Sunday, January 25, 2009


Revisiting 10 community-building ideas that work

WHILE WE'RE TALKING "CHANGE." Since everyone's simultaneously talking change and cut-backs, I decided to revisit 10 community-building and justice-bearing ideas that work. These may be some of the most cost-effective, quality-of-life enahancing personal and community choices we can make. I have had direct engagement with most of these and have confidence in all of them. They are not "in your face" acts for peace and justice, but they are effective at achieving significant outcomes in the face of isolating urban environments, ineffective outcomes for justice, depressed economies, neighborhood demise, lack of community connectivity and unfair wages.

1. NEW URBANISM. This community architectural design approach creatively and comprehensively retrofits urban and suburban areas that don’t work in terms of neighbor isolation, non-connectivity, fear, and over-commercialization followed by big-box vacancies. Read Howard Kuntzler's Geography of Nowhere and Home from Nowhere to get a handle on the issues at stake for communities at large. Particularly, the principles of mixed-income level dwellings and neighborhoods, walkability, green space, and town centers are good hope for communities and neighbors who want to see the promise of urban living fulfilled. Where implemented with all members of a community at heart, this design does a lot to indirectly impact social change in a community.

2. RESTORATIVE JUSTICE. Instead of merely locking up the perpetrator of a crime, restorative justice brings perpetrator and victim together in conferences that confront hard facts and feelings but often bring mutual healing to both--and to the community. Victim and perpetrator agree to consequences and restitution. I’ve seen this work for non-violent crimes and particularly with juvenile offenders. This is more what “justice” is supposed to look like.

3. PAID TIME FOR SCHOOL INVOLVEMENT. Parental involvement in a child's education is a critical factor in a child's educational development. It is proven fact in completion and future success. Employers who take a broader view of their workplace health and long-term viability of their business in a community will see the value of encouraging their employee-parents to get directly involved in helping make their children’s formal educational experience a success. Businesses and manufacturers have nothing to lose and everything (including positive community image and regard) to gain.

4. LOCAL ECONOMY. Shop local. Buy locally-made and exchanged products when possible. Frequent the farmers’ market. Check out the consignment shops. Ask for more locally-grown and locally-produced products at the stores you like. Let retailers know you’re interested in local products.

5. NEIGHBORHOOD BLOCK PARTIES. When’s the last time you attended a block party? Why not host one? If that’s not your cup of tea, what is? Neighborhood clean-up? Neighborhood garage sale? Neighborhood collection for the food bank? What can you do to get to know your newer and older neighbors? What are you waiting for? What holds you back?

6. CROSS-CULTURAL EXCHANGES. Take the opportunity whenever you can to expose yourself to any other culture than the American suburban consumerist one. No, going to Taco Bell is not crossing cultures. What ethnic festivals are held in your community? What restaurants are authentic? What communities of faith are available? Take in a student for a semester. Seek to develop relationships across cultures. Know that it will take your time. How sad to come to the end of a lifetime and only to have experienced one’s own culture.

7. LIVING WAGE. Try to live for a month on what the income from a $8.00 per hour (or less) full-time job. Until you do, how can you dare say another careless word about the minimum wage or how hard it is to get good service at restaurants, retail outlets, or just about any service-industry location? Every worker deserves to be able to actually live on the fruit of their work. Don’t tell me about it being impossible to pay living wages when CEO’s, managers, and stockholders are laughing all the way to the bank. Pay the living wage and see what happens to worker loyalty, productivity, and readiness to support your interests.

8. INDIVIDUAL DEVELOPMENT ACCOUNTS. Michael Sherraden’s work, Assets and the Poor, begot a good thing. He found that the major difference between inter-generational poverty and ending it are assets. Individual Development Accounts (IDAs) are special savings accounts for neighbors living at poverty levels. For every dollar saved, three will be matched by a special fund. The catch: the multiplied savings can be used only for asset-building: to pay for higher education, vocational training, purchase of home, equipment for starting one’s own business, or cash to buy into an existing viable business.

9. RESPONSIBLE CONSUMER SPENDING & STOCKHOLDER INVESTING. Wonder why these prices are so low? You KNOW it’s not a wonder. It’s often based on unfair trade practices. It’s usually based on cheap or near-slave labor being pressured by US-based big-box retailers. You are not contributing to a developing economy unless your product bares a “fair trade” indication. Consumers reinforce bad international capitalist behavior daily. We are complicit. Each of us can buy more responsibly. Stock traders have a much higher level of responsibility and opportunity than consumers. Do the right thing by working neighbors and consumers in other parts of the world!

10. ASSET-BASED COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT. John McNight and Jodi Kretzman started a good thing, helping folks who want to help their neighborhoods and communities overcome dependency on experts and big outside dollars to renew their communities. Instead of counting what you don’t have, start cataloguing the capacities and resources in your neighborhood and community. Then, organize together. See what a difference you can make. Let's see, I think this is what Barack Obama was doing just a few years ago...

In the spirit of dialog, I welcome comments and/or questions. Click on "responses" below to post. They're moderated only to reduce incivility. Shalom!


  1. Anonymous9:54 PM

    Nice post, John. I'm with you about 90% of the way. Let me grade the points by that marvelously precise measure -- my infallible mind.

    1. A-
    I like what the new urbanism strives for -- but it strikes me as contrived, something forced. What it mimics -- genuine mixed neighborhoods of the old style -- developed organically.

    2. B+
    Something to practice so long as we don't get anybody hurt. I've seen some fuzzy thinking on this -- particularly from those living in denial of what men are capable of.

    3. D
    Who is going to pay for this?

    4. A
    Where the rubber meets the road.

    5. B
    Eh, let's not get too romantic here. I'd rather go to a little league game.

    6. A
    Let's just call it getting to know the world.

    7. C-
    Living wage -- what about jobs for teenagers? How about part-time jobs? What about the businesses that go under because of the "Living wage?" With all the burdens employers must bear -- let's not add another. I've been a small business owner -- sure, go after the big boys, but who suffers most? The small business owners.

    8. A-
    I really like this concept. My only reservation: who pays? Tax payers? Justice at the point of a gun.

    9. B
    Very ambivalent about this.

    10. A
    Best of the bunch. John McKnight is super. Should be required reading for anyone interested in working with the poor.

    Christopher Wiley

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful responses, Chris.

    Answer to #3: Every employer and taxpayer is already paying for parental non-involvement in children's education from infancy to adolescence. The cost of non-involvement continues to rise, both in terms of dollars and rotten outcomes. It's an "an ounce of prevention vs a pound of cure" deal, except the pound of cure isn't working very well.


Your tasteful comments and/or questions are welcome. Posts are moderated only to reduce a few instances of incivility.