Large-scale problems, small-scale solutions and our large-scale framework!
Author David Flemming writes that, “Large-scale problems do not require large-scale solutions; they require small-scale solutions within a large-scale framework.” At Great Lakes Urban, we’ve been hard at work since 2008 conceptualizing and piloting a small-scale solution within a large-scale framework. Our framework, called CommunityWorks, is founded on three pillars: Place, Possibility and People. In 2023 we will be exploring elements of our framework with you beginning with a discussion of our pillars.
Large-scale problem: The crisis of connection
We live in increasingly fragmented times. Social isolation afflicts two-thirds of older adults and 60 to 73 percent of young people. It represents health impacts equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Social isolation is linked to depression and impaired immunity. It increases the risks of dementia by 50 percent, stroke by 32 percent, and coronary heart disease by 29 percent, to name just a few of the many impacts that come with loneliness and isolation.
Having strong social connections, on the other hand, promotes good health and can boost a person’s lifespan by as much as 50 percent. And at the community level, greater connectivity has been found to strengthen economic resilience, increase social mobility, improve the academic and social success of youth, reduce crime, strengthen the norms of trust and reciprocity that are the foundation of a vibrant democracy, and much, much more.
Small-scale solution: Place, and the principle of Simultaneity
The problem of isolation (lack of life-giving connections) is significant and growing. How does one turn the tide? We believe the answer is to go small. If society is like a loaf of bread, then connection and change, belonging and civic muscle, social cohesion and collective efficacy are the ingredients necessary for it to rise and achieve its full potential.
These ingredients are best experienced at the local level. We feel them when a few of us with the same health challenge meet at the local coffee shop, when we gather up meals for a neighbor that recently experienced loss, or when we give of our time and talent volunteering to rehab an abandoned home in the neighborhood. When we work together, using what we have in the spaces we inhabit, we can do almost anything. We call this community power.
Consider this true example of community power. A group of undocumented immigrants were talking together about the academic challenges their students faced. A natural tendency today is to look at the school and immigration systems to ask why these kids are failing. In this story the residents themselves started to work together creating their own after school study program (sitting at one mom’s table, providing the kids with snacks, monitoring the kids behaviors, and connecting with a local church for volunteer tutors) and the kids flourished in school.
We have found that an often overlooked, but very significant, unit of community power is the neighborhood. Neighborhoods – and that could mean an urban neighborhood, a housing complex, a small town or suburban development – are small enough environments to experience connection and belonging, to find your giftedness or passion and share it, to see a needed change and make it so with others.
Place matters and neighborhoods are a particularly important place, a particularly key unit of change. In part this is because of the principle of simultaneity. When we transform the environment in which people live, work and play, we positively impact multiple issues. A more connected neighborhood is, simultaneously, safer, healthier, less depressed and the list goes on.
Large-scale framework: The power of possibility and people
Can we use the neighborhood as a starting point for building a framework large enough in its scope to meet the challenges of our time? Here at Great Lakes Urban we argue that Possibility and People are two essential components of bringing the power of place to scale. First, let’s look at possibility and the principle of sustainability.
When we speak of possibility, what we are referring to is our basic orientation, the lens by which we view things. A four-year study, conducted by John McKnight and John (Jodi) Kretzmann in the 1990s revealed that the primary difference between the communities that could experience a shock and bounce back and those that slid into decline had to do with this orientation.
When we focus on what’s strong – the available people, networks, groups, institutions, and more – and not what’s wrong, then we are operating out of a positive core and are able to sustain forward momentum. This is not to say that we ignore issues of crime, equity, racism and other problems impacting our society. Rather, our focus is on using what we have available to us to start addressing the problem. We start with what we have.
So now we have a focus (the neighborhood) and an orientation and starting point (its assets, gifts and possibility). Is it possible to leverage what we have to create positive change in neighborhoods, cities and communities over the long haul? And, how do we scale this approach to enough places to turn the tide on our large-scale problems? The answer to both questions is our third pillar: People.
What we have found is that there are key levers of change, key roles that people enact, that help to integrate these three pillars into the fabric of a community. Front and center in our framework is the role of Neighborhood Connectors. Neighborhood Connectors are residents who are equipped and supported to discover the gifts present in their neighborhood, connect neighbors to each other and to resources, and mobilize residents to work together across differences to achieve the common good.
Assume for a second that there are five Neighborhood Connectors working in a given town or city. They will thrive if they learn and support each other in their respective neighborhood stories, if they act as a team. With a city/regional coach for support and growth, they will do their connecting work even better. All of these key levers of change are factored into our CommunityWorks framework. You can find a description of our framework at this link.
In appreciation for our community of support!
Importantly, in 2023, thanks to the generosity of our donor community, we are able to onboard a new staff member to create new resources and opportunities for communities to take and use our framework. For that, we are profoundly grateful. Know that your trust and support is absolutely building the small-scale solution that will turn the tide on the large-scale problems that we face today!