Understanding a community is crucial to being able to work in it. Taking the time and effort to understand a targeted community well before embarking on a community-wide Sustainable Community Development (SCD) effort will pay off in the long-term. Failing to understand it will hinder credibility and make it difficult to connect with community members as well as to negotiate the twists and turns of starting and implementing a community initiative or intervention. Understanding a community’s description will help the practitioner in becoming a “thread in the fabric” of the community they intend to assist in development towards sustainability. A good way to accomplish this is to create a community description – a record of exploration and findings. It’s a good way to gain a comprehensive overview of the community – what it is now, what it’s been in the past, and what it could be in the future.
A community description is simply a written account and analysis that defines a community. It usually includes information about the geography, demographics, and history, as well as the value of its people. It also usually includes an overview of important community issues, interviews with key people, and other information that can help guide community leaders, stakeholders, and others when starting work in a community.
Understanding the community entails perceiving it in a number of ways. Whether or not the community is defined geographically, it still has a geographic context – a setting that it exists in. Getting a clear sense of this setting may be key to a fuller understanding of it. At the same time, it’s important to comprehend the specific community you’re concerned with. You have to get to know its people – their culture, their concerns, skills, and relationships – and to develop your own relationships with them as well.
In building a relationship between yourself and the community, it is often wise to bring community members together in groups such as block house meetings, town hall gatherings, organization (e.g., Rotary, conservation groups, etc.) meetings, or Sunday after church social gatherings to introduce the present SCD project, to discuss different aspects of the process of sustainable development, to share the prospects for outcomes to strategic planning that can be characterized by sustainability, and most importantly to obtain input from the people in the community being addressed.
If a community can be defined by its population, then its physical properties are also defined by the population: where they live, where they gather, the places that are important to them. The characteristics of those places can tell you a great deal about the people who make up the community. It can also give you an idea of where to find people of different characteristics in the community when it comes time to actually interact with them in groups or one-on-one. Their self-image, many of their attitudes, and their aspirations are often reflected in the places where they choose – or are forced by circumstance or discrimination – to live, work, gather, and play. Other ways of characterizing the community include the following:
- Physical aspects: Every community has a physical presence of some sort. Most have a geographic area or areas they are either defined by or attached to. It’s important to know the community’s size and the look and feel of its buildings, its topography, each of its neighborhoods, and how various areas of the community differ from one another.
- Infrastructure: Roads, bridges, transportation (local public transportation, airports, and train lines), electricity, land line and mobile telephone service, broadband service, and similar “basics” make up the infrastructure of the community.
- Patterns of settlement, commerce, and industry: Where are those physical spaces? Communities reveal their character by where and how they create living and working spaces.
- Demographics: It’s vital to understand who makes up the community. Age, gender, race and ethnicity, marital status, education, number of people in household, first language – these and other statistics make up the demographic profile of the population.
- History: The long-term history of the community can tell you about community traditions, what the community is, or has been, proud of, and what residents would prefer not to talk about. Recent history can afford valuable information about conflicts and factions within the community, important issues, past and current relationships among key people and groups – many of the factors that can trip up any effort before it starts if the practitioner doesn’t know about and address them.
- Community leaders, formal and informal: Some community leaders are elected or appointed – mayors, city councilors, directors of public works. Others are considered leaders because of their activities or their positions in the community – community activists, corporate CEO’s, college presidents, doctors, clergy.
- Community culture, formal and informal: This covers the spoken and unspoken rules and traditions by which the community lives. Understanding the culture and how it developed can be crucial, especially if that’s what you’re attempting to change.
- Existing groups: Most communities have an array of groups and organizations of different kinds. Knowing of the existence and importance of each of these groups can pave the way for alliances or for understanding opposition.
- Existing institutions: Every community has institutions that are important to it, and that have more or less credibility with residents. It’s important to know what they are, who represents them, and what influence they wield.
- Economics: Who are the major employers in the community? What, if any, business or industry is the community’s base? Who, if anyone, exercises economic power? How is wealth distributed?
- Government/Politics: Understanding the structure of community government is obviously important. Some communities may have strong mayors and weak city councils, others the opposite. Understanding where the real power is can be the difference between a successful effort and a futile one.
- Social structure: Many aspects of social structure are integrated into other areas – relationships, politics, economics – but there are also the questions of how people in the community relate to one another on a daily basis, how problems are (or aren’t) resolved, who socializes or does business with whom, etc.
- Attitudes and values: What does the community care about, and what does it ignore? What are residents’ assumptions about the proper way to behave, to dress, to do business, to treat others? Is there widely accepted discrimination against one or more groups by the majority or by those in power? What are the norms for interaction among those with different opinions or different backgrounds?
When should you make the effort to understand and describe the community? The best time is when you’re about to launch a community assessment that will then lead to community consultation on SCD improvements or other kinds of planning for sustainable development. The first step in any kind of community assessments, before starting an actual community planning initiative, is to get a clear sense of the community and lay the groundwork for more specifically addressing the area(s) you’re convinced are important – the community’s perceived needs and problems. If you’ve just started working in a community – even if its work you’ve been doing for years – you will probably find that taking the time to develop a community description enriches your work.
The best places to obtain your information for understanding and describing the community are obviously from the community itself. Much of your best and most interesting information may come from community members with no particular credentials except that they’re part of the community. It’s especially important to get the perspective of those who often don’t have a voice in community decisions and politics – low-income people, immigrants, and others who are often kept out of the community discussion or the mainstream of community happenings.
Now you can master any DSLR Camera and take gorgeous, attention-grabbing photos by following step-by-step video tutorials through the Photography Masterclass. Beginner and hobbyist photographers – check it out. Click Here!