To those who say our neighborhoods are broken, there is a simple process to help awaken neighborhood power by finding out what people love to do and are willing to teach or learn.
Basically, the process is connecting individuals to individuals. It begins with you and one other neighbor deciding to take action. It continues with finding two additional local people and starting a common interest club, a local marketplace for barter exchange, a group to care for those on the margin, a health support group, or a safe neighborhood campaign. This is how associations begin.
Or, you can connect to an existing club, group, or association. Say there are six people who want to learn how to garden. Just put them together with the garden club and you broaden the association and help them become more active in creating a better neighborhood.
You can also link association to association. For example, you can ask the gardening club, "Did you know there's an environmental club here? Do you think the gardening club would meet with the environmental club to work on maintaining the neighborhood and enhancing its beauty?" Or you might connect the gardening club with people who like to cook. Or you could connect the environmental club with kids in the neighborhood who would help work on a local recycling drive.
Out of all these efforts, you will find that there are some people who enjoy meeting new people and bringing them together, and you can invite them to add people to the connections you are creating.
Here's how you can find your way into the heart of your community:
- Go with someone else.
Invite someone you know in the neighborhood who will join you; if they're already good at meeting strangers, all the better. Reawakening community power really begins with this first invitation. We might even say that the transformation has already happened the moment we ask another to join us in creating a functional neighborhood.
Ask people what they love to do. People will be flattered by your interest in their gifts. They are waiting to be asked to contribute if what you want to ask for is something they want to do, something they are interested in doing. You are going to find that it is fun and fulfilling when you talk to your neighbors about their gifts. They are waiting for you because nobody has asked before. You are contributing to the community by enabling your neighbors to give their gifts.
Rehearse the conversation with the partner you have recruited to join you. Practice what you might say as you knock on the door of a neighbor. For example, you could ask, "Is there anything you'd like to learn about? Could you tell me about the clubs or groups to which you belong?"
Don't begin by calling a meeting. Begin with meeting people door to door. It is more personal and you'll learn more. We suggest you start by talking to five people, one at a time.
After talking to five people, sit with your partner and review everything you learned about the first person you interviewed. List the possibilities you see for connecting that person's gifts and interests with other people in the neighborhood. Don't forget the young people as you do this. Do you know people with an interest in gardening? Would any of the people you interviewed like to learn about gardening? Who would teach them about gardening?
Do the same for the other four people. If no connections appear in your first five interviews, keep interviewing until a match occurs.
Decide how the two of you are going to connect your neighbors' gifts. Again, start small. Pick one of the people you interviewed. Ask yourselves, How will we introduce this neighbor we interviewed to another person or two who could usefully receive their gifts?
Discuss with your partner what you are learning about inviting others, seeking their gifts, connecting people in the neighborhood. What works?
This process enhances the neighborhood building efforts that already exist, like block parties, clean-ups, picnics. Those are social events, and now what you seek is to build deeper relationships. Your aim here is to discover people's gifts and provide a way for them be offered to their neighbors.
This process helps a neighborhood rediscover itself. It builds new connections and strengthens existing ones. It returns power to the neighborhood and reveals new possibilities for your community's future.
This post is adapted from "The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods." A version of this post appeared in Personal Excellence in May 2010.
John McKnight is author of "The Careless Society." Peter Block is founder of Designed Learning. They are co-authors of "The Abundant Community: Reawakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods" (Berrett-Koehler). Join the growing community and see other McKnight and Block posts at www.AbundantCommunity.com.