Professor John McKnight:
Capacity Building Beyond Community Services
Defining "community" and "neighborhood"
"Community" is one of those words which is... has a different meaning for almost every person. If I say community and you think of yours, it's not mine. In fact, if...if you think of community, whatever yours is, it probably isn't the same as the person that lives next door to you, even somebody in your household. So it isn't very helpful to say I'm interested in the community, because you could say I'm a member of a community of scholars, and that is historians across the United States.
Geographically it's unlimited. But the thing we became clear on, I started at the university a program in community studies, so I had to decide pretty specifically what I meant if I was going to study it, and I learned that it's pretty arbitrary. Therefore, you make up your own definition as to what you mean by community.
And so what we meant. I'm with a group there at the Asset-Based Community Development Institute, and what we meant was a neighborhood, a physical place, not a community of scholars, right? And a small, physical place, a small town or a neighborhood, and that's what we were focused on when we said community studies, that's what we meant.
And then, you might say even then how would you define a neighborhood, right? What...what...what is it? And I think the most useful thing that we could do was to listen to people who live there and say, "What neighborhood is this?" That is, a neighborhood is really about a related group of people. And somebody in city hall can draw a line [Laughs] around a part...within the city, but that doesn't mean the people there would agree that's their neighborhood.
A neighborhood is defined by the people who live in a place, and so we always follow the local understanding of the residents as to what this neighborhood is or the boundaries, the Van Ryan Expressway over there and, ah, the creek that goes down Mill Street over here and they'd say, generally, "that's our neighborhood."
So when we're thinking about community, we're thinking about resident-defined place. And the reason for that is because what people feel is their neighborhood is telling you what they're motivated to do something about.
So it's the commitment and feeling of a local person's definition about a place that if you want to see things get organized and things begin to improve, you have to depend on the motives of people to feel an identity with a place. So we've always focused on what people think is their neighborhood and understood that the motives people have to act are closely tied to a place that they feel is theirs.
In other words, if you ask me, I live in Chicago, do I want to improve Chicago, which some people would say, "My community is Chicago." It would be pretty hard for me to say... I might say yes, but I don't know where's the handle, what...how am I going to do that, right? But if you said do I want to improve my neighborhood, I'd say yes, and I'd say yes, because it seemed to me doable and I care more strongly about my neighborhood than I do about Chicago. So that's the way we have understood. It's a place people feel related to and where they have relationships with each other.