Community culture and community resilience

Culture outperforms strategy every time; culture with strategy is unbeatable.

Quint Studer

A community’s culture is one of the most overlooked – and misunderstood – contributors to its future fitness. A community’s culture is primarily its history – not the one in books but the one embedded in its mind, its heart and its soul. A community’s culture shapes its shared values, and how its residents expect each other to behave. It thus conditions how a community approaches its problems, and whether the community can even recognize its problems.

A community’s culture is related to but different from its social capital. A community’s social capital resides in its connections – how the community is wired, and how effectively those wires enable the community to share information. A community’s culture conditions which connections are made, how messages are framed and even which information is shared. Thus, a community’s culture is a sort of skeleton supporting its social connection and directing where they form.

One of the ways that a community’s culture is manifested is in whether or not the community has a “can-do” attitude. Some time ago, I read an interview of the CEO of Fluor, focusing on his move of the giant construction company from California to Texas.

[When the 2006 move became known] “California made no attempt to keep us… things started to happen quickly [in Texas], without us initiating them. The Irving Chamber of Commerce did orientation sessions for employees and spouses, even helping with new-house searches. Or ‘little things:’ Irving on its own renamed a street Fluor Drive, which in California or the Northeast would be laughable.

This sort of attitude implies a community self-confidence that results in decisive action.

A community’s culture also reveals itself in how – whether – it recognizes its problems. When working with the Navajos, one of the striking features of their culture is the implicit prohibition against talking about bad things that might happen. This was based on the fear that talking about them would lead to them occurring. This sort of “whistling in the dark” makes it very difficult to prepare for or mitigate against disaster.

So how do I know whether my community has a culture that makes it future fit, that makes it resilient? There are several signposts.

First and foremost, the trajectory of the community. If the community’s quality of life is improving, that’s a sign of a proactive culture, indicating a self-confident community. If the community’s quality of life is deteriorating, the community is going to become less confident and less able to tackle its problems. Its future fitness is questionable.

Next, the unity of purpose within the community. As Paolo Freire has said: One cannot expect positive results from an educational or political action program which fails to respect the particular view of the world held by the people. Thus, if a community’s leaders are pushing programs that negatively impact a large swath of the community – that, in fact, are counter to their cultural values – the community has a culture that is in conflict with itself. It cannot confidently attack its problems. In fact, it may not even address them until they balloon into a crisis.

Then consider how tolerant the community’s culture is. As Joel Salatin says: The stronger a culture, the less it fears the radical fringe. The more paranoid and precarious a culture, the less tolerance it offers. If one part of a community refuses to let other – different – voices be heard, then the community effectively is limiting its approach to solving its problems to only those “approved” by the intolerant. Effectively, it’s like a general stubbornly concentrating on taking the hills in front of him while refusing to look at the mountains behind. Whether it’s banning books or refusing to listen to parents’ concerns, this kind of community culture will impair a community’s fitness to face the future.

Finally – and closely allied to its tolerance – look at the community’s open-ness, its willingness to accept new people and new ideas. The quote from Fluor’s CEO about Irving, TX, indicates a culture that knows how to adapt to new people and to accept new ideas. In solving their problems, “open” communities will be open to innovations, whatever their source. “Open” communities will also be the most likely to see and seize opportunities brought on by changing circumstances.

Most importantly, “open” communities are the ones most likely to have some sort of strategic vision for their community. They know what they want to become. They may even have mapped out a plan for their future. These communities – their actions compounded from culture and strategy – will be the ones best able to cope with change and to seize the opportunities inherent in change. They will be the most future fit, the most resilient.

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