Restoring Democracy from the Neighbourhood Out

What if we shift into acting as if the community is our primary educational institution — with our schools supporting the community in this role, rather than the other way around? (Photo: Lars Strandberg)

Restoring Democracy from the Neighbourhood Out

‘I think the movement ahead is one that assumes that the limit we have is people are waiting to contribute; they just have to be asked’: John McKnight

The loss of confidence in major institutions, including government, is not a new story, but the spillover into anger and withdrawal of legitimacy from politics, particularly in some countries, may be. Democracy could be in more trouble than ever. So where does hope of restoration lie?

David Mathews, president and CEO of the U.S. research institution, the Kettering Foundation and John McKnight and Peter Block, respected thought leaders in the realm of cultivating community, talked about this in an Abundant Community broadcast earlier this week.

“Democracy is in trouble and the major institutions are in trouble and that brings us to where you, John and Peter, are — back to the community,” David said.

‘What’s Missing is the Sense That Together We Can Make a Difference’

David told a story about some neighbours who got together to paint a local school building that was badly in need of a touch-up.

The judgement was, “Well, that was nice, but that’s really not going to save the community.”

 
  David Mathews

The neighbours answered: “You don’t understand. The purpose of the project was not to get paint on the walls of the building. The purpose of the project was to demonstrate that when we got together, we could make a difference.”

That’s a missing piece in neighbourhood life today, David says — the sense that “together we can make a difference.”

But by “making a difference” do we mean advocating for the powers that be to change?

Perhaps, sometimes.

But perhaps less than we like to think.

What if the greater promise lies in citizens working with citizens to make something together for the public good?

‘The Community is Our Primary Educational Institution’

David told another story about an alternative school in Lexington, Kentucky, that teamed up with a farm for retired Kentucky Derby winners.

“The principal takes the kids to this race horse farm and they begin to teach a little history . . . throw in a little biology and zoology. Pretty soon those students that had been asleep at their desks are up and looking and learning,” David said.

 
  John McKnight

“Who would ever thought that a racehorse farm was a school? And who would have ever thought that the people running the stables could be teachers? But they are, and can be.”

What if we shift into acting as if the community is our primary educational institution — with our schools supporting the community in this role, rather than the other way around?

‘No Human Being is Absent Some Inherent Power’

Moving in this direction — citizens working with citizens to make something for the public good, and acting as if the community is our primary place of learning — begins with a certain stance, a certain outlook on our neighbourhoods and neighbours.

John has done a great service in animating that outlook in many places.

At its simplest, that outlook is this — that “no human being is absent some inherent power.”

“The exposure of gifts is the way into the kind of community that we want. It’s one of the most significant acts that we can do.” From An Other Kingdom, authored by Peter Block, John McKnight and Walter Brueggemann.

In five different neighbourhoods, local residents have begun going door to door, asking people what they have — a gift, a skill, a teachable — that they would be willing to contribute to the well-being of their neighbourhood.

 
  Peter Block

“Everybody that does this comes back in great surprise that no matter the level of income in a neighbourhood, what you can see is that most people if you ask them these questions, will give three or four answers to each of them on average,” John said.

“I think the movement ahead is one that assumes that the limit we have is people are waiting to contribute, but nobody is asking,” he added.

John and others are now considering the asking processes that begin to make visible what neighbours have to contribute, and to collectivize those interests.

Democracy is a journey, not a destination, and in some ways it will always be a struggle, David said as the conversation closed.

But what if the journey can be hope-filled and the struggle itself life-giving? Is that more possible if we see the important work to be done is to cultivate our communities so that citizens act as producers more than consumers, as agents more than clients and where citizens make things together, and gain power by making things?

To listen to the full recording of the conversation between David, John and Peter, visit the Abundant Community website.

You can comment on this story below, or e-mail michelle(at)axiomnews.com.

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Michelle Strutzenberger

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