Building Community

Community, according to Wikipedia is defined as, “in human communities, intent, belief, resources, preferences, needs, risks, and a number of other conditions may be present and common, affecting the identity of the participants and their degree of cohesiveness.” Too often we think of community as a homogenous group that all share the same values, and if we just work hard enough we can identify those values and all live happily ever after. The fact is that Fernie is a diverse community. This diversity is a source of strength and a source of conflict; what you value is not always what I will value.

Community development involves the art of recognizing and balancing legitimate, conflicting values. Questions of values really are ‘no right answer problems,’  and they almost always involve difficult choices, which means conflict. Community building is messy because there is no easy formula saying what problems are more important than others and whose values should prevail. Too often conflict is attributed to a clash of personalities or motives, but it is almost certainly built into “the system.” But it doesn’t have to be nasty. 

Inside the larger community are value networks that work within the community to increase participation and strengthen cohesiveness. A value network is any purposeful group of people or organization creating social and economic good through complex dynamic exchanges of tangible and intangible value. In a value network, meaningful change is accomplished by people who leverage their skills and assets in ways that can be delivered or used by others. Fernie is blessed with an abundance of value networks that drive our sense of community. We need to create the right conditions for collaboration to happen across these networks and trust in the capacity of the groups to self-organize, respond to the environment, and even heal itself if things aren’t working well. Values-driven organisations are the most successful organisations on the planet, yet we struggle to harvest the benefits of these groups that are in every community. 

Community development is a process of understanding how things influence one another within a whole. In communities, systems consist of people, structures, and processes that work together to make a community healthy or unhealthy. Community development is a way of understanding the relationships among a system’s parts, rather than the parts themselves, and how these parts evolve together. For example, in Fernie how do we honour the investment business owners have made in traditional accommodation units and at the same time consider short-term rentals? From a systems perspective, oftentimes, today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions. We must find new ways for creativity and innovation to bring together the diverse values that both increase and challenge community cohesiveness to benefit from diversity instead of allowing diverse values to parallelize action. 

Barriers to implementing community development ideas are less about our technical capacity – we know enough about viable alternatives and solutions – and more about the mobilization of citizens and their governments to enact change. Communities are struggling to deliver on the holistic promise of community development as we suffer from increased expectations to deliver development that is economically, socially, and environmentally sound, yet fail to acknowledge the increasing capacity gap for implementation. Learning how to engage groups with conflicting values and build community capacity from the resulting tension is a way of creating action to move from our current state towards a vision of a healthier, happier community. 

The next time you find yourself in a conflict about values try to think about the things you share rather than the things that divide.