Chain Reaction Foundation
INSPIRING INNOVATIVE CITIZEN ACTION

Underlying Conditions for Building an Effective Community

by Margaret Bell | June 22, 2017

Recently we have been discussing the tangible dimensions of an effective community, and the links which form the network around these tangible dimensions. With this article, I want to examine the underlying conditions; the fundamental, but intangible, elements which must exist within a community, if that community is to be a successful one.

There are two key conditions which must exist in a successful community, and which must support and energise the efforts of that community's constituent members. These are the establishment of community norms and the fostering of shared purposes. These conditions create the platform upon which an engaged, motivated and community-minded society can be built. Read on to learn more.

Community Norms for Public Life

If a community is fractured, it cannot be effective. This is what happens when the ethos and action of the community’s constituent members becomes centred on the individual, and not on society as a whole.

To combat this, the right community norms need to be put in place. Community norms for public life act as guiding hands, encouraging interaction and collaboration. Rather than simply focussing on self-interest, we instead gear our minds and our actions towards community interest, and our local society benefits as a result.

Think about conventional standards of action in communal and social areas. Think about work places, social clubs, places of worship, places of education, shared areas for families; all of these spaces have norms and unwritten codes of behaviour.

These spaces are governed by;

We always…

And, we never…

Set about defining these values, and create a set of rights, responsibilities and prohibitions which enable the establishment of an effective community. Achieving this will pave the way for true engagement on a society-wide basis, and will give citizens a real sense of investment and ownership of their local environment.

Community Norms in Real Life

A key factor for introducing the norms discussed above is a focus on community interest over self interest. But this does not mean that the communities in question should be exclusive or closed to other members. Part of becoming an effective community is recognising the position of your local society in that of the wider Australian or even global societies.

The I Can Help campaign which brings together people willing to assist and support refugees who arrive in New South Wales is vital to this. NSW’s communities are reaching out and opening doors to those most in need – which is a powerful and positive statement – but if this integration is to be effective, a profound connection must be made. I Can Help is facilitating that connection.

In Western Australia, we have seen similar acts of selflessness and community-minded behaviour in the fight to save several remote aboriginal localities from closure. In recent years, such communities had become threatened by several disastrous government policies, and were effectively staring into the abyss.

Through community action and a strong petitioning campaign, local groups were able to prevent the forced closures. While these communities are still at risk, the latest developments represent small but momentous victories which will galvanise and invigorate their collective spirit.

Shared Purpose for the Community

If a community is to be united, its constituent members need to pull together and move towards a shared goal. This can only arise if there is a shared sense of ownership and responsibility in terms of social issues; a sense which crosses cultural and social boundaries and is capable of uniting all.

Once the tangible dimensions for building an engaged and robust community are in place, individuals must begin to express themselves within this framework, witnessing and understanding the positive elements that such dimensions bring. This means raising the profile of local causes, utilising formal and informal channels to spread the word and to connect with like-minded people, and to build momentum behind a positive community purpose.

The result of this is discourse and communication. Individuals in the community understand that they have the opportunity to tell their own stories and to discuss the issues that affect their situation. At the same time, they also find that they have access to a range of different viewpoints – some from a similar background to their own, others coming from a different position entirely – and so they learn to listen and understand with greater clarity the experiences of others.

Ultimately, this brings coherence. Items are debated, meetings are and viewpoints are understood. From here, the community can take steps towards the new possibilities it needs to thrive. The community is engaged and a new way forward is identified. From here, embarking on that way forward is easy.

Shared Purpose in Action

Sometimes it is out of tremendous hardship and human suffering that the most profound and moving examples of community purpose and spirit are born. An example of this can be found in the aftermath of Cyclone Debbie, which struck parts of Queensland and New South Wales in March 2017.

The cataclysmic weather caused over $1bn worth of damage, and resulted in at least 10 deaths. However, local communities refused to be crushed by such tragedy, and instead banded together, doing their bit for the rescue and clear-up effort.

“People did, and continue to do, extraordinary things to help those rocked by Debbie,” said Scott Thompson, editor of the Gold Coast Bulletin.

The Rocks area of Sydney is the scene of another example of community in action, and of residents coming together for a shared purpose or goal. The planned demolition of the Sirius public housing block in the Sydney neighbourhood has been met with opposition on two grounds – the first being that it is an example of the architectural style of Brutalism, which is disappearing from Australia’s towns, and the second that it is still a home to residents, including 91 year old Myra Demetriou.

The Save Our Sirius campaign is gathering pace, as increasing numbers of locals make their voices heard and seek to prevent its closure. The objective is to get the building heritage-listed, which will ensure its preservation for the future.

Margaret Bell, AM - Founder and CEO of Chain Reaction Foundation.

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