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Professor John McKnight: Capacity Building Beyond Community Services

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How did you become interested in neighborhoods?

I actually got interested in neighborhoods because, when I was in high school, I read a book called Reveille for Radicals, and the author of this book is a fairly famous man in the world of community organizing named Saul Alinsky, and Saul had written this book about his method of organizing a working class neighborhood in Chicago called Back of Yards so the people there were better able to make things better and to get the institutions outside to be fair, nondiscriminatory, etc.

And when I read that book about what he had done, I thought, now that's something I'd like to do. And because he was in Chicago and I just happened to come to a university in Chicago, I was coming to the fountainhead of... the then-developing neighborhood organizing movement.

So I began to associate with the young neighborhood organizers that he had trained or was training, and then, when I got out of the service, I just came back and so joined that movement. But what really got me into it was reading a book in high school that caught my fancy. I suppose some people read books about architects and say, "Gee, I'd like to be an architect," but I read a book about neighborhood organizing, and I said, "Gee, I'd like to be a neighborhood organizer."

When I was a kid, where we lived in a little town, the library was a block away. And there wasn't an awful lot to do, and so one of the things I would do in the evening after dinner was I'd go over to the library, and I would go read Popular Mechanics and magazines, but I also then began to read some of the books, and, ah, the nonfiction books were all alphabetical by the the author's name.

So I actually decided—I liked nonfiction, I didn't care much for the fiction—that I would just start reading, reading all the nonfiction books. Everything seemed interesting to me. And so Saul Alinsky's name, Alinsky started with an "A" right? So he was in the A books, the ones at the beginning. Now I think I actually got halfway through the B's before I gave up on this project [Laughs] but the actual reason I got to that book is I knew nothing about it; I was just reading nonfiction books at a small library that started…where the author's name started with A, so you want to talk about happenstance, that's it.

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