Book | Community: The Structure of Belonging by Peter Block

imageBlock, Peter. Community: The Structure of Belonging. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2008.

The Author – Peter Block

Peter-connetc240“Peter Block’s consulting books facilitate ways to create workplaces and communities that work for all. They offer an alternative to the patriarchal beliefs that dominate our culture. Bringing change into the world through consent and connectedness rather than through mandate and force is the ultimate goal of Peter Block consulting efforts.”1

Book Description

“Modern society is characterized by isolation and a weakened social fabric. The various sectors of our communities—businesses, schools, social service organizations, churches, government—work in parallel, not in concert. They exist in their own worlds as do so many individual citizens, who long for connection but end up marginalized, their gifts overlooked, their potential contributions lost. This disconnection and detachment makes it hard if not impossible to envision a common future and work towards it together.

“We know what healthy communities look like—there are many success stories out there, and they’ve been described in detail. What Block provides in this inspiring new book is an exploration of the exact way community can emerge from fragmentation. How is community built? How does the transformation occur? What fundamental shifts are involved? He explores a way of thinking about our places that creates an opening for authentic communities to exist and details what each of us can do to make that happen.

“’My intent’ he writes, ‘is to provide structural ways to create the experience of belonging, not just in those places where people come to just be together socially, but especially in places where we least expect it. This includes those places where people come together to get something done. These are our meetings, dialogues, conferences, planning processes––all those occasions where we gather to reflect on and decide the kind of future we want for ourselves.

“Citizens have the power to change the community story and bring a new context into being. Block shows us how we can overcome isolation and anxiety and create communities alive with energy and possibility. This book is written to support those who care for the well-being of their communities. It is for anyone who wants to be part of an organization, neighborhood, city, or country that works for all, and who have the faith and the energy to create such a place.”2

My Thoughts

Dr. Patrick Keifert recommended this book to me after reading my Dissertation proposal. One of his first questions regarding my proposal was: “What is your theory of community?” I honestly had no answer to that question. Keifert was also concerned that my project design might lead toward the use of instrumental reason and an abuse of power as I related to the group. He was confident that I would not behave that way, but the wording of my proposal read that way. He recommended Block’s book as a place to explore a theory of community.

I have now read the book and I am so glad that I did. Now I see what he meant regarding his concerns. Block’s book helped me further understand the practical aspects of creating a truly collaborative space for Participatory Action Research. I know that my advisor, Dr. Mary Hess, has been coaching me in this all along, but sometimes it takes several reframings and presentations of an idea before it starts to sink in. I appreciate the fact that Block’s book is very accessible. He doesn’t water down the theory, but he presents it in such a way that the reader can glean the key insights and move to application quickly.

The principles that I have taken from this book will have a significant impact on how I approach the convening and facilitation of my research group. One particular quote captures the heart of this book, as I read it:

“The context that restores community is one of possibility, generosity, and gifts, rather than one of problem solving, fear, and retribution. A new context acknowledges that we have all the capacity, expertise, and resources that an alternative future requires. Communities are human systems given form by conversations that build relatedness.”3

Authors and Their Key Insights Named by Block

One very helpful component of this book is that Block highlights key thinkers and practitioners that shape his theories and methodologies for building communities. I decided to look up each of the people and organizations he mentions and create a link index below.

John McKnight

john_mcknight(1)“John McKnight is Co-Director of the Asset-Based Development Community Development Institute and Professor Emeritus of Communications Studies and Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL. For more than four decades at the University his research focused on social service delivery systems, health policy, community organization, neighborhood policy and the incorporation of labeled people into community life.”4

Block Highlights:

  • Focus on gifts
  • Associational life
  • Power in our hands

Werner Erhard

werner_erhard_2009“Werner Erhard’s work has become an important resource for academic institutions and a catalyst for creative thinking and teaching in both the academic and corporate environments. Werner Erhard’s work has been noted as a key element in current management thinking and the science of productivity and performance.

A continuing source for these new perspectives comes from the original thinking and applications that created what Werner Erhard is best known for, The est Training (Erhard Seminars Training). Many of those initial revolutionary ideas continue to be part of today’s culture.”5

Block Highlights:

  • The power of language
  • The power of context
  • The power of possibility

Robert Putnam

1300“Robert D. Putnam is the Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard, where he teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses, and is the 2013-14 Distinguished Visiting Professor at Aarhus University (Denmark). Professor Putnam is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a Fellow of the British Academy, and past president of the American Political Science Association. In 2006, Putnam received the Skytte Prize, the world’s highest accolade for a political scientist, and in 2012, he received the National Humanities Medal, the nation’s highest honor for contributions to the humanities.  Raised in a small town in the Midwest and educated at Swarthmore, Oxford, and Yale, he has served as Dean of the Kennedy School of Government. The London Sunday Times has called him ‘the most influential academic in the world today.’”6

Block Highlights:

Social Capital: The well-being of a community that comes from “the quality of the relationships, the cohesion that exists among its citizens.”7

Christopher Alexander

ca.res.arch1small“Christopher Alexander is Emeritus Professor of Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, best known for his seminal works on architecture including A Pattern Language, Notes on the Synthesis of Form, and The Nature of Order, Volumes I-IV.

He is the father of the Pattern Language movement in computer science, and A Pattern Language was perhaps the first complete book ever written in hypertext fashion.”8

Block Highlights:

  • Aliveness and wholeness
  • Transformation as unfolding

Peter Koestenbaum

peter“PETER KOESTENBAUM, Ph.D., founder and Chairman of PiB and the Koestenbaum Institute, brings leadership philosophy to business people globally. He has been close to business executives and their deepest concerns, sharing with them insights and feelings, new perspectives and more serviceable adaptations….

“The Leadership Diamond® focuses on the power of depth, which leads to emphasizing the power of free will, the ubiquitous presence of polarity and paradox, analyzing the structure of courage, and the critical importance of understanding systems and strategy. This leadership philosophy leverages the power of negative experiences for clues to breakthroughs. Koestenbaum talks about the development of the leadership mind as the key for achieving business results. And he spends much time on the tough issues of implementation.”9

Block Highlights:

  • Appreciating paradox
  • Choosing freedom and accountability

Large Group Methodology

Block Highlights:

  • Accountability and commitment
  • Learning from one another
  • Bias toward the future
  • How we engage matters

Future Search – Marvin Weisbord

marvinweisbord1Marvin Weibord says, “At present I am co-director of the non-profit Future Search Network (FSN), which Sandra Janoff and I founded in 1993 to engage consultants and local leaders in voluntary social change. We have served as unpaid co-directors since. The Network has members on every continent, collaborating to help people improve their lives in the arts, business, communities, education, environment, health care, social services, technology, and other sectors. We have trained more than 3000 people in Future Search and managing large diverse groups–in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America. Sandra and I also manage Future Searches and consult with anyone who wishes to make a difference in their community or company. I intend for this web site to further the work of FSN.”10

Future Search

“Future search is a PLANNING MEETING that helps people transform their capability for action very quickly. The meeting is task-focused. It brings together 60 to 80 people in one room or hundreds in parallel rooms.

Future search brings people from all walks of life into the same conversation – those with resources, expertise, formal authority and need. They meet for 16 hours spread across three days. People tell stories about their past, present and desired future. Through dialogue they discover their common ground. Only    then do they make concrete action plans.

The meeting design comes from theories and principles tested in many cultures for the past 50 years. It relies on mutual learning among stakeholders as a catalyst for voluntary action and follow-up. People devise new forms of cooperation that continue for months or years.”11

Conference Model – Dick and Emily Axelrod

Richard Alexrod

bio-dick“Dick is faculty in Columbia University’s Professional Program in Organization Development, the University of Chicago’s Leadership Arts Program, and a guest lecturer at Benedictine University. He served on the board of Berrett-Koehler Publishers and helped to found the Berrett-Koehler Authors Cooperative. Dick co-chaired the Illinois Quality of Work Life Association and currently serves on the advisory board for the Organization Design Forum.”12

Emily Axelrod

bio-emily“Emily uses her southern spirit and wit as a highly sought-after speaker and coach. She has presented to a variety of organizations, including the Organization Development Network, American Management Association, The Human Resources Planning Society, and The London Strategic Planning Society. She is also a guest lecturer at Benedictine University and the University of Chicago’s Leadership Arts Program.”13

The Conference Model

“The Conference Model represents a breakthrough in the process of creating team-based organizations while taking employee involvement to new heights.

The core philosophy of The Conference Model involves pulling together organizational stakeholders from all levels and departments, as well as customers and suppliers, into a process that strives to avoid the confusion and chaos that usually slows down major system change efforts.

Our model encourages creative energy, which is channeled into implementation of the new design, saving time by virtually eliminating the usual problems of resistance. Employees are empowered by their participation in all phases of the redesign and their collaboration is a key element to a successful change effort.”14

Whole-Scale Change – Kathie Dannemiller

Kathie Dannemiller

Kathie_2“Building on her work with U-M social researcher Ronald Lippitt, Kathie was co-inventor of a new approach to working with large complex organizations, now known as Whole-Scale Change. This methodology has been used world-wide by other consultants and hundreds of organizations. Also with Lippitt, she led courses for hundreds of consultants at the National Training Laboratories (NTL), and an internship program in Ann Arbor during the 1980’s that trained over 100 consultants and trainers in this region.”15

Whole-Scale Change

“The Whole-Scale™ approach is a flexible methodology that can be used at different levels and at different stages of the change process. We stress that Whole-Scale™ is a journey and each step can create “critical moments” in the process but only in the context of a sound change strategy that includes clear strategic goals, strong leadership alignment, adequate training and concerted implementation follow-through.”16

The World Cafe – Juanita Brown and David Isaacs

Juanita Brown

Juanita_Brown__Ph“Juanita Brown Ph.D. is the founder of Whole Systems Associates, an international consortium of professionals dedicated to strategic inquiry and the renewal of complex systems. Since 1974 she has served as a thinking partner, organizational strategist and dialogue host with leaders in business and industry, government and educational institutions, health care organizations, and community service agencies in the United States, Latin America, Canada, Europe and the Pacific Rim.”17

David Isaacs

P1010566_2“David Isaacs is President of Clearing Communications, an organizational leadership and strategy consultancy. He has served as a line executive managing crisis and transition and as a personal coach and “thinking partner” with business leaders and leadership teams, accompanying them as they embrace the challenges of unprecedented change and transformation. Client systems served have included. Ericsson, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Sanofi-Aventis.”18

The World Cafe

“Using seven design principles and a simple method, the World Café is a powerful social technology for engaging people in conversations that matter, offering an effective antidote to the fast-paced fragmentation and lack of connection in today’s world.”19

Other Important Large Group Methodology Names

Harrison Owen

Harrison-Owen“Harrison  is President of H.H.Owen and Co. His academic background and training centered on the nature and function of myth, ritual and culture. In the middle ’60s, he left academe to work with a variety of organizations including small West African villages, urban (American and African) community organizations, Peace Corps, Regional Medical Programs, National Institutes of Health, and Veterans Administration. Along the way he discovered that his study of myth, ritual and culture had direct application to these social systems. In 1979 he created H.H.Owen and Company in order to explore the culture of organizations in transformation as a theorist and practicing consultant. Harrison convened the First International Symposium on Organization Transformation, and is the originator of Open Space Technology. He is the author of Spirit: Transformation and Development in Organizations, Leadership Is, Riding the Tiger, Open Space Technology: A Users Guide (Second Edition. Berrett-Koehler), The Millennium Organization, Tales From Open Space (editor), Expanding Our Now: The Story of Open Space Technology (Berrett-Koehler), The Spirit of Leadership (Berrett-Koehler) and The Power of Spirit: How Organizations Transform (Berrett- Koehler).”20

Barbara Bunker

Barbara_Bunker“Barbara BunkerBarbara Benedict Bunker (Ph.D. Columbia University) is an organizational social psychologist and Professor of Psychology Emeritus at the University at Buffalo (SUNY).  Her research and writing interests are diverse but focus in the area of organizational change and organizational effectiveness. She is a licensed Psychologist. Her activities in the area of planned organizational change span more than 25 years. As an organizational consultant, Barbara Bunker has assisted clients with individuals, teams, departments, and the whole organization. She has worked as a coach and consultant to individuals in areas of performance appraisal, career development and leadership skills.  At the team or department level, she consults about long range vision and strategy, work analysis, organizational design, blocks to effective functioning. At the organization level, she has worked on interdepartmental issues, managing diversity and organizational culture change.”21

Billie Alban

Alban,Billie“Billie T. Alban is president of Alban and Williams, Ltd., an internationally known management consultant firm. She is the coauthor, along with Barbara Bunker, of The Handbook of Large Group Methods: Creating Systematic Change in Organizations and Communities.”22


David Bornstein

david2“David Bornstein is a journalist and author who focuses on social innovation. He co-authors the Fixes column in The New York Times Opinionator section, which explores and analyzes potential solutions to major social problems. He is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network, which supports journalists who report on constructive responses to social problems, and the founder of Dowser, a media site for young journalists who cover social innovation. His books include How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas, The Price of a Dream: The Story of the Grameen Bank, and Social Entrepreneurship: What Everyone Needs to Know. He is currently completing a book on social innovation in the U.S. and Canada. He lives in New York.”23

Book – How to Change the World

Insights from the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh

Block Highlights:

  • Small scale, slow growth

Allan Cohen

sidebar-practice“For more than 20 years Allan Cohen has been an interdisciplinary management consultant, entrepreneur, and executive. In addition to his eight years in private practice, Mr. Cohen was a Senior Vice President at ZEFER Corporation (an eBusiness consultancy), a co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of Waite & Company (a successful boutique strategy house), and a Principal and engagement leader at CSC Index (creators of reengineering)”24

Block Highlights

  • Emergent design

Quotes from the Book

The essential challenge is to transform the isolation and self-interest within our communities into connectedness and caring for the whole.25


Social capital is about acting on and valuing our interdependence and sense of belonging. It is the extent to which we extend hospitality and affection to one another.26


This means that sustainable changes in community occur locally on a small scale, happen slowly, and are initiated at a grassroots level.27

Note: How does this mesh with Hunter’s claim, in To Change the World, that grass-roots movements don’t actually bring about change. Cultural change happens from the elite power brokers and the intelligentsia.


The context that restores community is one of possibility, generosity, and gifts, rather than one of problem solving, fear, and retribution. A new context acknowledges that we have all the capacity, expertise, and resources that an alternative future requires. Communities are human systems given form by conversations that build relatedness. The conversations that build relatedness most often occur through associational life, where citizens show up by choice, and rarely in the context of system life, where citizens show up out of obligation. The small group is the unit of transformation and the container for the experience of belonging. Conversations that focus on stories about the past become a limitation to community; ones that are teaching parables and focus on the future restore community.28

Note: this is a powerful definition of community


The choice for idealism or cynicism is a spiritual stance about the nature of human beings. Cynicism gets justified by naming itself “29


So, the invitation is a request not only to show up but to engage. It declares, “We want you to come, but if you do, something will be required from you.” Too many leadership initiatives or programs are begun with a sales and marketing mindset: How do we seduce people to sign up and feel good about doing things they may not want to do? Real change, however, is a self-inflicted wound. People need to self-enroll in order to experience their freedom and commitment. Let this begin in the decision to attend, knowing there is a price to be paid far beyond the cost of time and perhaps money.30


Many we invite will choose not to come. This recognizes that for every gathering there are going to be people not in the room who are needed. This is forever the case. It still means that whoever shows up are the right people. Eventually those who do show up always have the task of deciding whom to invite next.31


The communal possibility comes into being through individual public declarations of possibility. Much the same as witnessing in religious gatherings. Though every possibility begins as an individual declaration, it gains power and impacts community when made public.32


The communal possibility is that space or porous container where a collective exists for the realization of all the possibilities of its members. This is the real meaning of a restorative community. It is that place where all possibilities can come alive, and they come alive at the moment they are announced.33


Before diving into the agenda, citizens need to be connected to one another. Whenever we enter a room, it is with doubt and a vague feeling of isolation. Connecting citizens to each other is not intended to be just an icebreaker, which is fun yet does little to break the isolation or create community. Icebreakers will achieve contact but not connection. Connection occurs when we speak of what matters about this moment. This is done most easily through questions (surprise!).34


One small request: Most food served in meetings is about satiation, not about health. Even in health care settings or meetings about creating healthy communities, we serve pastries, cookies, fast food, chips, pretzels. This is not food; it is fuel and habit that is nutritionally and environmentally unconscious. Let there be apples so that we have some way of moving beyond the illusion of paradise; grapes for the sake of pleasure; bread, unleavened if you can find it, a reminder of the Sabbath . . . you get the point. Natural, healthy food, prepared by local merchants. Food that reflects the diversity of the world we are embracing. Grown within 50 miles of our gathering place to reduce the carbon footprint. Some people will complain. Let them.35

The Book at a Glance

Block said that it was permissible to copy and use this portion of the book however the reader sees fit. I thought I would post it as a gallery.

  1. (accessed February 20, 2014 []
  2. (accessed February 20, 2014 []
  3. Peter Block, Community: The Structure of Belonging (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2008), loc. 504. []
  4. (accessed February 20, 2014 []
  5. (accessed February 20, 2014 []
  6. (accessed February 20, 2014 []
  7. Block, 17. []
  8. (accessed February 20, 2014 []
  9. (accessed February 20, 2014 []
  10. (accessed February 20, 2014 []
  11. (accessed February 20, 2014 []
  12. (accessed February 20, 2014 []
  13. (accessed February 20, 2014 []
  14. (accessed February 20, 2014 []
  15. (accessed February 20, 2014 []
  16. (accessed February 20, 2014 []
  17. (accessed February 20, 2014 []
  18. (accessed February 20, 2014 []
  19. (accessed February 20, 2014 []
  20. (accessed February 20, 2014 []
  21. (accessed February 20, 2014 []
  22. (accessed February 20, 2014 []
  23. (accessed February 20, 2014 []
  24. (accessed February 20, 2014 []
  25. Block, loc. 101. []
  26. Ibid., loc. 177. []
  27. Ibid., loc. 469. []
  28. Ibid., loc. 504. []
  29. Ibid., loc. 1793. []
  30. Ibid., loc. 1803. []
  31. Ibid., loc. 1820. []
  32. Ibid., loc. 1922. []
  33. Ibid., loc. 1924. []
  34. Ibid., loc. 2245. []
  35. Ibid.loc. 2283 []

One thought on “Book | Community: The Structure of Belonging by Peter Block”

Comments are closed.