ve seen over and over again that if you can call them to another way beyond the particular focus that they say they’re together on.

  So I think if you really want to see a community as having all kinds of potential for creating another way, the two major resources are, focus on their gifts and their talents, and use all of the associations you can to be involved when thinking about another way, rather than pulling a bunch of professionals and agency people as the only participants.

Peter: Thank you Yassir. Hello Dinesh.

Dinesh: Great to listen to you guys. Beautiful morning here in California. And my question is that we are trying to create a community here in the Santa Cruz in the deep Redwood Forest. And our goal is to people who are really stressed out in Bay Area with a total focus on trying to become a billionaire before you hit 25. So how can we provide a place, a community center where people can come on the weekends and go in the forest bathing, and release their stress, empower their minds? I call it a true heal, healthy body with empowered mind, and an accepting heart, and a loving soul.

  So we are trying to create that community. I am the convener and attracting, inviting people to come join. And then we buy some land there and create the community center, and then build cabins there. People can design their own cabins in that area. And the commitment they’ll make is on the weekend we’ll all get together and have a conscious dialogue.

  My question to both of you, what other things should be in my checklist, one, two, three. What are the key things I should be concerned about now?

Peter: My recommendation my friend, is that you don’t need three more steps, that what you’ve done is all you can do. And you asked the question of the community every weekend, what can we do to make your experience here more powerful? And then how do we slowly bring this back in to this place, into the dominant culture? And no place, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, carries the dominant culture of dissatisfactions more powerfully than beautiful, sunny California. Anyways, thank you for telling us. And maybe if you can put on the chat where your place is everybody listening can come join you.

John: Another thought is a lot of churches get lost in what I’d call an Oedipus Complex. They are so focused on the structure within which they’re meeting, that often the idea of having a structure where something can happen comes to dominate. And I think the starting point is not a structure. The starting point is a group of people who come together who appreciate each other’s gifts, and who are associated in ways to discover and create how they would want to get together and where. And let it grow out of that rather than saying if we build it they will come, is perhaps another way.

Danesh: Thank you so much John. Great insights. Thanks.

Peter: Hi Pat, it’s been ages.

Pat: It’s been a long time, I know. And I don’t know John, but it’s so exciting. I keep watching all the wonderful work that you’re doing, I think it’s fantastic. And I love your idea of doing this in place. And I’d just like to just talk a little bit about some experiences that I’ve had in the corporate world, where just two things that you highlighted have made such a huge difference.

  One is, to ask yourself, in place, in the corporation, who’s affected? And I think that’s a good way to say it. Who’s affected by the work that we do? And get them involved in defining what their own measures are and what their own needs are. It’s something very simple, but it’s so transformative. Most institutions are thinking about not only the money, but what they do and how they can get people to do things. And I think just focusing on the people that are affected, and listening to them you get an entirely new perspective.

  I did a project with one of the states, and interesting enough the prison system was involved. And we looked at who are the people affected by the prison system. Well it is people who are incarcerated and their families, and of course the state. And there was a disturbance in one of the buildings that turned violent. And after it was put down one of the inmates said that he did not kill the warden because he’d begun to be treated better. And that was all from the initiative that they did, which was looking at the needs from the perspective of the people affected. So I think what you’re talking about there is just incredibly important.

Peter: And in doing that they were respected and honored. And them bringing you in to help that, there’s a whole lot of listening going on.

Pat: Well it’s interesting because they would’ve never thought of the inmates as basically customers or people that they’re serving.

Peter: I know. That’s the real violence.

  Thank you so much Pat.

Becky: So I have Jim. And I’m just going to flag that there’s a ton of conversation and a few questions that have come in to the Q&A panel. And looking at the clock I know we’re not going to get to all of those. So we will be sharing your comments with John and Peter after today’s event. And we’ll have the chance to potentially address those in some upcoming blogs or newsletters.

Jim: Hello everyone. I’m in Yorktown, Virginia. What I’m trying to do is work with churches, and John’s already referenced the Oedipus Complex, which is something I run into quite a bit. But I guess the thing that has really caught my attention here is from Jerry’s book, Not Knowing What to do Next. I can relate with that.

  What we deal with quite a bit is this motivation of churches to make a difference in their communities, but strong reluctance to actually let anyone else share control, especially residents.

Peter: That’s a great insight.

Jim: It’d be nice if we could just close all the churches and start over, but that’s not going to happen. Any other suggestions?

Peter: I think that what’s behind the giving up control is the belief that you’re right. And what you’re fighting is people’s love of certainty. And so you might think about how do you get them more comfortable with expressing doubts and reservations. When I was working, everybody wants to work with the top. Wouldn’t you like to work with the top management? And after a while I thought, “Well they’re the people with the least power to change,” except in a few cases like Jerry. So you might say, “Well where do I have support in these churches for a different way of being together that creates space for control being decentralized,” and then the top will follow.

John: Jim another way of proceeding that I’ve seen with some churches is churches are always thinking about what we can do for somebody else. And that’s where they’re starting, they have a mission and they’re going to do something. But if you can turn that around and say, why don’t we go and talk to the neighbors around this church a couple blocks and ask them what they have to offer. What they are good at, and see whether or not we can begin to see how to be a neighbor, how to be a receiver as well as a giver. And I think discovering that those people out there have something to give that’s equal to your will to give, and then you have a way of connecting in real activities rather than charitable relationships.

Jim: We’ve seen that the idea of treating people with respect has become a convicting point in churches. Thank you.

Peter: Hi Charles.

Charles: Hey Peter. Hey John. Good to see you guys. I want to say just two real quick things. Peter, I want to acknowledge what you said, “Start small and go slow.” And I want to connect that to something John started in the province of New Brunswick many years ago. He started small and went slow, but he created fertile ground.

  And I just want to read a quick quote to you from a person from the government. She said, “In the call leading up to the conference we had I began to see the shift, people realizing they can no longer blame or ask the government for everything, and that they, their families, and their communities had an important part to play. I remember one woman putting it so simply, all I need to know is that you need me.” And this was a quote from Suzanne Dupuis-Blanchard in New Brunswick in the New Brunswick Healthy Aging and Care series of dialogues that happened over a number of years. And I just want to, John, call out the ground that you tilled there and nurtured for these kinds of conversations. And I’ll post a little piece on it in the chat.

Peter: Tell this group about our Common Good Collective, because I think somebody said are we meeting, but we are doing something with John, and Walter, and Charles, and others to try upon a more consistent basis take us somewhere together.

Charles: Thank you for sharing that earlier, Peter. And we will be gathering in Chicago. I got a good chuckle out of your, “We’re not sure what we’ll be wearing yet or what exactly we’ll be talking about,” but it will be about how do we build the capacity and confidence of those of us doing this work together to learn with and from each other.

  And on that note I’ve been getting chat notes from people like Bill Sommers and Dinesh Chandra, and others who I haven’t seen or heard of in ages. And it’s like God I want to see everybody on this call because there’s a community here. And this is in part what Peter, John, Walter, and others of us are working on right now. We’re calling it Project C, Project Community for lack of a better name just yet. But it really is exploring how do we share each other’s learnings and build this community from a distance.

John: Thanks Charles.

Peter: I think we’re at our bewitching hour. Becky what do you think?

Becky: We are. And again, I want to just highlight that there have been so many comments that people have shared in the chat. And I know Leslie will do a good job of gathering those later and compiling in a way that’s meaningful for the community. So thank you Peter. Thank you John. Happy birthday John. And we look forward to seeing all of you next year on the Abundant Community webinar series that we’re going to be planning next week. So we look forward to seeing you again in 2020.

Going Further

Home page image: Thomas Leuthard

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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