There’s a feeling in the air, and it has nothing to with meteorology. It might fall under the wide category of sociology or even anthropology.

It’s a sense of empowerment and a willingness to fight the status quo.

It’s a true reflection of the word “community,” which means, literally, “with union.”

And, just in time to build on the momentum, especially in Milwaukee and Riverwest, “The Abundant Community Project” will kick off this January.

The project will be guided by Janice Christensen through her work as a community development specialist with the YMCA Community Development Center. The Marquette Center for Community Collaboration will partner on the project.

John McKnight, who wrote The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods with Peter Block, is a big part of the inspiration for Christensen in pulling together the resources to launch this project.

Community Transformation

It will be the culmination of more than three years of inspiration, learning and planning by Christensen.

“I’ve been participating in the Community Transformation Project at Marquette University for three years,” Christensen says. That endeavor is a monthly meeting of interested parties focused on true re-formation, on a community level. The project is directed by Dr. Robert Pavlik and offered through the Marquette University College of Professional Studies.

“There’s this feeling, as we’ve seen in the Occupy movement and internationally, that people are ready to take responsibility for how we live and how we make our way in the world,” Christensen said.

The fact that the Riverwest neighborhood already is an abundant community in many ways is part of the motivation for starting this pilot project here. The number of locally-owned businesses, community organizations and strong neighborhood groups bodes well for this project to be a success.

Meeting Needs

In essence, the Abundant Community Project will work to identify the gifts and passions of community residents and provide pathways for them to share their gifts with neighbors who need them.

As Christensen puts it, the project is “giving a structure to something that’s already kind of happening in Riverwest.”

A good example is the Milwaukee Area Time Exchange, where residents sign up to share their time and talents with others. You know how to sew but don’t have a clue about changing the oil in your car. Your neighbor, Fred, is great with cars but has never even attempted to put thread in a needle, much less actually sew on a button.

A basic example, surely, but it should give you some idea of one practical application of the project.

McKnight, the author of The Abundant Community says, “Only our community capacity has the power to fill the glass to the brim,” put clean oil in our cars and sew buttons on our shirts.

Neighborhood Necessities

McKnight also talks of seven community functions or “neighborhood necessities” – safety and security, health, the well-being of children, the environment, an enterprising economy, food and care – that are the hallmarks of a truly healthy, vibrant, successful community that meets the needs of all its residents.

We are all aware of attempts to fix things in our communities that come from businesses, agencies or government. McKnight says these never will fulfill the seven community functions because of inherent limits. He warns against “a nation that tries hopelessly to revive itself from the top down.”

The Abundant Community Project is the exact opposite. This program will begin with interviews of residents, some on a block-by-block level.

Project collaborators on the neighborhood level include the Milwaukee Area Time Exchange, the Riverwest Cooperative Alliance, the Riverwest Currents and the Wright Street Resource Center. Christensen will be making formal proposals to these groups in early January. The collective impact of all these entities will be directed toward helping Riverwest residents realize the abundance all around them.

Interviews will be done one-on-one and at listening tables. Early in the process, “connectors” will be identified. These are people who already acknowledge their role, at least on some level, in building a better community, whether it’s as a block watch captain, a store owner or a member of the PTA at La Escuela Fratney.

Christensen notes there are roughly 90 blocks within Riverwest.

“It would be great to have a connector on every block. That would be a good goal to work toward,” she says.

Connecting to Create Culture

McKnight sums up the type of activities that will make up the project in Riverwest, in outlining three steps toward helping residents discover their own way, “to create a culture made by their own vision.”

The first step is for all of us to recognize the abundance we already have – individually, as neighbors and in our neighborhood.

Second is to build an awareness of the power that comes from connectedness, from creating new relationships with our fellow citizens.

And finally, it’s vital to realize that connections don’t happen by themselves. We need to individually or collectively make the connections.

All three components will be present in the Abundant Community Project. Christensen describes it well: “The basis of this strategy is to offer an opportunity for ordinary people to exercise their gifts within their neighborhood.”

In the interview process, participants will explore their passions, their gifts and their skills, and any one of those three things that they know well enough to teach to or share with a neighbor.

Getting Off the Grid

And, it’s important to understand that “gifts” have nothing to do with income or tangible assets.

Christensen says that census numbers for Riverwest continue to demonstrate residents here have high education levels, but relatively low income levels.

“We choose to work outside the structure to build our own lives in a more meaningful way,” she says. “This project will be a new way for people to organize how they live in their communities and get off the corporate grid.”

The listening tables are an important part of the project, Christensen says, as they will offer every Riverwest resident the opportunity to come and present their issues and their gifts.

“We need to hear about gifts, but it’s important to talk about needs as well,” Christensen says.

As needs are identified, three main questions will be posed: What can we do for ourselves, what do we need some help with, and what do we need to have done for us.

The last question, issues that we can’t solve on our own, even in an abundant community, might include fixing potholes in the streets or making sure our drinking water is clean and potable, Christensen says. Those are issues for government, but they won’t be addressed if we don’t voice them.

Addiction issues among Riverwest residents could be an example of the second question, something that the community can address to a point, but for which we also need a certain amount of help from outside.

Finally, Christensen points out there are a surprising number of needs that we can meet ourselves. Whether it’s taking care of our elderly in our neighborhood, raising our children, or even making ourselves healthier by our food choices, there are any number of things we can do right here in Riverwest, especially if we have those strong connections discussed above.

“There is a lot of work to do,” Christensen admits, “but if we can bring the gifts of a community to bear on these problems, we can do a lot.”