Panhandle Perspectives - Nov. 30, 2016

The roots of community vitality


By Cheryl Burkhart-Kriesel, Ph.D., Extension Specialist, Community Vitality
Panhandle Research and Extension Center

When you drive across Nebraska, have you ever wondered why two neighboring communities look and appear to act so different? One may be growing and moving forward, while the other one seems to be stuck in time.

Panhandle Perspectives
Cheryl Burkhart-Kriesel

At first glance it appears that the communities share similar resource bases and location. They probably started out, historically, at about the same time. So what happened to create such different outcomes?

This is a question that plagues individuals who work in the area of community development.  One might think it would be simple to answer. In reality, it is like peeling back an onion … the layers of community leadership and participation, key decisions that were made or not made, available resources, and levels of investment typically reveal different outcomes that define a community’s path. 

Economic growth, both maintaining and increasing it, is always a key issue for communities and it demands a huge amount of attention. But communities also deal with many social issues, directly or indirectly, like providing educational opportunities, reducing the poverty rate, improving available childcare and recreational opportunities, and increasing the access to healthcare. Social issues are directly connected to economic growth and they add another layer of complexity to a community’s future.

Developing or growing a community is no easy task. So from a community development perspective, is there a way to help a community navigate these issues over time in a positive way to “stack the deck,” thus allowing them to more easily move toward a more positive future?

One proposed idea was shared by authors Thomas Klaus and Edward Saunders in a recent article in the Journal of the Community Development Society (2016). They identified the key “roots” or foundation on which community development is often built.

The model takes a big-picture view of sustainable community change and is applicable to a wide variety of situations that communities often find themselves addressing. 

The root processes, from the authors’ perspective, are a cluster of factors that lay the groundwork to establish a diverse, participatory, and well-performing community infrastructure. These components support and foster the collaborative community change to happen and for solutions to emerge. 

The processes include four components:

Community readiness for change. It is often indicated by past experiences where the community was successful in working on issues that required collaboration across organizations and institutions. It also shows the presence of the human capital needed in the community to provide the kind of leadership needed to work across groups.

Community participation. Long-lasting change requires participation by a diverse group of people, typically of different genders, races, socioeconomic status, ages, sexual orientations, and so on.

Leadership collaboration. Leadership really steers the effort and should have a mix of subject-matter experts as well as group process experts. It also identifies the backbone organization, which is a group that is responsible for the day-to-day work of the collaboration – such as communication, fund raising, helping with meetings and developing technology tools, and so on.

Continuous system learning and improvement. This could be considered the “glue” – it is how the other components of the root processes stay future-focused and effective. It is about monitoring the quality, checking to see what works and what could be improved, and learning from the process so that the effort is continually improving as it moves forward.

This model looks simple at first glance. But in reality the four key processes are challenging to develop and to maintain. Community readiness, participation and leadership collaboration are impacted by many variables within a community – they are not static. And continuous learning, unfortunately, may be assumed. It is just too easy to not spend enough time discussing what was learned, cutting short that aspect of the process.

As we look for sustainable community change, regardless of the particular issue, there is much to be learned. This concept adds a different dimension to the base of knowledge focused on long-term community change.