By Zizi Charida
The truth is, there is no secret, it’s quite simple to build resilient, resourceful and connected communities. It does however require effort, considerable time and an understanding and appreciation of the ‘process’ to be cyclical or curvilinear. It is not a linear process and requires flexibility, creativity and the willingness to be open to how things will unfold in your community development efforts. If you are too controlling then you are not developing communities, you are merely managing them.
Asset Based Community Building and Development is very much like a healthy love relationship. It requires nurturing and sharing. It should bring out the best in us and help us feel secure and hopeful for the future. It also gives us space to grow and contribute, albeit some small compromises and sacrifices. More importantly we feel appreciated and valued, with a strong sense of purpose and commitment. And just like any personal relationship, we thrive and are encouraged to do more nice things when our strengths are recognised, and our efforts acknowledged.
But it’s well worth it. Especially if we want our relationships and, in this case, our communities to flourish.
There are so many ways, approaches and tools to build the communities we desire, however at the core of any community development initiative, to ensure its success is the emphasis on the rapport, relationships and respect formed with community members. You can have all the money and resources in the world, but if your organisation or association does not dedicate time to get to know the communities they serve, then your community initiatives may not be sustainable or successful. Connections and conversations should not only form part of the initial phase of your project/campaign, but rather should be an ongoing and integral part of the initiative.
If you are a community worker or are in a community leadership role, be it formal or informal here are 7 Tips and important reminders that may help us in our community building efforts:
- Don’t Assume: As good as our intentions may be and as wonderful as our community ideas might be, how do we know it’s what people want or need? What assumptions have we made in relation to the activities, events, programs or campaigns we want to implement?
We need to ask questions first. Questioning is the antithesis of assuming.
Conversations and having an open mind are key in addressing our assumptions.
- Listen to Community Members: No, we mean really listen. This is not just about holding a community consultation focus group or forum. This is about having intentional community conversations, and usually more than one, depending on the issues you wish to address. By listening to the community, you may identify an area in which there seems to be a common interest in making a change. Common themes may emerge, and as a facilitator or community practitioner, it is important to pay attention to them and find a way to group those themes and then communicate them back to the group to facilitate conversations to harness collective visioning.
- Focus on what’s working well. In traditional community development approaches our default position is to look for deficits and problems and then we formulate a plan to solve them. Adopting an Appreciative Inquiry and Asset Based Community Development approach gets us moving away from asking “what are the problems?” to focusing on “what is working well” and “how do we create more of it?”
- Don’t Always Have a Plan: We often asked to have a project plan, which is not a bad thing to do, however, you need to ensure that you create the space and allocate resources that enhance participation and allow for citizens to self-organise, rather than have set solutions and ideas at different phases of the project or initiative. Sometimes not having a set plan is when the most magical community outcomes emerge.
- Meet people where they are: This has several implications; it’s not just physically reaching and connecting with community members and groups in ‘bumping’ spaces, but also meeting people where they are at in terms of their abilities, their lifestyle, culture, faith and understanding their limitations or barriers that prevent or discourage them from participating fully in their neighbourhoods and communities.
But going back to the bumping spaces in our community. These are the places and spaces where you start to build your connections and start conversations with community members and groups. I often tell community practitioners, don’t expect people to come to you, you need to find out where people “hangout”, connect and meet. That is often the best place to start and creates a healthy dynamic between you (a person in a position of power) and residents/citizens.
- Community is the base to build capacity and connections. Alongside important community conversations start with tapping into your community’s social capital and assets (personal assets/skills, economic, associations, institutions, physical and culture/stories) then see how your organisation’s resources and influence can enhance, amplify and strengthen these assets. If you do it the other way around, the dynamic creates a dependence on institutions and organisations, usually fulfilling the goals of the organisation and at times a political agenda, as opposed to the fulfilling the aspirations of community members and the collective vision of a community.
If a community has high social capital and residents/citizens are more aware of their personal and community assets, it will be easier to implement community development processes and initiatives.
- Have Fun & Play! It is very important to have fun and allow play to come into building healthy and thriving communities. It is human nature to respond positively to playing and having fun. We are more relaxed, creative and engaged. When we feel like this, we are more likely to participate and get involved in community projects, events and campaigns.
Even changing simple things such as the name we give to certain seemingly formal processes can make a difference in how people respond. As my friend Jim Diers says, “Why have a meeting when you can have a party?”
There is not set way or textbook that can tell you the exact steps in building communities. There are great ideas and tools and inspirational stories that encourage us to do better in our community work.
So, there exists no set or magical formula. As long as the principles and approach are positive, appreciative and asset-based, we can achieve great strides and success in building resilient, resourceful and connected communities.