Book Review: Community
Posted November 24, 2015on:
Community: The Structure of Belonging by Peter Block, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, 2008, 240 pp.
This book is the more technical, less practical prequel to The Abundant Community. Most people who write about community are touchy-feely types who want to share stories, espouse big ideas, and inspire mutual affection. Not Peter Block. Block writes like an engineer, drawing a blue print for load-bearing walls and structural soundness for communities. He writes like a pathologist, dissecting the body of a community to determine sources of health and sickness, identifying the systems and structures that bring it to life. This analytical approach is novel and insightful, if a bit dry at times. Peter Block is clearly passionate about the importance of communities, and this book is a call to action in the work of building stronger, more integrated neighborhoods and communities.
After an introduction and a literature review, Block states the imperative for building community in an age of increased isolation. He then gives his first insight into what creates community–one that holds up for me in my lived experience.
Community building requires that we engage in new conversation, one that we have not had before, one that can create an experience of aliveness and belonging. It is the act of engaging citizens in a new conversation that allows us to act in concert with and actually creates the conditions for a new context. …
We must begin by naming the existing context and evolving to a way of thinking that leads to new conversations that produce a new context. It is the shift in conversation that increases social capital. Every time we gather becomes a model of the future we want to create. (32)
I could not agree more. When I work with a group or committee, the most difficult aspect is to change the conversation to something that creates new energy and opportunity, rather than rehearsing old patterns. And–even more–we have to model that future in every small way when we gather, from the arrangement of the room to the role of leaders to the nature of the questions.
Block then names common but ineffective strategies to move beyond stuck or stagnant community: seeing people as problems, believing that increased laws or oversight will fix problems, waiting for a stronger leader, and undervaluing associational life. By contrast, Block describes a “restorative community,” one with the power to act and engage, the power to hold one another accountable and create a new future together. Restorative communities are not about entitlement, and they do not expect others to fix our problems for us.
Block, following his future collaborator McKnight, addresses the problem and isolation caused by current social services systems, and the way they destabilize community.
To continue, as a community, to focus on the needs and deficiencies of the most vulnerable is not an act of hospitality. It substitutes labeling for welcoming. It is isolating in that they become a special category of people, defined by what they cannot do. This isolates the most vulnerable. Despite our care for them, we do not welcome them into our midst, we service them. They become objects. (58-59)
By contrast, what Block identifies as the “transforming community” as the one capable of changing individual lives and the community. Transforming communities “focus on the structure of how we gather and the context in which the gathering takes place, working hard on getting the questions right, and depth over speed and relatedness over scale.” (73) When I was involved in both community organizing and church revitalization, this proved the right strategy and focus for building transforming communities. Block’s next several chapters address the important elements of building transforming communities: leaders are conveners, small groups are the units of transformation, questions are more important than answers, six conversations materialize belonging (each gets its own chapter: invitation, possibility, ownership, dissent, commitment, gifts), hospitality and welcoming strangers is central, physical and social space support belonging.
Block’s concluding chapter argues that creating these kinds of structures of belonging in transforming communities can eliminate unnecessary suffering, which is often caused by isolation. He especially identifies youth, health care, social services, local economies and public safety as areas that could be dramatically changed and improved by the presence of transforming communities. The book then adds an extensive overview of its contents, and a lengthy lists of organizations and individuals that are role models for this process.
Block’s book is a helpful contribution for those of us doing the work of community building. His analysis felt to me like taking someone who cooks freestyle, and measuring and recording everything they do to concoct a recipe for others. I’m not sure anyone could create community experience simply by following the recipe, nor does any recipe for a complex dish adequately convey every nuance. Yet, it’s helpful, and even insightful for those of us always tossing things together to make sure we’re not leaving anything out. I’m not sure how helpful it would be to someone not already actively, thoughtfully engaged in community building efforts.