Don’t rely on outsiders to organize your community

A famous community organizer came to the Downtown Eastside on Sept. 25th. But guess what? He didn’t tell us how to organize our community. His name is John McKnight and his official title is Professor of Education and Social Policy and Co-Director, Asset-Based Community Development Institute at North-western University in Chicago. He said Barrack Obama was his student years ago. But when he got here he said, “The wisdom is in your community and not from the outside.”

McKnight spoke at a community forum at the Japanese Hall. Almost the first thing he said was that he had read the Carnegie Community Action Project’s mapping report and it was the “best single asset map I have ever seen.” He then proceeded to list all of the DTES community assets set out in the report.

Then he talked about how important the image of a community is in whether or not, or how it can change. He said the image is created by the media, funders and health and service agencies. But he stopped short of saying that there are too many health and service agencies in the DTES.

McKnight also talked about a structure that he says enhances resident power. He said that resident based organizations where members do the work and aren’t paid should form an association of associations. No agencies, schools, libraries, business or government representatives should be part of this association for at least 2 years, he said.

Then they could be invited to attend and speak but not vote. “Don’t think about partnership and collaboration,” he said.

McKnight suggested a planning process where people from the neighbourhood and associations spend 2 days defining everything they need to make the neighbourhood better. Then they decide which things they can do themselves, which require themselves and help from outside and which require all outside help to get done.
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McKnight at Japanese Hall

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McKnight also talked about a “culture of giftedness.” This culture says to each resident, “This is a place where we know you have a gift, and we need it.” “Everyone who is paid,” said McKnight, “should say ‘no one deals with me without me understanding their gift.’”

The meeting was organized by organized by the UBC Learning Exchange and the Building Communities Society. Of about 80 people who attended only about 15 raised their hands to say they were DTES residents.

This may be because the event was on the day after cheque day and people were notified by email rather than posters.

I found the talk really interesting and valuable in the DTES context although I think McKnight probably underestimates the power of the dominant culture and the need for decent housing and incomes as a prerequisite for a healthy community. He also said that in one neighbourhood study, all the money put into social and human services and housing subsidies would have been enough to bring the low income people up to the poverty line. I am uncomfortable with this kind of thinking because it leads to undermining universal social programs and replacing them with right wing voucher systems where the poor have to compete with the wealthy for health, education and other services and they still have very little money.