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The Myths of Powerlessness: Community Capacity

  • Moving from Deficit- to Asset-Based Community Building

John McKnight documents how a central factor in building social cohesion is the ability of a community to recognize and utilize its own assets and internal capacities to meet the needs of its members.  For a long time, it’s been our cultural practice to label certain communities as “problems” to be solved by outside experts and others with external resources; the result has been to create dependency, lower community self-esteem and generate internal conflicts as community members compete with one another for external resources instead of co-operating to build internal collaborative skills and self-sufficiency.  As an example, McKnight describes how “grief counseling” was once something people in a community offered each other without saying, through practices communities had developed over time to serve their own needs. Today, hired professionals provide grief counseling. In this way, the commodification of skills once exercised by communities, like grief counseling, undermines one of the very mechanisms that sustains community.  McKnight has developed an approach to community organizing based on the identification and encouragement of community capacity, also called assets. His approach has caught the imagination of community builders world-wide.

  • The Myth of Wealth and Power as a Zero-Sum Game

Another factor that often works as a barrier to community is the widespread notion that wealth and power is a zero sum game. This view assumes that there is a finite amount of wealth and power in the world, and that the only way for the powerless to improve their condition is for them to wrest power and wealth away from those who currently have it. Similarly, political activists on both the left and the right assume that the only way to change the world is to win power from their opponents, and stand as king of the hill. NAN believes that these attitudes are based on myth. This myth was most recently exposed when much more money was donated to Tsunami relief by private individuals than by all the governments of the world. Our communities have direct access to abundant wealth, both in actual capital and in the skills, energies and other resources that community members can turn to their own service. While it is true that extraordinary amounts of wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of a relatively small number of individuals and corporations, it’s also true that all this wealth is no match for, and is in fact dependent on, the combined resources of ordinary people in their communities. Even areas that are labeled poor or impoverished, when viewed collectively, contain enormous amounts of untapped financial, physical and human resources. We just haven’t had the shared vision or collective mechanisms for utilizing these resources effectively. 

<<note: qualms about using the word “myth” in this way>>

  • The Myth of the Expert and Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen

Some people justify our representative system – the handing over of power to a small number of people and the exclusion of voices from the decision-making process -- by recourse to the argument that involving the general public necessarily creates confusion and conflict among many diverse opinions and interests, and the related claim that the opinions of non-experts don’t belong in the mix. “Someone has to be in charge,” some people say. We sometimes call this “the myth of too many cooks in the kitchen” applied to our public decision-making processes.

While NAN understands that this myth is backed by the real experiences many people have had with frustrating public meetings, we also know that it doesn’t have to be that way. One of the chief assets NAN brings to the picture is a set of simple yet highly effective principles and methods for creating shared vision and action plans among highly diverse, even conflict-ridden communities that include a wide variety of diverse educational backgrounds and very different levels of expertise. For example, NAN’s methods are helping cities bring a wide range of professionals from many different and often isolated, uncollaborative and poorly coordinated city departments into productive collaborations with just as fragmented and disorganized grassroots communities.

When the right principles are followed, when everyone is included from the start and the necessary steps are taken to assure that all voices heard, shared global understandings are formed, and common ground is discovered before proposing actions and solutions, a diversity of knowledge and experience becomes the community’s best asset in assuring wise planning and implementation of what matters most to all.