Building communities inside out

In distressed comm
unities across the United States, savvy organizers and leaders are rediscovering ancient wisdom about what builds strong communities.

  • Serious community builders have no choice but to return to basics, to the communities themselves to rediscover and mobilize the strengths, capacities, and assets within those communities.
  • Communities can only be built by focusing on the strengths and capacities of the citizens who call that community home.
  • Start by drawing an “Assets Map“, which includes: (1) the “gifts” of individual residents – their knowledge, skills, resources, values, and commitments; (2) those groups and organizations, sometimes called “associations,” in which local citizens come together to pursue a wide range of activities; (3) institutions located in virtually every community: schools, parks, libraries, police, human service agencies, community colleges, when those institutions can refocus at least part of their considerable resources on community building.

When all these local community assets – the gifts of individuals, the power of citizens’ associations, and the resources of local institutions – have been rediscovered, “mapped,” and mobilized in relation to each other and their potential to solve problems, then a community previously regarded as empty and deficient will appear on the large civic stage as capable and powerful. With this goal in mind, consider a few of the concrete tools and methods local communities are developing to rediscover and activate their assets.

Discovering and Using the Gifts of Individuals

  • Every community is built by the contributions of its residents.
  • The great organizer Saul Alinsky argued that it takes no more than five percent of the residents of any community to bring about significant change.
  • For purposes of building communities “from the inside out,” that number is inadequate.
  • Every person in this community is gifted, and every person in this community will contribute his/her gifts and resources.
  • To rediscover the gifts and resources of all community members, community groups have utilized some form of a “Capacity Inventory.” The inventory is simply a questionnaire aimed at uncovering a person’s skills, areas of knowledge and experience, commitments, and willingness to be involved in community building and/or economic development activities.
  • Among the many potential uses for the capacity inventory, the seven listed below seem to be most common. Each, of course, requires asking residents a different set of questions.

Seven Uses for a Capacity Inventory

  • Link skills to employers
  • Discover market opportunities
  • Develop local skills bank. Housed with block captains, in churches or local community organizations, a skills bank can facilitate neighbor-to-neighbor help, e.g. baby sitting, snow shoveling, carpentry, plumbing
  • Learning Exchange: “What would you like to teach?” and “What would you like to learn?” One community for over a decade operated a learning exchange that grew to a listing of more than 20,000 topics.
  • Discover new participants in community life. Questions about previous involvements and current interests uncover new contributors to community organizations.
  • Discover new cultural and artistic resources. Inquiries about cultural and artistic skills in a number of communities have uncovered visual artists, writers, musicians, theater people, and crafts people, most of whom are willing and ready to be involved in community and civic activities.

The questions that make up the inventory should reflect the uses that the organizing group wants to emphasize. A typical questionnaire might cover:

  • Skills information, including skills people have learned at home, in the community, or at the workplace. Usually people are asked to identify their “priority skills,” those about which they are most confident.
  • Community skills information, aimed at uncovering precious community experience and potential interests.
  • Enterprising interests and experience, aimed at uncovering past and present business experience.
  • Culture and arts skills.
  • Minimum personal information, for follow-up purposes.

Discovering and Using the Power of Local Citizens’ Associations

  • The most powerful users and magnifiers of the gifts of individual citizens are often local associations.
  • When asked, these associations are proving more than ready to contribute to community building activities.
  • Communities are developing and using valuable methods of rediscovering and further activating their neighborhood associations. The approaches involve (1) an “associational inventory;” and (2) an “associational survey.”

The inventory uses simple, common sense methods, such as:

  • Collecting basic information, e.g., lists from agencies and government offices, newspaper and newsletter clippings, church bulletins.
  • Interviewing longtime leaders in the community to edit and add to the groups gathered from written material.
  • In community meetings, or in face to face or phone interviews, asking people to list all of the groups, clubs and organizations to which they belong.

The second step involves surveying the leaders of as many local associations as possible. Some communities are finding it useful to uncover three kinds of information:

  • What is this group, and what do you do?
  • What do you do that impacts the larger community, beyond your membership?
  • What kinds of community building activities might you consider in the future? (Accompanied by specific examples of particular community building strategies, this opens up a host of new possibilities for associations.)

Discovering and Using the Resources of Local Institutions

  • Every community has some local institutions. The challenge involves re-focusing at least a part of their mission and resources on community building activity. How can local schools, parks, libraries, human service agencies, etc. contribute to the revitalization of community?
  • The first step is to re-establish relationships between the leaders of these local institutions and the community builders. What has happened next in a number of communities is a set of discussions aimed at discovering ways in which cooperative efforts lead both the institution and the community.
  • What interests community builders most about the resources that local institutions bring to the table has very little to do with the central “missions” of the institutions, e.g. a school’s “curriculum”. Rather, community builders often regard these institutions as “treasure chests” filled with potential community building resources. A school, for example, contains treasures such as: facilities and space, which would host and incubate a range of community groups and activities; materials and equipment, from computers to blackboards, all of which could be invaluable to community groups; purchasing power, with which to buy from local enterprises; hiring capacity, which could partly target local residents; teachers, who could bring their expertise to bear on community issues; and young people, most important of all, who could come back into the community as contributors to the rebuilding process.

Once these combinations of local assets and capacities – individual residents, citizens’ associations, and the resources of local institutions – have been mapped and mobilized, a community is well on its way to regenerating itself. Such a community may still, of course, require help from the outside. But it is now in a position to control and define that help, to focus and direct outside resources to the locally generated agenda and plans. Rather than existing as an object of charity, such a community will say to the outside world: we are mobilized and powerful; we are a sure-fire investment.

Notes from Building Communities From the Inside Out, by John P. Kretzmann

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