The 8 Elements of a Healthy Community, Part 1

For over 10 years now, CCC has been engaging Abilene neighbors through relocating into vulnerable areas, listening to their successes, stories, and struggles, and building a foundation of relationship. Now it is time to build on that foundation. As we announced at our Good Neighbor Breakfast fundraiser this year, we have decided to restructure our work so that we coordinators will work collectively in College Heights and ANI areas. Part of our reason for this restructure is that the relationships we have with neighbors are compelling us to act, and in order to take action effectively, we must do so together. Alongside our neighbors. Alongside each other. It is a new chapter for CCC, but our goal is the same: making measurable change toward healthy communities. You might wonder, though, "How do you know when a community is 'healthy'?" Well, just like a doctor doing a checkup might look at your throat, then check your reflexes, analyze your weight and ask about your family history, there are certain things to examine that--when pieced together--offer a picture of the overall health of a neighborhood. This is a holistic approach that we break down by evaluating 8 key components. For this month, I will offer a quick view of 4 of these 8 elements.

It's not often that we delve into the nuts & bolts of our work in our blog posts, but as we begin this next chapter, I want to invite you to take a peek at community through this lens.

1. Mutually-enhancing relationships

In many ways, relationships are the foundational piece of what turns a neighborhood into a community. For that reason, it is where we spend much of our time. On an interpersonal scale, this means neighbors feel that their lives are made better by the people around them and that they, in turn, have outlets to express their gifts and talents. It requires that both sides feel they benefit from the relationship. Since society would have us categorize everyone into the “Haves” and the “Have-nots,” it can take enormous amounts of intentionality to retrain our brains to see that everyone has both assets and needs. This principle also applies to the organizations, churches, and schools in a neighborhood. These entities need to not only serve their community but also dignify those they serve by finding ways for them to contribute as well.

2. Safety

Analyzing the safety of an area might start with a look at crime statistics. But don’t be tempted to stop there. Safety is not only about stats, but also about perception. Do neighbors feel comfortable walking to their own door at night? What about walking home from school? Do they think neighbors look out for them? Keep an eye on their homes when they travel? Sometimes there are big issues to address, like domestic violence or drug abuse. But sometimes the small things like functional streetlights and crosswalks go a long way to help neighbors feel safe and be safe.

3. Leadership

This one is a challenge. There are no web searches or census data to find the right people to be leaders. It takes time and even some risk. You try to find the people that everyone already goes to for help, advice or news. Sometimes, though, you have to start with those who don’t yet realize they are leaders. That process takes identification, empowerment, delegation and support. As a bonus, developing leaders helps any program stay relevant: if local leaders are not interested in being handed some responsibility within a program, that might be a sign that program itself may need to be discontinued.

4. Culture of caring

Like safety, a neighborhood’s caring culture has a lot to do with perception. Do individuals know they matter to those around them? Do they feel cared for? Do neighbors look outside when they hear an ambulance, or look out for each other’s children? I don’t think I exaggerate when I say that the value of caring for our neighbors in this way is under attack. Our days in "Mayberry" may be gone for good, not because of criminal activity or animosity, but because of apathy. Affluent suburbs are not immune to it—in fact, the perceived independence in these neighborhoods may make them more susceptible to it. There is a simple remedy, however. Go outside. Seriously, that's how it starts. While driving a car, we might find ourselves shouting things at other drivers that we would never say if we were face-to-face. There is a similar effect when we only see our neighborhood through the blinds on our windows: our bubbles tend to make us think the worst of others. (Someone, please do a study on the differences in perception of a neighborhood between residents who stay inside and those who regularly walk, jog, or just sit on their front porches.)

One thing about holistic approaches is that the lines separating one element from the others are always rather blurry. Can a neighborhood truly be safe without a caring culture? Can you make a leader out of someone who doesn't know how they contribute to a relationship? Just as you need two slightly different lenses to see a 3D picture clearly, these different elements are really just slightly different ways of seeing the same thing: a community. And since we are looking at one thing, delinquencies in any of the areas negatively affects the others. On the other hand, improvements to one area are typically felt in the others as well. This will be even more apparent with the second half of the list. Stay tuned!