Building Better Communities

By Angus Macdonell for REAP Business Association

The word ‘community’ brings to mind different images to different people. Whatever the images in your mind, a successful community is created when the people in it relate well to one another. And a transforming community is one that focuses on abundance and celebrates generosity.

In his book Community: The Structure of Belonging (2008 Berret-Koehler), Peter Block draws together a wealth of research that unanimously suggests that a new methodology is needed to change the way people come together to discuss the issues. Changing the nature of the conversation is the key to building a better community. The stuck or “retributive community”, as Block terms it, is characterized as “a set of problems to be solved. Those who can best articulate the problems and who can best articulate the solutions dominate the conversation.”

This does not lend itself to resolving issues rather it serves to promote the singular interests of the people pushing the agenda. As a result, “the community as a whole doesn’t change, especially for those on the margin. In an individualistic culture, the social capital, the fabric of community, does not get built.”

Block offers by way of contrast the “restorative community,” one where a choice is made to “value possibility and relatedness” instead of problems and self interest. It promotes people’s willingness to connect meaningfully, and to be accountable with the promises they make to one another. The conversation changes from “How can we fix this problem?” to “What can we create together?”, which focuses on citizen’s strengths. It empowers residents to bring forth their best efforts toward creating change, and to envision community as a set of possible futures, rather than just a series of old problems.

Taking the concept a step further, Block outlines the “transforming community” that shifts the context of conversations about community building from “a place of fear and fault, law and oversight” to one of “gifts, generosity, and abundance” that encourages the development of social fabric and mutual accountability. This is the cornerstone of manifesting an associational life together, rather than the insular one many people experience in urban communities now.

Block’s ultimate message is that to build better communities, people need to work together in smaller, more clearly focused groups, holding conversations that highlight opportunities to enhance the community as a whole, and not just individual self interests. His book teaches the reader how to ask the right questions, how to create a positive space for citizens to gather to discuss them, and what can be expected along that path.

As a former Community Association President, I see immense value in the concepts Block has collated. Building better communities is not about more controls, taller fences, or more effective leadership; it’s about residents willingness to change how and what they talk about, to instil accountability amongst themselves for what happens in their communities, and to work together in creating a vision of what community should look like.

TAKE ACTION:

  1. Contact your local Community Association to learn how they approach building community, and how you can help transform yours.
  2. Visit peterblock.com for more information.
  3. Change the conversations you have with your neighbours and create a vision of community together.
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