Community development participants often find themselves engaged in relatively short-term work, focused on particular issues such as improving housing conditions, advancing road safety at school crossings, or protecting aspects of the environment such as campaigns around river, air pollution or greenhouse gas inventories. Community groups which form around these kinds of issues may be quite short-lived and fade away again after a campaign has been successful. These constitute communities of interest or issue-based communities which are usually focused upon a particular issue and look for a particular kind of expert practitioner to resolve the issue of concern.
These kinds of community development activities are not usually designed to engage a large number of community members – the stakeholders for the particular concern are generally small in number compared to the size of the entire community – and there is not much thought given to the development of community capacity at the conclusion of the particular project. Thus, if another similar problem is encountered by the community down-the-road the process of expert consultant involvement is repeated and the project design turns out to be about the same as before.
Building healthier communities blends the local and the universal, the particular and broader contexts. Such efforts are grounded locally: the family, the neighborhood, and other familiar communities. When people do these things, communities become healthy; when they do not, communities often remain in status quo or decline in overall condition. Communities that have the ways and means to undertake challenges demonstrate “capacity.” Without capacity, communities are merely collections of individuals.
An essential ingredient in the sustainable development of communities is the intensive engagement of all stakeholders, community members, and/or those invested in the outcome. Community change strategies are best initiated, driven, and completed by the community. The priority should be to engage community members in learning about and understanding community issues, and the economic, social, environmental, political, psychological, and other impacts associated with alternative courses of action. This cannot happen by tackling a single community issue at a time. It must be an integrated approach. Only through all-inclusive community member involvement can lasting changes really take place.
When we talk about building healthier communities, we mean the process of people working together on what matters to them – whether that is reducing greenhouse gas emissions, revitalizing an urban neighborhood, or promoting child health. Civic engagement is encouraged among the members of the community. Through committed civic engagement the conditions the community experiences can change, leading to behavioral change and long-term improvement. For example, a community organization might make it more difficult for teens to buy cigarettes, with the objective that this change will result in fewer teens smoking, and fewer related deaths.
In many areas of life, we use a cycle of steps. To grow crops, there are the seasons of plowing, fertilizing, planting and weeding, before the harvest. To graduate from school, there is a routine of classes and evaluation. Extensive evaluation of community development projects indicate a frequent failure: communities and governments often just keep starting over, without ever completing a full cycle of action – much like a farmer who never goes beyond plowing and planting, or a child who keeps repeating the same class in school. In this regard, often one can hear reference made to the “development of another report that will just collect dust on the book shelf.”
Experience has shown that each year seven steps are required to complete a cycle of community development toward change. Such effort, however well intended, is essentially wasted if only some of those steps are accomplished. So complete the whole cycle, even if poorly, then next year do the cycle better. This framework, described below, will form the foundation for continuous improvement in the capacity of any community to make change effective and long-lasting.
- Step One: Create a coordinating committee. One individual who seeks to lead will likely get caught by factions or personalized demands. But a coordinating committee brings groups together and distributes responsibilities.
- Step Two: Identify the community’s successes. Whatever the community has done best in the past will be the most likely base for future success. Outside experts can help identify these successes.
- Step Three: Study other communities. Find options that have worked for other people in similar circumstances, options that can be adapted and used. Send community members to observe these other successes, especially those people who will actually do the work.
- Step Four: Self-Evaluation. Gather data specific to the target community. Collect information on resources and problems. Look at human needs, financial factors, and environmental change. Such objective data provides a better basis for action than the more common practice of bringing together people’s opinions.
- Step Five: Effective Decision-making. Working from data specific to the community, practitioner-led discussion will identify and clarify actions that can solve problems and build community confidence. Discussing these matters collaboratively, the community probes the sources of problems and explores alternative solutions. Once community members (in public meetings, guided by the coordinating committee) have agreed on an achievable course of action, it’s time to create an annual work plan that assigns specific jobs and functions to all.
- Step Six: Start popular projects. Aggregate specific activities so momentum converges and builds into an evolving process. Building progress that will lead to further progress means involving as many people in the community as possible.
- Step Seven: Maintain the momentum. Keep improving what works, so as not to waste the community experience. The issue here is not so much to find the perfect solution but rather to test a promising process, adapt it, and keep building on it. Tackle projects everyone believes in. Monitor the momentum of this community action, in order to make necessary midcourse corrections in the way the work is actually performed and, when needed, reassign tasks to make sure they are accomplished.
The process of community change can begin by focusing on any given need. The initial goal may be a health clinic, a conservation effort, a jobs program, a road. The first activity matters far less than how community choices are made, and the cooperation that follows. What is crucial is that community action starts a process that builds enough momentum to complete a cycle, where one success adds to the next. It is imperative to complete an annual cycle. Passing laws then not implementing them is all too common. Funding a project, but not building the participant skills to use those funds appropriately, is another frequent error.
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