A Community is Not a Project

By Jenny Connelly-Bowen, Executive Director at the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis

This column was originally published on Justine PETERSEN's "Just Saying..." blog.

Jenny Connelly-Bowen

My first job after I got my undergraduate degree was as a warehouse supervisor in Save-A-Lot Food Stores’ career development program. Picture this: a 22-year-old white woman who studied English at a Midwestern liberal arts college throws on some steel-toed shoes and reports for training at a grocery distribution center in Central Michigan among a diverse team of seasoned experts—all of whom understood the work of the warehouse far more intimately than I ever would, even after I’d completed rotational training. A few yelled at me on a regular basis. More of them were painstakingly patient. And everyone taught me a lot. They’d been through it before: the warehouse I’d been sent to was a designated program training center. They were used to outsiders coming in blind, fumbling around and stirring up small disasters while they learned the ropes. (Exhibit A: once, after I bungled a store’s order of Easter lilies, one of my colleagues had to personally haul 60 cases of them in his pickup truck two hours down the interstate the next day.)

During my two years at the warehouse, I felt, often, like I still do when I find myself unexpectedly unprepared for a situation I’ve been anticipating from all the wrong angles and frames of reference. I found myself thinking, often, about a scene in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, a novel about an American missionary family’s unraveling in the Belgian Congo during the mid-twentieth century. When the Betty Crocker cake mix they’ve packed for a birthday turns to concrete in the humid African air, it’s an existential wake-up call. “If I’d of had the foggiest idea,” the mother laments; “just the foggiest idea. We brought all the wrong things.”

So had I. I was woefully unprepared for my role at the warehouse. My four years of liberal arts studies taught me to think critically about race, gender, class, history, and language and to advocate for social justice. That training was of little practical use on the warehouse floor. My time there was a perpetual scramble and a blur of humbling experiences. But the community of workers I’d stumbled into helped me assimilate anyway, and they called me out when I needed to hear it. In exchange I tried my best to be a sponge, which wasn’t usually a fair trade.

Many years and a career pivot later, as I continue learning the shape and substance of community development work in St. Louis under the guidance of many equally generous mentors, I’ve seen shades of this pattern play out in other contexts. Sometimes, as professionals or volunteers working in communities that aren’t our own, we arrive unprepared to do the work we think we want to do.

Economist F.A. Hayek argues that human society is wholly dependent on an “extended order” that most of us rarely stop to think about. From infancy, we learn how to navigate the world by watching and imitating the people around us, and thanks to our accumulated customs, we’re able to collaborate in broad, powerful ways even though none of us can see the entire system all at once. At the heart of the extended order is the tenet that every human being has access to local knowledge and circumstantial expertise that others do not—and that these unique insights, which can frequently benefit society as a whole, can only be used if the decisions that depend on them are left to that person or are made with his or her active participation.

We don’t always honor this reality when we set out to do community-based work. Sometimes, we burst in with well-intentioned plans and ideas before asking whether the members of that community want to hear them, or use them. Sometimes, as we look for ways to apply our research-based, data-driven knowledge, we forget to listen for the knowledge and insights that community members bring to the table. We forget that a community is not a project. A community is a living, breathing ecosystem that cradles a whole host of sacred things: history and memories, friendships and love, suffering and trauma, layers and layers of stories. When we commit ourselves to community-based work, our ultimate job—should we be lucky enough to be invited to sit at a community’s table—is to begin learning those grooves and to help draw out, build up, and connect what’s already there. That’s the heart of asset-based community development, and as a new(ish) practitioner, I’m grateful to be learning from the many, many people and organizations across St. Louis who have taken up this mantle and are leading by example.

And to learn, we have to listen. Really listen. That means arriving fully prepared to change our minds and adapt our approach after taking in what’s been said. When a community shares an experience or insight with a visitor, it’s a gift. It should be honored. If we want to serve, our community-based work has to be a conversation and an exchange before it can grow into anything else.

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Jenny Connelly-Bowen is passionate about work that builds strong, inclusive communities. She currently serves as Executive Director for the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis. Jenny has a B.A. in English from Beloit College and a master’s degree from UMSL in Public Policy Administration with certificates in Nonprofit Management & Leadership and Policy & Program Evaluation. Prior to entering the community development field, Jenny spent over five years working in distribution, buying, and pricing at Save-A-Lot Food Stores. She believes in the power and potential of stories to build bridges and break through walls and is committed to cultivating a sense of place and purpose in her work.

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Articles in “From the Field” represent the opinions of the author only and do not represent the views of the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis or the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

We invite readers to contribute to the civic conversation about community development in St. Louis by writing an op-ed for the Community Builders Exchange. Op-eds should be short (400-700 words) and provocative. If you have an idea for an op-ed, contact Todd Swanstrom at swanstromt@umsl.edu.