Towards Togetherness: Community Building Bridges, Not Distances

Community building, as relevant as it ever was, is now tasked with new meaning and considerations as communities look for ways to stay connected. 

How can community building fortify our collective capacity?

 Themes such as “social distancing” that are extensively addressed by health guidelines for the ongoing pandemic have also thrown their inverse into sharp relief. The global health emergency is reframing isolation and togetherness in ways that may profoundly impact social, political, and economic landscapes. Nevertheless, being apart should not have to mean being alone, even as community spaces and relationships are dramatically transformed by the need for safe distances.

The need to cultivate togetherness, community, and connection may have taken on an urgent complexity in this time, but themes of disconnect and isolation have been around for a while, albeit in different ways. Historically, low trust in government, social polarisation, environmental and socioeconomic distress have had a profound effect on civic life in recent years. Ongoing health and environmental crises have brought a distinctly physical and material component to previously existing social isolation. To invoke political scientist Robert Putnam’s iconic work on civic engagement and social (dis)connectedness, the reinvention, fostering, and activation of community is a crucial mission on many fronts. In responding to the ongoing crises, a collaborative relationship between communities, institutions, and decision-makers can bring a broad range of stakeholders together to co-produce stronger responses and deliver a host of benefits

The collaborative potential of community is underlined in various regional, national, and international frameworks that acknowledge the community as a vital partner in the context of public health. In the emergency management domain, community engagement has an active role to play in optimizing preparedness, response, and recovery. Community participation and leadership extend beyond the realm of formal public engagement as well. When it comes to our ongoing climate emergency, for instance, the community is at the frontlines of conversations and initiatives to activate meaningful and urgent climate action. 

To a variety of inter-connected ends, community engagement can address community building strategies, compelled as they are, to find stronger, safer ways to unlock our collective capacity. Decision-makers and communities have more reasons than ever before to build and maintain the relationships and connections necessary to thrive against an exceptional set of challenges.

Creating communities, bridging distances

The success of community building can rely heavily on how its practitioners unpack the meaning and purpose of community. Just as community engagement can carry many meanings, community can take on different meanings across contexts. The fluid and often nebulous concept of community can, nevertheless, speak to a fundamental sense of shared experience, history, and interest at individual and collective levels. 

For community engagement practice, it can invoke population, place, stakeholders, resources, governance, or objectives – but it can also be more than the sum of these things. Community can be an acknowledgment of interdependence. To speak of community building is to describe a set of relationships that are created by shared meaning, need, and belonging – and are sustained by the exchange of ideas, information, and experiences in their context. 

Community engagement and community building can each align with a mutual set of goals built around a fundamental sense of connectedness that is, quite literally, enacted by their processes. In order to be effective, these processes should be able to address the ideas that sit at the heart of what it means to be a community. If a community is more than the sum of its parts, what is it that enhances it and nourishes it? Such an understanding would have to look beyond what makes a community to ask what makes a community tick.  

In many such ways, community building can be both a commitment and a conversation, a process and an outcome, where the means and the ends are symbiotic. A key component of community and an important marker of civic health, for instance, is trust. Trust has long been recognized as both an outcome and a vital ingredient of community building and engagement. Trust can speak to a sense of mutual understanding, of engaging in an exchange, of dialogue in good faith. Dialogue, in this way, provides the opportunity for community and stakeholders to be able to look beyond a limited field of sight and, together, weave a more holistic understanding of the issues that affect their realm of togetherness. 

Deliberative dialogue, in particular, is the kind of careful and deep social process facilitated in an environment of mutual respect that can forge better collective relationships. Deliberative dialogue is not debate. It is the thoughtful consideration of a wide range of evidence, a process by which participants can be equipped to walk all the way around an issue and view its many dimensions. Deliberative dialogue, as a model of communication and engagement for community building, can carry crucial democratic values and is increasingly recognized as a best practice approach to public participation. 

two women looking at a tablet

Building an online community

Online community engagement has not only enabled public consultation in digital spaces; it has also brought new capabilities to how communities may be engaged. It can cast a wider net than traditional offline methods, and draw a larger, more diverse range of participants, including underrepresented or marginalized groups. Dedicated online engagement spaces can provide an array of tools and methods by which the community can provide meaningful and considered contributions. These spaces can help decision-makers equip the community with the information they need to unpack issues, and similarly be better equipped to receive and analyze the insights offered by the community. 

Digital engagement for community building can borrow core values and principles from traditional offline engagement to create effective online deliberative dialogue in a safe, accessible, and dynamic environment. Online deliberative dialogue processes must account for various design considerations to address risk, actively facilitate deliberation, and enable the focussed, deep conversations that can foster relationships, build community, and deliver insight.  

For instance, access is a key theme in ensuring that online deliberative processes can truly throw the doors open to a range of perspectives and concerns. This can mean access to digital technologies, or to information and opportunities for input in formats or language that can accommodate varying capacities. Deliberation and dialogue need space and resources for creating the openness that enables listening, learning, and understanding, building upwards from the assumption of goodwill towards fellow participants. 

Learn more about how best practice digital engagement can create effective deliberative dialogue. 

Community building in practice 

In the aftermath of the devastating bushfires in Adelaide Hills, South Australia, the Council’s engagement around recovery took a community building approach, anticipating the community’s priorities in their communication and relief efforts. At each stage of recovery, communication with residents was designed to be mindful of the trauma of the disaster events and underline to the community that decision-makers were aware of the practical concerns and emotional dimensions of the situation.

The local recovery center, established in an arts and culture space, took a care-based approach to ensure that people felt welcome, safe, and adequately supported to address the practicalities of recovery. The center further hosted local artists and community participants in an exhibition on themes related to healing. When it was time to prepare for the Down Under cycling tour which was to go through the affected region, local towns competed to dress their public spaces for the event. 

Adelaide Hills road to recovery demonstrated a commitment to fostering a sense of togetherness and addressing various community needs across domains, from communication to relief to culture. In trying times, community building can bring additional dimensions to recovery and resilience. It can remind people that they belong in a wider, interconnected network of community and resources where answers, help, and comfort may be found. Engagement can help local decision-makers, government, and service providers bring clarity to unfolding situations, illustrate direction for recovery, and seek information from the community that can aid in these efforts.  

Learn how digital engagement in response to the ongoing pandemic has local governments and decision-makers enabled to bring vital information and resources to and from the community, agencies, and stakeholders.     

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