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Peter Block and John McKnight

Peter Block and John McKnight

Today I had the pleasure of being part of a discussion group with John McKnight of the Asset-Based Community Development fame.  He and Peter Block (one of my favorite authors) have just come out with a new book, The Abundant Community.  (note: the book just came out so I have not read it yet but plan to do so as soon as I’m done with school reading)

McKnight focused much of the conversation on the importance of associations for democracy and strong communities.  In this context he is referring to groups of people (usually neighbors) who get together to identify the issues in their communities, figure out how to solve community problems, and organize the community to implement those solutions.  McKnight argues that associations are one of the defining features of the US and were identified as such as far back as Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.  Robert Putnam, in his book, Bowling Alone, brought to light the fact that associational life as we have known it for centuries in the US is on the decline (and has been since the 1960s).

With McKnight and Block’s new book they hope to demonstrate that associations are not just nice to haves, but are essential to a community’s core functions.  They outline six areas in which associational life is key to community health:

  1. Personal wellness – 90% of an individuals health is based on life factors, including their connections to their family and neighbors.
  2. Safety – community policing and National Night Out are just a couple of examples of the role neighbors play in safe neighborhoods.
  3. Economy – the majority of jobs are related to local businesses
  4. Environment – the decisions we make at a local level are key in grassroots change
  5. Food – McKnight cited the importance of local grown food
  6. Children – it takes a village to raise a child

I appreciated McKnight’s key arguments, but it left me wondering about the difference between networks and associations.  One of McKnight’s arguments for associations is that institutions have reached the limits of what they can do for us.  This is the same argument that I hear Beth Kanter and Allison Fine making in the Networked Nonprofit.  It seems like everywhere I turn these days I am reading about how powerful social change and social movements happen through networks.  I don’t hear the word association used at all.  Are networks the same as associations?  If not, why not?

The way that I live my life as member of the millennial generation, I live it through networks.  Using social media, I keep in contact with people that I have met throughout my life.  If I switch jobs, move to a new city, or just have a question about how to do something, I turn to my network.  I reinforce my relationships with people through face to face interaction, but the online networks like Facebook and LinkedIn make it possible to maintain those connections between face to face gatherings.  I may join an association for a short period of time, but with my greater need for flexibility and my penchant for moving regularly, I am less likely to invest time and make a commitment to an association.  When I speak to the interservice club council and others like them, they are very frustrated by young people like myself who are not joining local associations.  The advice that I and others have given these groups is to be more like a network.

So now we get back to the question from my recent post about free agents, How does the connection someone has with their online networks affect their relationship to local in person networks?

Or to put it another way, are networks and the free agents that thrive in them the answer to Robert Putnam’s concerns about the unraveling of associational life?  If not, what are we missing and how can we build those features into a way of connecting with one another that embraces both the best of the social web as well as lessons from centuries of voluntary associations?

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cover of "Helping" bookI consider myself to be a helpful person. In my professional work I am in a service job within the volunteer field, which is all about helping.  I am always asked for and offering advice.

How much do I really understand about the dynamics of helping?

Although I was socialized to be helpful from the time I was very small, I do not ever remember a formal lesson in giving or receiving help.  This is why I chose to read Edgar Schein’s book, Helping, for a recent assignment for ODKM.

Schein identifies two different frames in which to understand the helping relationship:  theater and economics.

By thinking of helping in terms of economics, Schein highlights two very important principles: communication is a reciprocal process that must at least seem to be fair and equitable, and relationships are based on scripted roles that are culturally defined.  The second principle is the one that I had thought about before reading this book.  From an early age we are taught to be an equitable member of society giving and receiving help: holding the door for others, saying please and thank you, asking for what we need in a polite and scripted way.  However, I was also aware of complications of the first principle, that communication should be fair and equitable.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, unfolds the communication that happens in a doctor’s office between two different families.  In one family, the child is prepped before his doctor’s visit and encouraged to ask the doctor questions about the diagnosis.  The child’s parents are leveling the playing field between the doctor and the child by encouraging the child to take an active role has the patient.  In the other family, the cultural and family norms dictate that the child shows deference to the doctor and does not speak unless directly asked a question.  The child accepts his “one down” position in the doctor’s office.  Unless the Doctor makes an effort to make the situation more equitable by starting in a humble inquiry mode (asking simple open ended questions), he may not be as successful in helping the child because he will not be able to understand the child’s symptoms and what problems actually need to be addressed.

There is a lot of attention to the first principle in the social work field as well.  I have worked within a County government human services department for the last four years.  Even though I am not a social worker, I have observed the practice of social work and have been exposed to different approaches.  One newer approach is called Asset-Based Community Development.  This approach intends to restore face to community members who have been labeled as being in need of help.  Schein’s analysis of the social economics at play in helping relationships reinforced my belief that an asset approach is the best one for building relationships and ultimately for solving community problems.  From this approach, you see the client as someone who has value and is in need of help to bring that value to light.

One of the peculiarities of my line of work which came to light in reading this book is the confusion over offering help and asking for help.  Since I work at a volunteer center, it is my job to respond to email in which someone is both offering to help and also is asking for help.  Basically, it is our role to help people figure out how they can help.  Sometimes when a potential volunteer emails us, they are emailing in the mindset that they are offering help.  Since we are in the business of helping potential volunteers become volunteers, our response is often that we can not use their help, but can help them find a place where they can help.  I think it would be interesting to look carefully at the language that is used in negotiating this dynamic.

How have you seen the social dynamics of helping play out?

What aspect of the helping relationship could volunteers and volunteer managers better understand to improve their working relationship?

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