Flipping the Script
Taking ownership in contexts that excuse passivity.
Last week, we explored the effects of closing doors and creating boundaries, however temporary, that set apart a gathering to give it definition. The defined audience paired with a sharp purpose leads to much more meaningful gatherings.
But let’s think a bit more about our gatherings. Let’s consider something like a community or an HOA meeting. These groups typically have tightly defined audiences and somewhat meaningful purposes (on paper anyway), so why are they typically so miserable?
A lingering question that’s important to address upfront: How is this practical to me? You said this would stay practical for a few weeks, so what gives?
I think it’s safe to say that, for most of us, at one point or another, we will have to engage in a group or broader community for one reason or another. While you may not be leading it, having a clear understanding of how meaningful groups and communities can function makes it easier for you to engage in or, if you find yourself involved in leadership, to lead towards a beneficial future.
Much like last week, I am taking the position here that building communities that people can belong to is our top and worthy goal. If you disagree with that point, that’s all right.
In Community: The Structure of Belonging, Peter Block makes the case that the typical context for our gatherings leads us to the committee meeting that no one wants to attend. He describes the current state of things as “the existing community,” and notes:
The existing community context is one that markets fear, assigns fault, and worships self-interest. This context supports the belief that the future will be improved with new laws, more oversight, and stronger leadership. Possibility thinking and association life are marginalized, relegated to human interest and side stories in the media.1
Over the following pages and chapters, Block lays out a great discussion that is quite challenging to the way I have personally thought and been told about community building. I think it’s easy to read a book like this and dismiss it out of hand for being from the “wrong” political perspective, but what I find in careful study is a truth that cuts across party lines: the way we have gotten to the current state of general dysfunction in our communities is not the responsibility of a specific group, but is a shared responsibility of us all.
So how do we change this course? A better understanding of what it means to be a citizen in the first place.
The conventional definition of citizenship is concerned with the act of voting and taking a vote to uphold the constitution and laws of a country. This is narrow and limiting… To construe the essence of citizenship primarily as the right to vote reduces its power–as if voting ensures a democracy…
When we think of citizens as just voters, we reduce them to being consumers of elected officials and leaders. We see this most vividly at election time, when candidates become products, issues become the message, and the campaign is a marketing and distribution system for the selling of the candidate.2
So how do we work through this? We invert it.
The step from thinking of ourselves as effect to thinking of ourselves as cause is the act of inversion that creates a culture of citizen accountability. This is the point on which accountability revolves…
This means that the possibility of an alternative future centers on the question, “Have we chosen the present or has it been handed to us?”3
So the reason our gatherings are so terrible is that the underlying context that supports them creates a one-way relationship that centers on leaders figuring out the solutions to our problems. To resolve this, we have to rethink our enter context of engaging in any group dynamic. We move from a predisposition of receiving to a predisposition of giving.
…transformation occurs when we focus on the structure of how we gather and the context in which the gatherings take place; when we work hard on getting the questions right; when we choose depth over speed and relatedness over scale…
Community transformation calls for citizenship that shifts the context from a place of fear and fault, law and oversight, corporation and “systems,” and preoccupation with leadership to one of gifts, generosity, and abundance; social fabric and chosen accountability; associational life and the engagement of citizens. These shifts occur as citizens face each other in conversations of ownership and possiblity.4 (emphasis mine)
So, how do we make our HOA meetings better? The committee meeting where everyone is full of ideas but no one is taking action? We invert the narrative. We move the context from one of passive engagement, waiting on people to do things for us to one of active participation.
Some parting questions for reflection:
What contexts limit the amount of engagement you feel like you can have in a particular area that you may want to get engaged in but feel held back?
How can you flip the narrative to “citizen ownership,” whatever that means in your particular context, in a group you are involved in?
How do you further fear, fault, and self-interest in the groups you are involved in, even unintentionally?
As Dr. Seuss said,
Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
Nothing is going to get better. It's not.5
See you again next week!
Notes & Further Reading
One great thing I love about Block’s writing is that he conveniently summarizes the chapter content in 1-2 paragraphs at the beginning of each chapter. Several of the pieces I’ve quoted here come from these summaries.
This book definitely challenges political narratives from the left and right. If you are easily triggered, probably not a good read as your gut reaction frequently will be to disagree with something.