Foundations of Community Leadership: Final Synthesis

If there were a central text from which many of the lessons in Foundations of Community Leadership sprung, I would attribute that text to Mike Green. In When People Care Enough to Act, Green, in collaboration with John O’Brien, delineates some fundamental tenets of his asset based community development training seminar with Henry Moore that was based on the work of John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann.

These tenets include the three qualities of effective community development, the three interconnected activities that produce strength in this regard, the mapping of assets instead of needs when confronting community development, and the notion of how to immediately and individually address practical applications of asset based community development.

The text in When People Care Enough to Act set an energetic tone of possibility that resonated throughout Foundations of Community Leadership. Even by virtue of the course’s endeavors into ecology, politics, and design thinking, the lessons gravitated toward the themes of asset based community development introduced by Green. Therein, we first observed the three qualities of effective community development.

These qualities are asset based, internally focused, and relationship driven. This means that we must first take account of what we already possess that can be wielded productively. We must then look internally and within our own immediate communities to recognize the gifts and assets that will drive development. Finally, we must concede the interconnectedness of our relationships with individuals, local associations, institutions, economies, and the physical world in our pursuit of lasting change.

Thinking of solutions in terms of assets, possibilities, and relationships is part of a linguistic and contextual shift discussed at length throughout Foundations of Community Leadership and its texts. These discussions are most consistently reiterated in Peter Block’s Community: The Structure of Belonging, in which the author and consultant builds on trading problems for their possibilities, the importance of how we gather, the linguistic nature of all transformation, and shifting a multifaceted paradigm of community engagement that continues to be marginalized in myriad respects.

In Community, Block posits, “the strategy for an alternative future is to focus on ways to shift context, build relatedness, and create a space for a more intentional possibility” (Block, 111). Much of the relatedness and belonging Block and Green discuss are presented by way of the paradigms in which we consider them. Relatedness, as it is defined in When People Care Enough to Act, “reminds us that communities only get strong through connections among people that permit people to give their gifts” (Green, 15). Belonging, then, is engendered through invitation and the ways in which we convene.

Throughout Community, Block maintains that the nature of all change is linguistic, and a conscious shift of language and how we engage one another is paramount to a paradigm of community in which lasting development is predicated on gifts and possibility. Moreover, Block knows as well as Green that opportunities only arise under conscious circumstances.

Another pillar of the Green reading was constructed of the three interconnected activities that produce strength in conscious community development: discovering local assets, connecting them, and creating opportunities. “When people join together in new connections and relationships” he writes, “they build power. When people become more productive together, they exercise their power to address problems and realize dreams” (Green, 17).

So how do we discover local assets? How can we connect them, and through them, create opportunities? Green goes on to explicate a community asset map that bridges local institutions, citizen associations, cultural groups, and individual gifts (Green, 30). Block, however, ascribes this venture into discovering assets and creating opportunities to six interrelated conversations. “After invitation”, he writes, referring to the myriad ways in which we can foster efficacious contexts of citizenship, “there are five other conversions for structuring belonging: possibility, ownership, dissent, commitment, and gifts” (Block, 123).

The conversation that refers to gifts reflects the individual assets discussed in When People Care Enough to Act, while the conversation of possibility echoes the mapping of community assets instead of needs when confronting issues of progress and development. The conversations of invitation and dissent encapsulate nuances of gathering that are integral to the process and product of asset based community development. It is within the conversations of ownership and commitment, however, that we can begin to analyze our individual responsibility in these gatherings, as well as our individual responsibility to the overall development of the community. Ownership is defined by accountability and questions of honest introspection, whereas commitment fosters an accountability to oneself, others, and outcomes, and is undermined by disingenuousness.

Benjamin R. Barber in Neither Leaders nor Followers speaks to ownership and commitment, while contextualizing political theory within a community context and exemplifying ideals of leadership in educators, therapists, and moderators. “Democracy”, he writes, “requires both effective leadership and vigorous citizenship; yet the conditions and consequences of leadership often seem to undermine civic vigor” (Barber, 95).

Barber goes on to justify this thesis by pointing to our own democracy, in which a leader-follower paradigm usurps the political leverage of the citizenry. He propounds the disenfranchisement of citizens is in consequence of their relinquishments of responsibility and failures to commit. “Our current weak form of democracy, relying on representation and preoccupied with leadership”, he writes, “ permits us to choose who governs us but does not allow us to be self-governing” (Barber, 109).

Dr. Peter Guy Northouse, in Leadership: Theory and Practice, contextualizes this leader-follower conundrum by arguing, “in traditional leadership, authority is often top-down; in the interactive type of leadership, authority and influence are shared. When leadership is defined in this manner, it becomes available to everyone” (Northouse, 6). This kind of interactive leadership is extended through the conversation of invitation, and grounded in principles of dissent, ownership, and commitment. Conversations of gifts and possibility inevitably follow. The final tenet of the Mike Green reading, to which I have yet to return since inducting it into this synthesis, involves addressing, immediately and individually, practical applications of asset based community development. After Green framed this question with an anecdote in which a doctor asked him what to do on Monday morning with what he learned regarding ABCD, I began to think of this quandary as the Monday morning question.

Its answer, as offered by Mike Green and Henry Moore in When People Care Enough to Act, points to the ubiquitous utility in focusing on assets and possibility over problems. The duo further cite agencies that lead by stepping back, and suggest the implementation of derivative frameworks. Peter Block, however, may be inclined to structure a comparable response around conversations of gifts and invitation. Block would also likely address the importance of curating the most inviting and effective context for Monday morning.

Perhaps Northouse and Barber, then, would approach the Monday morning question from a platform more aligned with that of Block, for Block may also well assert the necessity of honest introspection in order to attempt to foster an immediate accountability to oneself, others, and outcomes. Northouse would surely approach the question in terms of styles and traits of effective leadership, invoking conversations of ownership and commitment, among others. Barber would expound on the political deficiencies these relinquishments breed, citing a national need for enhanced lateral communication and civic reorientation in how we approach Monday morning differently.

Over the eight weeks of this course, I was able to contextualize different approaches to a figurative Monday morning by observing two civic gatherings for a community based learning project. After considering how Peter Block or Mike Green (or Peter Northouse or Ben Barber) may undertake the Monday morning question, I would say that if I could offer three insights from the gatherings I attended, they would all relate to the dynamics cultivated by the leaders of these meetings. This project gave me the opportunity to witness two Monday mornings, in a sense, and in them, I saw two vastly disparate notional spaces.

First, in a Portland City Council meeting on July 15, I noticed a lack of ownership that set the tone of the gathering with a deflection in the name of COVID-19. Immediately blaming the circumstances under which everyone convened, citing possible technical annoyances, there was an explicit disavowal of ownership. Before anything else, the mayor made a point of crediting potential technical difficulties for however poorly the meeting may go, immediately washing his own hands of responsibility, and further stripping anyone else of the possibility of commitment or ownership. As Block posits in Community, “engagement, and the accountability that grows out of it, occurs when we ask people to be in charge of their own experience and act on the well being of the whole” (Block, 88).

In his chapter on leadership as convening, Block proposes, “. . . the core task of a leader is to create the conditions for civic or institutional engagement” (Block, 86). Ben Barber may then measure the success of this leader by his ability to boast of his eventual superfluousness (Barber, 104). My second and third insights from the community based learning project come from a Northwest District Neighborhood Association gathering, where I saw embodied the precepts of convening leadership and moderation.

In this gathering, its leader appeared cognizant of his core task in structuring a virtual and psychological space, and after welcoming me as an observer, and then others new to the group, he fell quietly and intently into the background, asking clarifying questions or facilitating formalities as needed. Management educator and author Russ Linden may categorize the quality the leader of this neighborhood association gathering typified as one representative of using more pull than push. In his article on the five qualities of collaborative leaders, Linden writes, “when people feel free to act, the result is usually commitment, not passive compliance”, and I believe that is exactly what I witnessed at this gathering (Linden, 6).

My final insight from the Northwest District Neighborhood Association gathering may also be observed by one of Linden’s qualities of collaborative leaders. Although not actually specific to the facilitator of the meeting, I noticed the quality of strategic thinking and connecting the project to a larger purpose on the part of many participants (Linden, 10).

For instance, in discussion of the association’s response to a developer decimating a historical site along with twelve affordable housing units, one member proposed taking the fight to the legislature and fixing the policies that allow such predatory housing acquisitions rather than fighting the specific developer, who had already legally acquired all rights to the property. The same member went on to point out that in his thirty years in the association, he has only seen the same problems reoccur due to institutional allowances.

This ability to think ahead and contextualize things in the grander scheme is integral to leadership in American politics, especially at the national level, and this quality of leadership is just one of many links between asset based community development and the positions of institutional leadership toward which I endeavor.

Before discussing the future, however, it may be of use to mention a time in my life where I have experienced poor civic leadership. While it may sound somewhat trite in the context of the many students in this class who live in Portland, my first thought was of Mayor Ted Wheeler. For months now, he has brazenly endangered his constituents and has been unrelenting to my fellow comrades and me who have been protesting the brutality of his racist police force. Fighting this kind of cowardly authoritarianism has been my past, it is my present, and will be my future until there is an end to the structural and institutional racism and violence that is the status quo.

That said, my immediate future will be defined more by the remainder of my education than any active roles of leadership in my civic life. Still, even amid a lethal pandemic, unprecedented social tumult, and financial burdens necessitating different ways to engage with my community each day, I can find ways to incorporate what I have learned from Foundations of Community Leadership into my schooling.

For example, group projects now seem much less daunting as I can approach them from an asset based mindset of possibility. One of my own gifts is that of gift management, and I find immense satisfaction in the culmination of well appropriated gifts. Further, I am now better able to consciously construct notional spaces, as per Parker J. Palmer, who writes in Healing the Heart of Democracy,“the wellspring of all notional space is the human heart” (Palmer, 152).

I felt some of the edges of my heart soften throughout the weeks of engaging with the people and materials in this course, and I look forward to bringing what I have learned here into my future work as a student and civic leader.

Works Cited:

Barber, Benjamin R. A Passion for Democracy: American Essays. Princeton University Press, 2000.

Block, Peter. Community: the Structure of Belonging. Berrett-Koehler, 2009.

Green, Mike, et al. When People Care Enough to Act: ABCD in Action. Inclusion Press, 2009.

Linden, Russ. vol. 42, ser. 3, InTouch, 2010, The 5 Qualities of Collaborative Leaders— and How Communities Benefit.

Northouse, Peter Guy. Introduction to Leadership: Concepts and Practice. SAGE Publications, Inc., 2021.

Palmer, Parker J. Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit. Jossey-Bass, 2014.