A call for a learning society

Michael Peterson

Revised March 25, 1997

The United States has a long history of focus on individualism. Many consider this to be a major contributions of this country to the world--freeing individuals from the tyranny of the oppression of large tyrannical and authoritarian rulers. It is important to recognize, however, that this focus on the individual was born and bred in the context of local communities whose functioning was reasonably intact and that provided strong, if not sometimes exclusive and oppressive, senses of supports for individuals and families. In the late 20th century, however, this has changed radically. Many adults have memories of communities, now gone, in which neighbors interacted, cared for each others' children, and provided a community of connections. Numerous studies have documented the isolation of people in the suburbs, the growing trend of violence of all sorts--child abuse, spouse abuse, murder, rape. This occurs concurrently with a substantial increase in the use of mass media and the tremendous expansion of corporate organizations and the power of the marketplace. Increasingly, the civil society, people helping people and impacting on the nature of their communities, has been subsumed by the twin giants of government and the market.

Some of our most pressing social problems have to do with dynamics of exclusion, separation, and isolation--the lack of a sense and reality of supportive community in the lives of increasing numbers of people. William Allen, recent Chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, stated in an interview regarding the riots in Los Angeles, that the key problem is that, "...people do not feel at home in America." The social bonds of caring and connection that hold our society together as a people are tenuous. We have increased our focus on individual rights and achievement without a balancing focus on attention to Community. There is important evidence that indicates that many of the problems which get substantial press and discussion are directly impacted by this reality.

Our communities have increasingly become walled fortresses to protect a fearful people. Those on the left continue to focus on funding of governmental human service programs to help remediate the deficiencies of individuals. Often such programs are delivered in such a manner to insure the disempowerment and stigmatization of those receiving services. Equally often, the manner in which programs are developed does not pay adequate attention to the sense of Community among staff themselves; the frequent result is staff conflict and programs that do not achieve their intended objectives (Sarasson, 1974). Further, the proliferation of new programs to replace those that have not worked has increasingly fragmented the supportive infrastructure of cities, towns and neighborhoods.

We have been given policy choices largely representing these two major spheres. Liberals have traditionally been the advocates of solutions funded and operated by government. In this they have allied themselves with the expansion of a range of professional groups who lay claim to the utility of their expertise in providing services in virtually all aspects of the lives of individuals and families. Similarly, conservatives have most allied themselves with the marketplace--supporting corporations in their bid for the heart, soul, and pocketbook of Americans. In this process, conservatives have further aided the commercialization of many spheres of our lives.

What is missing is the traditional foundation of the strength of this country and the very basis of our democratic philosophy--the process of people helping people, people taking control and direction of their communities. Clearly, government as a social tool is important and needed. Similarly, the marketplace and the notion of free commerce provides a critical foundation for our society. Even more clearly, however, at this time in our history, we need to provide a balance between the spheres of market, government, and civic life, to create new visions for the 21st century of communities in which space is provided for the support of people to one another, where business becomes responsible for supporting the communities in which it draws its profits, where government comes less to dictate than to support individuals, families, and local communities. This appears to be the substantial challenge for the 21st century.

Our central hope in building better lives for people and addressing these very problematic social issues lies in attention to the building of community in our cities, towns, and neighborhoods. In certain ways this may seem obvious. However, an analysis of typical responses to the issues identified above indicates that it is not. Our typical conceptual approach has been to reduce a negative outcome rather than to create a positive outcome--e.g. violence prevention, crime prevention, prevention of unwanted pregnancy. Rather than focusing on problems, successful efforts must reach to the core, central issues that can prevent problems in the first place. Most central is the sense of connectedness, support, caring among people within and across communities. A focus on Community helps us work positively towards a vision of our society, our relationships with others rather than focusing on what is wrong. We work together towards a vision of the future rather than blaming one another for the failures of the present. Such an approach does not ignore important problems, but reframes them in a new context.


What does it mean to build community? We may consider the concept of community from many perspectives. In one set of definitions, community refers to a group of people who are affilliated with one another in some recognizable way. This may occur through (1) geographical contiguity (a local community--city, town, neighborhood), (2) through chosen networks based on profession, interest, an area of endeavor (the "golfing community", the "disability community", the "educational community"), and (3) by membership in a formal organization (the "university community", the "church community"). Spacial continuity may or may not be a factor in considering such "communities".

For our consideration here, however, we are most concerned about the nature and quality of the interactions that occur in and across these various types of social gatherings--similar to the traditional distinctions of gesselshaft and gemeinshaft. When people speak of a longing for community, they mean what Sarasson has aptly described as the psychological sense of community and what Maslow has described as a sense of belonging--the sense that one is a valued member of a group of people, has access to support from others, is given emotional sustenance. In this context, when people are considered to be "in community", they are part of a group of individuals who provide mutual support, caring, and connectedness. A focus on community building, at least in part, places at center stage the notion of relationships, mutual support, and belonging.

This helps us then begin to articulate images of a good community or a competent community. Drawing on these concepts and the work of several writers, we may consider a good community to be one in which . . .

Building community, logically, also focuses on the degree to which relationships and resources interact to provide emotional, physical, and spiritual support for the growth, achievement, and health of individuals and families. Part of our difficulty in attempting to address our social problems has been our tendency to focus on one issue at a time rather than interacting dynamics within a total local community as a unit of analysis and study. Consequently, the arenas of health, education, income supports, employment, economic development, housing operate as separate spheres. While there hasbeen lip service to "coordination" of programs and efforts, the reality is that conceptually and operationally these various endeavors operate in separate fashion from one another and, most often, from the local communities which they are intended to serve. Over the last few years, efforts have begun to reframe efforts to link human supports, housing, and economic development in ways that build on the strengths of a community rather than its weaknesses.

Community building provides a new way to consider policy and practice alternatives that moves beyond traditional left and right alternatives.Traditional considerations of the left and right have favored either government or market solutions with both, however, focussing almost exclusively on the rights of individuals rather than community. The difference has been the type of individuals most favored. This new framework, however, helps us begin to see proposals in the context of the degree to which they contribute to or detract from building a stronger sense of community among people. This framework provides assistance in looking at the policy debates that are presently raging from new and more proactive lenses. Traditionally, for example, those in human services have favored liberal policies, largely as articulated by the Democratic party. Increasingly, however, a cadre of human services professionals is calling for a new approach to human services that relies less exclusively on professional "expertise" and the territorial domains of particular disciplines and more on building partnerships with individuals, families, and communities. This framework is highly supportive of community building and makes possible new dialogues between such individuals and conservatives who are pressing similar themes related to increasing flexibility, heightening expectations for person-driven outcomes, while reducing and limiting the amount of resources available. These dialogues and a community building framework provide the possibility of creating new solutions with political viability in ways that have not previously been possible.


The importance of Community building is being recognized in multiple disciplines and life domains. Substantial thinking, research, dialogue is occurring towards this end. Despite our historical lack of attention to the building of community, there have been important past analyses and more recent increased attention to Community as a central focus of concern among policy researchers. There are some important gaps, however, with which we are concerned in this process. There is an increasing amount of literature and local programs that have Community-building as a central focus.

There is a virtual explosion of theoretical, research, and practical perspectives addressing the issue of community across multiple disciplines and multiple programmatic areas--health, education, employment. Some 150 books published since 1993 have been identified with community and community building as a central organizing construct. A number of recent authors have extended the largely isolated work of Sarasson (1974; 1976) and John Gardner (1974) in their focus on the psychological sense of community as the central issue for social problems and the failure of human service programs in addressing the needs of people. Robert Bellah and his colleagues (1985; 1992) have analyzed the dynamics of individualism and commitment in American life and the role of institutions in building a better society. Amitai Etzioni (1993) has worked with a growing number of individuals in the Communitarian Network to articulate principles for improving our communities. In the field of education, there is an increasing focus on creating a "community of learners" where diverse students are empowered and supported by teachers in developing a sense of mutual support and collaborative, exploratory, investigative learning. Such efforts are occurring in numerous separate but conceptually related endeavors. Two examples are illustrative. The Whole Langugage movement is based on a philosophy in which students are seen as active learners, language and reading development is seen as a function of the use of language in ways that is relevant in the life of the student, and community is seen as the key framework for effective learning to occur (Goodman, 1992). Esther Fine (1995) in Toronto has reported on the efforts of a program entitled Peacemakers in which children learn to deal with differences and conflicts in a way that assures a sense of belonging and community.

In studies of efforts to include people with disabilities in community life, strategies such person-centered planning and circles of support are being used to include individuals in the activities of the neighborhood or in typical school classrooms; results have included the building of a sense of community for the target person as well as all of those participating in the process. Out of such efforts, individuals in the disability field have begun to focus on building Community. They see efforts to build supportive networks around people with substantial challenges as providing an opportunity to also build connections and a sense of Community for all those involved--friends, family, neighbors, community members. Amado's (1993) provides an example of this trend. Several national disability organizations or groups, notably The Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps (TASH) and a Consortium for Inclusive Communities (1991), a coalition of university-based, interdisciplinary programs, have focussed on supporting inclusion of people with disabilities in community life as an integral part of strengthening the social and economic fabric of the total community.

Similarly, in cities and communities throughout the United States and the world, efforts have begun to emerge where the concept of Community lies at the center of neighborhood-based efforts for improving quality of life. In a number of towns and cities throughout the country, several large foundations, including Rockefeller, Ford, Pew, and others, have sponsored poverty fighting initiatives that have attempted to support grassroots efforts based on the concept of community building. These efforts have combined economic development, health promotion, and social development efforts. Out of these initiatives a National Community Building Network was formed in 1993, coordinated by the Urban Strategies Council in Oakland, California (National Community Building Network, 1995). In Chicago, John McKnight (Kretzmann and McKnight, 1994) and his colleagues have articulated methods of rebuilding neighborhoods that emphasizes the mutually supportive connections of individuals with one another.Out of this work, a Neighborhood Innovations Network was founded to link communication among neighborhoods engaged in innovative efforts. The Healthy Communities" movement has resulted in a series of planning forums for "healthy cities -- healthy communities" throughout the world over the last 10 years. These are but a sample of initiatives in process based on the concept of building Community.


If we are to move towards solutions, our country, in concert with countries around the world, will do well to function as a learning society. We should be clear that we do not know how to solve problems which we face. No amount of blame, demanding that people be responsible, assuring the rights of specific target groups--all part of the same paradigm--will change this fact. Our only hope, then, is to move towards a clearer vision of what we want to be as a human race, a society, a country, and engage in and support multiple ongoing experiments towards this end. Far from not having the "luxury" to afford to experiment, the fact is that we have no choice if we want to move beyond our present quagmire and witness of human and ecological disaster.

There is hope in this admission and the commitment to learn, however. Increasing amounts of research on how people learn and how the world and human beings function indicates that the "relaxed alertness" that occurs in a supportive community of learners produces results that far exceed our hopes or expectations (Caine and Caine, 1994). Such results, however, seem, initially to come slower. They grow out of a process of exploring, thinking, reflecting, connecting parts into wholes. As this occurs in learning with individuals, so it can occur with our society and communities. The following questions provide a framework for thinking proactively and systematically about community building.

How then might we expand on our work in this direction to date? How might we seek to answer these questions in a way that can impact enhance community building and bring it as an issue to the forre in public dialogue and thinking. Following are some strategies for consideration.

1. Understand the fiscal, psychological, and social costs of the lack of community and articulate alternative fiscal strategies

In some senses, a focus on community has dangers of appearing idealistic and utopian, thus ignored and not taken seriously. Sarasson (1974) began some important work in conducting analysis of the cost of programs that separate people from people and exacerbate the sense of isolation and loss of Community for all. This beginning work has received little attention. Our country spends enormous fiscal resources on efforts that separate people and produce negative outcomes for all involved--separate schools and institutions for people with disabilities, youth offenders; prisons; nursing homes. We have not conducted an analysis of simply how much we spend on separating people-- through prisons, separate schooling for students with disabilities, separate housing complexes for older people and poor people--in comparison to efforts in which people are provided supports for participating in their homes and communities. The seminal work of Michael Katz (1995) in his historical analyses of social welfare in this country moves in important ways in this direction. However, we would do well to understand costs and benefits of efforts that support exclusion versus supports for people that enhance and strengthen the sense of Community.

2. Synthesize knowledge across disciplines, fields, culture, and time

There is a growing literature, as indicated, growing out of multiple disciplines, areas of focus, and areas of the country and world that use the concept of building Community as their center rather than periphery. However, these efforts are still operating in relative isolation. There is a need to look across disciplines, content focal points, and geographical areas and link research, writing, programmatic, and policy initiatives to attempt to identify common, cross-cutting principles, practices, and policies with the concept of community as the center rather than the periphery. Out of such a process and discussion of these ideas in forums, we have the possibility of both seeing connections and linkages of both issues and resources. We also have the possibility of beginning to identify obvious starting points for small, manageable actions and working experiments. It would be helpful to be able to catalog experiments or efforts that have occurred, to think of these as learning experiments for human beings that might serve as "menus of possibility" for the rest of us. As a simple example, Nora Ellen Groce (1985) tells the story of Martha's Vineyard Island where an extremely high concentration of deaf people participated in the full life of the community due to sign language being learned and "spoken" by all, both deaf and hearing. That simple example provides an intriguing notion of possibilities that may have implications far beyond disability and deafness. What strengths and lessons do our cultures and our history have for us? Rather than focussing on the deficits of our cultures and the horror of our history, what might we learn that may evoke future possibilities?

3. Understand how community building is occurring across domains

As we discussed earlier, there are important and fascinating efforts towards the building of community occurring in multiple spheres in our country and around the world. These are gradually being described. However, once again, it would help to pull such information together around a framework of community building a look for common themes, related practices, potential applications from one type of community setting to another. This may help us move towards a more wholistic, complex understanding of the patterns by which communities function well or not. The various aspects of the lives of individuals and families are integrally linked to one another. Daily each of us moves through school, neighborhood, our own homes, the work-place, routes of transportation, the "percpetual place" of the media. In each of these a sense and reality of community either functions or does not; the total impact of these separate places is substantive. However, as the building of community may occur in one sector, it also may impact on others in local communities. If we can begin to understand better and more clearly how various organizations and settings within local neighborhoods, cities, and geographic areas are struggling with these issues, we may find that very practical and useful materials for planning and thinking may be made available.

4. Conduct forums for dialogue and exchange

Forums are needed where ongoing dialogue can occur among diverse groups of people in our society. We need, as a people, time to think, listen, and learn together. Most critically, we need places where people of real differences will come together to share ideas, develop visions, principles for action, and plans for experiments. Undergirding all this, such forums must provide an opportunity for people of differences to develop, out of this very process, a sense of relationship, trust, and enjoyment- of Community - with one another. Traditional forums such as professional conferences and meetings that focus on specific targeted issues are useful but limited. Such meetings, by their very definition, are framed in ways that fragment knowledge and information. More useful are two types of Forums:

The challenges to establish and organize forums for dialogue in this way are substantial. A brief review of any of the many documents that summarize funding opportunities from the federal government or foundations will quickly show that funders for such events focus on relatively narrow, clearly identified target issues. The more open-ended approach of both of these suggestions is more rare. When a few people, however, develop a sense of vision and commitment towards these ends, the resources that can be brought to bear are sometimes surprising. Courage, risk-taking, and movements in this direction are occurring. For example, the "national conversation" being pursued by the National Endowment for the Humanities provides a framework and initiative to provide such forums (Hackney, 1994); cities throughout the country have utililized interactive methods of obtaining input and dialogue of large numbers of citizens. More efforts areneeded in this direction.

5. Understand approaches to building inclusive communities

One of the key principles that appears to be emerging out of these efforts is a focus on the celebration of diversity, what James Joseph (1995) has described as a new paradigm of community that goes beyond the "the hierarchical pluralism of the assimilationist vision nor the egalitarian pluralism that gives equal validity to myriad traditions". This focus may be described as an inclusive community where diverse people and cultures together honor each others' differences and work to build a sense and reality of shared bonds, support, and commitment--Community. We need to explicate identify and understand efforts in these directions in our country and the world, to extend the work of Joseph and others and extract the lessons of humanity in our own and other countries that provide a potential "menu of options", ways in which human beings could, were they to so choose, to structure their lives where a sense and reality of Community may be nurtured.

The disability movement has been strongest in pushing for and continually redefining moves towards community inclusion--involvement of people with disabilities in real community with needed supports based on individual and family choices. This movement has continued in the midst of many other.countertrends. On the other hand, the lobby of strong, established organizations whose funding and operation is based on segregated programs is very strong--eg. nursing homes, hospitals, special education.

6. Focus human services systems reform on community building

Schools, human service organizations, and businesses are engaged in reform and organizational change designed to respond to needs of the 21st century. It is not yet clear whether these change efforts will support or hinder the building of Community. Nor are we yet clear how to effectively create and facilitate organizational change to do so. According to the analyses of many, the hierarchical, bureaucratic organizations of the 19th century have been detrimental, on the whole, to a sense of Community. Organizations that are more customer-centered and focus on empowering and supporting individual development have more potential of being conducive to creating a sense of Community. We need to begin to understand how systems and organizational change can be effective and lead towards ends that support Community.

7. Conduct systematic public policy analysis

We must look carefully at the impact of multiple public policy initiatives on the building of Community among people. Clearly, much of our effort centers around words like "productive", "competitive", "rights". Kaus (1994) has recently proposed a new public policy agenda centered around what he terms "social capitol" and "social equality" that would go far to moving our policies towards building rather than destroying a sense of Community amoing people. We need to move in this direction. Our efforts to "coordinate" and "reinvent" government and human service systems are most likely to yield benefits desired if they are grounded in concepts of community. We have some understandings in this regard, particularly related to the fragmentation of policy programs. How might we move further? How might we use public and private funds and the resources of people in local communities to more effectively provide a flexible sense of supports for people attending to the quality of interactions and mutual supports? These questions provide a beginning in rethinking our policy frameworks.

8. Network community building initiatives

Community-building is being articulated in multiple arenas and in multiple specific communities and neighborhoods people around the country and the world are experimenting intentionally with building of communities. There are many lessons to be learned here. A process is needed to provide assistance to such projects in expanding on their understandings of community, articulating their own learnings, linking with others engaged in similar efforts. There is a need for forums in which these efforts are shared. There is a need to support and expand the existing efforts described above and to link the learning from these efforts to policy experiments.

Throughout the country, work that has community building as their center are occurring. As an example, we know that Michigan is pursuing a community building agenda in Detroit as part of the federal empowerment zone application and through several state initiatives such as "Communities First", an interagency initiative in poor communities in Michigan. Similarly, both Michigan and Indiana are pursuing comprehensive agendas to support local communities by working to remove disincentives for interagency collaboration. Information obtained from these initiatives will be useful in further summarizing the state of our knowledge and aid in clarifying those issues that need further investigation.


We are attempting to refocus our thinking in ways that have become foreign to our traditional approaches to human problems. Therefore, while certain specific outcomes from the processes described above can be articulated, it is also clear that additional outcomes will occur that cannot be predicted. In this process of discovery and rethinking our future, these unanticipated outcomes may, in fact, prove to be the most important. Clearly, ideas are powerful. Asking new and different questions has the potential to shift our paradigms dramatically and to unleash new visions, energy, and creativity. We will be looking for such occurrences during and following the course of this project and attempt to capture them as key elements in the process by which Community is built.

Shifts in the political landscape have made traditional distinctions between liberal and conservative less than meaningful. A more meaningful analysis would focus on the degree to which policy contributes or detracts from building community, promotion of inclusivity, support, and empowerment in our states, cities, and neighborhoods. However, our language and conceptual frameworks are so steeped in concepts of fragmentation, separation, categorization that we hardly know how to begin to address the complex issues involved. We need to move from articulating broad general statements about Community to practical actions. These include the development of effective policies, utilization of our limited resources in new ways, development of community-centered programs and initiatives, and conduct of needed research and policy studies. If we can move ahead in some small way in the directions discussed in this article, we have potential to provide an important base for drawing from the best of our past in living with one another to the creation of a better future.



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