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The Good Life? It’s Close to Home

Rebuilding families and neighborhoods around the gifts each of us offers.
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It took three weeks to visit all the men on the block. When they were done, they were amazed at what they had found: men who knew juggling, barbecuing, bookkeeping, hunting, haircutting, bowling, investigating crimes, writing poems, fixing cars, weightlifting, choral singing, teaching dogs tricks, mathematics, praying, and how to play trumpet, drums, and sax. They found enough talent for all the kids in the neighborhood to tap into. Three of the men they met—Charles Wilt, Mark Sutter, and Sonny Reed—joined Naomi, Jackie, and Mr. Thompson in finding out what the kids on the block were interested in learning.

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When they got together after interviewing the kids, Mark talked about a boy he met who knew about computers. Why not ask all the kids what they knew about? Then they could match adults to the kids, just as they planned to match up the kids with the grown-ups. When they were done, they found they had 22 things the young people knew that might interest some adults on the block.

The six neighbors named themselves the Matchmakers and, as they got more experience, they began to connect neighbors who shared the same interests. The gardeners’ team shared growing tips and showed four families how to create gardens—even on a flat rooftop! Several people who were worried about the bad economy created a website where neighbors who knew about available work could post job openings. To give it some flair, they found people in the neighborhood to take photos for the site and gradually opened it up for all sorts of neighborhood uses.

Jolene Cass, for instance, posted one of her poems on the website and asked if there were other poets on the block. It turned out there were three. They began to have coffee, share their writing, and post their poems online.

Eleven adults and kids formed the Block Band, and neighborhood singers formed a choir led by Sarah Ensley, an 80-year-old woman who’d been singing all her life.

Charles Dawes, a police officer, formed a team of adults and young people to make the block a safe haven for everyone.

Libby Green had lived on the block for 74 years. The Matchmakers got two neighborhood teenagers, Lenore Manse and Jim Caldwell, to write down her stories about the neighborhood and post them on the website.

Then Lenore decided to write family histories for everyone on the block, and persuaded Jim and her best friend, Lannie Eaton, to help her record the histories and round up photos to go along with them.

Charles Wilt suggested a way for the Matchmakers to welcome newcomers to the neighborhood and begin to connect them with their neighbors: give them a copy of the block history and get information about the new family’s history, skills, and interests.

Three years later, at the annual block party, Jackie Barton summed up what the neighborhood had accomplished:

“What we have done is broken all the lines. We broke the lines between the men. We broke the lines between the women. Then the lines were broken between the men and the women. And best of all, the lines were broken between the adults and the children and between all of us and our seniors. All the lines are broken; we’re all connected.  We’re a real community now.”

Seeing the Abundance in the Neighborhood

The story has the elements of what we can call a competent neighborhood. Creating competence starts with making visible the gifts of everyone in the neighborhood—the families, the young people, the old people, the vulnerable people, the troublesome people. Everyone. We do this not out of altruism, but to create the elements of a satisfying life.

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This thickens the social fabric. It makes the community’s gifts more widely available in support of the family. If we do it, even in small way, we find that much of what we once purchased is at hand: carpentry, Internet knowledge, listening, driving a truck, math, auto repair, organizing ability, gardening, haircutting, wallpapering, making videos, babysitting, house painting, accounting, soccer coaching, artistic abilities, cooking, fitness knowledge, sitting with the old or the ill, health remedies, sewing. And some of those things will come from the elderly, the young, the isolated, and the unemployed.

With the consciousness of our gifts and the ability to connect them and make them practical and usable, we experience the abundance of a community.

These local connections can give the modern family what the extended family once provided: A place with a strong culture of kin, friends, and neighbors. Together we raise our children, manage health, support local enterprise, and care for those on the margin.

When we become competent again and have families reclaim their functions, we see emerging from our community culture those essential qualities of a satisfying life: kindness, generosity, cooperation, forgiveness, and the ability to live with our common fallibilities. These will all be given a home and nurtured by families who have reclaimed their function.

John McKnight and Peter Block wrote this article for What Happy Families Know, the Winter 2011 issue of YES! Magazine. McKnight and Block are the co-authors of The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2010). 

McKnight is a community organizer and emeritus professor of education and social policy and co-director of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at Northwestern University. He is co-author of Building Communities from the Inside Out and author of The Careless Society.

Block is a citizen of Cincinnati, Ohio. He is a partner in Designed Learning, and is on the board of Cincinnati Public Radio and Elementz, a local Hip Hop Center for Youth. He is the author of Flawless Consulting, Stewardship, The Answer to How Is Yes, and Community: The Structure of Belonging.


  • More stories from What Happy Families Know, the Winter 2011 issue of YES! Magazine.
  • This Is My Family:
    8 personal essays on what family is today.
  • Homemade Prosperity:
    Caught in the consumer trap? Radical Homemaker Shannon Hayes discovered that producing what she needs at home lets her live on a fraction of what she thought she needed.

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