Building Abundant Communities (Part 1 of 4): From Citizen to Consumer—And Back Again

To propose the existence of abundance at a time when so many people are discouraged and overwhelmed might appear to be a hard sell. But that’s exactly what John McKnight and Peter Block effectively do and nurture through their wonderful book The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods and the Abundant Community website they maintain to support and spread their work—and ours.

A heartfelt and encouraging paean to the power of collaboration, The Abundant Community serves as a positive source of inspiration for rethinking many of our unquestioned assumptions; it also consistently serves as a useful handbook for those of us interested in and committed to building the sort of collaborative coalitions that make a difference locally, regionally, nationally, and globally with surprisingly little effort.

McKnight and Block begin the rethinking process by drawing a distinction between what they call “citizen” and “consumer” societies—maintaining that until we reverse the trend away from the citizen to the consumer model, we’re going to miss the obvious abundance of resources around us and the opportunities to overcome the challenges that leave so many people feeling incapable of effecting change.

Consumer society, they maintain, is predicated upon the belief that “satisfaction can be purchased”; the result, they consistently suggest, is that we try to buy solutions to everything ranging from healthcare and emotional challenges to education, safety, and security needs. Citizen society, in contrast, nurtures “social and civic life” so that we work together to create and support healthier communities that meet their members’ educational, safety, security, and other needs. It’s clear that the authors are trying to move us from being armchair critics to being actively engaged in creating healthy, thriving, vibrant communities where connections foster success and a high quality of life.

“The greatest tragedy of the consumer life is that its practitioners do not see that the local community is abundant with the relationships [italics added for emphasis] that are the principal resource for rescuing themselves and their families from the failure, dependency, and isolation that are the results of a life as a consumer and client,” McKnight and Block suggest. “Their ships and sinking, and they struggle to swim to safety, ignoring the life raft at their side. The way to the good life is not through consumption. It is, instead, a path that we make by walking it with those who surround us. It is the way of a competent community recognizing its abundance” (p. 18).

The writers are explicit about the problems we create when we fail to acknowledge and build upon the abundance that remains untapped within communities: we marginalize nature to such a degree that we lose sight of much of the beauty that surrounds us and the numerous benefits we might draw from nature; we surrender to marketing efforts that create and then require additional resources to alleviate dissatisfaction in our lives; we pay attention to little more than we can immediately see, thereby missing the opportunity to operate within a larger, more positive framework; and we become slaves to debt rather than freeing ourselves by having a goal of living within our means (p. 50).

They are equally explicit about the numerous, simple achievable changes we can make to address these challenges, e.g., learning “how to fix what is broken rather than replacing it. Shopping when we really need something, not shopping as a form of recreation.” And at a larger level, shifting from a primary focus on immediate challenges and needs to a focus that includes “a future orientation” (p. 54).

The abundant community that McKnight and Block want to help us strengthen is built upon several core beliefs that too few of us recognize: that what we have is enough; that we have the capacity to produce what we need; that cooperation and satisfaction provide a framework for organizing our world; that we each have definable responsibilities for and toward each other; and that there is a basic undeniable reality to the human condition within which we must live. The communities that incorporate these beliefs into daily practices are rooted in focusing on the individual gifts we bring to our communities, nurturing “associational life,” and offering hospitality to everyone—an idea based on a commitment of welcoming strangers to our communities rather than creating barriers to their acceptance (pp. 66-67).

And when we set aside all the theorizing and rethink our way into putting this into the familiar context of our own communities, we see that we’re really not talking about much more than what already exists in those that are successful. A neighborhood association (like San Francisco’s Inner Sunset Park Neighbors) that consistently improves the quality of life for significant numbers of people draws from all these ideas and practices. As does a local, regional, or national association organized around a specific profession (e.g., the American Society for Training & Development, which creates a tremendous learning community for those of us involved in workplace learning and performance, AKA staff training). And as is the case with the volunteer-driven community-based Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District.

There are literally thousands of organizations like this all over our country and beyond our own borders. The challenge for all of us is to recognize them, appreciate them, and support them through our own involvement regardless of whether we can only give a few minutes/a couple of hours/a few dollars a month or whether we recognize that we are ready to become more deeply engaged through deeper commitments—not only to those entities but to the greater extended abundant communities that would not exist without them.

N.B.: This is the first in a four-part series of articles exploring abundant communities

Next: ASTD As an Abundant Community

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