April 18, 2008

Bill Traynor on the Future of Community Building

I am a Bill Traynor groupie. I first met Bill, a long-time community development professional and current director of Lawrence CommunityWorks in Lawrence, Massachusetts, at a gathering of community foundations who were entering new territory - funding informal neighborhood groups. Bill's job was to provide an introduction to the world of neighborhood groups for funders who had spent their professional lives working with more traditional nonprofit organizations.

The first day of this meeting was my first day at work for a funding organization. I had come from a decade of work in my own neighborhood and with coalitions of neighborhood groups in Memphis and was out of my comfort zone in this room of funders. Bill built a bridge for me, artfully describing the world of community and neighborhood groups in a way that resonated with my experience. Bill was clearly sharing what he had learned from solid, on-the-ground experience. I became a fan that day and have followed Bill's work ever since.

The most recent issue of The Nonprofit Quarterly arrived a few days ago. When I sat down with the issue and a cup of coffee, I was delighted to find an article by Bill - The Bright Future of Community Building. And when I dove in, I discovered an article that should be required reading for everyone in the grassroots grantmaking world.

At my request, The Nonprofit Quarterly has generously posted a copy of Bill's article for those of you who are not current subscribers, so my hope is that you'll follow this link and read the article for yourself. I also hope that you click the "subscribe now" button on the NPQ website. Under Ruth McCambridge's leadership as editor-in-chief, the Quarterly just keeps getting better and better. Bill's article is just one of several that have appeared recently that provide thoughtful reading for grassroots grantmakers (see Trust, Authenticity and Community: Our Vital Assets by Williams Schambra, Founders and Other Gods by Deborah Linnell, Color Blind of Just Plain Blind? The Pernicious Nature of Contemporary Racism by John Dovidio and Samuel Gaertner, and Why Are We Replacing Furniture When Half the Neighborhood is Missing? by Gus Newport, a sampling of the articles from past issues made available to non-subscribers on the NPQ website).

Before I say why I think Bill's article is must reading for place-based funders who are investing in resident-initiated and led work, here are some excerpts from the article that I highlighted when I was reading to whet your appetite for moving the article to the top of your reading list:

  • As powerful and effective as community development efforts have been in the past, we have not embraced the fact that our principal challenge now may be nothing short of creating newly functional civic environments and finding a way to entice people to step back into public life in a way that feels safe, fun and productive.
  • ...place-based community begins with a single relationship of trust and mutual benefit in which one resident or stakeholder shares with another. It is the aggregate of those relationships - along with the loose connections that bind a diversity of them together - that forms, not community, but the structural framework for community to exist. It is the cumulative capacity for collective decision making, problem solving, collective action, information sharing, and most important, the creation and exchange of value (e.g., time, goods and service) - which this infrastructure facilitates - that ultimately constitutes a community.
  • ...for those doing the day-to-day work of community building - meeting neighbors, gettting involved in schools, or organizing clean-ups - it is a simple matter of trying to maximize the value of place for themselves and their families. Our concern should be to support residents and remove the barriers to this process.

What I see in Bill's article is a call to action for grassroots grantmaking - for funders to take seriously the connecting neighbor to neighbor work that is at the heart of grassroots grantmaking. If we need encouragement to look at the projects that we're funding with new eyes - the clean-ups, block parties and babysitting clubs that might seem trivial in the bigger community change picture - Bill's article gives us that encouragement. And, a fresh, hot- off-the-presses article that we can use to invite conversations with others about the community infrastructure rebuilding work that we do as grassroots grantmakers.

Let's make the most of this article to advance our learning about the possibilities and realities of grassroots grantmaking as a strategy for rebuilding functioning civic environments where residents are connected to each other and to public life. You can start by sharing your comments here and forwarding this on to a colleague.

If you want to read more by and about Bill Traynor and his work, here are two additional articles that are available on the web:

Network Organizing: A Strategy for Building Community Engagement (Shelterforce, 2005)
Making Connections: In Lawrence, a CDC Builds More Than Homes and Businesses by Robert Preer (Commonwealth, 2005)

1 comment:

  1. AnonymousMay 12, 2008

    I love this article by Bill Traynor. It is an invitation to new thinking and remembering some very old truth. It reminds me that community building is as old as humankind, did not start with American community organizing, and that networks,connections, relations are being nurtured and built all over the world every day. I find this understanding of how fundamental community building is both consoling and encouraging. In a way we are all trying to remember and practice what we already know.

    We are seeking to nurture and support something deeply fundamental and profound. Human beings are relational and seek meaning. Today from rural villages in Africa to urban Boston church basements people are sitting in circles sharing meaning and relationships, whether in one to one conversations, in small groups, in large groups, all are equally valuable, all equally needed to build a world worth living in for us all.

    The web that supports us all I think is connection, we hold each other in our arms. I like the word community building better than community organizing because it reminds me that we Americans in community work are not unique but are only part of the whole world.. not the center of the whole world.

    Mike Green
    Asset Based Community Development (ABCD)