John McKnight at Community: Programs and Policies 2014

Submitted by lgemmel on July 16, 2014 - 10:38pm
Popular creator of Asset-Based Community Development is still a player


Paul Born introduced John McKnight at the recent Community: Programs and Policies gathering in Kitchener, Ontario as “The most famous community developer in the world."

Well known as the creator of Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD), McKnight’s career spans more than 60 years and he is the author and co-author of three significant books: Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Identifying and Mobilizing a Community’s Assets (1993 with Jody Kretzmann), The Careless Society: Community and its Counterfeits (1995), and The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods (2010 with Peter Block).  

I first saw John McKnight at a United Way national conference in Hamilton, Ontario in 1995, and have always remembered his compelling message to those who want to help communities: Focus on assets and not deficits, and engage communities directly and intimately in determining and creating their own futures.  Through his inimitable story-telling style, McKnight presented a vivid and compelling case for fundamentally changing the structure and approach to social services which has stayed with me over the years.  Building Communities from the Inside Out has become the “bible” of asset-based community development   

McKnight took his critique of a professionalized and institutionalized public service much deeper in The Careless Society, describing “how competent communities have been invaded, captured, and colonized by professionalized services” with devastating results by what he calls “counterfeiting” in the fields of health, human services, and the justice system.  This is an enormous challenge to those of us who have been paid to do this kind of work, but to his credit McKnight always makes his points clearly with a quiet and thoughtful approach that few take offense to.  The book was apparently inspired by a three part CBC Ideas show that John did in January 1994 called “Community and its Counterfeits”.  

In The Abundant Community McKnight and co-author Peter Block describe in considerable detail the negative effects of consumerism on society and then present a choice to live a more satisfying life and to harvest the abundance that they feel is ever present in communities.  While both are critical of many elements of contemporary society, both remain optimistic and hopeful that there is a better way by energizing the power of community.   

In his keynote presentation to kick off the Community: Programs and Policies event on 23 June, 2014, facilitated as an interview by Al Etmanski, McKnight described growing up during the depression:  “I was born in 1931, the depression was going full scale at that time, and we lived in a lower income neighbourhood in Cincinnati.”  He describes how at that time a lot of families from the Appalachian region were moving northward to the cities in search of work, but his mother warned him not to associate too much with these “hillbillies” as they were then known. 

However, when their Appalachian neighbour lost his job, John’s mother went straight next door and told them she would cook dinner for the family until the man found new employment.  She did this for four years, and John’s father, who was fortunate to have a job and owned a car, would drive people to appointments in the city.  “New deal relief didn’t start until 1935, so people helped each other”, explained McKnight.  John later asked his mother “Why did you take dinner over to the house next door for four years when you don’t like ‘hillbillies’?”  “They were our neighbours” was her simple reply.  

It was obvious that growing up in a series of small communities in Ohio during the depression had a huge impact on John McKnight’s thinking, and the idea of progressive social policies to support community was further engrained when he attended Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.  Inspired by Saul Alinsky’s Reveille for Radicals (1946), McKnight quickly gravitated to the new field of community organizing in Chicago and started to make a name for himself. 

When President Kennedy was elected, John was recruited to work with the newly formed “Affirmative Action” program.  “It was a huge learning for me about government, working intensively for 3 years to stop discrimination in any activity associated with government.”  It’s all about democracy for McKnight: “It occurred to me 20 years later that Hitler probably had a bureau in his government to do the opposite. Governments are amoral – not immoral, but they lack moral imperatives. We need to influence them to be moral.” 

McKnight continued to work for the federal government under the Johnson administration, serving as the Midwest Director of the United States Civil Rights Commission, where he worked with the civil rights movement through the last half of the 1960s.  Returning to teach at Northwestern, John embarked on research focused on social service delivery systems, health policy, community organizations, neighbourhoods, and integration.  It was a national study on neighbourhood initiatives with long-time colleague Jody Kretzmann that resulted in the concept of Asset-Based Community Development and the eventual creation of the ABCD Institute that John and Jody continue to co-direct.  By the way, Barack Obama was a student of John’s during his Chicago organizing days and Michelle Obama continues to serve as an ABCD faculty member. 

Asked about his work in Canada, John reported that he has spent more of his practice here than in the US: “At the local level, there is a stronger level of cooperation.  A kind of egalitarian humility, a lack of arrogance. People in Canada have more of a belief that things can be done.”  He related several times throughout the event how much he enjoyed being here and interacting with the group because he was continually “harvesting new stories." 

McKnight continues to focus on the key issue for him: While institutions have tremendous power and resources in our society, we can’t trust them to solve problems.  “We need to look to community” he reiterated, or as Margaret Wheatley has said, “Whatever the problem, community is the answer.”  McKnight suggested that there is an increasing awareness of this dilemma in institutions and is encouraging the work of what he calls “Gappers” – people who work in the “gap” between institutions and communities.

In response to Al Etmanski’s final question “What advice would you suggest to young people?”, McKnight suggested: “Can you be the connector in your neighbourhood?” 

John acknowledged that we can often be overwhelmed by the scale of the problems.  “When I was involved in race relations, we were doing a lot of little things that didn’t seem to be making a difference, but people were doing these things all over America.  All the little things got connected, and all of a sudden, we had the civil rights movement, and everything came together."   He cited the example of Betty Friedan writing the book The Feminine Mystique, which is often credited as the force behind the second wave of the women’s movement in the 1960’s, as well as the way that the environmental movement took off in the ‘70’s. 

“Never fear, you will make a difference”.


You can view an interview with John McKnight from the event on Tamarack’s YouTube channel:

A gift

Thanks again, Larry, for sharing the insights and stories John shared with us at the gathering.

It was amazing to have John join us for the entire event- to have him share during the plenary session and workshops, but then also spend time with participants during the week through informal conversations. I was struck by his authenticity, thoughtfulness, and though he is more than 80 years old, eagerness to continue learning. He is a true gift!