Community: The Structure of Belonging
By Peter Block
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2008
Noted anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” In Community: The Structure of Belonging, author Peter Block gives new meaning and methodology to this thought.
What is the state of “community” today? Unfortunately, in the United States (and probably elsewhere), we are stuck in “fear, fault and fragmentation.” Block argues that in order to create healthy communities we must change the context of conversations from one of problems to one of possibilities. Community is for anyone who desires to transform communities and systems, such as health care, social services, and youth programs. Block provides not only examples, but also provocative questions to guide small groups as they engage in meaningful conversations, and he skillfully draws on the expertise of scholars and practitioners who have built successful communities.
Block defines citizenship as a state of being and a choice for activism. Citizens must be willing to hold themselves accountable, must choose to exercise power rather than defer it, and must enter into a collective possibility. He provokes thinking by “inversions” that is, by shifting the causality. For example, does the boss create the subordinate, or inversely, does the subordinate create the boss? Or a good question in today’s world does the citizen create the leader?
Block’s views on commitment and accountability are discerning; his book is chock-full of crisp yet thoughtful definitions that have implications for action. For example, he writes: “Accountability is the willingness to care for the well being of the whole; commitment is the willingness to make a promise with no expectation of return.”
Leadership is about convening; it is a role that encompasses three critical tasks: shifting the context within which people gather (including physical space), providing powerful questions, and listening. Block understands that skillful questions can be more transforming than their answers, but these questions must be ambiguous, personal, and stressful for maximum impact. He provides a set of questions that can yield the makings of a community if they are posed in conversations with potential citizens. These conversations regard possibility, ownership, dissent, commitment, and gifts:
Possibility: What is the crossroads you are faced with at this point in time?
Ownership: What have you done to contribute to the very thing you complain about or want to change?
Dissent: What have you said “yes” to that you no longer really mean?
Commitment: What promises are you willing to make?
Gifts: What gratitude do you hold that has gone unexpressed?
Block challenges traditional thinking about community transformation. Provocative? Yes. Proven? Not yet. While many of his shining examples give us hope, this is not a book of evidence-based research on community transformation. For involved individuals who have witnessed his methodology at work, they see its power, but they know that it comes with risks that not all are willing to take.
Although Block focuses on community, I was left with a question: Could his ideas work in a business context? To answer this, I ask readers to think of their businesses and consider asking the above-mentioned questions. If readers are willing to have such conversations with their co-workers, then, yes, Block’s ideas are for business as well.
Full Disclosure: Author Peter Block was a guest speaker in 2008 for the Graziadio School of Business and Management’s Master of Science in Organizational Development (MSOD) program. Reviewer Ann Feyerherm is the Director of the MSOD program.