Baltimore is a city with challenges. Trials of the police officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray in 2015 are currently ongoing. Both this year and last, in the week before Memorial Day and in an unsettling coincidence, the city recorded its 100th homicide of the year. One television station even reported the mark was reached on the same day, May 27th. To many outside of Baltimore all of this seems a little too much like the fictional Baltimore portrayed in the popular television show of a few seasons back, The Wire. Despite both the reality and perceptions of Baltimore, there is at least one place with a deep, thriving sense of community.
I attended a community school…Morning Sun Community Schools, more precisely. Morning Sun, Iowa is a tiny rural community (population 836 in the 2010 census) in Southeast Iowa, only a few miles from the Mississippi River. Today, because of school consolidation that swallowed it up in the early 1990’s, it has only an elementary school. Nonetheless, that elementary school, with 145 students, is about the same size as the whole district at the time I graduated from high school. My graduating class was 24 students, which actually seemed pretty large to us at the time.
In my hometown the school was the center of community life. The school and its grounds hosted every aspect of social and cultural life in the town. It hosted scouting programs, the local Lions and Lionesses Clubs, summer Little League, Memorial Day and 4th of July celebrations, community dinners and dances, and the social event of the year: the Junior/Senior Prom. It was where we voted and received our vaccinations. It was the cultural center where band concerts, theatrical productions, and “donkey basketball” matches were staged. Okay, so maybe donkey basketball is not really a cultural event but the donkeys were pretty classy. It was the sports arena where we gathered to watch junior high and high school football, baseball, softball, basketball, and wrestling. Like today’s community schools, it was open every day of the week and it seemed like something was always happening there. Our school was the glue that held the Morning Sun community together.
In Baltimore there is another school, Wolfe Street Academy, which is doing something similar today to knit together its community within Baltimore. Wolfe Street Academy is a part of the Baltimore City Public Schools. The school’s focus on integrating academics, health and social services, youth and community development, and community engagement through community partnership causes it to stand out and bring hope to a city that too often struggles to find and hold hope. Wolfe Street Academy is a Pre-K through 5th grade school and historically has served the most recent immigrant populations. Today over 80% of its students speak a language other than English at home. Ninety-six percent of its students are from low-income households. As a community school, Wolfe Street Academy is a place which ensures students succeed academically, socially, and emotionally through a set of partnerships between the school and other community resources.
Wolfe Street Academy is a success story of deep community, collective impact, collaboration, and hope that needs to be told.
In the spirit of transparency, I have to admit some bias about the work being done at Wolfe Street Academy. I have been there a couple of times in the past to help my spouse, Clemencia Vargas, with her students and I have been amazed and moved by what I have seen. Clemencia’s students, though, are the dental students from the University of Maryland School of Dentistry who provide oral health screening to Wolfe Street Academy. My role is typically to take pictures and otherwise stay out of the way. I see enough, though, to know this is a special place for many children and their families. It is truly a community school.
The story of Wolfe Street Academy reminds us that community is defined by more than geography. Community is a place, a spirit, and a home where caring kindness wins out over rightness. May we all be so lucky to find such community in our lives and, then, welcome others into it.
I have a tolerate/hate relationship with community needs assessments. I really wanted to write that I have a love/hate relationship with them but that would be dishonest. I do not love them at all, but I do understand their importance and will tolerate them…barely. In fact, I have designed them, conducted them, and used them to inform and guide work on community projects and initiatives.
So, what’s my problem with community needs assessments? In part, it has to do with my research orientation. I am a qualitative researcher at heart and by preference, and too many community needs assessments focus on just the numbers. I can do the numbers, but they do not “chat to me” as they do to my quantitative researcher spouse who becomes positively giddy over statistics. Even more, I think the importance of numbers are overblown since they do not tell the whole story. They are good for describing a situation or issue, but not explaining it, which is really the key to community change.
Until we understand why or how something is happening in a community, we usually cannot influence and change it.
Okay, so I have owned my part in my problem with community needs assessments and I have come to accept thatcommunity needs assessments are a necessary evil. Yet there are still other problems with community needs assessments that have little or nothing to do with my research orientation or preference. I believe they can be improved and made more useful both to those that must conduct them and to the residents of communities that are subjected to them. Here are my recommendations.
First, I propose we lose the name “community needs assessment” and replace it with “community understanding study.” The name “community needs assessment” has come to assume weaknesses, problems, negatives, and deficits in the community. Therefore, we are imposing our belief that a community has problems and biasing the outcome from the outset. We need to consider that our perspective may not be what the residents of the community see at all. They may, in fact, see strengths, benefits, positives, and assets in the community. They may see their communities as incredibly, infinitely resilient and able to overcome any challenge. Community “needs assessment” assume communities are doing poorly with regard to one or more issues. As a result, some needs assessments effectively double bind residents into responding to the assessment questions in ways that only reveal the deficits. Recently I participated in a community needs assessment that had several of these types of questions on it. For example, it asked me to choose from a variety of responses with regard to a health related issue, without first asking me if I actually had that health issue. To respond at all was to admit to an issue that I did not have. (In fact, although I did not have the issue, I might have developed it had I allowed myself to dwell too long on such a poorly constructed survey.)
Second, I recommend we pay closer attention to how and why we do studies of communities in order to be more thoughtful and intentional. Funding often drives community studies. Funders may require a community needs assessment to justify an “investment” in the community. Recipients of funds, even when they are not obligated to conduct a needs assessment, may include a study in their work plan merely to assure the funder that they know what they are doing and to establish their credibility with the funder. These real or perceived expectations too often produce hastily undertaken studies that, for example, may use poorly designed survey or interview questions, convenience samples that are not representative of the community (often even excluding residents with valuable lived experience with the issue being studied), engage in a wild flurry of busy data collection activity (aka “going through the motions” to create the impression of a “good” study), or other such things that result in an overall poor quality effort. Studies done in this way neither provide actual benefit to the funder nor grantee and certainly provide little value to the community. At worst, a poorly done needs assessment may turn up community “problems” that are completely unrelated to the real issues facing a community, sending both the funder and grantee off on a chase to fix “problems” that are either insignificant or nonexistent.
Third, I suggest we more forthrightly and clearly admit our findings are based upon assumptions that may not be correct. Whether a community study uses a quantitative, qualitative, or mixed method approach, the information gathered is always limited by key core assumptions that we are asking the right questions in the right way of the right people to get an accurate picture of the community. Good researchers are always aware of such assumptions and worry about the limitations of their research. They will take care to describe the limitations and hope that they are thoughtfully considered before the findings are applied to an unsuspecting community by the Sledgehammer of Helpfulness: “You need this, see? And you’re going to get it whether you want it or not!” I have been guilty of wielding the Sledgehammer of Helpfulness myself as a leader who did not always understand and respect the limitations of data collection and analysis. More fully aware of my own limitations today, it is painful to see others who still swing the sledgehammer at communities.
Fourth, I suggest we find a better way to study the life of a community continuously in real time. Community needs assessments are too often a “still photo” or “snapshot” in time that fails to provide ongoing “real time” updates. Snapshots become dated very quickly, though we may cling to them as if they really do represent the present. Even worse, I have been involved in some large community needs assessments that take so long to produce findings (sometimes more than a year) that when they are delivered, the original conditions it found are no longer present. As a technical assistance provider who was supposed to use that data to tailor my assistance, I found it to be an absurd, crazy-making requirement that was both useless to me and the community initiatives it was supposed to serve. I think my colleagues involved in community based participatory research (CBPR) are trying to figure out how to study a community in real time and I appreciate their effort. I would still ask them to look beyond just the numbers and to shift their focus from community problems and deficits to positives and possibilities.
Fifth, I strongly suggest that we professional do gooders (PDGs) who conduct the studies stop trying to be experts in other’s communities. One of the biggest problems I have with community studies of any kind is that they shift the balance of “expert” power from the community residents to the PDGs who are doing the study.Here is a very hard truth: we PDGer’s have too often used our community studies for two terrible deceptions. The first is our own self-deception. Some of our community studies result in such massive amounts of data on communities that we first conclude we must be the true experts. I have been in meetings with PDGs who have asserted (one even pounded the table for emphasis) that they were the experts in the community they were serving, not the people who lived in it. Unfortunately, the deception does not stop there. We, who have claimed expert status by virtue of our reams of data, too often commit a second deception on the residents with lived experience in the community we are studying.We use our new self-declared expert status and data (see the Sledgehammer of Helpfulness above) to convince residents that we know them better than they know themselves. When this happens, community engagementwork, then, becomes a process by which we convince the community residents what their needs really are and get them to agree to let us do an intervention to them – an intervention we have often designed just for them without their input.
Finally, I recommend that our community studies be expanded beyond an examination of “needs,” to include an assessment of community “wants” and “will.” It is just as valid to ask residents of a community what is wanted as it is to ask what is needed. Some will argue that it is hard to trust that people will want what is best for them. To that I ask, “Could we possibly make that sound any more condescending?” Others will argue that people may not even know what they want. To that I say, “So what? Will it kill us to find out?” I think we will be surprised what happens when we actually trust people to tell us what is important to them. Okay, maybe people will tell us they want a new car or a new cell phone or something else that seems ludicrous to us given our “expert” observation of the many other greater “needs” in the community. However, what if we then ask them why it is important to have a new car or new cell phone? Maybe we will learn that they need transportation to take a chronically ill child to a hospital for regular treatment or they are unemployed and need a contact phone number to list on job applications.
Both a wants and will assessment require us to go beyond surveys, questionnaires, and interviews to engage people differently to gain a deeper understanding. A community “will” assessment is a bit more complex and requires the most creative engagement strategy. What are residents of a community actually willing to do? People do not always act in the best interest of their needs. For example, I may need to maintain my weight but I still enjoyed my share of that large Polynesian pizza from the Lost Dog Pizza Cafe last Friday night. They may also describe their wants but then do something entirely different, including something that meets a need that is more important to them than their wants (e.g., I still want Polynesian pizza for lunch today, but I will have yogurt and granola instead.) How do we know what people are willing to do? One of the best indicators of what people are willing to do is discovered through an Appreciative Inquiry process. Through Appreciative Inquiry people identify the most positive moments and experiences that they are not only willing to experience again but will intentionally plan to experience again. This process can be used to help us better understand what residents and communities are willing to do.
If community change is going to be effective, we need to align community needs, community wants, and community will with our understanding of how these are interconnected.No assessment is ever perfect, whether it is a needs, wants, or will assessment. Communities are complex adaptive systems which are dynamic and in constant flux, which is all the more reason to create community understanding studies that allow us to remain aware of the fluctuations, both great and small.
An Update on For Barbara: The Power of One: On May 5, 2014 I posted a blog about my long time friend and colleague, Barbara Huberman, that generated many comments from readers. Barbara passed away in hospice care on Saturday, May 17th. Barbara had asked me in March if I would assist her family in planning a celebration of her life. Before she passed away, Barbara got to read that blog and I got to have one last visit with her. On June 3rd, in Washington, DC, more than 150 people from around the United States attended the celebration and memorial for Barbara Huberman. It was one of the most profound honors of my life to lead that celebration. We miss you, Barbara. Rest well.
The Mall in Columbia is 5.3 miles from my house. Three young people died there last Saturday, January 25, 2014, at 11:15 AM in a murder/suicide. This morning I awakened to the news on my local National Public Radio station that legendary folk musician Pete Seeger died yesterday, January 27, of natural causes at age 94. What do these four deaths have in common? To me, there seemed to be a connection but I could not see it.
All morning I was haunted by this question but I did not have an answer until I went to The Mall in Columbia to see the site of the tragedy. The shop where the shooting took place has been closed since the mall reopened yesterday. It is completely boarded up with whitewashed plywood. Stenciled on the wall is a message that indicated the shop will be closed until further notice. Below the stenciled message someone had hung a sympathy card with a handwritten note scrawled inside. At the bottom of the wall this morning were flowers.
Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing? Where have all the flowers gone, long time ago?
As you continue to listen to this iconic Pete Seeger song, you will learn the answer. All the flowers are gone because they are being picked to adorn the graves of those fallen in war. Of course, at the time Peter, Paul, & Mary made this song famous the Vietnam War was looming ahead for the United States and the song eventually became a campaign song in anti-war protests. However, the song is just as appropriate today given the many wars that continue to take young lives throughout the world today. These include the undeclared war on our communities fueled by gun violence.
Today in Maryland there are at least three new families caught in a vortex of grief. One grieves the loss of a son with whom they had recently celebrated his two years of sobriety from drug addiction. A second grieves the loss of a daughter who leaves behind her own two-year-old son. The third grieves the loss of a child whom the police and the media do not count among the victims, and have, even worse, dehumanized into “the shooter.”
Our community grieves as well. Any illusion that we had about the safety and quality of life in Columbia, Maryland has been shattered. We have joined a sad and growing group of U.S. communities on the broken battlefield of senseless, preventable gun violence. The Mall in Columbia shooting does not meet the criteria for a “mass shooting” (at least four victims according to the FBI), but it feels like it to us. Ironically, had the young man who instigated the violence successfully exploded the two homemade bombs that were found in his backpack inside the shop’s fitting room, we would have far exceeded the FBI’s seemingly arbitrary threshold for a “mass.” But, then, it would not have been just a shooting anymore, it would have been a bombing, and the issue of gun violence would have been irrelevant, right? Gun violence, whether one dies or a “mass” die, is never irrelevant in our communities.
Over the years I have come to see and embrace the power of community that Pete Seeger saw many years ago. He knew, and I am learning, that communities are extraordinarily powerful when they are finally moved to action. A few years ago we were reminded by a First Lady of the power a community has to raise a child. Today, we need communities to not only raise up a child, but to step up to protect those same children – all the children – in a way that prevents them from becoming either victims or “shooters.” In recent years we’ve begun to run low on flowers to cover the graves of our children dying as a result of preventable gun violence. It is preventable, if we have the will.
“Will” is a small word but a gigantic concept. Genuine human change always begins with human will. We change ourselves and our communities only if we can find the will to do so. Perhaps, in his or her own way, this is what the person was trying to say in this note left on the plywood wall at the mall: “We must be better. We can be better. We will be better.”
Pete Seeger once explained how he came to write “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and readily acknowledged, as any good songwriter, that the song has been changed over the years to reflect the times and the need. Therefore, I doubt he would object to one more change, especially if the song were to move our communities to find the will to finally do what it takes to end gun violence. With apologies and deep appreciation to Pete Seeger, may I offer the following?
Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing? Where have all the flowers gone, long time ago. Where have all the flowers gone? Parents picked them everyone. Oh, when will we ever learn? Oh, when will we ever learn?
Where have all the parents gone, long time passing? Where have all the parents gone, long time ago. Where have all the parents gone? Buried children everyone. Oh, when will we ever learn? Oh, when will we ever learn?
Where have all the children gone, long time passing? Where have all the children gone, long time ago. Where have all the children gone? Gone to graveyards everyone. Oh, when will we ever learn? Oh, when will we ever learn?
My condolences to the family of Pete Seeger at his passing yesterday after such a long, full, remarkable life. My deepest condolences to the families of all three young people whose lives were ended much to soon at The Mall in Columbia last Saturday. May the inspiration of Mr. Seeger and the tragedy of too many of our children’s deaths from gun violence finally cause all of our communities to find the will to rise up and end this war.