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Thomas's Community Connection

Local Wisdom in Community Planning

People experiencing any given situation are the experts.


Having a background in social work and urban & regional planning gives me a unique perspective on community development work. A main tenet of social work is that the person(s) experiencing any given situation is the expert on their own life. The person may not have all the answers, but they have great experiential wisdom of what does and does not work for them. They have ideas of where they want to go and what they want to be doing. The role of the social worker is to facilitate and coach the person or people towards achieving desired outcomes and strengthen patterns of resilience that are best suited for them. I find this to be one of the most powerful tools in effectively working with people from all walks of life. They know themselves, how they are treated by others, and have developed their own strategies to remain resilient in easy and hard times. These are strengths and assets not to be ignored or dismissed.


I take this tenet and apply it when I do community development work (or urban & regional planning). When I studied urban & regional planning I learned that the idea of participation by members of the local community is important. I was also taught strategies of how to incorporate this participation in any given project. I learned very quickly, however, through both experience and education that the outcome is almost always pre-developed and designed by people outside of the local community who are considered experts, and that any participation or input is often used to cushion and support the pre-developed outcome. Below is an example of what I learned often takes place as a result of flooding across the northern mid-west.


A waterway flows through privately and publicly owned land. It has a history of flooding. The governing body hires a civil engineer to plan, design, construct, etc., a system that prevents this waterway from undue flooding. The local people place their trust in the expertise of the civil engineer, and the engineer has listening sessions to present a proposal to the local community of what should take place. The civil engineer designs a way to prevent the flooding from happening, however this plan requires that some people who own the affected land will lose it or some who live on it will be permanently displaced. The governing body determines to go ahead with the proposed plan, which requires them to buy out the private land and displace the people that live on it.

… Construction begins. Life goes on. End of story.


This is a very common way most projects are done. An unknown expert comes in, assesses what is happening and designs a plan on how to fix it. Any input provided by local community members is either dismissed or used to support a pre-developed plan. In addition to this being a very common story of flooding across the mid-west, this is also the story of every large-scale development that has ever occurred in the United States. A prime example is the interstate highway system which was designed by road construction experts who often intentionally displaced people (whole communities) who were either “in the way” or “undesirable”.


Now, let’s imagine the example I provided using the core social work tenet I shared -- the people affected are the experts in their own lives.


A waterway that flows through privately and publicly owned land. It has a history of flooding. The governing body hires a facilitator who creates intentional opportunities to hear the stories and experiences of those affected by the waterway and learn about strategies they have taken to prevent total loss of land and livelihood, about how they remain resilient. The facilitator creates opportunities for the local community members to share their stories, experiences and strategies with one another – using table talks, a small art exhibit, and videos. The facilitator and community hear some common and some very unique stories and strategies through these listening and learning opportunities. These opportunities to share create a more empathizing community that better listens and understands their neighbors’ successes and plights. From this the facilitator asks the local community, “If they could envision a way to solve the flooding, what would it be? And, if a complete solve were impossible, what ways could they envision to alleviate most of the flooding?” The facilitator creates groups of people who begin to dream solutions based on their own experiences with the problem of the flooding waterway. From this, the local community members and the local governing body determine a plan of action that best meets the needs and hopes of everybody.

… Construction begins. People are empowered to take ownership of their own solutions. End of story.


Is this really the end of the story? … What if the civil engineer from the first example was the same person as the facilitator from the second example - where the expertise of the engineer compliments the ideas, dreams, and knowledge of the local community, and does not supplant or dismiss those ideas, dreams, and knowledge. To me this would be beautiful, being an inclusive and collaborative solution.


My experience, however, has shown me that most “experts” from outside the local context do not utilize the social work tenet that people experiencing the situation are the experts in their own lives. And frankly, this is important. Perhaps the civil engineer from the first example could intentionally partner with the facilitator from the second example to build greater trust and empathy among the local community members as well as incorporating the strengths and experiences of the local community members into designing an effective and responsible flood-easement plan. I whole-heartedly believe that effective community development builds on the strengths and experiences of the local community.


Future Community Connections will include my international and domestic experiences of where community development strengthens the capacity and resilience of its members.


Until next time. Wishing you all the best!


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