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Community Development: The Importance of Ordinary People

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By LaMesha Craft
July 18, 2017

If asked, could you provide the names and basic information about your neighbors? Better yet, to what extent do you converse with your neighbors — excluding the superficial discussions about the weather?

Why does it matter? Without the basic principles of communication and interaction, things like community competence, community development and community resilience simply do not exist. Community competence is highly reliant on social trust and communication as well as the existence of resources and networks. A competent community can effectively identify, establish consensus and take collective action to resolve problems to support the community. Community development is a process where community members generate solutions to common problems that improve the economic, social, environmental and cultural wellbeing of the community. Community resilience is the ability of communities to resist, absorb and recover from (or successfully adapt to) adversity or a change in conditions.

Imagine a crisis has ensued in your community, and it will take eight to 10 hours before emergency response arrives in your neighborhood. Now, let us assume several things:

  1. The majority of citizens are not prepared for an emergency;
  2. The average household has two weeks worth of food;
  3. The average motorist has half a tank of gas in their vehicle at any given time; and
  4. The average person carries $40-80 cash.

Join Our TeamSo far, the notional crisis does not sound too bad right? Well, imagine the “crisis” is something other than a natural disaster; information is not flowing freely; most media accounts are full of speculation; and when you look outside, you notice your neighbors are either leaving their homes or beginning to shelter in place. Where are they going? Why are some people staying? What do they know, that you do not?

If you could not answer my initial questions about your neighbors, it is possible you do not regularly interact with your neighbors and you may not trust them. Social trust and effective communication is paramount during a crisis because the local and state governments rely on the assistance of ordinary people to be the stopgap between emergency responders and government support during and immediately after catastrophic events.

If you could answer my initial questions, do you feel confident in your community? Do you trust your neighbors during a crisis? What if I told you even in a community with a strong sense of community resilience the possibility of social disorganization still exists during and immediately after a crisis?

In my dissertation, “Perceived Threats to Food Security and Possible Responses Following an Agro-terrorist Attack,” I used the social capital theory to examine the complexity of human reactions to the threat to food security and the possibility of a food shortage. I interviewed nine citizens and six experts from five organizations within Yuma, Arizona. During the field study, I identified the extent to which citizens believed their local government could provide assistance during a crisis. Moreover, I identified the extent to which community resilience would affect possible responses to food shortages. I also highlighted several themes, such as (a) the lack of federal, state or local government plans to mitigate responses to a food shortage following an agro-terrorist attack, (b) social capital theory and the perceived levels of social capital and (c) the perceived existence of community resilience in Yuma.

The residents of Yuma demonstrated characteristics of high social capital such as trust in their neighbors, trust of government officials and responders, and community solidarity. Furthermore, eight out of nine residents trusted their neighbors to varying degrees and believed the government leaders, law enforcement and emergency management professionals would provide assistance. When asked to what degree they believed there was a sense of belonging in the community, seven out of nine residents noted a “good” to “strong sense” of belonging in the community.

However, residents also demonstrated a lack of knowledge about government resources and information networks, mismanaged expectations during a crisis and general confusion that, if left unaddressed, could negatively affect their ability to make informed decisions and ultimately cause a breakdown (albeit temporary) in society. Moreover, while the majority of residents trusted their neighbors and believed there was a good/strong sense of community, the level of trust in neighbors decreased after they were asked to posit an agro-terrorist attack occurred and a food shortage ensued; only three of the nine residents would still trust their neighbors.

Empowering ordinary people to participate in community development is paramount to improving our ability to respond to and recover from a crisis that endangers our community. There are relatively inexpensive ways to improve education during scheduled community events and leveraging radio, television and social media to disseminate information via a “Did You Know” Trivia campaign.

Biography: LaMesha “MeMe” Craft, PhD is a recent graduate of Walden University’s doctoral program in Public Policy and Administration with a concentration in Homeland Security Policy and Coordination. She is also an All-Source Intelligence Technician in the U.S. Army, with over 19 years of service, and currently stationed in Northern Virginia. Email: [email protected]

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