One of the greatest obstacles to improving our communities is that there’s no there there. When policy makers, potential funders, or new leaders come to town, they cannot find an entry point that connects them to the community as a whole. Should they go to the chamber of commerce? The mayor’s office? The community foundation? A service club? Each of these will connect them with certain segments of the community, but none can offer the bigger picture or a wide-ranging network of other leaders.
The infrastructure of most communities is a web of organizations. This web is valuable, but it must be balanced with a capacity to think and work at the community level. While most of us can point to plans that were made at the community level in the past, we have tried to implement them at the fragmentary level of organizations, and we are, not surprisingly, disheartened by the lack of results.
When community members get involved with social challenges, they do so as volunteers or board members for individual organizations committed to particular activities and programs. As a result, the community’s strengths – resources, decision making, accountability, and engagement – are all placed on the side of the scale that takes action (whether or not those actions are solving problems). By creating a new working space at the community level, we can tip the scale to bring more resources, decision making, accountability, and engagement to our overall goals and outcomes. We then have a way to target our strengths toward solutions, not just tasks.
[Figure One: a scale showing imbalance with focus on activities (almost all the weights are on that side of the scale right now) and little focus on outcomes (almost no weights on that side of the scale)]
Community enterprises need to be managed; they need a community-level infrastructure. Again, this does not mean creating a new organization [see upcoming blog post re Traps to Working Differently for Community Outcomes]. What it does mean is that some individuals – no matter where they are employed – are charged by the community to hold the center [link to Habit #3 in blog post on "Seven Habits of Highly Effective Communities] and act on behalf of the community.
Erie, Pennsylvania community leaders decided to hire Mary Bula to direct its Erie Together Coalition. She is housed in the United Way, but her charge is to keep people working differently at the community level to reach Erie’s aspirations (which are related to education and economics). Mary says that all participants in this community-wide effort “have to be willing to look at what is in the best interests of children and community instead of where the money is coming from. I’m still trying to get folks to think about community rather than self. I just keep pointing out our true job – equitable opportunity for every child. We have to look at what the community needs.” She is holding the center, and she holds open the door to community-level connections.
We know that policy makers and funders want to work more at the community level but say they have no place to go. With this new infrastructure in place, they will know who to call to get connected with the community. They will find a new there there.
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