Understanding the community entails understanding it in a number of ways. Whether or not the community is defined geographically, it still has a geographic context — a setting that it exists in. Getting a clear sense of this setting may be key to a full understanding of it. At the same time, it’s important to understand the specific community you’re concerned with. You have to get to know its people — their culture, their concerns, and relationships — and to develop your own relationships with them as well.

  • Physical aspects. Every community has a physical presence of some sort, even if only one building. Most have a geographic area or areas they are either defined by or attached to. It’s important to know the community’s size and the look and feel of its buildings, its topography (the lay of the land — the hills, valleys, rivers, roads, and other features you’d find on a map), and each of its neighborhoods. Also important are how various areas of the community differ from one another, and whether your impression is one of clean, well-maintained houses and streets, or one of shabbiness, dirt, and neglect.If the community is one defined by its population, then its physical properties are also defined by the population: where they live, where they gather, the places that are important to them. The characteristics of those places can tell you a great deal about the people who make up the community. Their self-image, many of their attitudes, and their aspirations are often reflected in the places where they choose — or are forced by circumstance or discrimination — to live, work, gather, and play.
  • Infrastructure. Roads, bridges, transportation (local public transportation, airports, train lines), electricity, land line and mobile telephone service, broadband service, and similar “basics” make up the infrastructure of the community, without which it couldn’t function.
  • Patterns of settlement, commerce, and industry. Where are those physical spaces we’ve been discussing? Communities reveal their character by where and how they create living and working spaces. Where there are true slums —  substandard housing in areas with few or no services that are the only options for low-income people — the value the larger community places on those residents seems clear. Are heavy industries located next to residential neighborhoods? If so, who lives in those neighborhoods? Are some parts of the community dangerous, either because of high crime and violence or because of unsafe conditions in the built or natural environment?
  • Demographics.  It’s vital to understand who makes up the community.  Age, gender, race and ethnicity, marital status, education, number of people in household, first language — these and other statistics make up the demographic profile of the population. When you put them together (e.g.,  the education level of black women ages 18-24), it gives you a clear picture of who community residents are.
  • History. The long-term history of the community can tell you about community traditions, what the community is, or has been, proud of, and what residents would prefer not to talk about. Recent history can afford valuable information about conflicts and factions within the community, important issues, past and current relationships among key people and groups — many of the factors that can trip up any effort before it starts if you don’t know about and address them.
  • Community leaders, formal and informal. Some community leaders are elected or appointed — mayors, city councilors, directors of public works. Others are considered leaders because of their activities or their positions in the community — community activists, corporate CEO’s, college presidents, doctors, clergy.  Still others are recognized as leaders because, they are trusted for their proven integrity, courage, and/or care for others and the good of the community.
  • Community culture, formal and informal. This covers the spoken and unspoken rules and traditions by which the community lives. It can include everything from community events and slogans — the blessing of the fishing fleet, the “Artichoke Capital of the World” — to norms of behavior — turning a blind eye to alcohol abuse or domestic violence — to patterns of discrimination and exercise of power. Understanding the culture and how it developed can be crucial, especially if that’s what you’re attempting to change.
  • Existing groups.  Most communities have an array of groups and organizations of different kinds — service clubs (Lions, Rotary, etc.), faith groups, youth organizations, sports teams and clubs, groups formed around shared interests, the boards of community-wide organizations (the YMCA, the symphony, United Way), as well as groups devoted to self-help, advocacy, and activism.  Knowing of the existence and importance of each of these groups can pave the way for alliances or for understanding opposition.
  • Existing institutions. Every community has institutions that are important to it, and that have more or less credibility with residents. Colleges and universities, libraries, religious institutions, hospitals — all of these and many others can occupy important places in the community. It’s important to know what they are, who represents them, and what influence they wield.
  • Economics.  Who are the major employers in the community?  What, if any, business or industry is the community’s base? Who, if anyone, exercises economic power? How is wealth distributed? Would you characterize the community as poor, working, class, middle class, or affluent?  What are the economic prospects of the population in general and/or the population you’re concerned with?
  • Government/Politics. Understanding the structure of community government is obviously important. Some communities may have strong mayors and weak city councils, others the opposite. Still other communities may have no mayor at all, but only a town manager, or may have a different form of government entirely.  Whatever the government structure, where does political power lie? Understanding where the real power is can be the difference between a successful effort and a vain one.
  • Social structure. Many aspects of social structure are integrated into other areas — relationships, politics, economics — but there are also the questions of how people in the community relate to one another on a daily basis, how problems are (or aren’t) resolved, who socializes or does business with whom, etc. This area also includes perceptions and symbols of status and respect, and whether status carries entitlement or responsibility (or both).
  • Attitudes and values. Again, much of this area may be covered by the investigation into others, particularly culture. What does the community care about, and what does it ignore? What are residents’ assumptions about the proper way to behave, to dress, to do business, to treat others? Is there widely accepted discrimination against one or more groups by the majority or by those in power? What are the norms for interaction among those with different opinions or different backgrounds?



Why make the effort to understand and describe your community

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