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Exploring

Communities change in a myriad of ways.  Some changes are intended or planned, others are not.  Even planned changes create both expected and unexpected effects.  Thus, recognizing and understanding the changes ALREADY underway is a central challenge for both residents and change leaders.   Current conditions matter.  In addition, the structures, policies, trends and practices that contributed to those conditions need to be identified before new ideas for change are championed.

Formal, or planned, community change processes often include a situation analysis.  A situation analysis is simply an exploration of community conditions.  One version, frequently employed, is a SWOT analysis.  SWOT is an acronym for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats.  This type of analysis examines a community’s internal strengths (or assets) and weaknesses, as well as the external opportunities and threats which may impact the community.  Virginia Cooperative Extension agents, for example, conduct both formal and informal situation analysis of their counties in order to identify needs for educational programming.

In studying change leaders from the public, private and non-profit sectors through the Community Voices Initiative, we recognized that each individual had grappled with a problem, some community condition with which they were dissatisfied.  In response, each leader had also offered and championed an idea for change.  As such, they each also provide an idea, or change story, for leaders, in other communities, to consider and discuss.

A central way that people make sense of change, and of their world, is through narrative, or story.  For example, through public talks and personal interviews, the Community Voices speakers shared stories about themselves and their experiences with change.  By providing opportunities for sharing such stories, community leaders gain new ideas, strengthen idea exchange within their places, and enhance their civic infrastructure.

This  section includes ideas that may help citizens explore their community – its conditions, changes, and stories.  Of course, this exploration is not for an individual alone.  Sections one and two are tightly linked – when we explore changes and opportunities, we usually do so in concert with our neighbors and fellow inhabitants.

Still, there is a distinction.  Exploring, in this framework, refers to all of the tactics used to discover and learn, not only about a community, but also about the possible ideas for positive change.  Engaging, the second part of our framework, refers to those tactics and ideas specifically aimed at connecting with other people, networks and resources, in order to lay the foundations for action, for trying out an idea (section three – experimenting).

Exploring is sometimes given short shrift.  At a recent community meeting led by Virginia Cooperative Extension in the eastern part of the state, a long-time resident voiced a common perception, “We know the problems here, we don’t have to talk about them.”

Leadership scholars, such as Ronald Heifetz and Dean Williams, would respond that the most important component of effective leadership is diagnosis – being able to accurately recognize and describe just what kind of challenge the community is facing, in order to shape the best response.  Diagnosis is not always straightforward.  Systems theorists have helped us understand the interconnected and dynamic nature of public problems.   Stated differently, it is not feasible to examine problems or changes in isolation, partly due to global-local interconnections (Bell & Newby, 1971, p.185).

Moreover, an increasing body of evidence points to the importance of exploring ideas and changes. Some studies suggest the increased exchange of ideas within a locality is positively linked with economic growth.

In addition, communities that explore conditions and opportunities strengthen their civic infrastructure.  The built infrastructure of a place refers to the physical features that communities need such as roads, bridges and buildings.  Civic infrastructure is less discussed, but perhaps even more important, as it includes the social connections, networks, information, and creative assets that enable problem-solving, entrepreneurship, and effective democratic governance.  A study by the Orton Family Foundation refers to civic infrastructure as the key to successful communities.  The Civic Index is an example of a tool for gauging civic infrastructure.  Its measures are based on research that suggests that communities must involve diverse residents in decision-making processes, create flexible civic engagement structures, and constantly review its progress to discover what it has learned (see Bloom, 1999).

Ideas for Exploring your Community