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on May 8, 2008
I believe this book is a must-read for those of us who work to transform community:

It gives us a common language for talking about what makes community transformation different from human service/government planning and programs.

It integrates many important strands of transformation thinking, making transformation feel more accessible.

It helps us see what transformation looks like and connects that vision to concrete practice.

Community: The Structure of Belonging is divided into two sections. The first is titled The Fabric of Community and is for me what makes this book so important. In this section Peter provides the "why" and the "what" of community transformation. (Those of us who normally skip straight to the "how" should read Peter's previous book, The Answer to How is Yes.) In this section, we learn to not continue repeating the program, system, service problem solving that keeps us from really restoring community. We learn what transformation is, what it means to be a citizen. If we really get the message of this section, we start to BE community transformer, not just DO community building.

The second section is The Alchemy of Belonging. This is the tool kit for doing community transformation. Convening, invitation, small groups, forming the questions, holding the conversations of possibility, ownership, dissent commitment and gifts are covered here. This section expands the information that has been available on Peter's website that was developed and used in Cincinnati by A Small Group (as in Margaret Mead's axiom, "Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world. In fact it is the only thing that ever has.")

In the back are two extra gifts: Book at a Glance, a 10-page sentence outline of the entire book, and Role Models and Resources, which expands the concept of an annotated bibliography and offers countless opportunities for further reading and learning.

The gift of this book is a strong set of principles and usable instructions for restoring community. The challenge is to our willingness to stop what we are doing and learn what will lead us to the communities we desire.
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on February 13, 2009
I think of this book as a handbook for anti-leadership. Part of Block's thesis is that top down leadership and massive, structural programs are not effective. Instead, true change bubbles up, and starts with communities--here, loosely defined as a group of interested people getting together and coming up with something new.

The role of the leader is to invite people, set up the meeting space, and encourage their participation. This is done basically by getting them to talk and bond with each other. Note that it the leader isn't supposed to establish an agenda, or force through an analytical problem solving process (which Block hates.) The leader simply convenes the group. When done properly, magic occurs.

The book is short on examples. This may be because Block thinks of community building as a journey and not necessarily the means to an end, and examples would detract from the journey and the point he's trying to make.

I found the book a bit of a slog. It is unnecessarily dense and repetitive. It is also abstract in places, but this may simply be due to the subject matter. Block had to define his own lingo for this book, and when sentences of that lingo are strung together the result is cumbersome. A member of my book club said he spent the first 40 pages wondering if he'd ever make it to the end. He did however, and found it rewarding.
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on May 6, 2008
Community: the Structure of Belonging is the most important book Peter Block has written and the most important book you are likely to read this year. The book is incredibly clear, profoundly important and perfectly timed.

This book is Peter's masterwork and a culmination of the important thinking he has so carefully articulated in his other classics The Empowered Manager, Stewardship and The Flawless Consultant. While others bemoan the state of our communities, the decline of our cities and the failure of institutions Peter has been thinking about "restoration" and "reweaving" of the social fabric and has defined a clear process for creating a future that we would all like to be part of.

This easy to read book has something for everyone. The theories and strategies underlying the thinking are compelling and comprehensive. The list of resources in the back of the book will lead you to people and organizations that are actively involved in building communities. The structure of the book provides easy access to the many layers of useful information including a full summary of the book added as an appendix.

What is most powerful about this book though are the clearly defined questions which result in conversations that are capable of transforming the nature of human systems. These conversations change our thinking about how we relate to each other, how we understand the notion of belonging and how we encourage the bringing of our collective gifts into our communities.

This book challenges us to become the citizens that we need to be to create the communities we want to live in. In this time in which we live it is hard for me to imagine something more important than that.
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on May 13, 2008
Peter newest book "Community" will become a classic on how to "Build Community". It has a conceptual model of community building for those who like or need a model. It has practical ideas and a "how to" section for those who just want to get started and improve their community. The book has a wonderful list of resources and practitioners who have done this sort of work for those who want or need that. Society has lost its community building skills and this book is a clear guide on how to retrieve those skills. I wish this book existed 6 years ago when I started a community building effort in Redwood City, Ca.

This book is a precious gift to our often unrecognized and/or neglected personal need for community.

If this book was read by most council members, mayors, city managers, county managers, county board of supervisors, non-profit executive directors, school superintendents and citizen leaders and if they implimented only some of the ideas in this book our society would be profoundly changed from the bottom up which is the only way society ever changes.

Ed Everett (Retired City Manager/Consultant)
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on December 15, 2013
The whole concept of community is a very living and lively social entity. I purchased this book to be used on one of my classes, the American Community. There is nothing new here. Actually the old text by Roland Warren, also deadly in its academic language, is still far better and, to me, more insightful. I gave my copy to a couple of students to review, some of my best, and they agree. Better to do without a text. It may be that the chapters will be helpful as a kind of supplemental reading for instructors.....please don't get this for your students! If a practitioner, better to dig up and old copy of Roland Warren's book.
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on January 27, 2013
I decided to read "Community: The Structure of Belonging" as we strive to build better community within the retail company where I work and am responsible for training and developing our employees. As many retailers and other far-flung organizations may experience, there is sometimes an isolation and even loneliness between those employees, who may go through new-hire training centrally but then must hone their practices and results independently of their co-workers. They may pick up ideas and tips occasionally from others, but most of how they eventually perform they learn on their own. It's this situation that's motivated me to work toward an online community where our employees could start to interact with each other. My mistaken impression before I read Peter Block's book was that together we could recognize and analyze each others' ideas and practices and then legislate the "best" practices from among those.

After reading the book, I am more focused on the process with which we will do all this. Focusing more on the act of gathering people together either online or in-person, we can determine the best ways for our community of far-flung employees to start working together to improve everyone's success in what we will all accomplish. To risk the use of an old cliche, Block's suggestion is that it is the journey by which we do this more so than any final best practices that we may reach at the destination. So for the original goal that I set out to accomplish in buying this book, such a focus on the ongoing conversation and the ways we are interacting with each other may prove most effective as we establish such a community within our organization.

What was unexpected and a huge plus were the comments Block makes about the way our American systems (i.e., economic, political, educational, social services, media) have become and made all of us so fragmented. I've read many books over the past year that lament how our government is hopelessly partisan, our classes are hopelessly unequal, our values are maker vs. taker, etc. All of those books explain the issues but few have good solutions. Block explains the problem much more elegantly -- that our individualistic narrative; the inward attention of our institutions, corporations and our professions; and the messages from our media all work to make us feel isolated and fragmented from everyone else. He suggests that building greater community among us and reversing the path we are on now is not through government, corporations or large institutions with mandates, budgets and power to make things better. Nor will some super leaders come in with the magical strategies to finally make things better. Rather, Block is saying that we can only do that for ourselves by deciding to work with others in our communities to make things better for everyone.

So, this book is more than just an academic focus on what communities can do to change things for the better. It is the opposite of what Charles Murray set out to suggest in his inflammatory book "Coming Apart." But as some critics of Block suggest, his prescription to work together is not the answer in and of itself. It is the hard work cities, organizations, school systems, social service organizations, and citizens committees all must do to change the context of what they want to accomplish, create the gatherings and structure to start accomplishing the ends that we have so long been trying to reach.
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"Mercy and truth have met together;
Righteousness and peace have kissed." -- Psalm 85:10

One of my favorite sayings is that "the best help is self-help." That's one of the major themes of this book.

I came to the book as someone who favors finding solutions that delight all those affected and as a fan of Peter Block's classic book, Flawless Consulting. I wasn't prepared for what I found in the first few chapters of Community: A dense summary of the views of other authors that feature their jargon and concepts. It was heavy going. I almost gave up before the book's message began to yield to Peter Block's views as exemplified by some examples from the Cincinnati area.

This book could have been told in a much more direct, simple, and easier-to-understand way. I found myself mentally translating the concepts back into ordinary English to grasp the major points.

As a result, the book comes across as almost like a simplified dissertation, not the kind of work that you may be expecting. One of the limits of tipping one's cap as an author to so many other writers is that you are limited in how much you can advance the argument into new territory without doing some new homework.

There's lots of good advice in the book so I do hope you will persevere. If our communities are to become stronger and more nurturing for all, we need to get past arguing about philosophies while nothing gets done. This book can be a helpful contribution to such progress if people read and apply its vision and structural recommendations.
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on July 22, 2010
The book started out promising - after all Block cites Robert Putnam's work on the decline of social capital. I thought he clearly knows the problem. For me, the first red flag went up when Block also talked about Werner Erhard, whose educational approach is now part of Landmark Education, considered somewhat cult-like by some...

Block's argument is that we have to shift context, move from retributive community to restorative community. He talks about this over and over and over but we already know this from Putnam's work: Communities are falling apart. We obviously need to change the way we think about our lives in this world - whether you call this context, culture, frames or whatever - our underlying thought-patterns are to blame. The question that I expected Block to address is: How. He doesn't even though he seems to be promising this. The first 60 pages basically keep repeating the same information in slightly different packaging. Reading got so boring that I wasn't able to finish the book. I am sure this will be attributed to my being in the wrong context or some such thing... But, I am sorry, if an author cannot move beyond the basic point in the first 60 pages, I don't find reading valuable. I'd rather go talk to my neighbors...
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on January 4, 2015
I will never think of community as a hindrance again. Read as grad student and during a course where we stayed at a monastery. Just an excellent book about the value and support of community. Yes, you can comfortably remain a unique individual while appreciating what a real community offers and allows the growth of the individual.
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on November 9, 2011
Peter Block's book is one of the most interesting I have read in a very long time. It is a gold mine of practical insights that will assist us in our quest to bring kingdom transformation to our communities. I will attempt to give you a brief summary that contains some of the key thoughts that impacted me. In some cases, I will simply use quotations from the book and let them speak for themselves. Block has brought together the thinking of several key people in the area of community development and transformation, which makes it all the more valuable and a real time saver.

A few years ago, Mark Medley introduced Masterbuilders to Strengthsfinder assessments available through the Gallup organization that are extremely beneficial for team building. The premise is that we can achieve more as a team and as individuals by focusing on our strengths and delegating our weaknesses. Block quotes John McKnight: "...the act of labeling [people as to their limits or deficiencies]...is what diminishes the capacity of people to fulfill their potential. If we care about transformation, we will stay focused on gifts, to such an extent that our work becomes simply to bring the gifts of those on the margin into the center." (p.13) The Bible calls this "encouragement," whereby we use faith and prophetic insight to identify and activate what God has put into people, without feeling the need of pointing out what is missing in the individual. The Law points out our deficiencies, but grace is always faith and gift based.

Block writes: "This is in no way a denial of our limitations, just a recognition that they are not who we are. I am not what I am not able to do. I am what I am able to do, my gifts and capacities." (p.140) I am convinced that we sometimes err by trying tell people what they can or cannot do by placing labels on them from the top down. Instead we should encourage people to follow God and step out in faith. The top-down model of leadership is a bottleneck for the move of God's Spirit. None of us who are in leadership are immune from this tendency to control. Instead of trying to label and categorize people up front, why not reserve that until later, if we like, more as a matter of looking back and celebrating the grace of God.

Block lists five strategic principles that can lead to true transformation in our communities. (pp.30-31)

The essential work is to build social fabric. When citizens care for each other, they become accountable to each other. This is nothing new. When we put a face on a need, it becomes personal and we cannot ignore it any longer. We have always known that relationship building is the key, but when it comes to planning, we usually revert to what we have always done by limiting input to a small core of leaders which effectually works to break down the relationships we so long for among the rank and file. Unless people have a sense of ownership, they are not as likely to commit themselves.

Strong associational life is essential and central. Creating connectedness becomes both the end and the means. Associational life is volitional aspect of community - how citizens choose to build connections for their own sake, usually for a common purpose. This is in contrast to forced participation based on retribution, censure, or exclusion.

Leaders use their power to convene "citizens" are able to create an alternative future. Unless citizens [church members] take ownership of the process, nothing transformational will take place. Citizen participation and ownership is more important than decisions by institutions and formal leadership.

The small group is the unit of transformation. It is the place where people's uniqueness can be valued and engagement takes place. We must set aside the demands of scale and speed in interest of building relationally.

All transformation is linguistic. If we want to change the community, we must change the conversation. The conversation is directed by the leader or convener who is able to ask the right questions to lead people to engage and take ownership.

Block contrasts what he calls the patriarchal, corporate, top down, or retributive justice mindset that focuses on problem solving, blame casting, and punishment with the transformative mindset that focuses on possibility [read, faith], generosity [read, grace and hospitality], and gifts [read, our using what God has put in us]. The former mindset seeks to control the future and make it an extension of the past and present; whereas, the latter is not afraid to embrace the possibility of very different future. I found that Block's thoughts in this area are quite instructive and illuminating regarding the nature of faith.

Regarding the role of leadership, he writes: "The search for great leadership is a prime example of how we too often take something that does not work and try harder at it. I have written elsewhere about reconstructing leader as social architect. Not leader as a special person, but leader as a citizen willing to do those things that have the capacity to initiate something new in the world." (p.86) "The core task of leadership is to create the conditions for civic and institutional [church] engagement. They do this through the power they have to name the debate and design gatherings." (p.86) Later in the book, Block shows how asking the right questions can lead people into taking ownership rather than continuing in the consumerist-entitlement mindset in which we expect others to take care of things on our behalf. This is where the book is truly ingenious. I will not try to explain how it is done, just whet your appetite.

"This [view] is very different from the conventional belief that the task of leadership is to set a vision, enroll others in it, and hold people accountable through measurements and reward...[which] creates a level of isolation, entitlement, and passivity that our communities [churches] cannot afford to carry...The world does not need leaders to better define issues, or to orchestrate better planning or project management. What it needs is for the issues and the plans to have more of an impact, and that comes from citizen [church member] accountability and commitment." (p.87) But lest you think this happens through pressure from the top down, it does not. I will not spoil your joy of discovering his breakthrough thinking on this matter by revealing it here. You need to read the book!

One of Block's chapter titles is "Questions Are More Transforming than Answers." He writes: "The future is brought into the present when citizens engage each other through questions of possibility, commitment, dissent, and gifts. Questions open the door to the future and are more powerful than answers in that they demand engagement. Engagement is what creates accountability. How we frame questions is decisive. They need to be ambiguous, personal, and stressful." (p.101) If this does not pique your curiosity, this is not the book for you! "The point is that the nature of the questions we ask either keeps the existing system in place or brings an alternative future into the room." (p.104) "[Improper questions are] a response to the wish to create a predictable future. We want desperately to take uncertainty out of the future. But when we take uncertainty out, it is no longer the future. It is the present projected forward. Nothing new can come from the desire for a predictable tomorrow." (p.105) Is that not a clarion call to living by faith?

Block writes: "We have to realize that each time people enter a room, they walk in with ambivalence, wondering whether this is the right place to be. This is because the default mindset is that someone else owns the room, the meeting, and the purpose that convened the meeting....The leader/convener has to act to change this...The intent is to move the social contract from parenting to partnership." (p.128) I believe that Block is getting at the heart of the difference between grace and legalism. Legalism has always elevated leaders over the people, something that Jesus taught against by saying that the greatest leaders are the servants of all. Grace elevates everyone to be kings and priests and ministers. If the Spirit of the Lord is going to accomplish through his church everything he desires, our leadership mentality must change even more than it has. Unless we engage people in such a way that motivates them to take responsibility to obey God, use their gifts, and fulfill their callings, it will probably never happen. Unless we abandon the consumerist desire to have people in constant need of us, we are not going to bring in an alternative future. Block is giving us some wonderful keys to help this happen, if we are willing to learn and put them into practice. This is scary, but only if we do not trust God to be our Keeper, Provider, and Shepherd.

The last part of the book shows how leaders can bring people together and ask the right questions to help people engage, take ownership, and commit themselves to work in partnership to see something new take place. Even though this is a "secular" book, it is chock full of biblical truth and well worth a careful study. I hope you will read it and let me know what you get out of it.

You can purchase the reviewer's book on Amazon:
Seeing God's Smile
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