Community: The Structure of Belonging

by Scott London

In his much-discussed new book, Community: The Structure of Belonging, Peter Block makes a point of not trying to define a healthy and well-functioning community. The idea isn’t to create a visionary ideal for people to try to live up to, he says. Rather, it’s to encourage a shift in our way of thinking about community so we can bring about the qualities of an authentic sense of belonging. That, after all, is what community is really about.

Block’s approach sets this book apart from so many other works in the genre which try to map “best practices” or enumerate the essential features of a robust community. He understands that creating and sustaining a sense of belonging is fundamentally about the experience of community, not about it’s formal structures and mechanisms.

According to Block, the first and most pressing challenge is to transform people’s sense of isolation and self-interest into an experience of connectedness and caring for the whole. Creating that transformation requires a shift from seeing problems that need to be solved in the community to seeing possibilities that can be lived into. He writes at some length about “our love of problems,” saying that they run deeper than simply the joy of being right or escaping responsibility.

The problem is that we harbor a deeply ingrained belief that defining, analyzing, and studying problems is the way to make a better world. But what few of us realize, Block says, is that this notion — 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 would not 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.”

Block says that the key task for leaders in bringing about this shift is to create structures for authentic engagement. This means 1) creating a context that nurtures an alternative future, one based on gifts, generosity, accountability, and commitment; 2) initiating and convening conversations that shift people’s experience, which occurs through the way people are brought together and the nature of the questions used to engage them; and 3) listening and paying attention.

Block is especially adamant about convening conversations in small-group settings. The small group is “the unit of transformation,” he says, because it creates a sense of intimacy. “The intimacy makes the process personal. It provides the structure where people overcome isolation and where the experience of belonging is created.”

Once the groups are brought together in a space that is conducive to genuine dialogue, it’s important to ask the right questions. Some examples include: What’s the commitment you hold that brought you into this room? What’s the crossroads you face at this stage of the game? And, what’s your contribution to the very thing you complain about? These questions, Block says, have the capacity to move something forward. By exploring them we become more accountable, more committed, more vulnerable; and when we voice our answers to one another, we grow more intimate and connected.

While this is an eminently practical book, one full of hands-on strategies for transforming groups, organizations, and communities at large, it’s not a handbook. It’s really about how those of us who care about building and strengthening communities think about that challenge — the basic assumptions and conceptual models we bring to it. Community: The Structure of Belonging says, in effect, don’t worry too much about formal structures and mechanisms of community and consider instead what it would mean to create change from the inside out — the sort rooted in an authentic sense of connectedness and belonging.

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