A Catalyst for Conversation

June 2020 5 min read download as Masterclass PDF


THE THEMES OF MOST of the conversations that we convene during the Masterclass for Active Citizenship were first offered by the US author and consultant Peter Block in his 2008 book Community: The Structure of Belonging.

In designing the Masterclass, we were excited to come across this set of conversations not just because they provided a useful structure for our workshop sessions, but because they reflected and affirmed the questions and discussions that many of us were already having within our communities.

In 2010, a small group of active citizens started meeting regularly in New Plymouth to discuss the increasingly precarious state of our community sector. Several in this group had been involved in establishing and running community agencies and social service programmes throughout Taranaki over many decades.

But for all the good work that had been achieved, we had become concerned about a gradual erosion of citizen engagement in community affairs, and a decline in the critical role that citizens and communities play in creating well-being.

When we came across Peter Block’s Community, we were grateful because it had certainly come to us at the right time. It curiously seemed a very good summary of the discussions we had already begun, and the questions that were emerging out of our meetings.

But the book also did something else: it challenged and stretched us to think differently about how we could work to transform our sense of citizenship and community beyond what we already knew about running community agencies and social service programmes.


In his book, Peter Block credits the inspiration and influence of many thought leaders from different creative disciplines that he had woven into his work. Some of these had already made an impact on the thinking of community development practitioners here in New Zealand. This included the work of John McKnight and the ABCD (Asset-Based Community Development) network, Walter Brueggemann who is an influential Old Testament scholar, and Werner Erhard whose personal transformation courses had led to the establishment of the Landmark Forum.

We found that Peter Block’s thinking had also resonated with many of the community leaders associated with the Canadian-based Tamarack Institute for Community Engagement. Several of these leaders had been touring and lecturing in New Zealand, or had been visited with and studied by our own social entrepreneurs.

The Community book has been useful in naming an agenda for our consideration. It is a universal agenda that, once filtered through our own different cultures and stories and insights, offers the possibilities for awakening and strengthening our communities.

The six conversations as offered by Peter Block are not some new philosophy or a secular theology of citizenship. They are not a “model”, nor is there any special order to the topics. The conversations have simply proven to be useful containers into which we can pour our own sharing and listening.

Thought leaders from different creative disciplines ... John McKnight of the ABCD network, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, and author and consultant Peter Block leading a Common Good workshop in Cincinnati, Ohio, April 2018 photo by Glen Bennett

Community is one of three books that we provide to participants on each Masterclass. The participants are encouraged to read the section about a particular conversation while preparing their own keynote remarks which they will offer to the rest of the group.

Many participants have told us that they found the book immediately useful, and some have credited it as a transformative influence when considering their own community or family challenges and possibilities.

There have been other reactions too ... and not all of them completely positive. Some participants have found Block’s comments naive when considered against the brutality and inter-generational trauma that has come with the colonisation of New Zealand.  Also, not every person is a book reader, and many of our participants had found the author’s style of writing not to their taste, or difficult to digest.

So, it would be fair to say that the Community book has received a diverse “community” of reviews.

But, as hosts and organisers of the Masterclass, we could see that this book was also doing its work, whether or not its readers agreed with it, or were comfortable with how things were being said. Providing the book has proven to be an effective catalyst for changing the nature of the conversations we were having with one another.