Retelling the story of citizenship and community

As you may know, I’ve been very concerned about the growing trend in our sector to undervalue the contributions of the tiniest of the organizations and associations among us. While I know that there are many organizations of the smallest size that no longer exist or are barely scraping by, I also know that some very powerful and transformative work is happening down in those grassroots trenches … whether that work is the one-on-one mentoring from a sports coach to the community preservation advocacy of a small neighborhood association.

Community, The Structure of BelongingSo it’s great, for a change, to read a book by someone who really gets it. I’ve just finished my first read through of Peter Block‘s latest book Community, the structure of belonging and believe it is a must read for anyone who is thinking about community and social capital.

(A small confession — I’ve been a fan of Block’s since I got hooked on Stewardship while I was a grad student at Antioch New England University and then fell madly in love with The Answer to How is Yes (thanks to colleague David Rynick for recommending that one ). I’ve been asking students to read The Answer to How is Yes in the master’s class on strategic communications and organizational change that I teach at Simmons College in the spring. Students love it or hate it, but it always produces some deeper thinking on their part. )

Anyway, back to Community. This book flows from Block’s deep thinking in his previous books about the responsibility each of us carries for shaping our own world and moves this upward to the level of community.

Block’s plea in this book is for each of us to reclaim our citizenship and through our use of that power to transform our communities. Block defines citizen here as “one who is willing to be accountable for and committed to the well-being of the whole. That whole can be a city block, a community, a nation, the earth. A citizen is one who produces the future, someone who does not wait, beg or dream for the future.

There is so much to share that it’s almost impossible to do it without quoting more from the book.

Block’s principles for a “strategy for community transformation” include:

  • “The essential work is to build social fabric, both for its own sake and to enable chosen accountabilty among citizens.
  • “Strong associational life is essential and central.
  • “Citizens who use their power to convene other citizens are what create an alternative future.
  • “The small group is the unit of transformation. [emphasis added]
  • “All transformation is linguistic, which means we can think of community as essentially a conversation.”

Block defines conversation broadly, to include all that ways that we communicate with each other, “including the architecture of our buildings and public spaces, and the space we give to the arts.”

His emphasis is on the small group and associational life. He laments the pressure that small associations are under to merge, become more efficient, measure more, etc, etc. Block is concerned that “we use the language of commerce when talking about the field of generosity.”

I strongly believe that our public charities (those community or social benefit organizations that have been adversely labeled as “nonprofit”) are accountable to the greater community. Through my own work as a consultant and participant in this sector, I spend a lot of energy helping organizations figure out how to fulfill that accountability — that is, how to realize their dreams of community betterment. I want organizations to become more effective in transforming their communities (well, at least the ones whose mission I support).

My personal wrath is reserved for those organizations that willy nilly squander the gifts they have received, that foresake their commitment to seeking community betterment and to living their values. And yes, I cringe at the energy lost when nonprofits painstakingly reinvent what others have already perfected because they failed to look beyond their walls.

But I confess that I also love the messiness of this democratic experimentation, the surge of energy that erupts when citizens act as Block describes. And if that means thousands and thousands of new nonprofits, of more innovation, failure, dogged determination, advocacy at the micro-level level, then I say bring it on. I’ll take the mess and inefficiency that has led to the inspiring change I do see around me over a highly planned system that is afraid to challenge the status quo and safely reinforces inequity and powerlessness.

Read the book. Tell me what you think.


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