Introducing John McKnight
By Samantha Michaels
John McKnight is an expert on communities. An Ohio native who currently lives near Chicago, he has spent decades organizing communities and researching them, primarily in the Windy City itself. In the course of his career, he mobilized neighborhoods during the civil rights movement, wrote several books about community development, created a center for urban affairs at Northwestern University, and even taught the current President a thing or two about advocacy. (Yes, it’s true: way back when, a young and eager Barack Obama interned at McKnight’s training program for community organizers in southeast Chicago). If that’s not enough, he recently co-authored a book called “The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods.”
Now, State of the Re:Union is thrilled to share some of McKnight’s insight with you. In an exciting partnership, we will feature articles from The Abundant Community. Last week, I was lucky enough to ask McKnight a few questions about his latest book, his work as a community organizer and some of his current projects.
So, what’s “The Abundant Community” all about?
Co-authored with writer and consultant Peter Block, The Abundant Community argues that neighborhoods can power their own development by tapping into the abundant resources already present within them. As McKnight and Block explain, people tend to look outside their neighborhoods when they want to improve some key aspect of their wellbeing – outsourcing their health care to specialists at big hospitals, for example, or petitioning city hall to pick up their garbage more often. America’s consumer society suggests that ordinary people in local communities cannot satisfy their needs alone, but instead must make purchases or advocate to outside organizations from a position of scarcity. Too often, we “go to institutions that operate within the economy and say we want a bigger piece – that we want our fair share of being a consumer,” said McKnight.
In their book, McKnight and Block show that there’s another way – a form of development that focuses on abundance rather than scarcity. This abundance exists right in our neighborhoods, typically in the form of untapped knowledge, and it can help us improve our health, economy, environment, food and care. For instance, although we tend to associate health with medical care and doctors, much of our physical wellbeing depends upon personal habits (eating healthy foods and exercising frequently), group activity (socializing with friends) and the environment (having access to clean air and water). “All of those things can become more common and supported in a healthful neighborhood,” said McKnight. “These [factors] are local, and they are all enhanced if people are related to each other locally.”
By connecting people and encouraging them share their knowledge about health, the economy, the environment, food or care, we can achieve wellbeing within our communities, instead of constantly seeking help outside them. “The information that people on the block are gathering is abundant and free and critical,” said McKnight.
How did McKnight conduct research for the book?
“The book grew from a half century of experience,” McKnight told me. An activist for the first half of his career, McKnight started as a neighborhood organizer in Chicago and later became the Midwest director for the United States Commission on Civil Rights. In 1969 he was invited to start a center for urban affairs at Northwestern University, where he conducted applied research. “I was trying to find out systematically what makes strong neighborhoods and what kinds of resources help them do their work,” he said.
With a colleague, McKnight established a development method called asset-based community development, which involves uncovering and utilizing strengths within a community. He later helped create a national training program where interns – including young Barack Obama – came to learn about community organizing in neighborhoods of Chicago. On his relationship with the president, McKnight explained, “[Obama] sent me a copy of his book on my birthday, but that’s the last contact I’ve had with him.” He joked, “I think [the president] is dealing with matters beyond what we’re doing now.”
What is McKnight working on today? And where are his sights set for the future?
McKnight is currently co-director of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at Northwestern University, though he travels around the country to help communities recognize their abundant resources. “I’m most involved in engaging local people to identify and start using their capacities,” he said. He encourages neighbors to visit with each other and ask each other about their gifts, skills and passions.
Going forward, McKnight wants to help people classify their development projects into three categories – those which can be executed by the community alone, those which require external assistance, and those which must be executed exclusively from the outside. He hopes to focus on improving neighborhood organizations like veterans’ and women’s associations, and he wants to see if mini-loans can help them implement better development projects.
In each of his endeavors, McKnight is seeking to strengthen communities from within. “We’re looking to be a productive community inside by establishing relationships,” he said.
State of the Re:Union will feature articles from Abundant Community‘s John McKnight and Peter Block every other Monday.