Mapping Local Associations
“The group is not there for what it says it’s there for. The poker club is not there to play poker. The book club is not there about books. These are people coming together to overcome their isolation, to make contact with each other. And they’re up for doing things they were formed to do. All they need is an invitation.”
~ Peter Block, “The Club is Not the Club”
In 1831, the French government commissioned a man named Alexis de Tocqueville to travel to the United States in search of the key to American democracy’s unique strength and vibrancy. De Tocqueville’s thorough, immersive research revealed one primary reason for the health of US democracy: its abundance and culture of citizen-led, voluntary associations—citizen-led, groups, clubs, and committees who self-organized constantly around any and every topic one could think of.
In other words, when Americans wanted something to happen, they did not wait for the government or some other body to act. Instead, they found three or four other community members who shared their concern, formed an association, and made it happen themselves.
De Tocqueville wrote in his 1883 book, Democracy in America:
Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds of religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes, in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society.
Today, associational life is equally key to the health of our communities and to those who live there. Below the surface of every neighborhood, people are connected, contributing, and generously caring for one another. They are convening, setting priorities, and organizing themselves around them and generating solutions to local challenges (sometimes without even meaning to) and realizing shared aspirations.
This rich buzz of activity takes place within associations of all kinds, from informal book clubs or walking groups to more formally organized neighborhood associations, sobriety support groups, or political clubs. If you think back to the story told to John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann by a mother who spearheaded a successful, informal effort with other moms on her block to positively influence their teenage daughters, that is an example of an association.
As we seek to weave together and strengthen our community, we can begin by learning about local associations, connecting with them, and exploring how to partner with them in ways that center their assets, priorities, and contributions.
“We cannot create a community where people care for each other if our approach is to surround the citizens with social-service institutions that push citizens and their associations aside.”
~ John McKnight, The Four Legged Stool
Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) names associations as the second of six key community assets, and as one of the most powerful assets to mobilize the local capacities within a community for positive change.
In modern times, we can easily slip into the habit of thinking that only institutions, paid professionals, and professionally delivered programs offer the best solutions for local problems and possibilities. But community members possess a vast treasure trove of skills, talents, and resources, and they are constantly self-organizing to solve problems and realize their goals or tackle challenges.
These groups and accomplishments are often less visible, less celebrated, and are rarely the first thing local programs or organizations think of when they seek to “convene stakeholders” or “mobilize the community.” By intentionally taking the time to learn about these groups in your community, you can reveal that unseen treasure trove and open up even greater pathways for solving local issues in homegrown, people-powered ways. Additionally, the solutions and projects that become possible when we begin with associations and the talents of their members will be within the control of residents, rather than people from outside the community who have less insight, investment and involvement in the realities lived by neighbors every day.
Learning about, connecting and mobilizing the associations within your community is also a powerful practice for the other core practice of ABCD which we have already explored: uncovering and activating the gifts of individuals within a neighborhood. This is because associations, by their very nature, act as magnifiers of the gifts of local people, by virtue of the fact that these gifts and passions are their fuel. That is, because associations are people-powered, they must call forth the gifts and talents of their members (community members) in order to get anything done at all!
Tools for Discovering Associational Assets
There are many ways to go about uncovering the existing associations within a neighborhood or community. In the following resources, you’ll find a range of options you can try out and weave into your own work to mobilize local assets and grow resident power.
The Club is Not the Club
By Peter Block
Test Your Knowledge
All of the following statements are true except:
Think of a story from your own life in which an association, club or group has had a positive impact on you, on someone you know, or on a community.
- What was the impact?
- How did it occur?
- What do you think was unique about the association that allowed it to have this impact?
This toolkit explores additional dimensions of associations as well as tools for discovering and mobilizing them. (Note: Originally written for library and museum professionals, these tools can also be used by on-the-ground community weavers seeking to strengthen their communities.)