Monday, August 17, 2009

Citizenship and the Creation of Community

by Peter Block

Community is built not by specialized expertise, or great leadership. Community grows out of the possibility of citizenship*. The citizenship we are speaking of is not that of voting rights or what nation we belong to. Citizenship that builds community is a state of being where we have the boldness to:

1. Hold ourselves accountable for the well being of the larger institution of which we are a part.
2. Choose to own and exercise power rather than defer or delegate it to others.
3. Give form to a collective possibility that creates hospitable community its own sense of being.

Problems, such as performance, productivity, accountability, and success in a marketplace will not be resolved through better leadership and more expertise. Organizational transformation occurs though a new realm of conversation among members, or what we call here, citizens. Citizens surrender their power when they allow themselves to become consumers or clients of solutions provided by leaders and experts. When citizens retrieve control over their concerns from leaders and experts, they can engage in a new realm of conversation for possibility that can provide new access and power in dealing with the problems arising from a breakdown in community.

The possibility this creates is an institution, society, or culture of accountability and commitment. Chosen accountability and commitment are the means for a society that works for all. This is the essence of reconciliation. In contrast to an institution shaped by policy, practices, goals and programs, it creates a society shaped by its possibility*.

This kind of institution or community takes its identity from the kind of commitments its members (citizens) make to each other. These are commitments made without quid pro quo, barter, or exchange. In this kind of society, accountability replaces entitlement, commitment replaces negotiation, and conversation replaces persuasion and manipulation. Isolation and reticence evolve into connectedness and activism, which gives us community that is alive.

Shifting the way we design and convene community gives us access to this collective and infectious aliveness. We can name this the architecture of social space, because it is an architectural phenomenon as well as a linguistic phenomenon. The tools of this architecture are embedded in these powers:

The Power of Place

Whatever room or place we are in at the moment is a model for the larger world we want to create. It is not just the means to the destination or the end we have in mind, it is that place itself.

It is in this place that the possibility begins. All that comes afterward may deepen, clarify, and expand, but if it does not begin in this room, with these people, under these conditions, then the possibility has been postponed.

Knowing this gives new meaning and importance to the elements of the room: the arrangement of seats, the walls, the floor, the quality of the light, the food, and the sound system that allows all voices to be heard.

The Power of the Small Group

The small group is the unit of change. It is communal and becomes an antidote to patriarchy, elitism, and the closely held expertise that becomes a substitute for citizenship. The circle is the symbol for community, and the small group is the essential element of community. However we congregate, the configuration of the small group seated in a circle is the cornerstone of the gathering.

The Power of Invitation

It matters how we come to this place, this group. Invitation is a powerful act of openness, generosity, and inclusion. It is essential to enrollment.

A true invitation evokes choice. We have the freedom to accept or refuse. Recognizing and exercising that freedom of choice naturally calls us to be responsible for our answer. It is this combination of choice and responsibility that gives volunteerism its power.

Accepting an invitation always carries a cost. There is a cost to you personally, and there is a cost to others in your life. Recognizing that we have given up something to be here adds meaning to the fact we that came.

The Power of Reception

We are intentional towards those who answer our call. We welcome them for the act of showing up. Many have paid a price for their attendance and this must be honored. It takes courage to show up, for each one knows that once they walk into the room something will be demanded of them, and it will be much more than they ever expected. It is our hospitality that supports this courage.

The Power of Context

Context is the possibility that gives rise to this moment. It is why we are here. As such it is both decisive and in each of our hands.

We begin each gathering with a statement of context by the convener. As a member of the group, I need to know why I was invited. This is our first question. Why did I come? is my second question. Like two sides of a coin, invitation and acceptance constitute the full context for our coming together.

The context or purpose of the convener alone is incomplete -- a partial sentence and a death sentence. A lecture or presentation without connection is not a conversation. Gathering for the sake of persuasion is living out a context of authority that produces a void, with no place to stand, only silence with our arms folded.

The mutual creation of a new context becomes the beginning of the new conversation and balances power in service of accountability and commitment. Why they invited us begins the conversation, why we chose to come completes it.

The Power of Connection

Creating and realizing an alternative future that wasn't going to happen anyway requires a foundation of relatedness. Connection and being related precedes content. We need to be reminded we are not isolated or alone -- each time we enter the room. Connection and relatedness creates the trust and social space where we find our own voice and each person is heard in a way that reveals the humanity that we all hold in common.

The Power of No

There has to be space for doubts, questions, and even ultimately saying No. This is done without explanation. For every request or demand made upon us, we hold the freedom to say No cleanly, blame-free as a matter of choice. The presence of this possibility is the precondition of commitment. If I cannot say no, then my yes means nothing. The act of refusal is the beginning of a new conversation.

The Power of New Conversation

A new conversation is the energy source and lifeblood of community. In the absence of a new conversation, we are sentenced to have the old conversation over and over and over again. Repeating the same conversation is the source of our cynicism.

The new conversation is dialogue without advice. It is being authentic about our inauthenticity. It begins with a statement of our own contribution to the problem, sometimes called confession.

It entails the pursuit of increasingly powerful and confronting questions. In this context, the questions are more important than the answers. The most frequent and least useful question is: What are we going to do? This question should be postponed until the answer to it reveals itself from the power, depth and authenticity of the dialogue.

The Power of Commitment

We recognize the power of speech called declaration. A commitment is a declaration made without barter and with no expectation of return. It is made for its own sake, as virtue is its own reward.

Our commitment comes to life when we make it public. We make a statement of commitment, a declaration, to the small group first, for this group stands in for all in the community. Authentic commitment also requires us to name the price we are willing to pay for this commitment, and the cost that this commitment places on other people.

The Power of Gifts

The possibility of community is the possibility of bringing everyone's gifts into the center. Volunteerism, the action path of citizenship, has no interest in deficiencies, only in strengths. The customer or client stance, by contrast, is vitally interested in deficiencies and needs, for they are the basis on which we are serviced, led, and ultimately controlled.

When we recognize and state to another how their actions had meaning and value for us; in other words when we take their gifts into our hearts, we affirm the healing power of community. We live into a future where each of us has something vital and life-giving to offer.

The Point

These powers are elements that create the experience of community and in turn the outcomes we desire for our institutions. They outline the architectural elements of social space and of convening community. They are both spatial and linguistic. The architecture of the room -- combined with the way the room is occupied, the social space -- gives concrete form to a group of human beings choosing accountability, commitment, and, ultimately, choosing to care for the whole. We might say such a group creates a communal clearing for citizens, in which our possibilities can be realized.

*Many of the thoughts presented here, especially the concepts of citizenship and possibility, come from the wonderful thinking and work of John McKnight and Werner Erhard.