Post contributed by Dr. Virginia Koch, Auburn University Residence Life Director
How do you build community? First, begin with the end in mind. Ask yourself, how do I want my community to look, feel, sound, and smell? Paint a picture of your ideal community. Does it look beautiful, well-maintained, or orderly? Does it feel safe, just, or welcoming? Does it sound happy, celebrative, or caring? Does it smell clean, natural, or healthy? Does the community inspire or invite participation of its members? Is it affirming and built on the notion that there’s always from for one more or is the community driven by fear or secrecy? Does it contribute to or degrade individual’s physical or mental health? Does technology or physical space help or hinder personal interactions and sense of belonging? Is the community inclusive or exclusive? While few communities operate within such binary constructs, the effect of working towards or maintaining a specific community vision makes the achievement of opposing goals less likely. Put simply, if you aren’t actively promoting, working towards and sustaining a positive and healthy community, it could be that the community is moving toward decline.
Nearly 30 years ago American educator Dr. Ernest Boyer outlined a timeless list of “Six Principles of Community” which is widely used when discussing visions of community on college campuses. Boyer (1990) contended that a campus community should be educationally purposeful, open, just, disciplined, caring, and celebrative. While these principles were written in the context of a campus community, they also provide a framework for assessing the state of one’s community. Perhaps a seventh principle could be added, specifically, that a community is sustainable. That is, a place where needs are met “without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (United Nations, 1987, p. 43). This principle, in conjunction with the other six, could be a game changer. To understand how your own needs intersect with the needs of others, it is critical to share openly and honestly, listen without judging, value perspective taking, and encourage on-going dialogue that enables you to listen deeply enough to changed by what you learn (Saunders, 2011).
With such lofty and important goals, how can community members–students, faculty, staff, alumni, and families of students–work to support strong communities? Let’s not allow ourselves to get overwhelmed! As author Bill Hogan (2011) reminds us, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at time.” First, community members must consider and share the unique talents and strengths they bring to the community. In his best-selling book The Tipping Point: How little things can make a big difference, Malcolm Gladwell (2000), described three archetypes of people and how they make change happen: mavens share information and ideas, connectors bring people together, and salespeople persuade others to get involved. If we accept that everyone fits into one of these three groups, how would you think differently about your capacity to inspire other’s personal commitment, leverage empowerment, encourage involvement, and motivate collaboration within the community? How would identifying your strengths affect your ability to listen to and empathize with the needs of others, create just or disciplined communities, or celebrate open and caring communities?
Finally, to build community, leaders must also assess the strengths and potential of the community through the resources, skills and experience of its members. Professors John McKnight and John Kretzmann (1993) called this Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD). Using the ABCD model, McKnight and Kretzmann asserted that community leaders should not define a community by its deficits—or what is lacking—but rather by its strengths and potential. Positive relationships are key ingredients of healthy communities where citizens are at the center of their development. Instilling these strength- based approaches into our community building efforts will have positive effects on the communities we build on college campuses, in our neighborhoods, countries and world. The principles and methods discussed here are scalable and possible.
Before closing, it is necessary to add a magical and often misunderstood ingredient to the healthy community recipe. Communities must have a system to recognize and respond to conflict that results in peaceful conflict resolution. Conflict is not always a negative aspect of human interaction; in fact, conflict can spur a sense of urgency, innovation, and group unity. Peaceful conflict resolution is a skillset that can be mastered by citizens of all ages and abilities and can be embraced as the hallmark of a just and caring community. As you move through the various communities of which you are a member, keep these perspectives in mind. Developing strong, resilient, inclusive communities is within our grasp if we recognize the strengths we bring, aspire to principled living, and address conflict productively.
Dr. Virginia Koch is Director of Residence Life at Auburn University. She has been helping students, faculty, and staff build inclusive and welcoming communities in campus housing programs for over 30 years. She earned a Ph.D. in Higher Education Administration from Loyola University Chicago. She considers herself a “maven” and encourages connectors and salespeople to use the information provided her as they seek to build vibrant communities.
Boyer, E. (1990). Campus Life: In search of community. Commissioned by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Gladwell, M. (2000). The Tipping Point: How little things can make a big difference. New York: Little Brown.
Hogan, B. (2011). How Do You Eat an Elephant? One bite at time. Fort Lauderdale, FL: Llumina Press
McKnight, J. L. & Kretzmann, J. P. (1993). Building Communities from the Inside Out: A path toward finding and mobilizing a community’s assets. Chicago, IL: ACTA Publications.
Saunders, H. H. (2011). Sustained Dialogue in Conflicts: Transformation and change. New York: Palgrave Macmillian
United Nations (1987). Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.