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Professor John McKnight: Capacity Building Beyond Community Services

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What is your advice for people with disabilities on becoming part of the community as you have defined it?

When somebody says to somebody else, "If I were in your shoes, I'd do such and such." I would never listen to that advice. I am not in your shoes. I can imagine your shoes, but the reality of being in your shoes is absolutely distinctive. And so to give advice to people because somebody has decided to label them with the empty half part of them is a little... presumptuous.

What I can comment on is research we have done about the nature of local communities, and how and when do they include people who have been living at the margins. And they may be living at the margins for all kinds of reasons because they're called developmentally disabled or because they're called welfare mothers or because they're called those people who live in the trailer court, right.

So there are, in almost every place, some people who are at the edge, who are at the margins, and we've been interested in how do those people get connected to into the middle, into relationships that have capacity and power, right? And generally speaking, I think our research would suggest, number one, that every community has a lot of people who are hospitable and welcoming. That doesn't mean everybody, but it does mean that there are very, very significant number of people who are welcoming, and groups and institutions that are welcoming. There are weak spots, there are not-so-friendly places, but we've never seen a place where the majority of the people and the majority of the organizations aren't basically welcoming.

In fact, you can say to the people in a neighborhood or a small town, "Hey, I hear you're a really inhospitable place," and they immediately jump back at you ,right. "That's not true," right? So I think that's the first thing.

And one of the unfortunate things is, I think, a lot of people in the human service world think the reason people are on the margins with them is because they aren't wanted in the community. And so our research shows that every community has welcoming places and people, and that they almost always represent a majority.

The second thing is that welcoming is most often the result of seeing that somebody has something to offer, a gift, capacity, skill, ability. And, fortunately, the way we were made everybody has a gift, everybody has capacity. I don't care what the label is, the label just a...just is something that covers your eyes so you can't see the gift.

That's the trouble with labels. I have a bad heart. So supposing everybody introduced me says, "I want you to meet John... bad-hearted John," right? We're going to put up front the deficit problem he has. Then how I would be dealt with in that kind of context is different than if they say, "Oh, Professor McKnight," right? Sometimes that's not a good one either. [Laughs] But at any rate, you can see what the difference is.

So what too often happens is that people who have skills and gifts who are at the margins, who are introduced to people in the middle are introduced around their labels. So somebody comes from a service agency and in essence they're trying to introduce somebody to somebody or organization in the community, and they have a title and to the person in the community, this person from the human services who's bringing the person who's their client in the community, the community people hear this person saying, "I am from the Bureau of Broken People, and I'd like to introduce you to one of our broken people." That's the power of labeling.

So the second thing we know is that welcome is there and that welcome that's given when somebody is introduced around what they have to offer not what somebody says is wrong, right?

And the third thing we know is that one of the most effective places for people to be connected is in clubs, groups, and associations where people have come together because of mutual interest. So if I'm on the margin but I have a lot of interest in guitar. If I'm introduced to people who play guitar, then I am bringing a gift to them that I can share. And that's how most connections work that are effective is that people come together in these groups and clubs and associations, and they are wonderful places to make gift-centered connections.

Now I hear people associated with something called the developmentally disabled field often talking about people who are... on some end of a continuum, extreme. They have wonderful labels, how... how far over, how bad, how limited this person is. But we have done a lot of research, and look at our website, and you'll see some of it about people who the system says is at the extreme end of the continuum and how people who are not fastened on what's wrong, but are gift-centered people, can find a gift from that person, or gifts, and take that person and their gifts into the community for connections. Everyone has a gift, and even what are looked at as defects are gifts.

A good friend of mine is a woman named Judith Snow who has lived her life in a wheelchair, and I think she can move her thumb and her face. She's a brilliant leader, right? And she has written a paper in which she has listed how what people who think they aren't disabled look at people who are disabled and don't see that what they call disability is itself often a gift.

And I've seen this with Judith. Judith's wheelchair moves rather slowly, and we have a house in Wisconsin in the woods. And we park the car and there's quite a long path over to the house. And usually when I get to Wisconsin, my wife and I, we get out of the car and we walk down the path into the house, carrying stuff, and we're happy to be there.

But the first time Judith came with her wheelchair, we were coming down the path, and we had gone just a few feet and she said to me, "Look, what's that flower over there? What...what are those flowers?" It was in the woods, the wildflowers, right? I looked at them and I said, "Gee, I don't know."

We went a little further. 1½ miles an hour, right, with her wheelchair, and she says, "I've never seen a tree like that. What kind of tree is that?" I said, "Gee, I don't know." And we got down to the house, and she said, "Why did you come all this way to live in a forest and you don't know anything about it?"

So because she went slowly and I went hurriedly, I almost lost the point of the world around. So her slowness was a gift to me, because now I know every tree, every kind of tree that surrounds us. I know what the wildflowers are.

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