Woodlawn was the third poorest neighborhood in Chicago. As early as 1990 over half of its residents were on some form of public aid, and the median household income was only $13,000. Eighty percent of residents lacked higher education; prostitution and drug addiction were rampant.
John McKnight, emeritus professor of education and social policy and co-director of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at Northwestern University, walked door to door through Woodlawn asking residents 5 questions. These questions helped residents start to think inwardly in terms of producing change for their embattled community.
The questions were profound in their ability to make neighbors realize the useful skills they had to share and the potential for community transformation. Additionally they began to see that they did not have to rely on financial grants, politicians, or outside influence to produce the change.
The five questions were:
- What are the most significant gifts you were born with? (These are not things you have learned but rather inherent strengths or gifts.)
- What are the most significant skills you have learned?
- What are you really passionate about, and how have you acted on that during your life?
- Of your gifts, skills, and passions, what can you teach to others? Would you be willing to teach these things?
- (To the kids in the neighborhood) What on the list of gifts, skills, and passions would you like to learn?
The result of the survey was a rather long list of things that could be taught and shared with other people in the Woodlawn neighborhood.
The big winners in this community survey was the long list of kids who wanted to learn how to cook, repair cars, and sew, as well as other skills. They began to see their neighbors in new, empowered ways.
Woodlawn is a great teacher of the importance of grassroots enabling and initiative. Three things can be learned from their experiment in community development that is good for churches, agencies, businesses, or any other organization designed for community action.
- Hierarchical leadership creates dependency and weakness. It causes lower level members or workers to say, “Someone else is in charge, and I am not responsible.”
- Grassroots leadership fosters creativity and independence. A person who feels capable and responsible will self-initiate rather than waiting on someone else to do it.
- Grassroots leadership is efficient. People who feel responsible will look for the best way to get something done. It will cost less and often be smarter. Failure is allowed because failure enables learning and effectiveness.
A community that is willing to ask the five questions learns humility too. It shatters the prejudice that only the rich or powerful or connected can create change.