Moving Beyond the Silos in Community Development

By Chris Marko, Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC), Community Development Society (CDS) Vice President of Operations

“The reality today is that we are all interdependent and have to co-exist on this small planet. Therefore, the only sensible and intelligent way of resolving differences and clashes of interests, whether between individuals or nations, is through dialogue.”

 - The Dalai Lama

As Community Developers we understand connections between programs, within communities, the environment. That is one of the fundamental reasons we call ourselves “community developers”. We do not focus on one issue, one program, and try to promote inclusive behavior to solve problems. Still, in our professions and lives we often face the challenge of limits, the need to exclude a particular issue from the dialogue or activity, the focus on a program deliverable for measurable outcomes. How do we balance the multiple values associated with community while maintaining focus on particular facets within community, our work, programs, and issues? CDS Principles of Good Practice can help overcome barriers within communities, programs, and issues to promote greater value in our work.

Listening to be inclusive is an important best practice that helps in community development work I work with small communities on water and wastewater projects. Rural communities often have limited staff, knowledge of programs, funding, and capacity to take on projects. In small towns folks tend to be individualistic, and at the same time, cooperative. Life is at a different pace than larger cities and work involves conversations about many things. It is not common for me to spend a significant amount of time listening and talking about the on goings within the community, stories about certain individuals, what is going on at the state level, how rural communities are left out of the equation. Still, my overall purpose is to help with the water project, but there is much more to the community than just the water project. By embracing the conversation, I am able to build trust, better understand people in the community, what is going on, and how to approach my work.  In addition, I learn about other needs and opportunities to assist the community. Even if I do not have the expertise, I try to find information, resources, and people who might be able to help. This is also another important aspect of being a community developer.

Knowing your program, expertise, or “niche” is important in being an effective community developer. At the same time, knowing as much about other programs and resources is important in providing valuable service to communities. Communities do not operate in a vacuum. They are dynamic, changing, sometimes daily, and programs are becoming more complex. It is rare a project is funded under one source so as community developers we must broaden our understanding of what is available to help communities achieve their goals. A benefit to this involves helping a community to think creatively about how they develop a project. What are some additional benefits a project may have to the community beyond water? Impact on other values. The community capitals framework, as well as other approaches including WealthWorks, promotes an understanding of values: intellectual, social, individual, environmental, built, political, and financial (and cultural depending on the model). By viewing the community in more holistic manner one can consider the potential impact on multiple values, and leverage additional resources one might not have considered with an initial project.

Collaboration is key to moving beyond silos in community development. In recent years funding for programs were cut at the federal, state, and local levels. Many folks lost their jobs, and agencies and organizations were forced to retreat into silos for survival. Keeping current services going became a priority, and many services discontinued. Collaboration and long range thinking became less important than day to day internal operations for many organizations to ensure accountability with programs, deliverables, and specific outcomes related to individual programs to show value to funders. During tough times our tendency may be to retract, but collaboration and partnership building can also have the benefit of opening doors to opportunities. In our modern world of information technology, complexity, and social media, networking is becoming more of the norm. Networks offer opportunities for learning, relationship building, and connectedness essential for communities, and community development. Part of the challenge becomes sorting through which information is most useful, or relevant, to goals you are trying to achieve! As our world continues to evolve through technology and understanding of connectedness we can find a wealth of opportunity at our finger tips, and by collaborating with others who align with our interests.  In community development, that interest involves expanding horizons to support community with dynamic, connected, mutually supportive people. CDS continues to foster best practices involving open inclusive behavior, understanding connections between people, programs, and issues, and collaboration for quality communities.  

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