HOW DO YOU GO ABOUT UNDERSTANDING AND DESCRIBING THE COMMUNITY?
To begin, let’s look at some basic principles to keep in mind.
- Be prepared to learn from the community. Assume that you have a lot to learn, and approach the process with an open mind. Listen to what people have to say. Observe carefully. Take notes — you can use them later to generate new questions or to help answer old ones.
- Be aware that people’s speech, thoughts, and actions are not always rational. Their attitudes and behavior are often best understood in the context of their history, social relations, and culture. Race relations in the U.S., for example, can’t be understood without knowing some of the historical context — the history of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and the work of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement.
- Don’t assume that the information people give you is necessarily accurate. There are a number of reasons why informants may tell you things that are inaccurate. People’s perceptions don’t always reflect reality, but are colored instead by what they think or what they think they know. In addition, some may intentionally exaggerate or downplay particular conditions or issues for their own purposes or for what they see as the greater good. (The Chamber of Commerce or local government officials might try to make economic conditions look better than they are in the hopes of attracting new business to the community, for instance.) Others may simply be mistaken about what they tell you — the geographical boundaries of a particular neighborhood, for example, or the year of an important event. Get information, particularly on issues, conditions, and relationships from many sources if you can. As time goes on, you’ll learn who the always-reliable sources are.
- Beware of activities that may change people’s behavior. It’s well known that people (and animals as well) can change their normal behavior as a result of knowing they’re being studied. Neighborhood residents may clean up their yards if they’re aware that someone is taking the measure of the neighborhood. Community members may try to appear as they wish to be seen, rather than as they really are, if they know you’re watching. To the extent that you can, try not to do anything that will change the way people go about their daily business or express themselves. That usually means being as unobtrusive as possible — not being obvious about taking pictures or making notes, for instance. In some circumstances, it could mean trying to gain trust and insight through participant observation.
Participant observation is a technique that anthropologists use. It entails becoming part of another culture, both to keep people in it from being influenced by your presence and to understand it from the inside. Some researchers believe it addresses the problem of changing the culture by studying it, and others believe that it makes the problem worse.
- Take advantage of the information and facilities that help shape the world of those who have lived in the community for a long time. Read the local newspaper (and the alternative paper, too, if there is one), listen to local radio, watch local TV, listen to conversations in cafes and bars, in barbershops and beauty shops. You can learn a great deal about a community by immersing yourself in its internal communication. The Chamber of Commerce will usually have a list of area businesses and organizations, along with their contact people, which should give you both points of contact and a sense of who the people are that you might want to get in touch with. Go to the library — local librarians are often treasure troves of information, and their professional goal is to spread it around. Check out bulletin boards at supermarkets and laundromats. Even graffiti can be a valuable source of information about community issues.
- Network, network, network. Every contact you make in the community has the potential to lead you to more contacts. Whether you’re talking to official or unofficial community leaders or to people you just met on the street, always ask who else they would recommend that you talk to and whether you can use their names when you contact those people. Establishing relationships with a variety of community members is probably the most important thing you can do to ensure that you’ll be able to get the information you need, and that you’ll have support for working in the community when you finish your assessment and begin your effort.
To find out about various aspects of the community, you’ll need a number of different methods of gathering information. We’ve already discussed some of them, and many of the remaining sections of this chapter deal with them, because they’re the same methods you’ll use in doing a full community assessment. Here, we’ll simply list them, with short explanations and links to sections where you can get more information about each.
- Public records and archives. These include local, state, and federal government statistics and records, newspaper archives, and the records of other organizations that they’re willing to share. Many of the public documents are available at public and/or university libraries and on line at government websites. Most communities have their own websites, which often contain valuable information as well.
- Individual and group interviews. Interviews can range from casual conversations in a cafe to structured formal interviews in which the interviewer asks the same specific questions of a number of carefully chosen key informants. They can be conducted with individuals or groups, in all kinds of different places and circumstances. They’re often the best sources of information, but they’re also time-consuming and involve finding the right people and convincing them to consent to be interviewed, as well as finding (and sometimes training) good interviewers.
Interviews may include enlisting as sources of information others who’ve spent time learning about the community. University researchers, staff and administrators of health and human service organizations, and activists may all have done considerable work to understand the character and inner workings of the community. Take advantage of their findings if you can. It may save you many hours of effort.
- Surveys. There are various types of surveys. They can be written or oral, conducted with a selected small group — usually a randomized sample that represents a larger population — or with as many community members as possible. They can be sent through the mail, administered over the phone or in person, or given to specific groups (school classes, faith congregations, the Rotary Club). They’re often fairly short, and ask for answers that are either yes-no, or that rate the survey-taker’s opinion of a number of possibilities (typically on a scale that represents “agree strongly” to “disagree strongly” or “very favorable” to “very unfavorable.”) Surveys can, however, be much more comprehensive, with many questions, and can ask for more complex answers.
- Direct or participant observation. Often the best way to find out about the community is simply to observe. You can observe physical features, conditions in various areas, the interactions of people in different neighborhoods and circumstances, the amount of traffic, commercial activity, how people use various facilities and spaces, or the evidence of previous events or decisions. Participant observation means becoming part of the group or scene you’re observing so that you can see it from the inside.
Observation can take many forms. In addition to simply going to a place and taking notes on what you see, you might use other techniques — Photovoice, video, audio, simple photographs, drawings, etc. Don’t limit the ways in which you can record your observations and impressions.
UNDERSTANDING THE COMMUNITY
Now let’s consider what you might examine to understand and describe the community. You won’t necessarily look for this information in the order given here, although it’s a good idea to start with the first two.
The community’s physical characteristics.
Get a map of the community and drive and/or walk around. (If the community isn’t defined by geography, note and observe the areas where its members live, work, and gather.) Observe both the built and the natural environment. In the built environment, some things to pay attention to are:
- The age, architecture, and condition of housing and other buildings. Some shabby or poorly-maintained housing may occupy good buildings that could be fixed up, for example — that’s important to know. Is there substandard housing in the community? Look for new construction, and new developments, and take note of where they are, and whether they’re replacing existing housing or businesses or adding to it. (You might want to find out more about these. Are they controversial? Was there opposition to them, and how was it resolved? Does the community offer incentives to developers, and, if so, for what?) Is housing separated by income or other factors, so that all low-income residents, for instance, or all North African immigrants seem to live in one area away from others? Are buildings generally in good condition, or are they dirty and run-down? Are there buildings that look like they might have historic significance, and are they kept up? Are most buildings accessible to people with disabilities?
- Commercial areas. Are there stores and other businesses in walking distance of residential areas or of public transportation for most members of the community? Do commercial buildings present windows and displays or blank walls to pedestrians? Is there foot traffic and activity in commercial areas, or do they seem deserted? Is there a good mix of local businesses, or nothing but chain stores? Are there theaters, places to hear music, a variety of restaurants, and other types of entertainment? Do many buildings include public spaces — indoor or outdoor plazas where people can sit, for example? In general, are commercial areas and buildings attractive and well-maintained?
- The types and location of industrial facilities. What kind of industry exists in the community? Does it seem to have a lot of environmental impacts — noise, air or water pollution, smells, heavy traffic? Is it located close to residential areas, and, if so, who lives there? Is there some effort to make industrial facilities attractive — landscaping, murals or imaginative color schemes on the outside, etc?
- Infrastructure. What condition are streets in? Do most streets, at least in residential and commercial areas, have sidewalks? Bike lanes? Are pedestrians shielded from traffic by trees, grass strips, and/or plantings? Are roads adequate for the traffic they bear? Are there footbridges across busy highways and railroad tracks, or do they separate areas of the community and pose dangers for pedestrians? Is there adequate public transportation, with facilities for people with physical disabilities? Does it reach all areas of the community? Can most people gain access to the Internet if they have the equipment (i.e., computers or properly equipped cell phones)?
This is a topic that is ripe for examination. In many rural areas, particularly in developing countries, but often in the developed world as well, there is very little infrastructure. Roads and bridges may be impassable at certain (or most) times of year, phone service and TV reception nonexistent, Internet access a distant dream. Public transportation in many places, if it exists at all, may take the form of a pickup truck or 20-year-old van that takes as many passengers as can squeeze into or onto the bed, passenger compartment, and roof. Is any of this on the government’s or anyone else’s radar as a situation that needs to be addressed? What is the general policy about services to rural and/or poor populations? Answers to these and similar questions may both explain the situation (and the attitudes of the local population) and highlight a number of possible courses of action.
In the category of natural features, we can include both areas that have been largely left to nature, and “natural” spaces created by human intervention.
- Topography. An area’s topography is the shape of its landscape. Is the community largely hilly, largely flat, or does it incorporate areas of both? Is water — rivers, creeks, lakes and ponds, canals, seashore — a noticeable or important part of the physical characteristics of the community? Who lives in what areas of the community?
- Open space and greenery. Is there open space scattered throughout the community, or is it limited to one or a few areas? How much open space is there? Is it mostly man-made (parks, commons, campuses, sports fields), or is there wilderness or semi-wilderness? Does the community give the impression of being green and leafy, with lots of trees and grass, or is it mostly concrete or dirt?
- Air and water. Is the air reasonably clear and clean, or is there a blanket of smog? Does the air generally smell fresh, or are there industrial or other unpleasant odors? Do rivers, lakes, or other bodies of water appear clean? Do they seem to be used for recreation (boating, swimming, fishing)?
There is an overlap between the community’s physical and social characteristics. Does the lay of the land make it difficult to get from one part of the community to another? (Biking, or in some cases even walking, is difficult in San Francisco, for example, because of the length and steepness of the hills.) Are there clear social divisions that mirror the landscape — all the fancy houses in the hills, all the low-income housing in the flats, for instance?
Studying the physical layout of the community will serve you not only as information, but as a guide for finding your way around, knowing what people are talking about when they refer to various areas and neighborhoods, and gaining a sense of the living conditions of any populations you’re concerned with.
Demographics are the facts about the population that you can find from census data and other similar statistical information. Some things you might like to know, besides the number of people in the community:
- Racial and ethnic background
- Age. Numbers and percentages of the population in various age groups
- Marital status
- Family size
- Employment – Both the numbers of people employed full and part-time and the numbers of people in various types of work
- Location – Knowing which groups live in which neighborhoods or areas can help to recruit participants in a potential effort or to decide where to target activities
In the U.S., most of this and other demographic information is available from the U.S. Census, from state and local government websites, or from other government agencies. Depending on what issues and countries you’re concerned with, some sources of information might be the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, similar websites in other countries, and the various agencies of the United Nations.
On many of these websites, notably the U.S. Census, various categories can be combined, so that you can, for example, find out the income levels in your community for African American women aged 25-34 with high school education. If the website won’t do it for you, it’s fairly easy to trace the patterns yourself, thus giving you a much clearer picture of who community residents are and what their lives might be like.
Another extremely useful resource is County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, which provides rankings for nearly every county in the nation. The County Health Rankings model includes four types of health factors: health behaviors, clinical care, social and economic, and the physical environment. The County Health Rankings illustrate what we know when it comes to what’s making people sick or healthy, and the new County Health Roadmaps show what we can do to create healthier places to live, learn, work and play. These reports can help community leaders see that our environment influences how healthy we are and how long we live, and even what parts of our environment are most influential.
This can be a complex topic. The “standard” history — when the community was founded and by whom, how long it has existed, how people lived there in the past, its major sources of work, etc. — can often be found in the local library or newspaper archives, or even in books or articles written for a larger audience. The less comfortable parts of that history, especially recent history — discrimination, conflict, economic and/or political domination by a small group — are may not be included and are more likely to be found by talking to activists, journalists, and others who are concerned with those issues. You might also gain information by reading between the lines of old newspaper articles and tracking down people who were part of past conflicts or events.
If this all sounds a lot like investigative reporting, that’s because it is. You may not have the time or skills to do much of it, but talking to activists and journalists about recent history can be crucial. Stepping into a community with an intervention or initiative without understanding the dynamics of community history can be a recipe for failure.
Community government and politics.
There are a number of ways to learn about the structure and operation of local government:
- Go to open meetings of the city council, town boards, board of selectmen, or other bodies, as well as to public forums on proposed actions, laws, and regulations. Such meetings will be announced in the local paper.
In most of the U.S., these meetings are public by state law, and must be announced in specific ways at least two days ahead.
- Community bylaws and regulations are often available at the public library.
- Make an appointment to talk to one or more local government officials. Many hold regular office hours, and might actually take pleasure in explaining the workings of the local government.
- Talk to community activists for a view of how the government actually operates, as opposed to how it’s supposed to operate.
- Read the local newspaper every day.
Reading the newspaper every day is a good idea in general if you’re trying to learn about the community. It will not only have stories about how the community operates, but will give you a sense of what’s important to its readers, what kinds of activities the community engages in and views as significant, what the police do — a picture of a large part of community life. Real estate ads will tell you about property values and the demand for housing, ads for services can help you identify the major businesses in town, and the ages and education levels of the people in the marriage and birth announcements can speak volumes about community values. Newspaper archives can also reveal the stories that help you understand the emotions still surrounding events and issues that don’t seem current. The newspaper is an enormous reservoir of both direct and between-the-lines information.
As we all know, the government isn’t only about the rules and structures that hold it together. It’s about people and their interactions…politics, in other words. The political climate, culture, and assumptions in a particular community often depend more on who elected and appointed officials are than on the limits or duties of their offices.
The politics of many communities embody the ideal of government working for the public good. In other communities, politics takes a back seat to economics, and politicians listen largely to those with economic power — the CEO’s, owners, and directors of large businesses and institutions. In still others, the emphasis is on power itself, so that political decisions are made specifically to keep a particular party, group, or individual in control.
Obviously, only in the first case is the public well served. In other situations, fairness and equity tend to go out the window and decisions favor the powerful. Understanding the politics of the community — who has power, who the power brokers are, who actually influences the setting of policy, how decisions are made and by whom, how much difference public opinion makes — is fundamental to an understanding of the community as a whole.
There’s no formal way to get this information. Government officials may have very different interpretations of the political scene than activists or other community members. You’ll have to talk to a variety of people, take a good look at recent political controversies and decisions (here’s where newspaper archives can come in handy), and juggle some contradicting stories to get at the reality.
Community institutions, unless they are dysfunctional, can generally be viewed as assets. Finding them should be easy: as mentioned above, the Chamber of Commerce will probably have a list of them, the library will probably have one as well, the local newspaper will often list them, and they’ll be in the phone book.
They cover the spectrum of community life, including:
- Offices of local, state, and federal government agencies (Welfare, Dept. of Agriculture, Office of Immigration, etc.)
- Public libraries.
- Religious institutions. Churches, synagogues, mosques.
- Cultural institutions. Museums, theaters, concert halls, etc. and the companies they support. These may also encompass community theater and music companies run and staffed by community volunteer boards and performers.
- Community centers. Community centers may provide athletic, cultural, social, and other (yoga, support groups) activities for a variety of ages.
- YMCA’s and similar institutions.
- Senior centers.
- Hospitals and public health services.
- Colleges and universities.
- Public and private schools.
- Public sports facilities. These might be both facilities for the direct use of the public — community pools and athletic fields, for example — or stadiums and arena where school, college, or professional teams play as entertainment.
Groups and organizations.
The groups and organizations that exist in the community, and their relative prestige and importance in community life, can convey valuable clues to the community’s assumptions and attitudes. To some extent, you can find them in the same ways that you can find institutions, but the less formal ones you may be more likely to learn about through interviews and conversations.
These groups can fall into a number of categories:
- Health and human service organizations. Known on the world stage as NGO’s (Non-Governmental Organizations), these are the organizations that work largely with low-income people and populations at risk. They encompass free or sliding-scale health clinics, family planning programs, mental health centers, food pantries, homeless shelters, teen parent programs, youth outreach organizations, violence prevention programs, etc.
- Advocacy organizations. These may also provide services, but generally in the form of legal help or advocacy with agencies to protect the rights of specific groups or to push for the provision of specific services. By and large, they advocate for recognition and services for populations with particular characteristics, or for more attention to be paid to particular issues.
- Service clubs. Lions, Rotary, Kiwanis, Elks, Masons, etc.
- Veterans’ organizations. In the U.S., the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars are the major veterans’ organizations, but many communities may have others as well.
- Chamber of Commerce and other business organizations. Some of these may be oriented toward specific types of businesses, while others, like the Chamber, are more general.
- Groups connected to institutions. Church youth or Bible study groups, school clubs, university student groups (e.g., Foreign Students’ Association, community service groups).
- Trade unions. These may be local, or branches of national or international unions.
- Sports clubs or leagues. Enthusiasts of many sports organize local leagues that hold regular competitions, and that may compete as well with teams from other communities. In many rural areas, Fish and Game clubs may function as informal community centers.
- Informal groups. Book clubs, garden clubs, parents’ groups, etc.
Some of the information about economic issues can be found in public records, but some will come from interviews or conversations with business people, government officials, and activists, and some from observation. It’s fairly easy to notice if one huge industrial plant dominates a community, for example, or if every third building appears to be a construction company. There are a number of questions you might ask yourself and others to help you understand the community’s economic base and situation: What is the anchor of the community’s tax base? Who are the major employers? Does the community have a particular business or business/industry category that underlies most of the jobs? Are there lots of locally-owned businesses and industries, or are most parts of larger corporations headquartered elsewhere? Are there corporate headquarters in the community? Is there a good deal of office space, and is it empty or occupied? Is there new development, and is the community attracting new business? What is the unemployment rate?
This may be the most difficult aspect of the community to understand, since it incorporates most of the others we’ve discussed, and is usually unspoken. People’s answers to questions about it may ignore important points, either because they seem obvious to those who’ve lived with them for all or most of their lives, or because those things “just aren’t talked about.” Distrust or actual discrimination aimed at particular groups — based on race, class, economics, or all three — may be glossed over or never mentioned. The question of who wields the real power in the community is another that may rarely be answered, or at least not answered in the same way by a majority of community members. It’s likely that it will take a number of conversations, some careful observation and some intuition as well to gain a real sense of the community’s social structure.
DESCRIBING THE COMMUNITY
Once you’ve gathered the information you need, the next step is describing the community. This is not really separate from understanding the community: in the process of organizing and writing down your information, you’ll be able to see better how it fits together and can gain greater understanding.
There are many ways you can create a description of the community. The most obvious is simply to organize, record, and comment on your information by category: physical description, government, institutions, etc. You can comment about what has changed in the community over time, what has stayed the same, and where you think the community might be going. You might also include an analysis of how the various categories interact, and how that all comes together to form the community that exists. That will give you and anyone else interested a reasonably clear and objective description of the community, as well as a sense of how you see it.
For a fuller picture, you could add photographs of some of the locations, people, conditions, or interactions you describe (perhaps as a Photovoice project), as well as charts or graphs of demographic or statistical information. For even more detail, you might compose a portrait in words of the community, using quotes from interviews and stories of community history to bring the description to life.
Given the availability of technology, you don’t have to limit yourself to any specific format. Computers allow you to easily combine various media — photos, graphics, animation, text, and audio, for example. The description could add in or take the form of a video that includes a tour of the community, statements from and/or interviews with various community members (with their permission, of course), an audio voice-over, maps, etc. A video or a more text-based description — or both — could then be posted to a website where it would be available to anyone interested.
Once you have a description put together, you might want to show it to some of the community members you talked to in the course of exploring the community. They can suggest other things you might include, correct errors of fact, and react to what they consider the accuracy or inaccuracy of your portrait and analysis of their community. With this feedback, you can then create a final version to use and to show to anyone interested. The point is to get as informative and accurate a picture of the community as possible that will serve as a basis for community assessment and any effort that grows out of it.
The last word here is that this shouldn’t be the last community description you’ll ever do. Communities reinvent themselves constantly, as new buildings and developments are put up and old ones torn down, as businesses move in and out, as populations shift — both within the community and as people and groups move in and out — and as economic, social, and political conditions change. You have to keep up with those changes, and that means updating your community description regularly. As with most of the rest of the community building work described in the Community Tool Box, the work of understanding and describing the community is ongoing, for as long as you remain committed to the community itself.
Understanding a community is crucial to being able to work in it. Failing to understand it will deny you credibility and make it difficult for you both to connect with community members and to negotiate the twists and turns of starting and implementing a community initiative or intervention. An extremely important part of any community assessment, therefore, is to start by finding out as much about the community as you can — its physical and geographical characteristics, its culture, its government, and its assumptions. By combing through existing data, observing, and learning from community members, you can gain an overview of the community that will serve you well. Recording your findings and your analysis of them in a community description that you can refer to and update as needed will keep your understanding fresh and help others in your organization or with whom you collaborate.