Community Assets and Perception

Yesterday Sandy Maxey and I were exchanging Tweets about the merits of taking an asset-based approach to community and economic development. As I said to Sandy, when facilitating community planning, we usually start by asking people to talk about assets they see in the community. Even when it’s a simple icebreaker at the beginning of a meeting, I’ll often ask people to share something they like about their community along with their basic name/where I’m from info.

One reason for this approach is the simple premise that building on strengths is a good strategy. In addition, getting people to share their passions and interests facilitates relationship building. I may never have met Russ, but if we both enjoy walking at Horn Pond, that gives us a bit of common ground to start from.

Upon reflection, I realized there was a link between this Twitter exchange and an issue I was looking at and discussing earlier in the week. I’d taken a closer look at the Knight Foundation Soul of the Community (SOTC) report which shows an important link between “community attachment” and regional economic growth. By attachment, they are referring to how passionate people are about their community and their loyalty to it. Interestingly, civic engagement doesn’t seem to predict community attachment (though they are probing the data more on this). Cultural offerings, aesthetics and openness to diversity are the big factors SOTC finds driving community attachment.

But perhaps the civic engagement and perception link might go in a different direction than one might first expect. In our work we have found that getting people talking about the good things in their neighborhood makes them more eager to leverage the strengths and make things even better. And in an urban neighborhood like Dorchester (part of Boston), which is often portrayed negatively in the mainstream media, we have found enthusiasm for initiatives that highlight the positives of the neighborhood to balance the negativity people are tired of hearing.

The research of sociologist Mario Small can support the idea that a positive perception of a community can lead to more civic participation. In Villa Victoria: The Transformation of Social Capital in a Boston Barrio, he talks about the role residents’ perception and framing of their community plays in fostering civic involvement. Community members (generally the older generation) that had a positive frame of their community as beautiful and worth preserving were more motivated to participate in community affairs. The younger generation had higher levels of education, which one might think would increase civic engagement; but they didn’t share the positive view of the community and were less motivated to participate.

So if you are looking to get people involved in your community, consider starting with strengths. While people do want to participate to address issues of concern, motivation to participate can be stronger when rooted in people’s passion for their community.