‘The Connected Community: Discovering the Health, Wealth, and Power of Neighborhoods’ by Cormac Russell and John McKnight

The most common approach to ‘helping’ communities has involved focusing on the community’s needs, deficiencies, and problems. This depersonalising approach disempowers and often causes other forms of harm to community citizens.

The alternative path to community development, Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD), focuses on a community’s assets, capacities, and abilities. Significant community development takes places only when local community people are committed to investing in themselves and their resources. Healthy communities are built bottom-up, not top-down.

Late last year, two of the world-leading proponents of ABCD published an exciting new book, The Connected Community: Discovering the Health, Wealth, and Power of Neighborhoods. I love this book and can strongly recommend you read it. There’s no better way of giving you some insight into what this book is about then showing you what the authors wrote in their preface. [NB. I have broken up one paragraph to facilitate reading online.]

‘History teaches us that all sustainable change happens at the grassroots level and then spreads out from there to create further ripples of change. Some of these reports combine to create big waves; most trigger countless small and unexpected impacts that overlap and intersect in ways we’ll never know the full importance of. This book is written in the wake of local ripples made by regular people in their communities using what they have to secure what they need. Their stories largely go untold, because they are modest, and do not feature heroes or Hollywood endings.

There are no stories about great leaders or crusaders in these pages. The Connected Community is about places, and about the combined efforts of the people who make them vibrant and made vibrant by them. It is about neighbours taking responsibility for their local communities so that they and those they love can have a decent life, and so that future generations can expect to do the same.

These community stories of much to teach us about getting better at being human together. The late South African theologian Bishop Desmond Tutu popularised the term Ubuntu, which means “a person is a person through other people”, or “I am because we are.” Through this word he emphasized the route towards a decent life, or what in this book we refer to as the Good Life, which is about collective effort and cooperation, not in individualism and competition.

Ubuntu is the opposite of the sentiments expressed in the famous Frank Sinatra song “I Did It My Way,” which romanticizes the American idol known as the “rugged individual” or what some call the ‘self-made person.” Individualism is a superhighway to a sick, depressed, and dissatisfied life and a fragmented society.

Ubuntu, by contrast, says we are not self-reliant, we are other reliant; that life is not about self- fulfilment and leaning into work and money. Instead, a satisfying life is largely about leaning into our relationships and investing in our communities; it is about interdependence, not independence.

This book aligns with the principles of Ubuntu, then goes on to show how we can discover and create Ubuntu in everyday life, by making visible, connected, and vibrant the visible ingredients that surround us, using an approach called Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD). By tracing the footsteps of social explorers around the world who have happened upon the keys to The Good Life, we have made plain a three-stage process for making the journey from disconnected neighbourhood to Connected Community. We define the stages as Discover, Connect, and Mobilize.

In learning from these local community-led change efforts from around the world, we see three simple but incredibly inventive strategies being used (all of which are thoroughly explored in this book).

  1. People form connections with their neighbors beyond their workplace, family, and friendship groups, because they know that neighbor-to-neighbor connections matter much more than most people realize.
  2. They start addressing problems and possibilities by building on what’s strong and local, not on what’s wrong and external.
  3. They view their neighborhoods as primary sites for The Good Life to flourish; in other words, for them, satisfying and sustainable growth is not just about personal development or institutional reform, as commonly assumed, but about the Connected Community and the health, wealth, and power of neighborhoods.

This book offers a window in how to build momentum and widespread participation by starting close to where regular people live their lives. Starting close to people’s doorsteps is essential to long-term innovation, sustainable community, and economic development. In The Connected Community we see clearly why neighborhoods are the ideal scale at which to address many of the social and economic issues alive in the world today.

So, if you are interested in exploring what happens when residents from neighborhoods around the world discover what they care about enough about to act upon it, and how that care ripples outwards, then you’re going to love this book. The added bonus is that we don’t just share a range of inspiring international stories; we also describe in detail the ABCD practices and principles that are instinctively and successfully being used by neighbourhood associations to co-produce The Good Life where they live, and hold outside institutions to account when necessary.

We believe that one of the strengths of this book is the absence of “cookie cutter” or one- size-fits-all solutions. Instead it sticks with real-world practices and insights drawn from neighborhoods that are making lives better together. We invite you to consider whether these approaches are relevant in your context, but more important, to invent responses that best fit your own neighbourhood journey. This book is the ultimate sounding board for neighbours building their communities from the inside out, and for those working in neighbourhood development who are interested in sustainable, community-driven change.

The Connected Community will exist only when each of us can say of our neighbourhood, Ubuntu: “I am because we are.”’

I will be writing more about this outstanding book in future blogs. For now, I provide short bios of the two authors, as written on the back of their book.

Cormac Russell is managing director of Nurture Development and a faculty member and European Director of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at DePaul University in Chicago. He is codirector of the new Community Renewal Centre, a popular international keynote speaker, and the author of Rekindling Democracy.

John McKnight is cofounder of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute and a senior associate of the Kettering Foundation. McKnight cofounded the Health & Medicine Policy Research Group with Dr. Quentin Young, cofounded the Gamaliel Foundation with Greg Galluzzo, and was a founding board member of National People’s Action, led by Gale Cincotta.

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