Wednesday, January 13, 2010

favorite lines from Peter Block's Community -- the Structure of Belonging

This book seems to apply to so many aspects of my life--family, political, work, volunteer efforts in the Agile community--Block begins the book by stating that we need to:
Transform the isolation and self-interest within our communities into connectedness and caring for the whole... by shifting our attention from the problems of community to the possibility of community
We suffer from too much individual self-improvement, and not enough connecting. We need to assume bounty, to be generous, to welcome the gifts of those around us, and find what we might build together... find what we want to create, together.
Organized professionalized systems are capable of delivering services, but only associational life is capable of delivering care.
It is care that we need... individual attention to giving what is needed, when it is needed, because we understand and value one another. Block says that just the very declaration of our desire makes it possible, for before anyone imagined it, it clearly wasn't possible that we would work on it, but now that we've stated our intention, there is a chance, that we could work on realizing this potential. Block goes on to cite some studies of Italian towns by Robert Putnam--apparently the towns that were more democratic, more economically successful, had better health, and higher levels of education, shared a common characteristic--what he called social capital. The citizens of these towns were more connected to each other. Putnam goes on to characterize different types of social capital--bonding (inward-looking) and bridging (cross-pollination), and demonstrates that the most important type of social capital for a community is bridging.

Peter Koestenbaum says that choosing to act upon our freedom makes us accountable, that freedom and accountability are intrinsically connected. In addition, he says that for those that hold power over others, the ultimate act of love is to grant their freedom.

How does Block build community? One meeting at a time--by forming small circle discussions, around a broad question, with a diverse cross-section of people. He asks us to focus on the future--not the past, not our differences, but our potential. He seeks small-scale and slow growth. We depend on people that choose to volunteer, rather than those who feel an obligation to show up (as in paid staff). Word choice is critical, because it is one of our only tools of relating--Block notes the difference between the "problems of community" vs. the "breakdown of community"--the second suggests that there is a loss worth reconciling. Personally I think this is a weak distinction, but may still be needed to complete the other tools he presents--focussing on possibility, looking forward, etc.
Block says that all acounts of the past are "Made up. Fiction." When we consider the narrator has necessarily left out some details, things that are important to other parties in the story, it can be liberating to agree. Though these stories are heartfelt, they can be both divisive and enriching... yet stories are one of the most effective tools for sharing. He invites us to find inspiring, hopeful, impressive stories about the future, that will help us transform those around us.
Block contrasts the corporate-driven marketing of fear, fault, and self-interest with that of community/associational relations. On the one hand, there is an idea that with more control, more laws, more police, a better economy, better press coverage, better leaders, that things would go better. On the other hand, Block advocates using our own power to be the change we wish to see in the world. When we look at what is in our own power, we can have a much greater effect than any paid service. When we choose to integrate with those around us, rather than to be insular and worry about our own survival, we increase social capital and restore community. When we restore the community, people are willing to make promises to one another, to help each other, and to be generous.
Why is it easier to raise money for earthquake survivors thousands of miles away than for the people living six blocks away that are having a hard time paying rent or keeping food on the table? Block says this is partially a result of projections--taking attributes that we deny of ourselves, and placing them on other people, e.g., laziness. What happens is we divide our local community, and lose out on the possibilities that come when we care for the well-being of the whole.
When we hear complaints of "why so few people are involved in the community", or hear people talking about "entitlement", it is time to invert the signs of despair. First, ask if there's something we're doing that is excluding some of the community. Then remember that true commitment is a gift, and can never be enforced from the outside (so no one is entitled to anything). When we have a true restorative community, people are not asking "what's in it for me"--they're giving freely. People have been summoned over and over to be part of focus groups, and then wait for the "professionals" to execute the plan. Instead we need to use these meetings as a way to engage citizens to carry out the plan themselves. In addition, the discussion needs to move away from problem solving, as that is often too mired in what exists now; for true innovation we need open-ended creativity, inspired by the right questions.
Block redefines leadership--it is convening, asking the right questions, and listening. What is interesting to note is this relational leadership cannot be measured in the ways that retributional/hierarchical leadership is used to. Action may simply be discussion and connection, not necessarily a change in physical state or status of "the problem". In fact, people may find a possibility they hadn't considered before, rendering the problem irrelevant, while commiting themselves to a new way of being that supports the whole community.
How do we build community? We find out what creates energy. We provide a forum for small group discussion, which values relatedness, is launched by invitation, is focused on possibility, represents ownership by the participants, supports diversity and dissent, expects no bartering for freely given commitments, and these gifts are received with thanks. These meetings revolve around the leader's questions... a powerful question incites action by the mere fact of answering it, like, for example:
  • "what is the price you pay for being here today?"
  • "what are the gifts you have to offer that you've not yet brought into this world?"
  • "what is the story that you keep telling about the problems of this community?"
Before asking the question, however, one must name what distinguishes this from a retributive context, give permission for dissent, and replace advice with curiosity.

Here are a few more great lines/ideas that I don't think really need comment:
  • "Advice is a conversation stopper!" "Don't be helpful!"
  • "Real transformation comes only through choice." A leader becomes vulnerable when using the invitation to start out these discussions; "even though there is no cost for refusal, there is a price for coming. Everything that has value has a price."
  • "The enemy of commitment is lip service, not opposition"
  • "Without doubt, our faith has no meaning"... "there is no way to be awake in this world without serious doubts and reservations"
  • "Don't ever underestimate the determination of others to hold on to their stories"
  • Block doesn't like protest--"every time we act in reaction, even to evil, we are giving power to what we are in reaction to".
  • "our life work is to bring our gifts into the world"
  • For snacks at meetings, Block asks us to provide locally grown food that is healthy.

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