Building Better Communities: A Blog Introduction

I will never forget that trailer park in rural Virginia. It was there, where as a home-based counselor to children and adolescents, I received referral after referral–moving from trailer to trailer, family to family trying to help solve the challenges that they were facing– academic underachievement, mental illness, substance abuse, etc.  Over time, I realized that these problems were eerily similar from one family to the next. I was on a revolving wheel of dealing with the same issues in a different living room, treating each situation as unique. It was there that I realized the power of community– and the limitation and inefficiency of treating community causes with individual interventions.

Communities Affect Us

We know from decades of research and our own experiences–that the characteristics and structures of the places and people with which we interact have a profound effect on the individuals nested within these structures. We are inescapably shaped by the communities in which we participate willingly or unwillingly. Ecological systems theory describes this most eloquently, placing the individual in the innermost of a set of concentric circles from which they cannot be separated. We are part of communities whether we like it or not– and the impacts are most profound.

Take for example recent studies on variation in life expectancy based upon the zip code in which one resides. Map after map show big differences – or disparities– in how long someone is expected to live based simply on where they live. Often the difference from one side of town to another– or one subway stop to the next –can be seven or more years of life expectancy. These data are the end result of a series of effects on physical and mental well-being that are correlated with characteristics, not solely of individuals, but of the community context.

Of course, communities are not just geographical, but also form around social context, mutual interests and shared experience. Communities can be physical or virtual– they can be united around any of a million things from Bocce to Bayesian Equations, from a neighborhood association to a group of immigrant advocates. Regardless the type, we know that individuals need community– and that the communities you associate with have an effect on your individual health and well-being. Three decades ago, McMillan and Chavis defined sense of community as “a feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to be together.”

So, why do we talk so much about individuals?

Countless volumes have been written about individual functioning. There are entire sections of book stores entitled “Self-Help”. In fact, a search for “self-help books” returns over one million hits on Amazon.com. We have gurus of all types and backgrounds– telling us how to be more mindful, how to lose weight, how to make more money. These life hacks range in value, but many produce personal returns in efficiency, productivity and well-being. Part of this obsession is our “rugged American (or Western) individualism” — it’s the critical component to the fundamental attribution error– in which we consistently blame the individual– and ignore the community context.
Our focus on individuals leads to a oversimplification, a polarization that is seen in our country today. It leads us to be incapable of taking the perspective of the other, of engaging in dialogue of substance as opposed to debates of repeating talking points. It pushes us to invest resources downstream in treatment, in individualized education, in psychotherapy— that at worst ignores and at best presents a naive concept on the role of community.

The Community As the Unit of Intervention

Communities are living organisms and individuals are the cells. The symbiotic relationship between the two is necessary. We do need to think about individuals inside out, acknowledging the contexts that impact them. This is essential for the doctor or the teacher and has been a key lesson in medicine and education over the past years– that we must acknowledge the context in which the student does homework or the patients tries to manage their diabetes. Increasingly, these professions are beginning to address the whole person, wrapping around supports and building partnerships to address needs that exist beyond the domain of the initial intervention — e.g. helping food insecure patients get to the food pantry or assisting low-income families in accessing the internet so their kids can do their homework. These interventions are absolutely critical.
But, there is another type intervention that begins in the community and makes the community its focal point. These interventions focus on the community as the primary unit of analysis, acknowledging that the changes within the community can have a dramatic and sustainable impact on the individuals associated with the community. It is an outside in strategy that is wholly different, but complimentary to the individual-out approach.
We need to talk more loudly about  principles and practices that help communities thrive. An Amazon search for “community help” (in contrast to the ubiquity of “self-help” resources cited above) reveal only profiles of individuals– law enforcement, fire fighters. While there is a robust literature out there on the power of context– it has not gone mainstream– and this limits our ability to be successful. There is so much research around this– from the characterics of neighborhood segregation to specific elements on what makes collaboration successful. Since our communities are key–to our health as individuals, to our flourishing as a group, nation, world, we need to put more effort and attention to thinking about what works to make our communities better— to highlighting the stories of who is doing it right, to translating the research to the masses and to building energy around how we shape the places and settings that are so critical for our individual and collective success.’

We do know, from myriad stories of heroism, leadership and innovation–that individuals can shape the communities in which they intersect, by their own personal behaviors, through their leadership and more. I call these people “Community Change Agents”. They are our champions. But, often their stories don’t get told widely or loudly enough. Often the lessons that they have learned, their successes and failures don’t see the light of day.

Launching this Blog
This space is now dedicated to sharing ideas and stories, distilling research and best practices and inspiring all of us to become agents of change in our communities. I will be curating the best ideas, the strongest research and the most inspiring stories and share them in this space. If you are a Community Change Agent (or want to become one), I hope you will follow along and add your comments, ideas, and stories to these posts. This is difficult work, so we all need to help one another. Too many great ideas or inspiring stories get lost in the boundaries of neighborhoods or limited networks. Too many research results get sequestered inside peer-reviewed publications at $40 per article– and written for an academic audience– not for those of us who are dedicated to making change. I hope that you’ll find this space a resource to aid you in that journey and look forward to interacting with all of you along the way.

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