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Saturday, September 5, 2015


I must admit, I like to parse words.  I like especially to explore definitions that may have been overlooked or somewhat lost in the shuffle of everyday discourse.  Today, I’d like to look at a word that gets used a lot to describe a group, mainly perhaps a government or political entity; that word is “community.” 

As a matter of fact, I recently attended a meeting with representatives of a community foundation and of a community development organization (on whose board of directors I happen to serve). Sure enough, the meanings and derivatives of the word “community” were bandied about as a natural outgrowth of our common mission to serve and to impact our communities and our constituencies. What follows is a compendium of some of the common concepts discussed, along with a few of my own musings. I do hope it provokes a positive response in terms of your own concerns about your community and its concerns, problems, needs and whatever dynamics happen to exist where you live or work. First, it is necessary to lay some groundwork. How about a dictionary definition of “community”:
“1. a social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality, share government, and have a cultural and historical heritage”
So far; so good, and pretty standard.  Generally, we live in such defined communities: hamlets, villages, boroughs, towns and cities.  Of course, there are some who live in more isolated circumstances, and their “community” may be less-well defined.  It is, perhaps, whatever they wish to make of it.  Our country has almost always had the former constructs, and the latter individualized farms and homesteads were perhaps more common in our early history, as more and more emigrants, settlers, exiles, adventurers and just plain curious folk began to settle this colonial possession, relying perhaps on land grants, land speculations, and public purchase of lands;  many taking part in building communities.

It is perhaps the sharing of a cultural and historical heritage that was of great importance in the building of colonial communities, and perhaps even more so in our later national history in the 19th century.  According to Wikipedia, “Historians estimate that fewer than 1 million immigrants came to the United States from Europe between 1600 and 1799.  The country’s first Immigration Act of 1790  limited naturalization to "free white persons"; but was expanded to include blacks in the 1860s and Asians in the 1950s. In the early years of the United States, immigration was fewer than 8,000 people a year, including French refugees from the slave revolt in Haiti. After 1820, immigration gradually increased. From 1836 to 1914, over 30 million Europeans migrated to the United States.  In 1875, the nation passed its first immigration law, the Page Act of 1875.  The peak year of European immigration was in 1907, when 1,285,349 persons entered the country.  By 1910, 13.5 million immigrants were living in the United States.

Migrations from Europe, especially in the 19th century, created certain ethnic enclaves in many eastern cities.  In this geographical area, we recognize the importance of certain ethnic groups in giving flavor and identity to certain of our cities and towns.  Utica and Rome are both known for Italian heritage and background.   Again, from Wikipedia:
“Italian Americans are the largest ethnic group in Oneida County, as well as in some counties in the Hudson Valley that are closest to New York City. Irish Americans represent the largest ethnic group from the Capital District, Syracuse, Binghamton, and the rest of the Hudson Valley, with Irish population consistently above 15% in most of upstate New York (reaching over 20% in the upper Hudson Valley), compared to less than 8% in most of New York City.  Buffalo also contains a notably large contingent of residents with Polish ancestry. African Americans, while not as numerous as in New York City, make up at least 25% of the residents in cities such as Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and Albany. There is also a significant presence of the indigenous Six Nations in the region, who retain several reservations: the Seneca nation and Tonawanda Band of Seneca Indians in Western New York, the Onondaga nation south of Syracuse, the Oneida nation of Oneida County and the Mohawk nation in Franklin County. Members of the Six Nations also live in the cities of Upstate New York.”
HOWEVER, the point must be made that long-standing ethnic enclaves have not only contributed to the building of community and of communities, they have also contributed to a status quo that has sometimes resisted the inclusion of newer cultural and ethnic groups in local institutions, organizations, and  community leadership.  The diversity of a city like Utica, NY represents its heritage, its strength, and its promise.  But a reluctance to recognize and embrace change in demographics or dynamics; a comfortableness with the status quo, and an unawareness of concerns, needs and issues outside of one’s insular world, can also contribute to a controlled structure that has difficulty with community-building, inclusion and unity.  And therein lies a challenge.

Within that word “community” are two words that present the aspects of that challenge: one is “commun” (“common”); the other is “unity.”  So let us not overlook the dictionary definitions that pertain to them:
“2. the community, the public.  3. agreement; identity”
We are not looking here at “common” in the sense of vulgar or ordinary or of inferior quality.  Not at all.  We are concentrating on the qualities of “belonging equally’ ‘ making ‘common cause,’ holding something ‘ in common,’ and denoting  ‘of the people, for the people and by the people’.”  The roots of our Republic, of our Democracy, begin with the public nature of community.  It is the people who matter; who are the foundation and the roots of it all.  When building community, we cannot forget this concept, for too much attention to the physical structures of buildings and organizations, or to niceties and decorative add-ones and flourishes of excess, or to programs with little impact beyond a small enclave, are not always integral to the building of a community (not that they can’t be important to the enabling of people sometimes).  Rightly, you might ask at this point:  well, what is at the heart of building community identity and well-being?  Let me suggest a few thoughts on this before I refer to materials that may help with more thoughts and answers.
Ask the People.  Is this so difficult that we choose not to do it?  So many organizations, so many institutions, so many programs forget this one very fundamental principle.  If your “community,” whatever and wherever it is, is planning to do something or call for something that affects people’s lives, then first ask the people who will be affected what they think, what they want, what they need, what their dream/hope/desire/best-case-scenario is.  If we based our community-building on the community itself rather than on the opinions of the supposed leaders/representatives of the community or on the loud-mouths with their own agendas of profit or aggrandizement or just plain stubbornness, we might see real identity, real change, real progress and even improved lives.
How do we ask?  Well, probably not by sending out surveys in the mail that ask questions suited to answers already pre-determined by the sender!  But there are legitimate uses for surveys, and questionnaires and interviews and polls.  But here’s the rub.  Most people are not going to take time from their self-perception (deception?) of lives “too busy” to sit down, answer 50 questions and then mail back a questionnaire.  The personal touch is preferable if you can get volunteers or paid personnel to go door-to-door; do a phone bank or hold a public meeting. 
More preferable, perhaps, is to associate a survey or question-asking or poll-taking with something else, so that the targets of the survey are already engaged and just need to be enticed further to give answers. 
  • give out something free at an event where you have a booth and ask only that people answer a few questions before they receive their free gift
  • get someone else to sponsor your event who can draw a clientele to their product, and then direct them to your survey as part of their promotion
  • “capture” participants in a way that almost requires them to answer your survey before they can leave
  • make sure you have a part in a community event that is a big draw for people you are also trying to reach
  • use your imagination
Build Bridges.  You simply can’t get the various groups of people (“cohorts”) to respond, to give input, to participate, and to join in a common cause if they don’t have the bridges to cross or the structures through which to communicate.  In other words, one of the failings of our institutions and organizations is the tendency to have an ‘open door’ policy, but to forget to construct the path to the door or the “doors” themselves.  Or, to rely on statistics like census data that are impersonal and often estimated in terms of current numbers.  Numbers cannot tell personal stories, and personal stories are the vehicles of personal circumstances, needs, hopes, promises and successes.  We must build-in to our governments and our schools and other public institutions, as well as into our private and philanthropic organizations (even our businesses), structures that enable not just ‘invite’ desired participants.  Inviting people to participate is tantamount in many cases to shouting at people with acrophobia to cross a bridge that is 80 feet in the air!  They aren’t going to do it!
So OK, what are some examples of bridges that can be built:
  • small groups of people who gather in private homes to discuss topics of the day
  • regular meetings of targeted cohorts with leaders of organizations to discuss and plan for better outreach
  • promotion of regular training sessions for jobs usually unavailable to certain groups
  • leadership training for young people emphasizing skills, not personality or qualities
  • on-going “advisory’ and ‘planning’ groups that are formed and operated by participants but listened to by organization leadership with actual implementation of best suggestions
  • involvement in organizations, groups and events already being held by targeted groups
  • promotion of members of targeted cohorts for public office and for roles in community organizations
  • support of community issues and projects important to the targeted cohort such as a community center; jobs; transportation; day care
Promote Common Cause/Unity.  From way back there in the War on Poverty days, we learned early on that working for change, reform or just plain recognition is doomed to failure without a common cause or unity on certain issues of real concern to most of the members of a target community.  Those causes must be worked out by the people themselves, with any assistance they may identify and recruit.  For such a thing to occur, there must be:
  • a hashing out period where the people decide what cause or causes to pursue
  • strict adherence to the causes with variations approved only by the community
  • an understanding that some things will just not be won the first time around, so a decision as to what is non-negotiable and what is negotiable must be made and carried through
  • a trusted core of representatives to work out the plan
  • alliances or agreements nurtured with those in power
  • a coalition of like-minded but diverse individuals and organizations formed to give strength to the community cause: collaboration and common cause are vital to community-building
  • symbols that illuminate the cause or causes appearing everywhere possible
  • symbolic actions that promote the causes
  • keep the larger community informed and keep recruiting followers – doesn’t hurt to ‘cultivate’ a few ‘followers’ in media outlets
Community Service.  One of the most under-rated yet most effective means of building bridges, common cause and community unity all at the same time involves community service.  Those who advocate for change and problem-solving and community-building must take responsibility for their own needs, gaps, and short-comings.   The community being built must include what I like to call a “Good Works Corps.”  Volunteers from every cohort in the community can be recruited to perform some action that meets some of the very problems and concerns that beset the community.  As well, the Corps can address issues of the larger community by serving in unexpected capacities to give back to the larger community surrounding them.  The Corps is another visible symbol of community, unity and common cause, but it is displayed in a way that benefits the larger area.  It is not the most difficult thing in the world, but it does take time, effort, energy and commitment.  Here are some thoughts:
  • the Corps should not be limited to just young people or older people; it should encompass as many age, ethnic, racial, and other cohorts as possible; although age units within the Corps might serve particular populations or age-related needs
  • it’s mission and purpose should be broad enough to lend a hand where needed, and to identify areas of need that are not being addressed
  • the Corps does not need to work alone on its own projects but can lend a hand to existing agencies and programs to supplement and aid what they already do: Habitat for Humanity” comes to mind, as do Big Brothers-Big Sisters
  • a resource for accomplishing this whole idea might be the Corporation for National and Community Service out of Washington, DC and connected to the federal government
  • in fact, the use of AmeriCorps volunteers granted out of this agency might be the key to starting and organizing a “Good Works Corps.”
  • What might the ‘GWC’ try to do?  Whatever it might be, let the Corps organize itself and make its own decisions as to what it will do, and what it can’t do; another chance to engage in Leadership Development based on skills rather than attributes of personality or background
Celebrate and Recognize.  A forgotten aspect of community-building sometimes is a very important ingredient.  The community as it builds must take the time to recognize it’s successes and it’s short-comings.  One way to do this is to publicize and invigorate the efforts of the community by inviting the target community and members of the larger community to celebrate. 
  • Neighborhood parties, recognition ceremonies, special days in the calendar, special events in the community – they can all be occasions for celebrating and communicating the target community’s advances and developments.  One sure way to involve the larger community is to recognize and honor one of their own as a supporter, contributor, sponsor of whatever the target community is doing.  Using that as a drawing point, the target community can then celebrate it’s own successes within the same event by telling stories, honoring outstanding volunteers and leaders, recognizing hours served, etc.  Above all, don’t limit celebrations to the target community itself – get the larger community involved to some meaningful end.
  • Don’t forget to evaluate the effort.  Get people together to say what needs to be improved.  Bring complainants in to thoroughly review complaints. Try some written evaluations just like surveys.  Find ways to get feedback on what works and what doesn’t, and then get suggestions for improvements.
  • Finally, don’t slough-off on the statistical data-gathering.  Get someone to volunteer their time to record what kind of hours volunteers are putting in and what kinds of changes have occurred.  You need actual data to convince supporters, donors, grants-makers and the larger community leadership and citizenry that an impact has been made and that your community has moved ahead.  Invite them to come along.  And, don’t forget to wear those T-shirts and give out those key-chains and other symbols of your efforts and successes! 
Finally, you might find the following site an interesting and informative read.  It contains a comprehensive detailed account of steps needed in building healthy communities: (if clicking on the link doesn’t work, try holding down the Ctrl key while clicking on the link)
Whoever you are, you can be a part of a community-building effort and make an impact on its health and well-being.   You just have to let someone know you’re ready!  If you can’t find a community development agency or service program in your area that can accommodate your desire to serve, contact me at and I’ll try to find a spot for you to start.