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The Structure of Belonging

Peter Block

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eBook - ePub


The Structure of Belonging

Peter Block

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About This Book

Most of our communities are fragmented and at odds within themselves. Businesses, social services, education, and health care each live within their own worlds. The same is true of individual citizens, who long for connection but end up marginalized, their gifts overlooked, their potential contributions lost. What keeps this from changing is that we are trapped in an old and tired conversation about who we are. If this narrative does not shift, we will never truly create a common future and work toward it together.What Peter Block provides in this inspiring new book is an exploration of the exact way community can emerge from fragmentation. How is community built? How does the transformation occur? What fundamental shifts are involved? What can individuals and formal leaders do to create a place they want to inhabit? We know what healthy communities look like—there are many success stories out there. The challenge is how to create one in our own place.Block helps us see how we can change the existing context of community from one of deficiencies, interests, and entitlement to one of possibility, generosity, and gifts. Questions are more important than answers in this effort, which means leadership is not a matter of style or vision but is about getting the right people together in the right way: convening is a more critical skill than commanding. As he explores the nature of community and the dynamics of transformation, Block outlines six kinds of conversation that will create communal accountability and commitment and describes how we can design physical spaces and structures that will themselves foster a sense of belonging.In Community, Peter Block explores a way of thinking about our places that creates an opening for authentic communities to exist and details what each of us can do to make that happen.

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The Fabric of Community

The social fabric of community is formed from an expanding shared sense of belonging. It is shaped by the idea that only when we are connected and care for the well-being of the whole that a civil and democratic society is created. It is like the Bodhisattva belief that not one of us can enter Nirvana until all others have gone before us.
What makes community building so complex is that it occurs in an infinite number of small steps, sometimes in quiet moments that we notice out of the corner of our eye. It calls for us to treat as important many things that we thought were incidental. An afterthought becomes the point; a comment made in passing defines who we are more than all that came before. If the artist is one who captures the nuance of experience, then this is whom each of us must become. The need to see through the eyes of the artist reflects the intimate nature of community, even if it is occurring among large groups of people.
The key to creating or transforming community, then, is to see the power in the small but important elements of being with others. The shift we seek needs to be embodied in each invitation we make, each relationship we encounter, and each meeting we attend. For at the most operational and practical level, after all the thinking about policy, strategy, mission, and milestones, it gets down to this: How are we going to be when we gather together?
What this means is that theory devolves down to these everyday questions out of which community is actually lived: Whom do I choose to invite into the room? What is the conversation that I both become and engage in with those people? And when there are more than two of us together at the same time, how do we create a communal structure that moves the action forward?
It is in these kinds of questions that accountability is chosen and care for the well-being of the whole is embodied. Individual transformation is not the point; weaving and strengthening the fabric of community is a collective effort and starts from a shift in our mindset about our connectedness.


Insights into Transformation

Social fabric is created one room at a time. It is formed from small steps that ask “Who do we want in the room?” and “What is the new conversation that we want to occur?” In community building, we choose the people and the conversation that will produce the accountability to build relatedness, structure belonging, and move the action forward.
A series of core insights informs us how to answer these questions. These insights include ideas on focusing on gifts, on associational life, and on the way all transformation occurs through language. Also critical are insights about the context that governs the conversations and the willingness to speak into the future.
Two additional strands in the fabric of community explored here are the need for each small step to capture a quality of aliveness and the need for it to evolve in an organic way. There is an established method for accomplishing this aliveness that values all voices in the room, uses the small group even in large gatherings, and recognizes that accountability grows out of the act of cocreation. The essence of creating an alternative future comes from citizen-to-citizen engagement that focuses at each step on the well-being of the whole.
• • •
Major influences on the belief system underlying this methodology of communal transformation come from several disciplines and people whose work has been radical in many ways; their insights are foundational for our purposes. There are many others who inform us and are mentioned in this book, but these five touch the core: John McKnight, Werner Erhard, Robert Putnam, Christopher Alexander, and PeterKoestenbaum. The sixth collection of insights is from a group of wizards who have given life to large group methodologies—some of whom are Marvin Weisbord, Kathie Dannemiller, Dick and Emily Axelrod, Carolyn Lukensmeyer, Barbara Bunker, Billie Alban, and Juanita Brown.
There are two more people whose insights are important to understanding how the world changes. One is David Bornstein. His book How to Change the World analyzes nine social entrepreneurs who created large social movements around the globe. David’s summary of why they were successful is worth our attention. Finally, I too briefly include the thinking of Allan Cohen. He translates the world of emergence and complex adaptive systems into language that once in a while I begin to think I understand.
I chose all of these people because I personally know most of them and they are the ones who have shaken my own thinking; their ideas have, for me, endured the test of time and experience.
What follows is a summary of the aspects of these people’s work that are useful to this enterprise. I’ll summarize their insights briefly and then weave them throughout the rest of the book.

The McKnight Insights: Gifts, Associational Life, and Power

John McKnight is a leading light in the world of understanding the nature of community and what builds it. Three of his insights have permanently changed my thinking.
Focus on gifts. First and foremost, he asserts that community is built by focusing on people’s gifts rather than their deficiencies. In the world of community and volunteerism, deficiencies have no market value; gifts are the point. Citizens in community want to know what you can do, not what you can’t do.
In the professional world of service providers, whole industries have been built on people’s deficiencies. Social service and most of medicine, therapy, and psychology are organized around what is missing or broken in people.
McKnight points out that if you go to a professional service provider and say you have no deficiencies or problems, that you just want to talk about your gifts and talents, you will be shown the door and treated as though you are wasting their time. Go to an association, or a group of neighbors, and tell them what your capabilities are, and they get quite interested.
This insight is profound if taken seriously, for it eliminates most of the conversations we now have about problem diagnosis, gap analysis (if you do not know what this is, be grateful), weaknesses, and what’s wrong with me, you, and the rest of the world. It also underscores the limitation of labeling people. McKnight knows that the act of labeling, itself, is what diminishes the capacity of people to fulfill their potential. If we care about transformation, then we will stay focused on gifts, to such an extent that our work becomes to simply bring the gifts of those on the margin into the center.
John’s focus on gifts has led to his founding a worldwide movement called Asset-Based Community Development. Simply put, this movement declares that if we want to make communities stronger, we should study their assets, resources, and talents. It is in the attention to these things that something new can occur.
Associational life. The second insight that is relevant here is about the limitations of systems. John sees a system as an organized group of funded and well-resourced professionals who operate in the domain of cases, clients, and services. As soon as you professionalize care, you have produced an oxymoron. He says that systems are capable of service but not care. Talk to any poor person or vulnerable person and they can give you a long list of the services they have received. They are well serviced, but you often have to ask what in their life has fundamentally changed.
The alternative to a “system” is what John calls “associational life”: groups of people voluntarily coming together to do some good. In the disabilities world, John’s work has been enthusiastically received. This has led to a widespread effort to take people with visible disabilities out of institutions and systems and bring them back into neighborhoods. Support groups are created, slowly, voluntarily, with a lot of phone calls and requests, so that ordinary citizens come together to support their new neighbors. This strategy brings generosity back into a neighborhood, and in the doing, citizens whose disabilities are hidden (all of us) experience a transformation in their own lives.
Power in our hands. The third insight for community building is John’s faith in citizens to identify and solve problems for themselves. He finds that most sustainable improvements in community occur when citizens discover their own power to act. Whatever the symptom—drugs, deteriorating houses, poor economy, displacement, violence—it is when citizens stop waiting for professionals or elected leadership to do something, and decide they can reclaim what they have delegated to others, that things really happen. This act of power is present in most stories of lasting community improvement and change.
To summarize these insights from the work of John McKnight and his partner, Jody Kretzmann: Communities are built from the assets and gifts of their citizens, not from the citizens’ needs or deficiencies. Organized, professionalized systems are capable of delivering services, but only associational life is capable of delivering care. Sustainable transformation is constructed in those places where citizens choose to come together to produce a desired future.

The Erhard Insights: The Power of Language, Context, and Possibility

For over 30 years, Werner Erhard has created thinking and learning experiences that have affected millions of people’s lives. Many of the ideas he has worked with derive from the work of others, but Werner has named and integrated them into something more powerful than where the thinking began. His work lives through the Landmark Corporation and other licensees. What I want to select from his work here is a small part of his legacy, but these are the ideas that have changed my practice.
The power of language. Werner understands the primal creative nature of language. Many of us have focused for years on improving conversations. We have known that dialogue and communication are important tools for improvement. Werner takes it to a whole new realm by asserting that all transformation is linguistic.
He believes that a shift in speaking and listening is the essence of transformation. If we have any desire to create an alternative future, it is only going to happen through a shift in our language. If we want a change in culture, for example, the work is to change the conversation—or, more precisely, to have a conversation that we have not had before, one that has the power to create something new in the world. This insight forces us to question the value of our stories, the positions we take, our love of the past, and our way of being in the world.
The power of context. Another insight is in the statement, “The context is decisive.” This means that the way we function is powerfully impacted by our worldview, or the way, in his language, “the world shows up for us.” Nothing in our doing or the way we go through life will shift until we can question, and then choose once again, the basic set of beliefs—some call it mental models; we’re calling it context here—that lie behind our actions. Quoting Werner, “Contexts are constituted in language, so we do have something to say about the contexts that limit and shape our actions.”
Implied in this insight is that we have a choice over the context within which we live. Plus, as an added bargain, we can choose a context that better suits who we are now without the usual requirements of years of inner work, a life-threatening crisis, finding a new relationship, or going back to school (the most common transformational technologies of choice).
The way this happens (made too simple here) is by changing our relationship with our past. We do this by realizing, through a process of reflection and rethinking, how we have not completed our past and unintentionally keep bringing it into the future. The shift happens when we pay close attention to the constraints of our listening and accept the fact that our stories are our limitation. This ultimately creates an opening for a new future to occur.
The power of possibility. Changing our relationships with our past leads to another aspect of language that Werner has carefully developed. This is an understanding of the potential in the concept and use of possibility. Possibility as used here is distinguished from other words like vision, goals, purpose, and destiny. Each of those has its own profound meaning, but all are different from the way Werner uses the word possibility. Possibility, here, is a declaration, a declaration of what we create in the world each time we show up. It is a condition, or value, that we want to occur in the world, such as peace, inclusion, relatedness, reconciliation. A possibility is brought into being in the act of declaring it.
For example, peace may not reign at this moment, but the possibility of peace does enter the room just because we have walked in the door. Peace here is a future not dependent on achievement; it is a possibility. The possibility is created by our declaration, and then, thankfully, it begins to work on us. The breakthrough is that we become that possibility, and this is what is transforming. The catch is that possibility can work on us only when we have come to terms with our story. Whatever we hold as our story, which is our version of the past, and from which we take our identity, becomes the limitation to living into a new possibility.
Werner has described this with more precision in recent personal correspondence:
I suggest that you consider making it clear that it is the future that one lives into that shapes one’s being and action in the present. And, the reason that it appears that it is the past that shapes one’s being and action in the present is that for most people the past lives in (shapes) their view of the future.
. . . it’s only by completing the past (being complete with the past) such that it no longer shapes one’s being and action in the present that there is room to create a new future (one not shaped by the past—a future that wasn’t going to happen anyhow). Futures not shaped by the past (i.e., a future that wasn’t going to happen anyhow) are constituted in language.
In summary, (1) one gets complete with the past, which takes it out of the future (being complete with the past is not to forget the past); (2) in the room that is now available in the future when one’s being and action are no longer shaped by the past, one creates a future (a future that moves, touches, and inspires one); (3) that future starts to shape one’s being and actions in the present so that they are consistent with realizing that future.
Werner Erhard’s way of thinking about language, context, and possibility are key elements in any thinking about authentic transformation. As with the other insights here, they are about a way of being in the world first, and then they can be embodied in concrete actions.

The Putnam Insights: Social Capital and the Well-Being of Community

Robert Putnam wrote Bowling Alone and amplified the conversation about the role that social capital plays in building community. As one part of his extensive research, he studied a fair number of Italian towns and tried to understand why some were more democratic, were more economically successful, had better health, and experienced better education achievement.
His findings were startling, for he discovered that the one thing that distinguished the more successful from the less successful towns was the extent of social capital, or widespread relatedness that existed among its citizens. Success as a town was not dependent on the town’s geography, history, economic base, cultural inheritance, or financial resources.
Putnam shows how we have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and our democratic structures—and how we may reconnect. He warns that our stock of social capital—the very fabric of our connections with each other—has plummeted, impoverishing our lives and communities.
Geography, history, great leadership, fine programs, economic advantage, and any other factors that we traditionally use to explain success made a marginal difference in the health of a community. Community well-being simply had to do with the quality of the relationships, the cohesion that exists among its citizens. He calls this social capital.
In the book Better Together, Putnam and coauthor Lewis M. Feldstein explain that “social capitalrefers to social networks, norms of reciprocity, mutual assistance, and trustworthiness. The central insight of this approach is that social networks have real value both for the people in those networks . . . as well as for bystanders. Criminologists, for instance, have shown that the crime rate in a neighborhood is lowered when neighbors know one another well, benefiting even residents who are not themselves involved in neighborhood activities.”
They go on to distinguish between “bonding” and “bridging” social capital. Bonding social capital are networks that are inward looking, composed of people of like mind. Other social networks “encompass different types of people and tend to be outward looking—bridging social capital.” It is primarily the bridging social capital that we are interested in here. As Putnam and Feldstein put it: “[A] society that has onlybonding social capital will . . . [be] segregated into mutually hostile camps. So a pluralistic democracy requires lots of bridging social capital, not just the bonding variety.”

The Alexander Insights: Aliveness, Wholeness, and Unfolding

Christopher Alexander speaks from the world of architecture, but his thinking applies equally well to the creation of community. He grieves o...

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