When you don’t understand something, you often laugh.Bill Cosby
In my youth (and, yes, dear Cassius, I can still remember
parts of my youth), I spent some of my allowance and gas-cutting money on comedy albums. I enjoyed the classic comedic riffs of Bob Newhart, Johnny Carson, Redd Foxx and Moms Mabley (I saw her in one of the raunchiest “concerts” ever – just what a hormonal teenager didn’t need to see!).
The central theme of one of my favorites was Why Is There Air? The answer – to blow up the volleyballs, of course?! And that brings us to communities (What?! How?).
Think of a community as a volleyball (or at least try to). Instead of air, it’s filled with all of those things that make up a community – people and their skills and connections; businesses and financial capital; buildings and the natural environment; a culture derived from its history, its people and their beliefs, and its mechanisms for making decisions and acting – what are called the community capitals.
Now think of the ball resting on a table, sitting in front of a big fan. When the fan is turned on, it blows the ball down – and it bounces. Depending on how well it’s inflated, the ball may bounce almost as high as the table. Just like the ball, a community’s bounce – its resilience – is determined by how full it is; how much of each capital the community has.
Let me torture this analogy just a little further. No matter how well-sealed the volleyball is, there will still be small leaks, i.e., the community will tend to lose capital over time. Infrastructure may age; bureaucratic regulations may take the place of governance. The ball may also be used hard, opening more serious leaks: social tensions may tear the community’s social fabric; key people may move away. If I don’t keep the ball pumped up, it inevitably deflates: community’s require infusions of capital to stay resilient – or to become more resilient.
When the deflated ball is blown off the table, it won’t bounce: communities without capital aren’t resilient.
How do I make the ball “bouncier?” The obvious way is to pump more air into it. When we pump external resources into a community, we’re effectively doing the same thing: making it more resilient. Another way to increase the ball’s bounce is to raise its temperature – in physics terms, increase its ability to do work. For a community this means reinvigorating it – raising its internal temperature so that it is more vibrant and more is happening. Then it can come back farther and faster after it’s been blown down.
A few years ago, I was drinking coffee with Liesel Ritchie and she challenged me to think about chronic conditions vs crisis-inducing events. One of the things I like about this hokey analogy is that it provides a context that incorporates both to provide an understanding of what happens over time in real communities. Communities that don’t spend the capital to deal with chronic conditions (e.g., aging infrastructure, a stagnant economy) lose their bounce – become less resilient. When faced with a crisis, they must heavily rely on external resources to recover.
So a question to you: how much air is in your community?