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Community Building and Civic Engagement, A Case for Shifting our Paradigm

by Alisa Del Tufo | Apr 17, 2010
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Despite the array of seemingly intractable social challenges (trauma, family and community violence, poverty, substance abuse, mental illness, school failure, teen pregnancy) solutions do exist and can be found and supported without waiting for systems to change. Traditional government or social services offer crisis driven, siloized interventions causing people to use multiple agencies with conflicting requirements in order to get help. They often force people to identify “discrete problems” that are serious enough to warrant assistance and do not focus on prevention. These services can be infantalizing and segmented; often with negative, unintended consequences. So for example when a woman who is experiencing domestic violence finally reaches out for help, her abusive partner may be arrested, forcing her into poverty. After a 60-day stay in a shelter, she must leave only to face homelessness and financial insecurity.

However, there are ways of engaging people to find new, local solutions that really work. Initiatives can be designed that treat people as full human beings with the capacity to build their strengths and solve problems. We must find ways to give voice to the hopes and dreams of community members and, using their insights, work collaboratively to create effective ways of solving the challenges they face. Finding ways to support and sustain these community driven solutions is a challenge that must be taken seriously by those of us who see ourselves as change agents as well as the funders who support our communities.

A civic engagement approach to community issues can help individuals and communities solve shared challenges. Through community building we can create results that are local, strength based and sustainable. Community members accustomed to being identified by their labels (poor, battered woman, drop out, substance abuser, unwed mother) can become active participants and leaders, equipped to tackle their own challenges. People can develop a deep understanding of themselves, the root causes behind their problems instilling a powerful sense of empathy and the resources to develop tools for action. With targeted and sustained support, initiatives such as these can build the strength of our communities and develop the local leadership to sustain those changes.

Key elements of community building and civic engagement initiatives are:

1. Relationships: The basis of all successful community building is the strengthening of relationships
2. Assets and Needs: Community Building focuses on assets as well as needs
3. Complexity: Community building is complex and multi dimensional and should be conducted in the manner that people experience their lives not as institutions construct it.
4. Universal: Community Building is Universal: it should target the entire community,
5. Not Siloized: Community building is not siloized: it should address multiple needs. This does not mean that priorities should not be set.
6. Raising Voices: Community Building is about hearing the voice of those who are usually relegated to silence
7. Allies: Community Building is about finding allies and resources to support the strategies of those who’s ideas are usually not addressed
8. Indigenous Solutions: Community Building develops indigenous solutions using local leadership to address local needs
9. Long Term: Community Building is long term. It is strategic. It deepens and gains in complexity as it moves forward.
10. Resource Rich: Community Building seeks resources and assets to support and sustain it.

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