The Art of Community

in Asset-Based Community Development, Comprehensive Community Initiatives

Excerpts from Chapter 1 of The Art of Community, by Jono Bacon. Note from the author: When I started work on The Art of Community I was really keen that it should be a body of work that all communities have access to. My passion behind the book was to provide a solid guide to building, energizing and enabling pro-active, productive and enjoyable communities. I wanted to write a book that covered the major areas of community leadership, distilling a set of best practices and experiences, and illustrated by countless stories, anecdotes and tales.

But to give this book real value, I was keen to ensure the book could be freely accessed and shared. I wanted to not only break down the financial barrier to the information, but also enable communities to share it to have the content be as useful as possible in the scenarios, opportunities and problems that face them. To make this happen O’Reilly needed to be on board to allow the book to be freely copied and shared, in an era in which these very freedoms threaten the publishing world.

But they came through. Thanks to the incredible support of Andy Oram, my founding editor for the book, O’Reilly were hugely supportive of the project and our desire to break down these barriers.

Today I am pleased to announce the general availability of The Art Of Community under a Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license.

Main points

A sense of belonging is what keeps people in communities. This belonging is the goal of community building. The hallmark of a strong community is when its members feel that they belong.

Belonging is our goal. It is that nine-letter word that you should write out in large letters and stick on your office wall. It is that word that should be at the forefront of your inspiration behind building strong community. If there is no belonging, there is no community.

Belonging is the measure of a strong social economy. This economy’s currency is not the money that you find in your wallet or down the back of your couch, but is social capital.

The first known use of the term “social capital” (referred to in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community [Simon & Schuster]) was by L. J. Hanifan, a school supervisor in rural Virginia. Hanifan described social capital as “those tangible substances [that] count for most in the daily lives of people: namely goodwill, fellowship, sympathy, and social intercourse among the individuals and families who make up a social unit….”

For an economy and community to be successful, the participants need to believe in it. If no one believes in the community that brings them together, it fails.

For an economy to work, every participant needs to believe in the economy. Belief is a critical component in how any group of people or animals functions. This can be belief in God, belief in values, or belief in a new future. Whatever the core belief is, the economy and the community can be successful only if everyone has faith in it.

Like any other economy, a social economy is a collection of processes that describe how something works and is shared between those who participate.

An economy is a set of shared concepts and processes that grow and change in an effort to generate a form of capital. In a financial economy, participants put goods and services on the market to generate financial capital. The processes and techniques they use include measuring sales, strategic marketing, enabling ease of access, and so forth. A social economy is the same thing—but we are the product, and the capital is respect and trust. The processes and techniques here are different—open communications mediums, easy access to tools, etc.—but the basic principles are the same.

These processes, and the generation of social capital, which in turn generates belonging, needs to be effectively communicated.

An economy is like a flowing river: it never stops, and the flow is critical to its success. Economies never stand still. Every day they change, adjusting to stimuli in the world that affects them. At the heart of how this movement works is communication.

The Basis of Communication

Peter Block, a consultant on learning, makes an important foundational observation about communication in a social economy: “community is fundamentally an interdependent human system given form by the conversation it holds with itself.” When I first heard that quote, I realized that the mechanism behind communication in a community is stories.

Stories are a medium in which we keep the river flowing. They are the vessels in which we not only express ideas (“I was taking the subway to work one day, and I saw this lady on there reading the paper, and it made me think xyz”), but also how we learn from past experiences (“There was one time when I saw David do xyz and I knew I had to adjust how I myself handle those situations in the future”). Furthermore, when the characters in the stories are people in a community, the stories are self-referencing and give the community a sense of reporting. Communities really feel like communities when there is a news wire, be it formalized or through the grapevine.

Not all stories are cut from the same cloth, though. Communities tend to exchange two very different kinds of story: tales and fables.

Tales are told for entertainment value and to share experiences. They are individual units of experience that are shared between people, and their primary value is in communicating a given person’s experience and adding to the listener’s repertoire of stories and experiences.

Fables are different. Fables are stories designed to illustrate an underlying message. The vast majority of us are exposed to fables as children, and these stories are passed down from generation to generation, each one extolling a moral message to the youth of the day.

To be continued.

Join the Art of Community Comedy Photo Competiton

Join the Art of Community Comedy Photo Competiton

This book is free, but you should buy it if you could. From the author: While the book is ready to download right now, the book is available to buy in print, on Kindle, and other electronic book formats and I would like to encourage you to buy a printed copy of the book for a few reasons: Firstly, buying a copy sends a tremendous message to O’Reilly that they should continue to publish books (a) about community and (b) under a Creative Commons license. Secondly, it will encourage O’Reilly to invest in a second edition of the book down the line, which will in turn mean that communities around the world will have a refreshed and updated edition that is available to them. Thirdly, aside from the voting-with-your-feet side of things, it is just a really nice book to own in print. It is really well made, looks stunning and feels great to curl up with in a coffee shop or on the couch.

More from The Art of Community

Voices from the Field II – Reflections on Comprehensive Community Change

in Asset-Based Community Development, Comprehensive Community Initiatives

Excerpts from Voices From the Field II: Reflections on Comprehensive Community Change, by Anne C. Kubisch, Patricia Auspos, Prudence Brown, Robert Chaskin, Karen Fulbright-Anderson, and Ralph Hamilton. Washington, D.C.: Aspen Institute.

In 1997, the Aspen Roundtable on Comprehensive Community Initiatives distilled early lessons and emerging conclusions from the practices of CCIs during their first years. Drawing on information gleaned from focus groups with 94 different stakeholders—residents, program directors, funders, technical assistance providers, and evaluators— Voices from the Field: Learning from the Early Work of Comprehensive Community Initiatives described the overall functioning of CCIs and highlighted the fundamental challenges in their design and implementation. That volume (hereafter referred to as Voices from the Field I) was intended to synthesize then-current thinking and provoke useful discussion about the goals, approaches, and dynamics of community change.

Now, five years later, we can begin to weave the ongoing experience of CCIs into the fabric of knowledge about community change that comes from a broad array of initiatives, approaches, and activities—efforts that are all in some way about “community building” and “comprehensive community improvement.” Together, these constitute a loosely defined, informal field of work, with some shared goals for community change and some common principles that guide action. The threads represented by CCIs offer lessons that reinforce, modify, and add to the experiences of other approaches. Collectively, they can increase our knowledge base about what it takes to substantially improve struggling neighborhoods and the quality of life within them. With this volume, we review the current state of these community-change efforts, synthesize what we know about their potential and their limitations, extract lessons about effective strategies, and propose a framework to guide future action.



The means for solving poor neighborhoods’ problems lie only partially within communities’ boundaries, and expectations for the outcomes of community-based change must reflect that reality.

Opportunities for significant improvement in disadvantaged neighborhoods rely on two essential factors.

  1. that communities must maximize their ability to produce whatever kinds of change are within their control. Effective local anti-poverty work thus requires enormous community “capacity”—a resource whose scarcity in impoverished neighborhoods debilitates and undermines much good work. To advance this agenda, we must improve our definition and understanding of community capacity and develop, test, evaluate, and reproduce strategies for building such internal strength.
  2. that communities must be able to use interactions with structures, resources, and other influences beyond their boundaries to the maximum advantage of the community. This means that community-change efforts must develop more sophisticated analyses of political, economic, and social dynamics and find better ways to tap into them, benefit from them, make demands on them, and improve their operations in distressed communities.

The challenge of committing to “community” while also recognizing its limitations has been a major struggle for CCIs and other community-change efforts. In the recent experience of CCIs, the challenge of tackling internal and external problems simultaneously has been so overwhelming that many confined themselves to what was possible: they focused almost exclusively on localized needs and did not address the major structural and institutional barriers that constrained their communities’ ability to change. Now, some are re-examining and questioning the underlying premises of their work.

How should we act on this message? Unfortunately, the answer is not an easy one. The solution is not to abandon our current work but to do it better, with more sophistication and from a more strategic vantage point. It involves working more deeply within communities and more aggressively beyond their bounds. To do so, we need better theories of what the process of community change should really look like and better knowledge about how to do the work. Then, we will need to apply the theories and knowledge to a better infrastructure for action and sustained community improvement. We envision an ecology of change that has four principal levels:

  1. Change among community residents;
  2. Change within and among community-level institutions;
  3. Change among those who provide technical, financial, practical, and other supports;
  4. Changes in broad policies and structures that have enormous influence on community residents and institutions.

Finally, we need to be sure to invest in a continuous cycle of tracking our work, distilling lessons, applying new information, and learning as we go. This book offers a first step in that direction.

See also: Core Principles of Community Building

Click here for more from Voices from the Field

Solving Chronic Nuisance Problems: A Guide for Neighborhood Leaders

in Asset-Based Community Development, Comprehensive Community Initiatives

Whether the nuisance is physical (such as blighted property) or behavioral (such as a drug house), the best solutions focus on the core elements that have allowed its continuing existence. This document identifies barriers to solving chronic nuisance problems, discusses ways that experienced leaders find solutions, and provides a set of references for pursuing specific nuisance abatement goals. It provides resources that lead you to examples of nuisance laws and case studies that cover how one town, one community, one neighborhood, or even one person has solved chronic nuisance problems. More importantly, it helps you understand how community leaders approach such problems–that is, the way they think about them–in order to achieve success.

via Enterprise Resource Database: Solving Chronic Nuisance Problems: A Guide for Neighborhood Leaders, 2001. John H. Campbell

Tapping the Power of Social Networks: Understanding the Role of Social Networks in Strengthening Families and Transforming Communities

in Asset-Based Community Development, Comprehensive Community Initiatives

This report presents the base from which the Casey Foundation has built its work on social networks. It compiles relevant definitions, key findings from the literature and their challenges, and Casey’s point of view on the potential niche for strengthening positive social networks in the context of the Foundation’s Making Connections initiative. This is the first in a series of five on social network approaches and practice.

via Tapping the Power of Social Networks: Understanding the Role of Social Networks in Strengthening Families and Transforming Communities. Audrey Jordan, Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2006

The Community Builder’s Approach to Theory of Change

in Asset-Based Community Development, Comprehensive Community Initiatives

A theory of change can be a helpful tool for developing solutions to complex social problems. At its most basic, a theory of change explains how a group of early and intermediate accomplishments sets the stage for producing long-range results. A more complete theory of change articulates the assumptions about the process through which change will occur, and specifies the ways in which all of the required early and intermediate outcomes related to achieving the desired long-term change will be brought about and documented as they occur.

To best realize the value of creating a theory of change as part of planning and evaluating social interventions, the Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change (Roundtable) developed an approach to help community builders create the most robust theories of change possible.

The Community Builder’s Approach to Theory of Change: A Practical Guide to Theory Development is for planners and evaluators who are going to facilitate a process for creating a theory of change with community-based programs and community change initiatives.

rcccommbuildersapproach.pdf (application/pdf Object).