#083 Sep/Oct 1995

Building Communities From the Inside Out

In distressed communities across the United States, savvy organizers and leaders are rediscovering ancient wisdom about what builds strong communities, and then developing new ways to fit that wisdom to […]

In distressed communities across the United States, savvy organizers and leaders are rediscovering ancient wisdom about what builds strong communities, and then developing new ways to fit that wisdom to late 20th century community realities.

This quest for effective community-building tools has accelerated in the recent past, in direct response to both a rapidly shifting political and economic context and deteriorating conditions in lower income and working class neighborhoods across the country. Despite the best efforts of creative community developers and organizers; despite their significant successes in continuing to involve major public and private institutions in support of affordable housing and community development; despite signs of creative new approaches to community development on the part of some federal agencies, banks, and other investors; despite all of these energies concentrating on attracting help from the outside for distressed communities, that help is continuing to evaporate.

So, while it is clear that these efforts to attract outside resources must continue, and even accelerate, it is also abundantly evident that they will not suffice. Serious community builders have no choice but to return to basics, to the communities themselves to rediscover and mobilize the strengths, capacities, and assets within those communities.

Unfortunately, this vital and necessary work has been made much more difficult in recent decades, as a powerful set of contrary voices has gained ascendancy. These voices insist that communities focus not on their strengths, but on their deficiencies, problems and needs. Help from the outside will arrive only when a convincing story of emptiness and need has been told. Rewards will flow to those whose “needs surveys” point to high rates of teen pregnancy, crime, school drop-outs, drug use, homelessness, lead poisoning, etc. Drawing a compelling “Needs Map” is the key to opening the vaults of most government programs, and most other funders as well.

The near monopoly power of the Needs Map, with its unrelenting focus on deficiency, has managed to obscure that fundamental piece of ancient wisdom now being rediscovered by community builders: namely, that communities can only be built by focusing on the strengths and capacities of the citizens who call that community home. Those who have escaped the lures of deficiency, therefore, have been drawing up a new map based on old truths, an “Assets Map”.

This Assets Map points to one way of thinking about the basic kinds of building blocks that exist in every community. At the center of the map, and of the community building process, lie the “gifts” of individual residents – their knowledge, skills, resources, values, and commitments.

Beyond individuals and their families, the second basic set of community-building assets can be found in those groups and organizations, sometimes called “associations,” in which local citizens come together to pursue a wide range of activities. These associations, whether primarily organized to promote religious, cultural, civic, recreational, or other ends, are both more ubiquitous and more willing to adopt community building tasks than many community leaders expect.

Finally, the Assets Map points to the potential power of institutions located in virtually every community schools, parks, libraries, police, human service agencies, community colleges when those institutions can refocus at least part of their considerable resources on community building.

When all these local community assets – the gifts of individuals, the power of citizens’ associations, and the resources of local institutions – have been rediscovered, “mapped,” and mobilized in relation to each other and their potential to solve problems, then a community previously regarded as empty and deficient will appear on the large civic stage as capable and powerful. With this goal in mind, consider a few of the concrete tools and methods local communities are developing to rediscover and activate their assets.

Discovering and Using the Gifts of Individuals

Every community is built by the contributions of its residents. Yet in most communities, only a small percentage of local citizens are involved in community building activity. The great organizer Saul Alinsky would argue, in fact, that it takes no more than five percent of the residents of any community to bring about significant change. That percentage may still hold when the strategies being pursued involve targeting outside resources, such as government agencies or financial institutions. But for purposes of building communities “from the inside out,” that number is woefully inadequate.

This is why many communities have begun to act on a simple two-part pledge, which is basic to community building: Every person in this community is gifted, and every person in this community will contribute his/her gifts and resources.

These two commitments are particularly important and necessary in communities where many of the residents have been marginalized. That is, they have been defined primarily by their needs and deficiencies. They are too old, or too young, or too disabled, or too poor to have any gifts and resources. They are, therefore, seldom asked to contribute to the community. (This may constitute the cruelest form of social isolation.)

To rediscover the gifts and resources of all community members, over one-hundred community groups have utilized some form of a “Capacity Inventory.” The inventory is simply a questionnaire aimed at uncovering a person’s skills, areas of knowledge and experience, commitments, and willingness to be involved in community building and/or economic development activities. It is the opposite in spirit of a “needs survey.”

Though a prototype version of a capacity inventory is reproduced in the Building Communities from the Inside Out (co-authored with John McKnight), most communities that have had success with the inventory have taken time to construct their own custom-fitted version. This construction process seems to be most productive when community leaders first address the question, “To what uses will the information gathered in the capacity inventory be put?” This recognizes that the inventory is meant to fulfill two basic functions. First, because neighbors interviewing neighbors have proven to be highly effective, the capacity inventory is a tool that can build relationships. And second, it is designed to produce immediately useful information, not “data” to be computerized and stored.

Among the many potential uses for the capacity inventory, the seven listed below seem to be most common. Each, of course, requires asking residents a different set of questions.

Seven Uses for a Capacity Inventory

For economic development purposes:

  • Develop new enterprises, based on an inventory of skills and knowledge. For example: linking good cooks to start a catering business; linking people who have cared for children to start a day care business.
  • Link skills to employers, when capacity inventories are accompanied by a parallel set of interviews with nearby employers about their workforce and hiring preferences.
  • Discover market opportunities. Questions about expenditures, even in the lowest income communities, identify unserved or underserved consumer markets, e.g. food stores, clothing shops, etc.

For other community building purposes:

  • Develop local skills bank, also based on an inventory of skills and knowledge. Housed with block captains, in churches or local community organizations, a skills bank can facilitate neighbor-to-neighbor help, whether with baby sitting, snow shoveling, carpentry, plumbing, or whatever.
  • Institute a “Learning Exchange,” by asking people both “What would you like to teach?” and “What would you like to learn?” One community for over a decade operated a learning exchange that grew to a listing of more than 20,000 topics.
  • Discover new participants in community life. Questions about previous involvements and current interests uncover new contributors to community organizations, churches, and community institutions such as schools, police, libraries and parks.
  • Discover new cultural and artistic resources. Inquiries about cultural and artistic skills in a number of communities have uncovered visual artists, writers, musicians, theater people, and crafts people, most of whom are willing and ready to be involved in community and civic activities, as well as schools, parks, libraries, etc.

These seven areas hardly exhaust the potential uses of a capacity inventory. But they do begin to define the possibilities for groups interested in mobilizing the gifts and skills of the community’s residents. The questions that make up the inventory should reflect the uses that the organizing group wants to emphasize. A typical questionnaire might cover:

  • Skills information, including skills people have learned at home, in the community, or at the workplace. Usually people are asked to identify their “priority skills,” those about which they are most confident.
  • Community skills information, aimed at uncovering precious community experience and potential interests.
  • Enterprising interests and experience, aimed at uncovering past and present business experience.
  • Culture and arts skills.
  • Minimum personal information, for follow-up purposes.

Some community groups have decided that a full-blown capacity inventory, with detailed questions about peoples’ skills and knowledge, is simply too long and unwieldy. Many have shortened the inventory, honing in on their particular purposes. One interesting shorter variation has been used especially by churches interested in reconnecting with their neighbors (and members). In those situations, a “Gift Interview” has been used. Household by household, people are asked to sit for a moment, and to tell the interviewer, in one version, about their “gifts of the head,” or what they know most about; their “gifts of the hand,” what skills they have; their “gifts of the heart,” where their spirit, values, and commitments lie; and finally, how they might imagine contributing those gifts to their community.

Discovering and Using the Power of Local Citizens’ Associations

The most powerful users and magnifiers of the gifts of individual citizens are often local associations. It was Alexis de Tocqueville who first named them, these “self-appointed” groups that congregate to take on community problems, or to aggregate their resources and interests in many other ways. In more recent decades, community mobilizers such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Saul Alinsky have recognized the power of local religious, civic, and cultural groups as the bedrock for organizing.

Though recent evidence may indicate a decline in associational life in the United States, communities that have initiated an “Associational Inventory” have regularly uncovered a much more varied and numerous set of local associations than expected. One very low-income neighborhood in Chicago, for example, recently “mapped” 249 local associations. Furthermore, when asked, these associations are proving more than ready to contribute to community building activities.

A number of communities are developing and using valuable methods of rediscovering and further activating their neighborhood associations. Basically, the approaches involve, first, an “associational inventory;” and second, an “associational survey.”

The inventory uses simple, common sense methods, such as:

  • Collecting all written information, e.g., lists from agencies and government offices, newspaper and newsletter clippings, church bulletins.
  • Interviewing longtime leaders in the community to edit and add to the groups gathered from written material.
  • In community meetings, or in face to face or phone interviews, asking people to list all of the groups, clubs and organizations to which they belong.

The second step involves surveying the leaders of as many local associations as possible. Some communities are finding it useful to uncover three kinds of information:

  1. What is this group, and what do you do?
  2. What do you do that impacts the larger community, beyond your membership?
  3. What kinds of community building activities might you consider in the future?

The last question, accompanied by specific examples of particular community building strategies, opens up a host of new possibilities for associations. They often indicate willingness to enhance their contributions to “mutual care” activities, reaching out to teenagers or older people. They are frequently ready to join with others to work on pressing community issues. And perhaps most intriguingly, they appear ready to support a whole range of local economic development activities, enterprises, or strategies aimed at connecting local residents to existing jobs.

All of these possibilities and more underscore the central importance and power, when systematically rediscovered and mobilized, of the community’s associations.

Discovering and Using the Resources of Local Institutions

Along with the re-mobilized gifts of local residents and their associations, the third major section of the assets map points community builders toward those institutions that are physically located in the community. Though they vary, every community has some local institutions. The challenge involves re-focusing at least a part of their mission and resources on community building activity. How can local schools, parks, libraries, human service agencies, etc. contribute to the revitalization of community?

The first step, quite obviously, is to re-establish relationships between the leaders of these local institutions and the community builders. What has happened next in a number of communities is a set of discussions aimed at discovering ways in which cooperative efforts lead both the institution and the community.

Frequently, what interests community builders most about the resources that local institutions bring to the table has very little to do with the central “missions” of the institutions, e.g. a school’s “curriculum,” an agency’s “services.” Rather, community builders often regard these institutions as “treasure chests” filled with potential community building resources. A school, for example, contains treasures such as: facilities and space, which would host and incubate a range of community groups and activities; materials and equipment, from computers to blackboards, all of which could be invaluable to community groups; purchasing power, with which to buy from local enterprises; hiring capacity, which could partly target local residents; teachers, who could bring their expertise to bear on community issues; and young people, most important of all, who could come back into the community as contributors to the rebuilding process.

Every local institution constitutes this kind of treasure chest, filled with valuable community-building materials. If all of these materials were available to community builders, they could move forward with their agendas much more rapidly.

Once these combinations of local assets and capacities – individual residents, citizens’ associations, and the resources of local institutions – have been mapped and mobilized, a community is well on its way to regenerating itself. Such a community may still, of course, require help from the outside. But it is now in a position to control and define that help, to focus and direct outside resources to the locally generated agenda and plans. Rather than existing as an object of charity, such a community will say to the outside world: we are mobilized and powerful; we are a sure-fire investment.


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