Community Developers, the Hour’s Late

[imgbelt img=collins-school-graffiti530.jpg]With rampant rural outmigration and globalism, community development is
more urgent than ever. UK practitioners sound the alarm.

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Joseph Rowntree Foundation found four main concerns among citizens across the UK:

1) Decline in community and neighborhood 2) Selfishness 3) Consumerism 4) Loss of shared values.

[imgcontainer left] [img:collinsCD-glasgow320.jpg] [source]Jeff J. Mitchell for Getty, via The Guardian

Boys playing in the Govan district of Glasgow, Scotland.

Other issues noted by the survey included the decline of family; young people as victims or perpetrators; drug and alcohol misuse; the corrosive effects of poverty and inequality; crime and violence, including child abuse; and immigration and responses to it, such as competition for scarce resources in a declining economy.

The tenacity of these social problems is frustrating. Add in the sweeping global economic and political forces that leave no place untouched, and you might get some idea of why CD practice has become so complicated, especially in rural communities with limited capacity and resources to deal with change.

CD practitioners know that most people understand their personal and community situations but aren’t sure what to do about them. CD is intended to build “community capacity” democratically, that is, to help people deal with problems and take advantage of opportunities where they live. There are tremendous opportunities to practice the art and science of building local democratic processes: the heart of community development. And citizen participation is crucial to building places, even when communities are incredibly fluid or marginal in the global economy. Conditions in many marginalized communities do make participation difficult: the subjects of power and powerlessness — not only of people in communities, but also of community developers  themselves — resonated through discussions at the conference.

My colleagues from the UK wondered if models from social work or education and community organization might help meet the challenges communities face. But they also wondered how any practices can be effective when people are pressed for time and energy because of long hours and low wages that undermine involvement.

In addition, it seems that policy makers (as well as the shakers and movers behind the policy makers) either misunderstand the need for strong communities on the regional and national stages or don’t consider them all that important to the global economy. Policy makers need to be sensitive to differences among communities, as well.

Sociological Images

Rural census blocks (2000) with poverty rates higher than 20%.

Meanwhile, we all need to be sensitive to broader issues. In other words, we need to think outside our own back yards. Though people in many places are powerless to change the larger public, private, and global forces that affect their daily lives, we need to take charge of the things in our communities that are under our control.

So, what can rural communities and community developers do in the face of constant global change? How can we bridge the differences among communities and empower both “the people” and the policy makers, whose roles demand a broader perspective? How can CD create commitment to community among people?

My colleagues from the UK offered several ideas that could be adapted to the rural U.S. Here are two:

1. Community developers need to work out local initiatives for full inclusion of both people and places. To me, this implies not only the need to include immigrants in community decision-making but also a recognition that geographic discrimination now excludes rural residents from their full rights as citizens to excellent schools, health care, and other state and federal government services.

2. People must demand that local governments build community participation and capacity. This sounds to me like the need to form a movement, one that assures local and state governments become more open to democracy, not only in terms of transparency, but in terms of their efforts to bring more citizens into the process at all levels of government — the essence of Lincoln’s government of, by, and for the people.

So, let’s consider community revival and local and state government renewal as important components of sustainable rural revitalization. The impacts of geographic inequality can be every bit as debilitating as a natural disaster. The erosion of people and rural places is a human-created disaster that demands attention based on social, political, and economic justice.

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