an introduction


Over the last few years, there has been a virtual explosion of information, thinking, studies, and efforts at local and national levels to build comunity and better support families. In virtually every type of endeavor, from business to disability, community building is being seen as central to creating better outcomes and in addressing problems that face us. Similarly, virtually every discipline, hardly without exception, has writers and thinkers reconceptualizing their fields to include community building as a central focus. The disciplines range from education and social work to economics and business management.

While there is not a uniform defintion of community building, we do see key principles and themes beginning to emerge:

1. Relationships, a sense of belonging and community, caring, neighbor to neighbor helping are the critical foundation for community. The bonds of human beings are the basis for our lives.

2. As we approach the 21st century, more than ever the human race must find ways to value diversity in all its forms --race, culture, gender, sexual preference, ability, to create inclusive community.

3. Individuals need the support of community as well as family. Otherwise, the pressures and strains are too great for either family or personal health.

4. Forums in which caring of people in community must be strengthened, sustained, and sometimes simply created. Human services must take their rightful place as supporters rather than usurpers of such caring. "Marketing" an agency must take a back seat to policies and use of fiscal resources that support rather than fracture the natural caring of people in a community.

5. Local neighborhoods and communities themselves must be approached holistically. As we look at people holistically, so we must do with our communities. Thus, human relationships and supports, housing, economic development, and physical infrastructure must be considered as interacting concerns.

6. Finally, it is increasingly clear that multiple powerful forces are allied against community and towards competition, hatred, injustice, and fragmentation. Consequently, efforts to create community must be intentional, building a sense of community among individuals, groups, and organizations who are working towards these ends.

In 1990, for those who were beginning to think in terms of "community building", one felt alone and isolated. There was little visible literature. Some six years later, the term and concept underlying it appear almost everywhere. Below, some highlights of these movements, as they are presently understood, are outlined.


Over the last ten years a growing list of influential books have been published that have provided a forum for discussion of community building efforts. Seminal among these are two works of Robert Bellah and his colleagues -- HABITS OF THE HEART and THE GOOD SOCIETY. The former explored the degree to which a focus on individualism as undermined the quality of life in communities and threatens our social existence in the context of analyzing stories gathered from interviews of some 100 largely suburban dwellers in communities throughout the country. The Good Society explores these same themes by looking at the central institutions of our society -- schools, religion, business. These publications have kindled discussion, dialogue, and thinking like a match thrown on dry prarie grass. Numerous other publications, organizations, and networks have emerged over the last five to ten years.


Seminal also in this dialogue has been the work of JOHN MCKNIGHT and his colleagues at Northwestern University in Chicago. The 1994 publication of
BUILDING COMMUNITIES FROM THE INSIDE OUT articulated a new, "community building" approach to work in low income communities in cities and communities. Rather than seeing the deficits of low income neighborhoods and depending upon outside governmental sources and programs for aid, this Assets-based Community Development (ABCD) approach identifies the assets and resources in a community, develops strategies for linking these together, and pulls on the power, energy, and resources of the people in the neighborhood itself. Moving far beyond the ideas of "maximum feasible involvement" of the poor in government programs that were the unattained hallmark of Great Society programs, this approach says that community development must come from the people themselves, "from the inside out".

Trained as a community organizer by Saul Alinsky, McKnights writings articulated over the last 20 years and recently published in another book entitled COMMUNITY AND ITS COUNTERFEITS eschew the confrontational approach of his mentor and suggest, rather, that connecting the positive energy of people and harnessing the caring of the community by people themselves is the key to both human supports and economic development. The "green book", as the ABCD book described above is often called by its grassroots users, has clearly hit home to many people working towards these ideas in the field. Since its publication, McKnight reports, they have been receiving numerous calls requesting he and co-author John Kretzmann for speaking engagements about this approach. Out of this need, McKnight and some trusted colleagues from around the country are forming a semi-formal ABCD TRAINING INSTITUTE.

Beginning in the mid-1980's, a number of foundations began funding "community-building" projects using ideas similar to those later to be described in McKnight and Kretzman's publication. Annie E. Casey, the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and others began with separate efforts. In 1993, grassroots workers in these projects, involved academicians, foundation representatives, and some federal agency representatives formed the NATIONAL COMMUNITY BUILDING NETWORK as a way to link their efforts, promote sharing and learning, and influence public policy towards community building.

Throughout the United States, numerous community building initiatives are underway. THE ATLANTA PROJECT involves a comprehensive effort at economic, social, and housing revitalization. Other cities associated with the National Community Building Network that are illustrative of these efforts include: THE CLEVELAND COMMUNITY BUILDING INITIATIVE, BOSTON PERSISTENT POVERTY PROJECT.

Oakland, California has gained recognition for its efforts in community building at its establishment of a LOCALLY BASED INTERMEDIARY UNIT through the Urban Strategies Council to serve as a non-political and non-institutional entity to provide assistance to organizational coalitions and neighborhoods in community building efforts.


In 1993, the National Civic League pulled together a group of some 150 representatives from various organizations concerned with cities and local communities to explore the need for and interest in a coalition effort related to reinvgiorate civic life in the United States. The group wholeheartedly endorsedthe concept and the ALLIANCE FOR NATIONAL RENEWAL was born. As a coalition, the Alliance is attempting to foster a rebirth of civic involvement through publications, conferences, and online information regarding community building efforts throughout the country. They maintain a comprehensive resource listing of organizations throughout the country who are partners in the alliance.


In a similar vein, a range of people and organizations have been seeking new approaches to address concerns of people excluded and on the margins of our society. In the last twenty years, the approach taken has largely focussed on providing legal rights and protections for an increasing number of specially defined groups. Advocacy has occurred at local, state, and national levels largely based on the use of legal remedies. The tone has clearly been adversarial pitting the increasing number of identified victims against the system and against other groups seeking resources. Increasing number of writers, however, have illustrated how this has fragmented the society into increasingly warring factions. Syke's "A Nation of Victims" is illustrative of this trend. The debate over "multiculturalism" involves groups who insist on the identification with ethnic and cultural heritage on the one hand against those concerned that communities and the country are losing any common bond.

In this context, there are growing numbers of people who use the framework of INCLUSIVE COMMUNITY BUILDING as a way of suggesting that we can work towards a common bond of caring and respect which highlights, rather than extinguishes, celebration of differences. An important book is Joseph Campbell's The Remaking of America. In this book, he describes the cultural contributions of various "minority" groups to the foundations of the country as a whole ending with a call to community that respects diversity.

This way of thinking has been particularly important related to work with people with disabilities. New conceptual approaches and operational methods of supporting the celebration of diversity in real places are being developed and tried throughout the country. A wide ranging, but conceptually linked, set of efforts have been underway over the last 15 years that support "community inclusion" of people with disabilities and builds the capacity of the community itself.

The INCLUSIVE SCHOOLING movement is being most central in this effort. Moving well beyond efforts to "mainstream" students with mild disabilities in public schools where special assistance is provided in "pull-out" programs while their severely disabled counterparts were educated in separate classes or schools, inclusive education seeks a goal of including all students learning with "regular" students, no matter the degree of severity of the disability. However, supports and assistance to both teachers and students are provided in a regular classroom. For the first time, education of students with disabilities is impacting on the structure of the total school system rather than being seen as an add-on. This comes at an opportune time. Many school personnel see improvements in instructional and schooling practices -- cooperative learning, constructivist approaches to learning, student and teacher support teams -- not only as consistent with but integrally connected with inclusive education. As educators seek to build "communities of learners" in which students are actively involved in learning in diverse groups, inclusive education is seen by many as one more important opportunity to build problem-solving skills and emotional intelligence, to use Daniel Goldman's phrase of his book from the same title, of students. While controversial, school districts throughout the world are adopting inclusive education, or "inclusion" as some call it, as a way of doing business.


Many efforts are underway to improve schooling for children and youth in our country. A central element of this is a desire to move from schools run like hierarchical factories to classrooms which engender a sense of community, cooperation, and caring -- creating a "community of learners." These efforts have been stimulated from multiple perspectives. On the one hand, it is clear that children (and adults) learn more effectively when they are engaged in meaningful activities working in concert with others. Cooperative learning and authentic curriculum represent frameworks of strategies for incorporating these basic principles.

Other educators and researchers have investigated the impact of "tracking", group students of presumed similar functioning levels together. For some students, such as students with disabilities or even gifted students, the thinking that has promoted tracking results in their exclusion from the larger life of the school being relegated to separate classes or schools. Even for the many "mildly" disabled students in regular classes, they often leave their classes to obtain special help. As part of President Busch's efforts to improve education, numerous education reform efforts are occurring throughout the country in which "untracking" and heterogenous grouping of children is a basic practice. In Kentucky, well-researched efforts to create multi-age classrooms have resulted in higher educational achievement of students and created a sense of caring and community. Similarly, the national movement for "inclusion" or inclusive schooling, most often terms associated with students with disabilities, is similarly creating opportunities to value diversity, create a sense of safety and community, and promote increased educational outcomes simultaneously.

Finally, the link between "socialization" and "academics" is becoming clear. Often seen as opposites between which educators, communities, and parents must choose, recent studies and research based on brain functioning make it clear that in fact learning, emotions, and relationships are highly related. One cannot efficiently exist without the other. Goldman's recent book on EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE indicates that handling one's emotions and interpersonal relationships determines at least half of the success of an individual as opposed to sheer academic prowess and technical intelligence. Relatedly, Alfie Kohn in Beyond Discipline has challenged the traditional "behavior management" paradigms of schools suggesting that a focus on community and caring rather than control is the key to prevent behavioral problems. Researchers and community workers concerned about the prevention of violence in communities suggest similar strategies in their work in schools and communities as seen in Victor LaCuerva's recent book.


Individuals, organizations, and coalitions are attempting to build community throughout this country. Different strategies are being utilized in various arenas. At the central core, however, is the creation and strengthening of relationships of a group of people. Various intentional strategies are being utilized.

The FOUNDATION FOR COMMUNITY ENCOURAGEMENT, founded by writer and psychotherapist Scott Peck, is being increasingly important in the development, testing, and widespread use a specific approach to building community among a group of people. Throughout the country, series of workshops are being offered to bring people together and systematically provide experiences for facilitated sharing and bonding in which "community" in the deepest sense of the word is created.

For many years, of course, various "self-help" groups have created such caring and supportive community to assist people in dealing with specific areas of their lives which have been of concern to them -- the "addiction" groups starting with Alchoholics Anonymous are widespread throughout the country. While they speak less of the language of community building, this is clearly what occurs.

In other cases, groups who are excluded from the mainstream community come together for mutual support, again often around specific areas in their lives. Such groups often foster a sense of community albeit in substitution for a larger acceptance. In these cases, exclusion and isolation, the opposites of community, help create a safe place for bonding. However, it is also true that the dynamics that create the necessity for such groups are reflective of the need for a more inclusive approach to building community and supporting caring.

On a larger basis, a variety of efforts are occurring that bring people together in local communities to look at their common life together. These efforts provide opportunities for building relationships among local people while supporting their efforts to address concrete issues of concern. The Healthy Cities movement is one such effort that brings coalitions of individuals together to consider methods for improving the mental, physical, and spiritual health of communties.

A range of tools are being developed for collaborative planning that are conducive to community building. OPEN-SPACE TECHNOLOGY utilizes a process by which a group of people come together, create their own agenda, and work through a process out of which they leave with specific written plans and information. Related planning processes for groups including FUTURE SEARCH CONFERENCES and PATHWAYS TO ALTERNATIVE TOMORROWS WITH HOPE (PATH).

For individuals and families, similar types of planning and support tools are providing powerful opportunities, new social forms says John O'Brien, for people coming together for caring and support. CIRCLES OF SUPPORT bring family, neighbors, and professionals together around a person. PERSON-CENTERED PLANNING uses similar open processes among groups to help individuals and families plan in ways that build on strengths, focus on dreams. Started as alternatives to human services seen as controlling, bureaucratic, and restrictive, these tools are increasingly being merged with human service system reforms. In many cities and states, WRAP-AROUND SERVICES are attempting to at minimum more effectively coordinate human services putting families at the center and focussing on strengths. What clearly happens in all of these endeavors is that people come together to deal with issues in a way that is often fun, engaging, and conducive to enhancing relationships among those involved.


Concern for building a sense of caring and community is undergirding many efforts at economic revitalization, housing design, and the design and renovation of physical spaces in communities. Taking clues from Oldenberg's book THE GREAT GOOD PLACE which describes the importance of informal community "watering holes" and meeting places, some designers are looking for ways to encourage such interactions and relationship building on a comfortable basis.

The "communes" of the 1960's and their earlier 19th century counterparts are growing once again in the United States. In 1993, the FOUNDATION FOR INTENTIONAL COMMUNITY was formally reorganized and has been publishing the magazine COMMUNITIES. Such intentional communities appear to be growing again after drastic reductions at the end of the 60's and early 1970's.

While many intentional communites involve specific locations in rural areas set apart, a CO-HOUSING movement is also occuring in neighborhoods. In Co-Housing types of arrangements people live in typical neighborhoods and develop ways of sharing their lives as an intentional community. Neighbors may pool areas of backyards into a common space, identify a "common house" in which they share meals and activities. In other forms, houses may actually be designed for this purpose.


Community building efforts have found a congenial home with many leaders in the Clinton administration for whom "community" had been a central campaign theme and a focus brought to Washington by many appointees. The Community Service Act, Empowerment Zone legislation, and community building efforts embedded in HOPE legislation linked community service activities of youth, community-centered economic development, and housing for poor people in a loose but conceptually connected set of policy initiatives.

Community building is beginning to have some visibility as a policy alternative to typical liberal and conservative approaches. Michael Lerner in his book THE POLITICS OF MEANING has been an articulate spokesperson for approaches to policy that are grounded in a focus on building respectful relationships and caring in local communities.

From a slightly different but related perspective, Harvard academician Amitai Etzioni has provided leadership in formation of the COMMUNITARIAN NETWORK. This organization has provided a central forum and organizing focus for politicians, businessmen, academicians and others of "communitarian" persuasion to consider policy issues from a community building perspective. The network publishes quarterly journal, The Responsive Community, holds periodic conferences and seminars, and is active in public policy. THE COMMUNITY SPIRIT is a book that documents the platform of this highly influential network of individuals.


It is not presently clear what the overall and long-term impact of communitarian, community-building thinking and practice will be in the United States and the world. What is clear is that much action, thought, writing, and dialogue is occurring under this framework. Those involved appear to be energized in sensing that their approach seeks new ways of seeking justice, dignity, and human rights in a way that builds on strengths, seeks dialogue, and moves away from partisan conflict. That the language, action, and approaches engage the hope for healing and change is clear. What the future portends will, however, be seen.