Defining Language

Comprehensive. Scale. Development. Capacity. Impact.
These words (and many others) took on new definitions when I began working at Shelterforce just two months ago.
Understanding the jargon of community development, or any sector, is essential to being part of the conversation. 
This was the subject of the “Working with People” workshop I attended on June 4 at The New School as part of the Partnering for Impact conference hosted by the Center for Urban Pedagogy, Hester Street Collaborative and the Community Development Project.
The workshop highlighted the Working with People keywords project, developed by faculty at The New School to create a framework for binging students and nonprofits together in ways that are sensitive to diversity.
On the website are videos of professors sharing their definitions of the following chosen keywords: Collaboration, community, difference, empathy, ethnography, featured, human, participation, politics, power, public, representation, and sustainability.
The project isn't looking to create singular definitions of these words, but rather explore where there are differences, As co-creator Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani said, the space where the definitions rub up against each other is where the work happens. The workshop panel featured three professors who had taught classes that involved partnering their students with nonprofits and local government agencies. There was Shana Agid, partnering with The Fortune Society; Judy Mejia, partnering with New York City Department of Youth and Community Development; and Laura Y. Liu, partnering with the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York.
For Agid, introducing his students to the The Fortune Society, which provides services for formerly incarcerated individuals, started with defining what it means to have been locked up, beyond the media's portrayal of prison.
For starters, Agid said, his students all believed inmates wore striped jumpsuits when in reality many of those at Rikers Island wear street clothes.
Mejia worked with her students on defining keywords such as community, collaboration, power, and representation before bringing them to mentor students in New York's five boroughs. Exploring these words was a way of exploring what it meant to be a mentor to people of varying races and classes, Mejia said.
With Liu's students, the conversation started around defining barrier issues in the restaurant community, as many of her students had worked in it, but did not face the same challenges there as immigrants.
This practice of defining language isn't just for students. It can be a useful tool for all community groups looking to bridge gaps between silos to create neighborhood change.
The workshop flowed within the overall theme of the day on the importance of making sure there is actual collaboration between groups of people when working toward equitable solutions on community issues.
Bloggers on Rooflines have frequently talked about the importance of language in defining communities and we saw many different opinions when we recently asked you to define what it means for a neighborhood to be stable. And, in the upcoming issue of Shelterforce, we'll look in depth at different definitions of community development.
In your own work, do you set out to define certain keywords? Were you surprised at any conflicts in definitions, and has that affected your work?
(Photo by John Keogh CC BY-NC)

Jodi Weinberger served as assistant editor of Shelterforce from 2013 to 2014.


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