Community, The Structure of Belonging

I’ve had this book sitting on my desk for weeks, with every intention of reviewing it here. Then my friend and colleague Beth Tener posted this review by coach and consultant Katherine Golub. Check. It is reposted here with their permissions. – MA

You know those books that you pick up and can’t put down? The ones that forever change your view of the world? Recently, Peter Block’s Community, The Structure of Belonging was that book for me. Beth Tener assigned a couple of chapters for her class at Marlboro College, and I ended up reading the whole thing.

Block writes, “If we want a change in culture, the work is to change the conversation. Or, more precisely, to have a conversation that we have not had before, one that has the power to create something new in the world.” Our primary task as leaders is, therefore, to host conversations that embody and nurture an alternative future. We can do this by focusing on the structure of our gatherings, working to get the questions right, and by listening deeply.

communityI’ve taken Block’s message as a call to action for my role as the facilitator of the immigrant solidarity group at my local Quaker meeting. Throughout the article, I’ll share a bit about how I’m incorporating each of these six conversations into how I facilitate this group.

Block devotes the second half of his book to the six elements of a conversation that lead to lasting change: invitation, possibility, ownership, dissent, commitment, and gifts.

Since reading the book, these elements have informed how I craft agendas, and I’m seeing the benefits. In the rest of this article, I’ll share each of these elements with you in a bit more depth along with a question that I’ve found particularly helpful. That way, you can integrate them into your next meeting, too!

One: Invitation

Crafting effective invitations is the first step towards host gatherings that spark change.

First, who to invite? Block reminds us that when we gather together a diverse sample of the people most involved in a problem “in the right context and with a few simple ground rules, the wisdom to create a future or solve a problem is almost always in the room.” We want people with:

  • An ability to speak about the consequences because they will be directly impacted by the outcome,
  • Unique information, expertise, or perspective about the topics we’re discussing,
  • The power to make decisions, and
  • Time, money, contacts, and other resources.

Block argues that a genuine invitation is voluntary: “In an authentic community, citizens decide anew every single time whether to show up. Of course, it makes a difference if people do not show up, but we keep inviting them again and again.”

Two questions that embody the spirit of invitation is: Who do we need to invite in order to best serve the purpose of the gathering? And, how can we shape the invitation so they feel most inspired to participate?

Two: Possibility

Most of us have been to meetings where it wasn’t quite clear why we were there. Or meetings that focused on the problems and didn’t seem to lead anywhere new. Far too often, we lose our way by trying to define or fix a problem, instead of imagining an alternative future, or by jumping straight to the how without first getting clear on our why.

Block suggests beginning gatherings with a declaration of possibility—a statement of why you are gathered. Focusing on a clear and shared purpose can open our vision to a wide range of possibility for a different future. This shift in perspective itself can be transformative.

A possibility-focused question that I shared at my last immigrant solidarity group meeting was: “What can we create together that will make a difference?” (I added at the end… “in the lives of our undocumented neighbors?”) This powerful question can help us discover communal possibility once a group has built trust and connection.

Three: Ownership

Finger-pointing is rampant in our culture. It can be easier to focus on what others should change than to accept responsibility for creating a better future. However, as Block writes, “Without this capacity to see ourselves as cause, our efforts become either coercive or wishfully dependent on the transformation of others.” The ultimate question of ownership, therefore, is, “What have I done to contribute to the very thing I complain about or want to change?”

Facing the idea that we’re causing our challenges can be difficult to take on immediately. It can be easier to explore the ownership that people feel for a particular gathering. One way to do this is to ask people to rate on a seven-point scale, from low to high how valuable an experience they plan for this to be and how participative they plan to be. Rather than offering advice or trying to cheer up people who struggle with these questions, just be compassionately interested in whatever answers arise.

Back at my Quaker meeting, the immigrant solidarity group recently organized the community to officially decide to support other sanctuary churches, and we’re now discerning our next focus. Block suggests that each successful gathering serves two functions. The first, as we discussed above, is to address its stated purpose. The second is to be an opportunity for each person to decide to become more engaged as an owner. It’s one thing to say you think something is a good idea, and it’s another to share ownership of making it a reality. With this in mind, the ownership question that we’ll focus on in our next meeting is, “Which project are you willing to share ownership of?”

Four: Dissent

Far too often, we try to squelch our doubts or quiet voices of dissent. However, as Block writes, “Dissent is a form of caring, not one of resistance… We will let go of only those doubts that we have given voice to. When someone authentically says no, then the room becomes real and trustworthy. An authentic statement is one in which the person owns that the dissent is their choice and not a form of blame or complaint. The power in the expression of doubts is that it gives us choice about them. Once expressed, they no longer control us; we control them.”

When someone disagrees with your proposal, I invite you to thank them and then listen. Hold space for the doubt, and work towards understanding the needs and intentions that the person is expressing. Block reminds us that as leaders, we have a responsibility to listen and protect space for people’s doubt, but we don’t necessarily need to respond to each doubt.

Many questions can elicit dissent. At our next immigrant solidarity group, I will ask, “What doubts or reservations do you have?” when we’re exploring proposals about our next steps.

Five: Commitment

After you set the context of ownership, explore possibility, and hold space for doubt, it comes the time for participants to declare their commitment to action. Block writes that honoring our word is the emotional and relational essence of community, and he suggests the following practices to help participants deepen commitment:

  • Use the word “promises” to elicit a more intimate connection to the work and community.
    • When individuals have an opportunity to stand for something, invite the person speaking to stand up and say their name before declaring their commitment.
    • Ask people making a powerful statement to say it again, slowly and to the whole community.

At my next group meeting, I look forward to asking the questions, “What is the price you are willing to pay? What is the promise you are unwilling to make? What is the promise you are willing to make?” I imagine that these questions will elicit both a strong commitment and clarity about participants’ roles going forward.

Six: Gifts

Block writes, “community is built by focusing on people’s gifts rather than their deficiencies. In the world of community and volunteerism, deficiencies have no market value; gifts are the point. Citizens in community want to know what you can do, not what you can’t do.”

In a world in which we are taught to ignore and underappreciate our gifts, our work is to recognize, honor, and bring our gifts into the world. To help each other offer our gifts more fully and deepen our connection to each other, it’s important to take time in a gathering to honor our gifts. When discerning next steps—like my group is doing—it can help to ask participants: “What gift or strength of yours would help us live into our purpose as a group?”

At the end of every meeting, we stand in a circle and ask the question, “What gift are you taking with you from another participant, the group, or the meeting itself?” Then, we hold hands and stand in silence for a moment.

To recap: Change the conversation, change the world. Invitation. Possibility. Ownership. Dissent. Commitment. Gifts.

I highly recommend reading Peter Block’s book, Community, The Structure of Belonging. And, even before that, I hope that you’re feeling inspired to take at least one suggestion from this article to your next gathering. If you are, please do share below. I’d be thrilled to hear from you!


You can learn more about Katherine Golub and her work at Core Brilliance Academy.

You can learn more about Beth Tener and her work at New Directions Collaborative.

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