The Moment of Oh!: Making Community Decisions, A Guide for Community Leaders and Public Officials

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In the built environment, some things to pay attention to are:. This is a topic that is ripe for examination. In many rural areas, particularly in developing countries, but often in the developed world as well, there is very little infrastructure. Roads and bridges may be impassable at certain or most times of year, phone service and TV reception nonexistent, Internet access a distant dream. Public transportation in many places, if it exists at all, may take the form of a pickup truck or year-old van that takes as many passengers as can squeeze into or onto the bed, passenger compartment, and roof.

Is any of this on the government's or anyone else's radar as a situation that needs to be addressed? Answers to these and similar questions may both explain the situation and the attitudes of the local population and highlight a number of possible courses of action. I n the category of natural features, we can include both areas that have been largely left to nature, and "natural" spaces created by human intervention.


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There is an overlap between the community's physical and social characteristics. Does the lay of the land make it difficult to get from one part of the community to another? Biking, or in some cases even walking, is difficult in San Francisco, for example, because of the length and steepness of the hills. Are there clear social divisions that mirror the landscape -- all the fancy houses in the hills, all the low-income housing in the flats, for instance? Studying the physical layout of the community will serve you not only as information, but as a guide for finding your way around, knowing what people are talking about when they refer to various areas and neighborhoods, and gaining a sense of the living conditions of any populations you're concerned with.

Demographics are the facts about the population that you can find from census data and other similar statistical information. Some things you might like to know, besides the number of people in the community:. In the U. Census , from state and local government websites, or from other government agencies. Depending on what issues and countries you're concerned with, some sources of information might be the U.

Centers for Disease Control , the U.

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Department of Health and Human Services , similar websites in other countries, and the various agencies of the United Nations. On many of these websites, notably the U. Census, various categories can be combined, so that you can, for example, find out the income levels in your community for African American women aged with a high school education. If the website won't do it for you, it's fairly easy to trace the patterns yourself, thus giving you a much clearer picture of who community residents are and what their lives might be like.

The County Health Rankings model includes four types of health factors: health behaviors, clinical care, social and economic, and the physical environment. These reports can help community leaders see that our environment influences how healthy we are and how long we live, and even what parts of our environment are most influential.


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This can be a complex topic. The "standard" history -- when the community was founded and by whom, how long it has existed, how people lived there in the past, its major sources of work, etc.

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The leader's choice--five steps to ethical decision making

You might also gain information by reading between the lines of old newspaper articles and tracking down people who were part of past conflicts or events. If this all sounds a lot like investigative reporting, that's because it is. You may not have the time or skills to do much of it, but talking to activists and journalists about recent history can be crucial. Stepping into a community with an intervention or initiative without understanding the dynamics of community history can be a recipe for failure. T here are a number of ways to learn about the structure and operation of local government:.

In most of the U. Reading the newspaper every day is a good idea in general if you're trying to learn about the community. It will not only have stories about how the community operates, but will give you a sense of what's important to its readers, what kinds of activities the community engages in and views as significant, what the police do -- a picture of a large part of community life.

Real estate ads will tell you about property values and the demand for housing, ads for services can help you identify the major businesses in town, and the ages and education levels of the people in the marriage and birth announcements can speak volumes about community values. Newspaper archives can also reveal the stories that help you understand the emotions still surrounding events and issues that don't seem current.

The newspaper is an enormous reservoir of both direct and between-the-lines information.

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As we all know, government isn't only about the rules and structures that hold it together. It's about people and their interactions The political climate, culture, and assumptions in a particular community often depend more on who elected and appointed officials are than on the limits or duties of their offices. The politics of many communities embody the ideal of government working for the public good. In other communities, politics takes a back seat to economics, and politicians listen largely to those with economic power -- the CEO's, owners, and directors of large businesses and institutions.

In still others, the emphasis is on power itself, so that political decisions are made specifically to keep a particular party, group, or individual in control. Obviously, only in the first case is the public well served.

A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making

In the other situations, fairness and equity tend to go out the window and decisions favor the powerful. Understanding the politics of the community -- who has power, who the power brokers are, who actually influences the setting of policy, how decisions are made and by whom, how much difference public opinion makes -- is fundamental to an understanding of the community as a whole. There's no formal way to get this information. Government officials may have very different interpretations of the political scene than activists or other community members.

You'll have to talk to a variety of people, take a good look at recent political controversies and decisions here's where newspaper archives can come in handy , and juggle some contradicting stories to get at the reality. Community institutions, unless they are dysfunctional, can generally be viewed as assets.

A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making

Finding them should be easy: as mentioned above, the Chamber of Commerce will probably have a list of them, the library will probably have one as well, the local newspaper will often list them, and they'll be in the phone book. The groups and organizations that exist in the community, and their relative prestige and importance in community life, can convey valuable clues to the community's assumptions and attitudes.

To some extent, you can find them in the same ways that you can find institutions, but the less formal ones you may be more likely to learn about through interviews and conversations. Some of the information about economic issues can be found in public records, but some will come from interviews or conversations with business people, government officials, and activists, and some from observation.

It's fairly easy to notice if one huge industrial plant dominates a community, for example, or if every third building appears to be a construction company. There are a number of questions you might ask yourself and others to help you understand the community's economic base and situation: What is the anchor of the community's tax base?

Complicated Contexts: The Domain of Experts

Who are the major employers? Are there lots of locally-owned businesses and industries, or are most parts of larger corporations headquartered elsewhere?


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Are there corporate headquarters in the community? Is there a good deal of office space, and is it empty or occupied? Is there new development, and is the community attracting new business? What is the unemployment rate? This may be the most difficult aspect of the community to understand, since it incorporates most of the others we've discussed, and is usually unspoken. People's answers to questions about it may ignore important points, either because they seem obvious to those who've lived with them for all or most of their lives, or because those things "just aren't talked about.

The question of who wields the real power in the community is another that may rarely be answered, or at least not answered in the same way by a majority of community members. It's likely that it will take a number of conversations, some careful observation and some intuition as well to gain a real sense of the community's social structure. Once you've gathered the information you need, the next step is describing the community. This is not really separate from understanding the community: in the process of organizing and writing down your information, you'll be able to see better how it fits together, and can gain greater understanding.

There are many ways you can create a description of the community. You can comment about what has changed in the community over time, what has stayed the same, and where you think the community might be going. You might also include an analysis of how the various categories interact, and how that all comes together to form the community that exists.

That will give you and anyone else interested a reasonably clear and objective description of the community, as well as a sense of how you see it.

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For a fuller picture, you could add photographs of some of the locations, people, conditions, or interactions you describe perhaps as a Photovoice project , as well as charts or graphs of demographic or statistical information. For even more detail, you might compose a portrait in words of the community, using quotes from interviews and stories of community history to bring the description to life. Given the availability of technology, you don't have to limit yourself to any specific format. Computers allow you to easily combine various media -- photos, graphics, animation, text, and audio, for example.

A video or a more text-based description -- or both -- could then be posted to a website where it would be available to anyone interested. Once you have a description put together, you might want to show it to some of the community members you talked to in the course of exploring the community.