The most basic human needs for a happy and healthy life are food, water and shelter, but there’s another essential building block required for a well-rounded society: belonging. In Peter Block’s book Community: The Structure of Belonging (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2009), he explores how we can become better connected citizens on a local level. Here, he introduces the concept, followed by a series of excerpts from his book.
There was a time when belonging and association were built into our culture. The French historian Alexis de Tocqueville traveled to America in 1823 and had one overriding impression: Unlike Europe, Americans are a people drawn to volunteerism and associational life.
Times have changed.
After World War II, much of the Western world climbed the ladder and lost touch with each other. We romanticized mobility, built the highway system and raced to the suburbs. We went in search of home ownership and wanted to live among like-minded people. We chose individuality over belonging, idealized the middle-class career, sacrificed the extended family and adopted a certain “standard of living”—code phrase for consumption—as our goal in life.
This definition of the “good life” has been the domestic narrative for some 200 years. We’ve become a full consumer society, but if you look closely at your own experience and the larger world, you can see how this belief in growth, expansion, mobility and technology has reached its limits. Relationally, despite the fact that we can text and use Instagram 24/7, we’re more isolated. Economically, we’ve lost our sense of security and a knowable future.
Fortunately, there’s a counter-narrative emerging. Our spirit is being renewed. We’re moving closer to one another. Small is replacing scale, slow is replacing fast, few are replacing many. There’s an alternative economy emerging, and it includes micro-financing, cooperative enterprise, 50-mile food hubs and living within reach and walking distance.
The attraction to this counter-narrative isn’t just about lifestyle. It isn’t about the land and the air and the water. It’s an awakening of our early cultural instincts to care for the common good, to acknowledge that we belong to each other. That we need each other to fulfill what we really care about. As the seductions of the American Dream evaporate, we’re realizing that to raise a child to be healthy and to be safe, we have to inhabit a geographical place with people who provide something constant.
To experience a sense of belonging, we need to reclaim our humanity and place more value on the power of relationships. We need to be with people and in situations where our fallibility is accepted rather than treated as something to be fixed. We need to reclaim time, to have time on our hands, time to waste, time for unplanned conversation, time for biding our time. These qualities of belonging are always available to us. Awakening our sense of belonging isn’t about remembering the past; it’s a re-membering, as in putting our limbs and ourselves back together.
Community is about the experience of belonging. We’re in community each time we find a place where we belong. The word belong has two meanings. First and foremost, to belong is to be related to and a part of something. It’s membership, the experience of being at home in the broadest sense of the phrase. It’s the opposite of thinking that “wherever I am, I’d be better off somewhere else.” Or “I’m still forever wandering, looking for that place where I belong.” The opposite of belonging is to feel isolated and always (all ways) on the margin, an outsider. To belong is to know, even in the middle of the night, that I’m among friends.
The second meaning of the word belong has to do with being an owner: Something belongs to me. To belong to a community is to act as a creator and co-owner of that community. What I consider mine I will build and nurture. The work is to seek a wider and deeper sense of emotional ownership in our communities; it means fostering a sense of ownership and accountability among all of a community’s citizens.
Belonging can also be thought of as a longing to be. Being is our capacity to find our deeper purpose in all that we do. It’s the capacity to be present and to discover our authenticity and whole selves. This is often thought of as an individual capacity, but it’s also a community capacity. Community is the container within which our longing to be is fulfilled.
The need to create a structure of belonging grows out of the isolated nature of our lives, our institutions and our communities. The absence of belonging is so widespread that we might say we’re living in an age of isolation, imitating the lament from early in the previous century, when life was referred to as the age of anxiety. Ironically, today we talk about how small our world has become, with the shrinking effect of globalization, instant sharing of information, quick technology, workplaces that operate around the globe. Yet these don’t necessarily create a sense of belonging. They provide connection, diverse information, an infinite range of opinion. But all this doesn’t create the connection from which we can become grounded and experience the sense of safety that arises from a place where we’re emotionally, spiritually and psychologically a member.
Our isolation occurs because Western culture, our individualistic narrative, the inward attention of our institutions and our professions and the messages from our media all fragment us. We’re broken into pieces.
One aspect of our fragmentation is the gaps between sectors of our cities and neighborhoods; businesses, schools, social service organizations, churches and government operate mostly in their own worlds. Each piece is working hard on its own purpose, but parallel effort added together doesn’t make a community. Our communities are separated into silos; they’re a collection of institutions and programs operating near one another but not overlapping or touching. This is important to understand because it’s this dividedness that makes it so difficult to create a more positive or alternative future—especially in a culture that’s much more interested in individuality and independence than in interdependence. The work is to overcome this fragmentation.
To create the sense that we’re safe and among friends, especially those we’ve not yet met, is a particular challenge for our cities and rural towns. The dominant narrative about our cities is that they’re unsafe and troubled. Those we label “homeless” or “ex-offenders” or “disabled” or “at risk” are the most visible people who struggle with belonging, but isolation and apartness is also a wider condition of modern life. This is as true in our gated communities and suburbs as in our urban centers.
The cost of our detachment and disconnection isn’t only our isolation, our loneliness, but also the fact that there are too many people in our communities whose gifts remain on the margin. Filling the need for belonging isn’t just a personal struggle for connection, but also a community problem. The effects of the fragmentation of our communities show up in low voter turnout, the struggle to sustain volunteerism and the large portion of the population who remain disengaged. The struggle is also the reality for the millions of people around the world who are part of today’s diaspora—the growing number of displaced people unable to return to their homeland, living and raising their children in a permanent state of transition.
Community offers the promise of belonging and calls for us to acknowledge our interdependence. To belong is to act as an investor, owner and creator of this place. To be welcome, even if we are strangers. As if we came to the right place and are affirmed for that choice.
To feel a sense of belonging is important because it will lead us from conversations about safety and comfort to other conversations, such as our relatedness and willingness to provide hospitality and generosity. Hospitality is the welcoming of strangers, and generosity is an offer with no expectation of return. These are two elements that we want to nurture as we work to create, strengthen and restore our communities. This will not occur in a culture dominated by isolation, and its correlate, fear.
One key perspective is that, to create a more positive and connected future for our communities, we must be willing to trade their problems for their possibilities. This trade is what’s necessary to create a future for our cities and neighborhoods, organizations and institutions—a future that’s distinct from the past.
To create an alternative future, we need to advance our understanding of the nature of communal or collective transformation. We know a good deal about individual transformation, but our understanding about the transformation of human systems, such as our workplaces, neighborhoods and towns, is primitive at best and too often naive in the belief that, if enough individuals awaken and become intentional and compassionate beings, the shift in community will follow.
The kind of future we’re primarily interested in is the way in which communities—whether in the workplace or neighborhood, rural town or urban center—create a wider sense of belonging among their citizens.
This is why we shouldn’t be focused on individual transformation. Individual transformation is the more popular conversation, and the choice to not focus on it is because we’ve already learned that the transformation of large numbers of individuals doesn’t result in the transformation of communities. If we continue to invest in individuals as the primary target of change, we’ll spend our primary energy on this and never fully invest in communities. In this way, individual transformation comes at the cost of community.
A shift in community benefits from shifts in individual consciousness but needs a communal connectedness as well, a communal structure of belonging that produces the foundation for the whole system to move. This is why it’s so frustrating to create high performance and consciousness in individuals, and in individual institutions, and then find that they have so little impact on the social capital or fabric of the community.
Collective change occurs when individuals and small diverse groups engage one another in the presence of many others doing the same. It comes from the knowledge that what’s occurring in one space is similarly happening in other spaces, especially ones where I don’t know what they’re doing. This is the value of a network, or even a network of networks, which is today’s version of a social movement.
To stay with this thinking—that communal transformation is about the structure of gathering, letting the right questions evolve and going slow with fewer numbers of people than we’d like—we have to continue to shed certain conventional notions. For example, the dominant belief is that better or more leadership, programs, funding, expertise, studies, training and master plans are the ways to build community. Unfortunately, trying harder at these things gives us just a little more of what we already have. They’re the path to improvement but not to transformation. Better leadership, funding, training and the like are about fixing a set of symptoms or problems, which is the conventional conversation. What we want to explore is that way of thinking and being in community that allows our goodwill to make a real difference. These are ways of thinking and being that can help us choose a new context and find more effective ways to improve our structure of belonging.
The future is created one room at a time, one gathering at a time. Each gathering needs to become an example of the future we want to create. This means the small group is where transformation takes place. Large-scale transformation occurs when enough small group shifts lead to the larger change. Small groups have the most leverage when they meet as part of a larger gathering. At these moments, citizens experience the intimacy of the small circle and are simultaneously aware that they’re part of a larger whole that shares their concerns.
The small group gains power with certain kinds of conversations. To build community, we seek conversations where people show up by invitation rather than mandate and experience an intimate and authentic relatedness. We have conversations where the focus is on the communal possibility and there’s a shift in ownership of this place, even though others are in charge. We structure these conversations so that diversity of thinking and dissent are given space, commitments are made without barter and the gifts of each person and our community are acknowledged and valued.
Communal transformation is best initiated through those times when we gather. It’s when groups of people are in a room together that a shift in context is noticed, felt and reinforced. This means that each gathering takes on a special importance as a leading indicator of the future. Every meeting or special event is that place where context can be shifted, relatedness can be built and new conversation can be introduced. The times that we gather are when we draw conclusions about what kind of community we live in.
The small group is the structure that allows every voice to be heard. It’s in groups of 3 to 12 that intimacy is created. This intimate conversation makes the process personal. It provides the structure where people overcome isolation and where the experience of belonging is created. Even though we may be in a room filled with a large number of people we’ll never meet, by having made intimate contact with a couple of people in our small work group we’re brought into connection with all others. The small group is the bridge between our own individual existence and the larger community. In the small group discussion, we discover that our own concerns are more universal than we imagined. This discovery that we’re not alone—that others can at least understand what’s on our mind, if not agree with us—is what created the feeling of belonging. When this occurs in the same place and time, in the presence of a larger community, the collective possibility begins to take form and have legs.
The power of the small group cannot be overemphasized. Something almost mystical, certainly mysterious occurs when citizens sit in a small group, for they often become more authentic and personal with each other there than in other settings. Designing small-group conversations is so simple that it rarely receives the attention and importance it deserves.
After we finish giving speeches about the virtues of our neighborhood and city, we love to elaborate their problems. For years we’ve studied and reported the problems of housing, health care, the environment, youth at risk, race, the disabled, poverty, unemployment, public education, the crisis in transportation and drugs. These problems are studied by academics and fueled by talk radio and the AM band, which serves as a place for hosts and citizens to argue, debate and complain about who’s right or wrong and who needs to change. Talk radio and TV are the visible barometers of our attachment to the context giving primacy to problems.
Our love of problems runs deeper than just the joy of complaint, being right or escape from responsibility. The core belief from which we operate is that an alternative or better future can be accomplished by more problem solving. We believe that defining, analyzing and studying problems is the way to make a better world. It’s the dominant mind-set of Western culture.
This context—that life is a set of problems to be solved—may actually limit any chance of the future being different from the past. The interest we have in problems is so intense that at some point we take our identity from those problems. Without them, it seems like we wouldn’t know who we are as a community. Many of the strongest advocates for change would lose their sense of identity if the change they desired ever occurred.
To shift to some other context, we need to detach ourselves from the discussions of problems. One payoff for believing that problems and the suffering in our cities are the inevitable products of modern life and culture is that it lets us off the hook. The payoff begins the moment we believe that problems reside in others and that they’re the ones who need to change. We displace or assign to others certain qualities that have more to do with us than with them. This is called projection, an idea most of us are quite familiar with. I discuss it here because if we don’t take back our projections, a new context and conversation are simply not possible. The essence of our projection is that it places accountability for an alternative future on others. This is the payoff of stereotyping, prejudice and a bunch of “isms” that we’re all familiar with. This is what produces the “other.” The reward is that it takes the pressure off of us. It’s a welcome escape from our freedom. We project onto leaders the qualities or disappointments that we find too much to carry ourselves. We project onto the stranger, the wounded, the enemy those aspects of ourselves that are too much to own.
Projection denies the fact that my view of the “other” is my creation, and this is especially true with how we view our communities and the people in them. Most simply, how I view the other is an extension or template of how I view myself. This insight is the essence of being accountable. To be accountable is to act as an owner and creator of what exists in the world, including the light and dark corners of my own existence. It’s the willingness to focus on what we can do in the face of whatever the world presents to us. Accountability doesn’t project or deny; accountability is the willingness to see the whole picture that resides within, even what’s not so pretty.
The projection is the attribution we make, the conclusions we draw and the fact that all we see in them is what’s missing. When we believe that the “other” is the problem and that transformation is required of them and not of us, we become the beneficiaries of their suffering in the world. Some of us make a living off of their deficiencies. We study their needs, devise professions to service them, create institutions dependent on the existence of these deficiencies. All done with sincere intent and in the name of virtue.
To continue as a community to focus on the needs and deficiencies of the most vulnerable isn’t an act of hospitality. It substitutes labeling for welcoming. It’s isolating in that they become a special category of people, defined by what they cannot do. This isolates the most vulnerable. Despite our care for them, we don’t welcome them into our midst, we service them. They become objects. This may be why it’s easier to raise money for suffering in distant places or to celebrate the history of slavery’s end than it is to raise money for our neighbors on the margin who are six blocks away. Their proximity stands in the way of our compassion.
In our philanthropy, this mind-set that the “other” is the problem means that we need to wait for them to change before the change we want in the world can come to pass. And until they change, we need to stay distant and contain them. This diverts us from the realization that we have the means, the tools, the thinking to create a world we want to inhabit, and to do it for all. If we saw others as another aspect of ourselves, we’d welcome them into our midst. We’d let them know that they belong, that they’re neighbors, with all their complexity.
Restorative community is created when we allow ourselves to use the language of healing and relatedness and belonging without embarrassment. It recognizes that taking responsibility for one’s own part in creating the present situation is the critical act of courage and engagement, which is the axis around which the future rotates. The essence of restorative community building isn’t economic prosperity or the political discourse or the capacity of leadership; it’s citizens’ willingness to own up to their contribution, to be humble, to choose accountability and to have faith in their own capacity to make authentic promises to create the alternative future.
This means that the essential aspect of the restoration of community is a context in which each citizen chooses to be accountable rather than entitled.
Accountability is the willingness to care for the whole, and it flows out of the kind of conversations we have about the new story we want to take our identity from. It means we have conversations of what we can do to create the future. Entitlement is a conversation about what others can or need to do to create the future for us.
Restoration begins when we think of community as a possibility, a declaration of the future that we choose to live in. This idea of a communal possibility is distinct from what we commonly call an individual possibility. Community is something more than a collection of individual longings, desires or possibilities.
The communal possibility has its own landscape, and its own dynamics, requirements and points of leverage. In the individualistic world we live in, we can congregate a large collection of self-actualized people and still not hold the idea or experience of community. The communal possibility rotates on the question “What can we create together?” This emerges from the social space we create when we’re together. It’s shaped by the nature of the culture within which we operate but isn’t controlled by it. This question of what we can create together is at the intersection of possibility and accountability. Possibility without accountability results in a wishful thinking. Accountability without possibility creates despair, for even if we know we’re creating the world we exist in, we cannot imagine it being any different from the past that got us here.
The future of a community then becomes a choice between a retributive conversation (a problem to be solved) and a restorative conversation (a possibility to be lived in). Restoration is a possibility brought into being by choosing that kind of conversation. And with that conversation it becomes real and tangible, for once we’ve declared a possibility, and done so with a sense of belonging and in the presence of others, that possibility has been brought into the room, and thus into the institution, into the community.
The key phrase here is “in the presence of others.” A possibility—when declared publicly, witnessed by others with whom we have a common interest, at a moment when something is at stake—is a critical element of communal transformation. This public conversation creates a larger relatedness and transcends a simply individual transformation. Conversations of possibility gone public aren’t all that restores, but without them personal and private conversations of possibility have no political currency and therefore no communal power.
What these have in common is the movement from centrism and individualism to pluralism and interdependent communalism. This shift has important consequences for our communities. It offers to return politics to public service and restore our trust in leadership. It moves us from having faith in professionals and those in positions of authority to having faith in our neighbors. It takes us into a context of hospitality, wherein we welcome strangers rather than believing we need to protect ourselves from them. It changes our mindset from valuing what’s efficient to valuing the importance of belonging. It helps us to leave behind our penchant for seeing our disconnectedness as an inevitable consequence of modern life and moves us toward accountability and citizenship.
Copyright 2009 by Peter Block. Reprinted with permission from Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Special thanks to Rokas Darulis at Saint Luke, Damian Flack, Claudia Difra, Eve Delf, Francis Lane, David Lamb, Keyleen Nguyen, Rebecca Wordingham at Saint Luke, Holly Moore, Cathy Butterworth, Jose Quijano at D+V Management and Prana Production
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