Contributed by Monique Nelson
On Monday, May 5, 200 citizens gathered at the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre in Vancouver to listen to the legendary John McKnight. As per tradition, John treated us to stories about how to bake a ‘successful community cake’, how a small town received a free community centre from the Knights of Columbus, the cast of characters who made these assets possible and much, much more. In over 30 years of study and practice, John has collected 3,000 stories He prefers to call them case studies as institutions such as the universities that support his work are more accepting of that frame. Participants were riveted by John’s words which were at times whispered, seeking to take away even one key lesson from the scholar who has the knowledge to transform practice in BC.
Each story was truly impactful because it centred on identifying the unique gifts of a variety of characters in our communities – citizens who are often overlooked: the “town drunk”, the person who has been viewed as oppositional since the eighth grade, the fellow who has a bipolar disorder, a physical handicap or a developmental disability. The ability of citizens to contribute is directly linked to the perspective from which we view them. John challenged us to see these people’s gifts rather than the labels they may carry.
John advised that community can meet the needs of its citizens only when all citizens are welcomed and able to make a contribution based on their passion, gifts, or skills. This is the shift that he seeks to encourage community developers to embrace – a focus on community assets over the traditional service model of conducting needs assessments and creating services to fulfill those needs. On this topic, he added, “Needs surveys count up emptiness and misery. Community doesn’t need that.” We learned that the conditions for a successful community include its citizens volunteering to share their gifts and talents with their neighbours.
In one story, we met a woman who had lived in a rural institution all of her life – almost 60 years. Through a change in service delivery, she was suddenly moved into an urban community. The last three years of her life were spent in this new community with a family who valued her contribution as the Grandma that they had always wanted. One of his closing tales was about a trip to his native Ireland. He was in pursuit of some bait to fish in the local lake. In conversation with the shopkeeper he uncovered all that he needed was available on the path to the store – he just had to overturn the stones. The lesson is a simple one: trust in community. Community has the capacity to meet its citizens’ needs. The key ingredients are the contribution of individuals’ gifts, the mobilization of associations, the expanding circles of care within its institutions (business, government, not for profits), a defined space (land), and participation in the exchange of gifts and assets.
John McKnight, has had a profound impact on our understanding of community. In The Careless Society (1996), a seminal work, he shows how a society becomes increasingly careless as it assigns responsibility for caring to systems and institutions. Care is a free and personal gesture that cannot be replicated in professional services. He also co-founded the methodology of Asset-Based Community Development – a way discovering the natural assets in community (skills, passions, resources, spaces, etc.) and of engaging and empowering community-members to solve local challenges.