The University Record, January 18, 1999

‘Use the right tool’ for community services

By Rebecca A. Doyle

“One of the biggest mistakes we made was thinking that systems could produce care,” said John McKnight last week in his lecture “Building Communities from the Inside Out: Finding and Mobilizing Community Assets.”

“Managed care, child care, eldercare, hospice care, health care are ways that we in North America have found to institutionalize the care that can only come from one person to the other, from the heart,” he said.

McKnight’s presentation was part of the Martin Luther King Jr. celebration at the U-M, and was sponsored by the Center for Community Service and Learning. He is director of Community Studies at Northwestern University and pioneered the idea of assets-based community development.

McKnight defined assets in the community as the associations—“a collective word for a kind of entity that gathers people together in power”—or community organizations, that provide such services as hot meals for elderly people who can’t go out, Girl Scout and Boy Scout groups, men’s and women’s clubs and informal, unnamed groups of as few as three or four people who “get things done.” Their common thread is that they provide care and person-to-person interaction.

He compared the associations of people in neighborhoods and communities to the structured, managed, for-profit institutions that he says exist because of people’s needs and focus only on those needs.

Formal organizations such as government, businesses and hospitals benefit only from the needs of people—the need to have sidewalks repaired, to buy a reliable car or to have a kidney transplant. They do not care about the people they serve.

McKnight was quick to add that this is not necessarily a bad thing. “It’s just not using the right tool for the job,” he said. He maintains that the right tool for providing services to people is associations within communities that will provide care from their hearts, not because they receive a paycheck for doing it. On the other hand, McKnight said that he certainly would not want a neighborhood association charged with his return flight to Chicago. The proper tool for that kind of service was, appropriately, the organized control model.

Comparing the two models, he noted that the circular model of community “works by consent, not control; focuses on care and not production; involves the citizenry of the community; and is not powered by the needs of people.” The organizational model is a method of getting people to do things in the most efficient way and “focuses on control, production, clients or consumers and lives for the needs of people. Those needs are necessary for the organization to survive.”

Young people under age 18 in the United States, he said, represent “the great failed experiment both of all time and of all nations—the idea that if you surround people under 18 with enough services, they will act right.”

“They are the best-served, least cared-for people in the world. They have school, boys clubs, sports teams, and then if they have any free time when they might be in the community, we invent midnight basketball so that they aren’t even with us after midnight.”

Community groups, whether formal or informal, can become powerful by deciding what the problem in their community is, deciding how to solve it and by mobilizing others to help either find a solution or act on that solution.

Barry Checkoway, director of the Center of Community Service and Learning, introduced McKnight and noted that his lecture is the opening session of programs on the topic. Workshops and mini-courses also were held Jan. 16 on practical ways to work with community-based organizations and civil agencies, sponsored by the Center and the schools of Public Health, Information, Business Administration, Social Work, Medicine and Law, and by the College of Architecture and Urban Planning, the AmeriCorps Program, the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program and LS&A.

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