Place Matters, but today it matters differently.
· Today, communities compete not just within their regions, but world-wide for a place in the jet stream of the global economy. To invent, re-invent, mobilize and connect place to the global economy today requires exceptional leadership and extreme levels of engagement from local stakeholders.
· Today, our streets, blocks, neighborhoods and communities, whether urban rural or suburban are far more diverse than they have ever been. Diversity at the door to door and street to street level, it has been shown, can be an impediment to building community. Distrust, fear, different patterns of life, lives aligned toward communities of identity rather than community in place, these are all barriers to neighbor meeting neighbor and neighbor depending on neighbor.
· Today, people are far more mobile than ever, moving in and out of our places – and the institutions in our places – including churches and schools – constantly. People are in constant motion in some cases making choices and in others being buffeted, as circumstances and interests shift in their lives.
· Today, those with fewer resources, newcomers to the US, people of color and children in poverty are more isolated in their circumstances than ever before. Social isolation, one of the hallmarks of poverty in the US, adds shame, poor self-esteem, psychological trauma and other debilitating health consequences on top of the consequences of having no money. The economic and health consequences of not knowing your neighbor are staggering.
· Today, like it or hate it, on-line life has reached a level of revolutionary functionality and value and for a rapidly expanded numbers of people. For many, the on-line connected environment has surpassed place-based life as the primary means of connectivity to information, value and increasingly, other people.
These are some of the new environmental conditions of “place” in the 21st century. So, what then is the value of place in this age of global competition, diversity, mobility and connectivity? What is the role of place when it comes to being connected – to others, to economic opportunity, to the civic environment? What role does place have in sustaining democracy? Is there still a compelling role for place-based change movements like community development and community building?
At the heart of these movements has always been the idea that ‘Place Matters.’ But clearly today, ‘Place Matters’ differently. Understanding those differences is critical to the ability for community development organizations, community organizers and community builders to re-claim relevance and have a compelling and powerful role in shaping the new connected environments that all people need now in the 21st century.
The community building challenge today, because of these new conditions, is itself new and it has to do with creating webs of connectivity that reach all the way to the poorest and most disconnected among us. Because struggling families and individuals are the most place locked even in this age of mobility, the task is to try to build connected environments in these places. Is this a “place” strategy or a “people” strategy? The answer is niether, it is an “infrastructure” strategy or a “connected environments” strategy that requires both that places play a more robust connector role and that we cultivate human behaviors that unleash the latent value in peer to peer/neighbor to neighbor relationships. The infrastructure that we are talking about here, ranges from the tangible and physical (ie transportation systems, safe parks and playgrounds, lighted streets, community meeting places) to the relational and ephemeral (habits, traditions, language, happenings, cultural norms, paths to civic engagement.)
It is a strategy that views place and its people – increasingly this is people who cycle through that place rather than spend their lives in that place – as the two principal elements of an environment that, left alone, fosters or “feeds” isolation, persistent poverty, poorly populated civic infrastructure, poor innfrastructure of all kinds, poor leaders and leadership habits and ultimately fear and disengagement. The infrastructure strategy is concerned with cultivating a replacement environment that starves all that and instead, feeds
At Lawrence CommunityWorks – www.lcworks.org , and increasingly in locales around the country, we are experimenting with something we refer to as Network-Centric Organizing – a process of community building designed to create an infrastructure that invites and supports thousands of people to get ‘back in the game’ at the local level – to help each other, get involved locally and re-build quality of life locally for everyone and especially for struggling individuals and families.
This blog is an attempt to start a conversation around the prospects for place-based community building in the 21st Century. As people who have been community organizers, community builders, community developers, working locally and nationally, we are very interested in new ideas, new strategies, new practice and being a part of new learning communities around this work.
Our understanding of the problem is not that people stopped caring or are too apathetic or too busy, or moving too much or any of the other reasons that people who worry about the lack of civic engagement tend to come up with. Our view is that people — all people — seek value and positive social engagement and want to know that their voice is genuinely being heard, and that for years people have failed to find any of this in their local civic environment. And so, being smart and discriminating, and far from being passive or apathetic, most people choose not to waste their time.
People have made the right choice – to stay away — because it is the interface and the infrastructure that is all wrong — totally wrong — for engaging human beings in positive collective and individual practice in the civic arena. The problem is not complicated: the rooms that we have created are not the kind of rooms that most people choose to be in. We need new rooms, new kinds of rooms that people will choose to enter, choose to stay in and participate in shaping.
Our work therefore, has been to build an alternative interface and infrastructure – different kinds of rooms — that are explicitly built to be fun, friendly, productive, and impactful and oriented to building an ‘environment of connectivity’ to help people better connect to other people, opportunity, information and place. The Lawrence CommunityWorks Network, as one example, now has over 5000 members – with approximately 700-800 active on a monthly basis, and over 3/4 active in some way on an annual basis engaged in personal and community asset building, civic engagement, peer support and taking on issues that impact the community.
But LCW is only one place where this perspective, or some variant of it, is taking hold. Over the past 3 or 4 years a learning community has emerged, populated by practitioners in places like Denver, Louisville, White Center/Seattle, Silver Spring MD, Brockton MA, Jackson MS, Up-State Maine, all working in a wide variety of community based settings, all wrestling with the challenge of community building in the 21st Century, and – importantly – all willing to question the orthodoxies of the past several decades to try new thinking and new approaches.
Over the months ahead, we will be posting varied elements of this approach – our analysis, our practices, the results we have achieved, the big challenges we face, the big questions we continue to have — as a way of sparking conversation and critique and to push the creative edge of our work.
NOTE: This is a personal blog related in part to my experiences as a member of the Lawrence CommunityWorks Network. And while I have permission to access LCW media materials, the content, materials and opinions presented in this blog are mine alone and are not necessarily representative of official LCW positions or the positions or opinions of a majority of LCW Network Members.