For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘Peter Block

Community: The Structure of Belonging by Peter Block, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, 2008, 240 pp.

block_communityThis 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.

 

 

 

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The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods by John McKnight and Peter Block, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, 2010, 173 pp.

Abundant CommunityI have been feeling a great sense of discontent in recent years about the engagement of churches in traditional mission endeavors. My own congregation houses a thriving community meal, which has served 75-100 people every Saturday for more than 20 years. It’s important to those who come for food, and even more important to those in our congregation and many others who find a venue there for Christian service. However, I wonder exactly what we are doing. Are we actually ending hunger in our community, or are we making it easier for the community to allow poverty to persist? Are we enabling forces of poor wages, corporate greed and negligent government to stand unchecked by softening the consequences of their action? Feeding people who are hungry feels like a basic good, something that ought to be clean and true and good. But are we ending hunger, or just perpetuating it? Especially because it makes us feel so good to be a part of it?

This book is the first of a series I am reading to help address this topic. I have a background in congregation-based community organizing, and read Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton last year to begin to address these issues. This book, along with several upcoming, will continue that conversation.

The Abundant Community draws a sharp contrast between consumerism and citizenship, and the kinds of community that are possible within each conception of human life and connection. In the introductory chapter, beautifully titled “Welcome,” McKnight and Block draw the distinction.

Our culture tells us that a satisfying life can only be purchased. It tells us that in the place where we live, we don’t have the resources to create a good life. That we must find the expertise from marketers and professionals. This book reminds us that a neighborhood can raise a child, provide security, sustain our health, secure our income, and care for our vulnerable people. Each of these is within the power of our community. (xiii)

We have replaced the functions of family and neighborhood–caring for children and vulnerable people, providing security and income, sustaining health–with marketable goods, which has diminished the meaning of family and neighborhood while leaving us ultimately dissatisfied by the market’s inability to adequately provide what we seek (and have always found) in community. The first two chapters outline in detail the difference between consumerist attempts to provide those goods and community ones, and the history of how we moved from one to the other in the last century. The market mentality builds impersonal systems, with predictable ways to meet stated needs. However, those systems are predicated on perpetual need, commodified responses and predictable outcomes—none of which are capable of giving us the true intimacy, community and care we desire. The market relies on this ongoing dissatisfaction to ensure our continued engagement as consumers. Systems are designed to produce cures, but the human condition is not a problem to be solved. (38) McKnight and Block point to examples from education, law enforcement, grief care and health care to demonstrate how our consumer model of dealing with these concerns fails repeatedly, when a community approach could succeed.

One interesting observation they make is around privacy, professionalization and its impact on community.

This privacy is the enemy of community because it takes the personal away. It hides and removes our secrets from relationship building among families and neighbors. Secrets are the raw materials for good community. … Making secrets private also deprives the community of the capacity to deal with troubles. … (40)

Instead of dealing with problems together as a community, they argue, we send away everyone with a problem to a professional, which diminishes the community’s capacity to deal with problems.

The capacity has atrophied in the community. You do know what to do about it, but the professionalization of care has made you feel that you don’t. (40)

The third chapter enumerates the true costs of living in a consumer world–to the environment, to our sense of self worth, to relationships in the family and neighborhood, to the possibility of satisfaction. Because we have ceded so many responsibilities to the marketplace, neighborhoods, families and communities have become incompetent to deal with them. We must rebuild capable communities in order to reclaim those responsibilities.

One interesting observation throughout the book is the way that the consumer way strangles personality and individuality. The authors write, “A community is a place where you can be yourself. The institution causes me to lose myself–to be replaceable or to be called a ‘case.'” (55) I wonder at churches in this assessment. One of the best, most beautiful things about some churches is the way quirky people can find a way to serve and love and care for one another in true community. Yet sometimes, we in those quirky churches full of quirky people wish we could be more like the big, institutional, well-resourced churches who didn’t have to mess around with such troublesome uniqueness. Perhaps that instead is our greatest gift. The authors instead suggest that valuing idiosyncracy is key to community. The people in communities are not replicable–it’s Dr. Jack, the church usher that always carries Lifesavers in his pocket for the kids; it’s Horace’s unique artistry that graces the sanctuary; it’s Norma’s special brand of prayer and friendship. These things are unique and cannot persist beyond their lifetime, and that’s what makes the community.

The second half of the book points toward strategies for reclaiming community over consumerism and rebuilding competent communities. McKnight and Block name the abundance already present in communities–the collection of gifts, skills and competencies shared by any group of people. We must organize to help people share their unique gifts, rather than depend on impersonal systems.

A community based on scarcity, dependent on systems, with citizens competing and living in isolation from one another, threatens democracy. That is why consumerism threatens democracy. Because it is organized around scarcity and dependency by design. (110)

The way out of incompetent communities and consumerism is to claim our abundance, celebrate unique gifts, and decide to be satisfied with what we have.

There is much wisdom for pastors and churches in this book, and much to consider on my original question about church mission projects. Does our community meal foster community? Does it identify gifts and abundance? How can we do better?

 


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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