Half empty, or half full?

In the 1970s and '80s, John McKnight and John Kretzmann studied hundreds of urban neighborhoods. "We were looking for neighborhoods where people were growing power to solve economic, social, and political problems." Without exception, they found that communities empower themselves by focusing on their gifts, capacities, and assets rather than on their needs or deficiencies.

"It is clear that every individual has needs or deficiencies. It is also clear that every individual has gifts and capacities. This fact reminds us of a glass of water filled to the middle. The glass is half full and it is half empty."

"Think of a carpenter who has lost one leg in an accident. Clearly, he has a deficiency. We cannot build our community with that information. But if we know he has a capacity as a woodworker, that information can literally build our community."

In response to the desperate situation in many of America's cities, writes McKnight, "well-intended people are seeking solutions by taking one of two divergent paths. The first, which begins by focusing on a community's needs, deficiencies, and problems, is still by far the most traveled, and commands the vast majority of our financial and human resources. By comparison with the second path, which insists on beginning with a clear commitment to discovering a community's capacities and assets, and which is the direction this guide recommends, the first and more traditional path is more like an eight-lane superhighway."

"For most Americans, the names South Bronx or South Central Los Angeles or even Public Housing call forth a rush of images. They are images of crime and violence, of joblessness and welfare dependency, of gangs and drugs and homelessness, of vacant and abandoned land and buildings. They are images of needy and problematic and deficient neighborhoods populated by needy and problematic and deficient people."

"Once accepted as the whole truth about troubled neighborhoods, this 'needs' map determines how problems are to be addressed, through deficiency-oriented policies and programs. Public, private, and nonprofit human-service systems, often supported by university research and foundation funding, translate the programs into local activities that teach people the nature and extent of their problems, and the value of services as the answer to their problems. As a result, many lower-income urban neighborhoods are now environments of service. Residents come to believe that their well-being depends upon being a client. They begin to see themselves as people with special needs that can only be met by outsiders. They become consumers of services, with no incentive to be producers."

It hasn't always been this way. Many communities in the United States were built by outcasts and migrants from other places who pooled their gifts and capacities, rather than focusing on each others' needs and defects. In part because of the massive increase in needs-serving institutions since World War II, says McKnight, universities, foundations, government, and the media have adopted this focus.

In the case of the one-legged woodworker, "our community needs his good leg. But the rehabilitation center in a nearby city needs his missing leg."

"There's a struggle going on, between those institutions that need needs, and those people who are mobilizing the gifts and assets of their communities. This struggle is never carried out in the abstract--it occurs each day in the relations of people, the budget decisions of systems, and the public portraits of the media." These behaviors and decisions, McKnight says, reveal three visions of society.

  1. The therapeutic vision, where the individual is primarily a client and consumer. Well-being comes from professionals and their services. There are professionals to meet every need, they charge fees, and people have a "right to treatment."
  2. The advocacy vision, where labeled people--farmworkers, developmentally disabled, consumers--will be protected from an alien world by advocacy groups.
  3. The community vision, where people's gifts are shared and their fallibilities accommodated, where care can replace service or advocacy, and where labeled people are integrated rather than segregated.

"There is a mistaken notion that our society has a problem in terms of effective human services. Our essential problem is weak communities."

Some of these excerpts are from John P. Kretzmann and John L. McKnight, Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community's Assets ($20 from ACTA Publications, 1-800-397-2282).

See also Institution or Association? A basic choice for community efforts