By Robert H. Pittman, Executive Director and Founder, Janus Institute
For those who still may not understand that our country faces significant and perhaps unprecedented political divisions, a quick scan of the news will educate them quickly. It is often hard to tell if you are reading a news article or an editorial when so many leading media sources now put advocacy above reporting. Identity politics and tribalism are terms commonly used to describe our national political climate where debate and dialog are often replaced by dogma and discord. The decision by House democrats to pursue impeachment will put our political divisions on center stage. Many are wondering how much damage to our national political fabric is occurring and how it can be reversed.
I believe community development can help. The field of community development (art and science) has evolved to address what are often deep differences of opinion about what the character and future path of a community should be. While the first definition of community development for most people may be an outcome of new infrastructure, new housing, better education and so forth, community development also denotes a process whereby elected officials, civic volunteers, and local citizens come together and reach consensus on key issues to move their communities forward. Successful community development is based on the principles of inclusiveness, transparency, ethics, and respect for all points of view¹. The process of community development reminds people that the differences they might have over the vision for their community (e.g. types of industries, environmental policies, etc.) are usually overshadowed by common interests such as a stronger local economy with better jobs, better education, more cultural and recreational opportunities and many, many more. After prioritizing these common interests, the emphasis can quickly shift to how to achieve them.
The ability to reach consensus on key issues and move a community forward is heavily based on what is often referred to as social capital, which in turn is based on the trust and interconnections among people, organizations, government, and other stakeholders in a community. These strong interconnections may be based on family relations, schools, church or civic club memberships, neighborhoods or other ways/venues where people get to know and trust each other, but an overarching unifier can simply be pride of community and a desire to make it even better. According to a recent survey, an overwhelming 94 percent of respondents believe they can have a positive impact on making their community a better place to live.²
Does your community have what it takes to improve itself? Of course, social capital is hard to measure but there is some good research on key characteristics of communities that nurtures it. One or two more locations practicing good community development does not by itself improve our national political situation. However, the more communities across the nation that learn and apply the principles of community development, the more citizens the country will have who better understand how to build trust and reach consensus on those issues that unite rather than divide. The prescription for addressing identity politics and tribalism should include a healthy dose of community development education. This is exactly why the Janus Institute and Rock Paper Scissors founded Prosperous Places. We invite you to join us as we journey along this path!
- Can you cite examples in your community of the application of community development principles to address a controversial issue?
- What do you think are the major obstacles in your community to building better community development practices? What are the opportunities?
We look forward to your input. Have some thoughts to the questions and content above? Feel free to post them in the comments below.
Want to learn more on building a stronger community? Check out the blog Building Stronger Communities Through Better Communications to learn how to start having more productive disagreements through positive communication.
Could you use some assistance with your community and economic development efforts? We would be happy to help. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn how we can help.
¹For more on the principles and practice of community development, see Chapter 7 by Jack Vincent in Introduction to Community Development, Second Edition, by Rhonda Phillips and Robert Pittman. Routledge, 2005.
²Survey on Community and Society, American Enterprise Institute, 2019, http://www.aei.org/publication/aei-survey-on-community-and-society-social-capital-civic-health-and-quality-of-life-in-the-united-states/