Leadership and the Common Good

Peter Block and Friends


Introduction: Curriculum for the Common Good

The purpose is to broadcast and distribute the theory and practices of communal restoration. This is needed to restore our commitment to the common good. We want to be a gathering place, like a library, for stories and ideas strong enough to build the social capital and engaged community required to restore the common good.

This restoration is about a shift from a context of scarcity and privatization to one of abundance and communal interest. We want to assemble in one place the principles, practices, and tools for this restorative transformation, which is well underway.

There are four sections:

-What it means to care for the common good.

-The context of scarcity, privatization, and the limits of development.

-Inverting our thinking about the domains of economics, church, journalism, architecture.

-Amplifying the people and practices that are changing the world. We want to give visibility to the untitled community builders, local people, under the radar, who are engaged in the transformational practices that are restoring our care for place, community and each other.

We don’t know what to name this collective landscape, but will call it a Curriculum for Communal Restoration for the moment. It will be the collective record of ordinary citizens producing the common good.








Everywhere there are citizen-leaders inventing ways for themselves and their neighbors to: be safe, produce a just economy, produce good health, produce and distribute a secure and local food supply, care for people on the margin, care for the land, and do a better job of raising our children. These are the measures of care for the common good. Citizens committed to these through civic engagement are our audience.


In every community, every disciplinary field, there are people designing ways to create a counter-story in service of the commons. Care for the commons usually does not go by this name; it is usually called work on the environment, on revitalizing neighborhoods, creating bike lanes, creating low income housing, planting vegetables and flowers in urban spaces, working on poverty, urban farming, or health, or schools or community centers. In each instance, the most significant challenge to collectively solving these concerns can be traced to the disappearance of social cohesion serving the common good. The work then is to build this cohesion, variously called social fabric, social equity, or civic engagement. This can also be called community building.


The effort to build the social fabric required to support the commons is a major, long-term undertaking. It begins with seeing clearly the nature of the modern epidemic of isolation, and then constructs ways of reversing it. It means we have to shift the thinking, narratives and practices that are producing this isolation. A major part of this arises from certain specific disciplines which hold a set of beliefs about: our economy, our faith, our architecture, and the place of journalism in our lives. The modern, dominant narrative in each of these disciplines is what dilutes our social fabric and sustains our isolation and consequently much of the suffering in the world.

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Creating a dense social fabric, which we are calling community building, is more critical to the common good than creating more funding, more programs, new leadership, and more expertise, the usual solutions. Building community shifts the context within which funding, programs, leadership, and expertise operate. It is the path to value what is neighborly and local in the face of the existing context of empire and the business perspective. We need to understand the context of empire and its reliance on the dominant business perspective, which is the implementation or action arm of the modern consumer economy.

The consumer economy is a defining quality for the modern economy, which is imperial in nature and in its mindset. Imperial in the belief that no matter what our talents or how well we perform, it is never enough. Imperial in its demand for restless productivity. Imperial in the modernist view that new inventions and better prepared individuals and leaders are what will make the difference. Imperial in the idea that some people know and others don’t. Imperial in the belief that only the most credentialed voices are worth listening to. Imperial in the view that the built environment is a testimony to its architects rather than its inhabitants.

An economy like this is given life by the business perspective, spelled out below, which rests on a foundation of scarcity economics, fundamentalist theology, fear-producing journalism, and imposing and unfriendly architecture.


The dual reality of empire and the business perspective occur in conjunction with the consumer economy. Consumption in the free market consumer economy is the core belief that whatever we have is not enough. If we do not have enough, then we are not enough.

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Opposition to the common good works under a number of disguises: globalization, efficiency, competitive advantage, automation, Gross Domestic Product, standard of living, and technological progress.

What powers these disguises are the ideology and celebration of privatization. The movement that has eliminated the practice of community, and its healing effects, is the political and economic drive to put the land, the air, the water, our schools, our grief, our livelihood, and our access to food, our health into private and professional hands. When these common concerns enter private and professional hands, it means they function under the business perspective. Not under any commitment to the commons.


The alternative to privatization is not necessarily to put these concerns into the hands of more public systems like government or sectors of society that have the word “social” in their name. Social service. Social work. Social entrepreneurship. The alternative to privatization is to say that citizens, in a given place, in the context of abundance and relatedness, can find in the civic space the best mix of citizen and system initiatives to care for the common good.

Where consumerism says we do not have enough, community is the belief that we do have enough. Community is defined by its focus on gifts in a culture that is currently organized around deficiencies. It organizes citizens to create and provide for themselves the human well-being that they now think they must purchase. This alternative, or counter-narrative, is to focus on the productive capacity of community and neighborliness as opposed to their consumptive capacity. Community gives rise to an economy of compassion rather than scarcity. It calls for a theology based on fallibility and mystery. It supports journalism that is generative. It nurtures the prophetic quality of art, and supports architecture that is welcoming and evokes aliveness.


What is on the side of community building is the widespread knowledge that something is not working. Every institution places the well-being of the larger world on its mission statement.  Every institution, public servant, and expert is about the business of reform. There is agreement on the importance of getting better at our safety, our health, our children, the land, our economic well-being, the elderly, people on the margin, and our food.

So for each of these concerns, we are in the middle of perpetual efforts at; health care reform, government reform, public safety and military reform, education reform, environmental reform, financial reform, reforming our food system, and reform in the areas of mental health, disabilities and returning offenders.


The vast majority of these reform efforts fail. They are either cosmetic or actually serve to sustain what they are trying to change. They represent no shift in thinking or shift in power. A major reason reform efforts fail is that they take place in the context of the business perspective and privatization. The business perspective reinforces certain dominant beliefs that privatization and consumerism are necessary, essential, in concert with God.  The current reform efforts reinforce the dominant business beliefs that we live in a world of  individualism, and competition. The business perspective, with its affection for scarcity, attempts to reform by more planning, more controls, more consistency, more predictability, and more leadership. This perspective asserts that the good is served by more scale, more speed, more efficiency, more technology, and that human beings are replaceable and interchangeable.

Out of this we have health care reform thinking it is about lower costs, more technology, and more management. Government reform is about less of it. The safety discussion is about more police and better weapons, surveillance and technology. Education reform is about universal standardization, more testing, and more certified teachers. Financial reform is about more retribution and tighter controls. Reform in disabilities and mental health is about more services; the conversation for returning offenders is about more training and jobs. When we are concerned about community, we think the answer is a neighborhood website and social networking as the cure for our isolation.

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These business perspective solutions occur in the name of development. The desire to make things better. Development, sold as the solution, becomes the problem when is occurs within the context that there is too little to go around, that self-interest is our nature, and that more leadership, more controls, more efficiency, more innovation, larger scale, better management will be useful.

These all constitute the idea of development. The modern industrial and information era is constantly sold on the universal promise of “development.” It began in the 17th century as economic development –– turning peasants into consumers, creating a middle class, producing more leisure. It then turns into the development of just about everything: ourselves, our relationships, our children, our economies, other countries, and the land around us. We are presumably a work in progress, our relationships have become networks, we export our consumer way of life to “developing countries,” and we have the notion if you cannot build on the land, what use is it?


The attraction to the business perspective is sold in the name of development. We associate development with growth; we seek the “latest and most advanced kind,” the definition of the word modern. We market the modern as progress, as if an invention, by its nature, will move the human project forward. As if development is the point. The persistent question “what’s next?” is a symptom of this.  In the name of development we justify our worship of control, speed, productivity, and ease. These are the nutrients of the business perspective. We live in a world where we design most of our lives, social structures, institutions, and beliefs to serve these interests; we have become a business culture. First world proud.


This means that when we try to reform health, safety, education, government, finance, we look to new technology, new training, more programs, better planning, more management, and better individuals in leadership positions. All these efforts can be considered the protocols of empire. They are “royal protocols” according to Walter Brueggemann –– the word protocol to indicate that what is occurring is not on the shoulders of particular leaders, but a set of practices and structures larger than any individual and produced with all of our participation.


The societal cost to seeking these modernist versions of reform is that we lose our cultural memory, our communal tradition, and our affection for “place.” When we lose culture, community, and affection for place, it results in abandoning our natural instinct to care for the common good; it takes a toll on our humanity. And our faith. We abandon our idealism in the name of “reality.” Reality TV is the narrative of our least human selves. And when our humanity and faith recede, all efforts at change disappoint. Trying harder only renews the cycle.

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What is needed for an alternative future is to shift the context away from business, empire, development, and progress. To shift the narrative from business perspective to community perspective, from empire to neighborhood, from consumer to citizen, from scarcity to abundance. To seek an alternative future by ways of thinking we call “communal restoration.”

Restoration replaces development and management with engagement. It values uniqueness over consistency, participation over control, and surprise over predictability. These lead to a focus on interdependence, on market generosity, on cooperative and communal structures, and on the power of un-credentialed voices. Where the business perspective is seemingly good for privatization, the communal and neighborhood perspective serves the common good. This perspective gives power to reform. It gives power to citizens. And in fact is the only process where reform has taken hold.


The business perspective have been ideologically reinforced, over time, through four disciplines, each with a set of taken for granted beliefs about people and society that hold the current system in place. These beliefs are decisive in creating the structures that channel our thinking and our actions. They inform how we live together as a society. If we want to create a new context for community restoration we have to see clearly the current dominant context through the eyes of certain core disciplines:

5.2.1 Economics

5.2.2 Faith/Theology

5.2.3 Journalism

5.2.4 Architecture/Space Design

These disciplines are the main support for the context or container for how we attempt to make things better. All together these are becoming the intellectual building blocks for the commons. One by one we can rearrange them.


In a word is a world and so reflecting on our language is critical to restoring the commons. Reconstructing the language in the core disciplines is critical to communal restoration, for they create the patterns for much of our way of being in the world. They create and explain the world for us. They constitute much of the collective consciousness and what we accept as conventional wisdom.


The reconstruction has begun within each discipline; we see that there already are alternative narratives in place. There are an economics of generosity, a theology of the commons, an architecture of aliveness, and generative journalism. Each believes in the common good and in the primacy of citizens to engage with each other in determining their future. Each advocates the centrality of relatedness and the fact of abundance. We want to publicize and immerse ourselves in the voices that are igniting and creating a new narrative for each discipline:

5.4.1 Olivia Saunders/Edgar Cahn/Jonathan Rowe/Marjorie Kelly/Peter Barnes in economics,

5.4.2 Walter Brueggemann and Jacques Ellul in theology,

5.4.3 Peter Pula/Peggy Holman in journalism,

5.4.4 Christopher Alexander in architecture.


There are people in leadership positions initiating social changes and inventions focused on communal restoration in support of the commons. These are community builders around the world that are lifting us into this future. You would never know it from their job titles: City Manager, Urban Planner, Social Entrepreneur, Strategy Consultant, School Board Member, Artist, Social Worker, Mother, Police Chief, Farmer, Surgeon, Union Organizer, Teacher, Disabilities Activist, Museum Director and Commissioner of Tourism. All of them realize that if they want to achieve results on the toughest problems, community building is central to that aspiration. They work with the communal focus in mind and are inventing the methodologies of restoration.

These people are acting on the alternative narrative that transformation occurs through gift-mindedness, welcoming the stranger, and deepening associational life among citizens. As they shift the context and the language from individual to community, from scarcity to abundance, from self-interest to generosity, from management to engagement, they change the world. This is our audience.

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