Community is one of those things that’s hard to define. But you know it when you are in it. It is a feeling that you are not alone, that you are a part of something greater than yourself – but yet, even when you are in it, you are still yourself. It does not swallow you up; rather it builds you up. The people of the community are there for you when you need them and you will be there for them when they need you.
Community groups can provide the intelligence we need to solve the problems we face. No one individual, no matter how smart or experienced, can solve difficult social problems by herself or himself. It takes an on-going organisation – one that focuses the energies and intelligence of many people who are close to the problem, one with the power to exist for the long haul – to solve problems
Aside from the social, economic, health, educational, and other improvements that groups have brought us, these same groups have given many of us a sense of community and meaning in our lives. Congregations, PTA’s, civic associations, and many other community organizations have provided many of us with a sense of belonging, friendship, and community in an often isolating and difficult world.
Many of us are looking for a greater sense of meaning and community, in our lives. Government, corporations, and other authorities do not provide this sense of belonging, caring and purpose. It is in community groups that we find people to pray with and people to stand with us as we mark the passages of our lives – birthdays, graduations, confirmations, weddings, housewarmings, and deaths in our families.
Community groups can provide a place where everybody knows your name – where we find people to drive us to the doctor or deliver meals when we are sick, watch our children while we go to the market or out to dinner, and do all the other little things in life that we can’t do ourselves and that makes the world a friendlier, more human, more enriching and nurturing place.
Community organisations come in all shapes, sizes and varieties. Every community organisation holds all the complexities and all the hopes, dreams, and visions of the people who join it. Community organisations may look different but they have at least two things in common:
1: Community organizations strive to develop a sense of community among their members.
- Organize people to do what they cannot do themselves.
In the world of real problems and real power, organizers drive people to change conditions that affect their lives. Alone, most people are powerless to wrest change from big institutions.
But these organizations realign the balance of power, creating “power for the people” by bringing together people in large blocs around shared concerns. They help you achieve what you cannot do by yourself, to make your life and the lives of those around you better.
Whether the organisation is a congregation, a neighbourhood civic association, a community group working to improve schools, or a statewide or national association to change national policy, many of the group dynamics and skills needed to build the organisation are the same. Groups both small and large require attention to group development.
Groups have won improvements in civil rights, women’s rights, working conditions, the environment and health care, to name just a few examples. Organisations have improved the treatment of groups of people, including veterans, children, and people with disabilities. People have come together in alliances that have improved schools, neighbourhood, playgrounds, art education, business ethics and many other areas of public or private life
The Theory behind Community Organising
Solving people’s problems and improving their lives requires the active participation of those most affected by the problems.
Kurt Lewin, the first theoretician of group dynamics, figured this out in the 1930s. Lewin discovered that those closest to any change must be involved in the change in order for the change to be effective. Lewin’s discovery about human behaviour, point to one reason why we need to build community organisations to drive change. If we did not need the active involvement of those closest to the problem, then good policies or the dissemination of good ideas alone would not achieve the improvements we seek. The right information alone is not sufficient when it comes to making social improvements or change in people’s behaviour.
Community organising, building the power of a group to change the world, is both an art and a science. It requires understanding your self-interest in the deepest sense, building relationships with others, and a desire to change the world.
Like developing successful intimate relationships or raising children, bringing groups of people into effective action takes skills and attention to many details and dynamics at the same time. It takes knowledge of yourself and community. It takes understanding how groups work, why people join them, how to pray for them, how to structure them, how to lead them, how to set due goals and rules, how to develop values and how to move people to action. Successful groups need solid internal management, good group process, secure funding and effective communication, and a sense of trust and community among their members.
If you are in a community organization, you will make mistakes along the way, and that is to be expected. But you can learn from these mistakes. Sticking to the goals is not so simple. Doing the job well is even tougher. It takes a wide range of skills. No one person has them all.