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Richard Peterson
Professor of sociology

  Faculty Profile  

Every faculty member I know can describe a "dream sabbatical." For me, after years of studying community building through the pages of books and articles, my dream sabbatical was visiting the very neighborhoods and cities where the "action" is. I had been interested in grass-roots movements to rebuild social and economic capital since an earlier sabbatical at Northwestern University's Institute for Policy Research. The people I worked with then had since transformed themselves into the Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) Institute and were, by the late 1990s, working in neighborhoods all over the country. The people in these neighborhoods were pulling together their own assets and reconstructing their worlds through a wonderful blending of self-determination and grassroots democracy. I wanted to visit some of these places to see firsthand what was going on. My application for a Campbell McConnell Fellowship said just that.

With the funding from the McConnell Fellowship and the cooperation (and substantial additional funding) of ABCD, I embarked on a coast-to-coast odyssey in the spring of 2000. My travels took me from Boston to Seattle. In between I stopped off in Brockport (Connecticut), Memphis, Minneapolis, Kansas City, and Denver (with a trip to Haiti and Cuba to look at community in these infamous spots-yes, it is there). I visited neighborhood groups, umbrella organizations, foundations, and government agencies. I saw innovative small grants programs, programs to include the often excluded (those with mental or physical challenges), training sessions that taught lower-income parents to become effective voices in local schools, and civic leaders joining together to empower lower-income people. In short, in my 50-plus interviews I saw neighborhood inventions that were rebuilding the social and economic capital of our cities.

I came away impressed with my experience and wanted to share it with others. I have now given a public lecture on my journey. I have talked informally with scores of people about what is "going on out there." My visits continue to inform all that I teach. Last year I taught a course, "Community Building in the 21st Century," which took students to Kansas City and Minneapolis to talk with community builders. The students were amazed and impressed with the often ignored, positive grass-roots activity they found in these cities.

It is not often that we are allowed to live out a dream. In my case, the Campbell McConnell Fellowship did help make my dream a reality.

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