An advisor to one of my projects recently said to me: “We know what impact strengths have on an individual, in family settings, in schools, and organizations… but what we don’t know is what that impact looks like in a community.”
We are exploring just that with the Strong Cincinnati initiative. Strong Cincinnati is a project that aims to foster strong, connected communities through the activation of strengths within individuals, organizations, and neighborhoods. It builds off of the significant strengths work happening in in schools with the Thriving Learning Communities Program, where schools are shifting the approach of education from a primarily deficit based approach to a strengths-based one and seeing its impact. The initiative aims to extend strength-based learning and application beyond the classroom and into the community to cultivate a strengths-based neighborhood.
And because, as my advisor put it, “we don’t know what that looks like” we are learning all along the way. Below are three insights we have learned from projects happening in Cincinnati and cities across the country that we feel will be important for building a strong, connected community that can leverage its strengths to be its very best.
RELATIONSHIPS OVER EVERYTHING
Building neighbor-to-neighbor relationships is crucial to community development. It’s easy to forget that when we are talking about community, we are actually talking about people and the spaces they interact in. Individuals are more able to be productive, happy, and overcome crisis if they have a supportive local network in their neighbors.
When embarking on the work of building neighborhood connections, its important to be intentional with shared spaces, as they are often where neighboring begins organically. Also, engaging neighbors in the work will be more successful if they are engaged by fellow neighbors rather than outsiders.
Neighbor Connection Example:
- RE:VISION is an organization that works with the residents of Westwood, Denver, an economically disadvantaged neighborhood, to “develop resident leaders, cultivate community food systems, and create an economy owned by the community.” As part of the work, RE:VISION developed a ‘promotoras’ program where local residents are trained in urban agriculture and healthy living and share this skill and knowledge with the community.
ART AINT JUST ICING
Art and beauty have an integral role in community building. We often think that art is just a nice to have when prioritizing projects to improve a community. With issues like poverty, safety, and food access which are rampant in many of our neighborhoods, it can be hard to justify the spending of funds on beautification or art projects. Great art projects, especially community created art, can indicate investment in a neighborhood and is more about showing that there is love and care present than the actual aesthetic. The way a space look can also reflect how neighbors feel about themselves and their worthiness. A speaker at a conference I recently attended managed beautification projects for schools and shared stories of students’ readiness to learn in well-maintained buildings.
Arts Importance Example:
- Ponyride is an organization that actively invigorates the city of Detroit by supporting artists to further their social mission and share their creative spirit with the community. An example is the Graffiti Wanted project, an invitation to the public to paint graffiti on a neighborhood wall that spurred discussion about public art, vandalism, and censorship.
PARTNER FOR PETE’S SAKE
A keynote speaker at a recent conference I attended commented that “Good work can happen in isolation, but GREAT work can only happen in collaboration.” Partners can lend necessary knowledge, skills, capacity, and ideas to a project that may be good to begin with, but could be made great with the help of partners. We all know that partnering is the right thing to do, yet we often don’t because it takes more coordination, more work, and often requires us to give up control. But when done right, plugging partners into the right role can make the impossible, possible. Community partnerships are also crucial because it builds greater ownership of the work, and thus sustainability.
- Cosign is a project that paired local business owners with local artists and sign fabricators to design and install new storefront business signage in two Cincinnati neighborhoods. With the help of partners like the City of Cincinnati, The American Sign Museum, local businesses, local artists, and sign makers, the Cosign process was able to go from launch to sign installation in the seemingly impossible timeframe of six months.
These are by far not the only learnings shaping the work of Strong Cincinnati and certainly won’t be the last. As we embark on this new work, we fully expect to create learnings of our own and get us closer to understanding what a strengths-based community could look like.