Milwaukee Edition

Hidden Treasures

Neighbors Discover Their Wealth of Resources

The essential promise of consumerism is that everything fulfilling or needed in life can be purchased—from happiness to healing, from love to laughter and from raising a child to caring for someone at the end of life. What was once the task of relatives and neighbors has been outsourced, costing the family its capacity to manage traditionally provided necessities. The community, which once provided an extended support system, is no longer viable, replaced by paid professionals and technology.

Until the 20th century, the basic philosophy of rearing children was that they become effective grownups by connecting with productive adults and learning the community’s skills, traditions and customs from them. Youth had jobs to do: caring for the elderly and young, doing household chores and helping with food. When they became adults, they were thus equipped to care both for the next generation and for those that had cared for them.

Today, the most effective communities are those in which neighborhoods and residents have reclaimed their traditional roles. The research on this point is decisive. Where there are “thick” community connections, there is positive child development. Health improves, the environment is sustained and people are safer and have a stronger local economy.

We too, can decide to shift our attention toward rebuilding the functions of our family and neighborhood. We have the gifts, structures and capacities to substitute for our habit of consumption. Here’s an example of how it works.

Neighbors Naomi Alessio and Jackie Barton were talking about family challenges when Alessio noted her son Theron’s encouraging turnaround after he met Mr. Thompson, who had a metalworking shop in his garage. The old man invited him in and something clicked. Theron began to stop by every day, proudly bringing home metal pieces he’d learned to make. Alessio could see Theron change and finally stopped worrying about what he was doing after school.

Barton admitted that her son Alvin was in trouble, and asked Alessio if there might be someone in the neighborhood whose skills would interest him. They decided to ask all the men in the neighborhood about their interests and skills. In three weeks, they found men that knew about juggling, barbecuing, bookkeeping, fishing, hunting, haircutting, bowling, investigating crimes, writing poems, fixing cars, weightlifting, choral singing, teaching dogs tricks, mathematics, praying and how to play trumpet, drums and the saxophone. They discovered enough talent for all the kids in the neighborhood to tap into.

Three of the men they met—Charles Wilt, Mark Sutter and Sonny Reed—joined Alessio, Barton and Thompson in finding out what the kids on the block were interested in learning. Also, why not ask the kids what they knew? They found 22 things the young people knew that might be of interest to some adults on the block.

The six neighbors named themselves the Matchmakers and began to connect neighbors that shared the same interests, from gardening to job opportunities. They created a multiuse neighborhood website. Many neighbors formed a band, plus a choir led by Sarah Ensley, an elder who’d been singing all her life. Charles Dawes, a police officer, formed an intergenerational team to make the block a safe haven for everyone.

Then Lenore Manse decided to write family histories with photos and persuaded neighborhood historian Jim Caldwell and her best friend, Lannie Eaton, to help. Wilt suggested that the Matchmakers welcome newcomers by giving them a copy of the block history, and then updating it with information about each new family.

Three years later at the annual block party, Barton summed up the neighborhood’s accomplishment: “All the lines are broken; we’re all connected. We’re a real community now.”

These local connections can give the modern family what the extended family once provided: a functioning community with a strong culture of kin, friends and neighbors. A regenerated community emerges, yielding essential qualities of a satisfying life: kindness, generosity, cooperation, forgiveness and the ability to nurture families that have reclaimed their function.


Adapted from an article by John McKnight and Peter Block for YES! Magazine that appears in its anthology, Sustainable Happiness. They are co-authors of The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods (AbundantCommunity.com).

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