Extraordinary Results in Ordinary Communities: A Brief Review

In the 2007 report, Extraordinary Results in Ordinary Communities, Vaughn Grisham Jr. examines how small towns and rural communities actually function in making decisions—particularly those decisions that are designed to address persistent intractable, community problems. A key question explores the role of the public, how people in communities come to know and understand the issues that affect them and how that understanding influences official decision making.

It is important to emphasize that this study is not an evaluation. Instead, the purpose is to gain insight and to understand community dynamics. With this in mind, there is as much to be learned from mistakes and setbacks as there is from progress and success. In any event, the findings of the report identify some common elements to community problem solving.

The first of these elements is a “Catalyst,” an individual who steps forward in order to get things done, in other words, someone “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” In the report, Catalysts are characterized as strong-willed, passionate, and more concerned with reaching organizational goals rather than on advancing their own self-images. This requires an ability to focus and make personal sacrifices. Of course, they are not without their limitations and they certainly can’t solve the problem alone. What they can do, however, is “create an environment in which things get done.”

Second, leaders, in their understanding that they can’t solve the problem alone, encourage others to take leadership roles. The report refers to these communities as “leaderful,” or containing many leaders. In the absence of institutionalized power, the power of these communities is derived from being inclusive. Similarly, leaders work hard to forge relationships, build coalitions, and create ever-expanding networks. Building and sustaining partnerships was noted as the key to community development, and treating it as an ongoing process is key to sustaining momentum for future issues.

The third element is a recognition that leaders do not work in isolation, but rather in the context of communities that have particular characteristics. These leaders appear to have a deep understanding of the culture of the community in which they’re trying to solve problems. As such, they are able to get the right people or organizations involved. Moreover, when problems did arise, they were able to adapt to the circumstances, thereby uniquely tailoring their response and supporting an iterative process.

Finally, people in the community reflect on what their efforts have wrought, see real consequences, and begin to think about what they might do in the future. As we’ve seen from the articles in this issue exploring McKnight’s research on community assets, people “pondered their own assets, looking first at the internal resources to which they had immediate access, and next, at how to pair these assets with resources that lay beyond the community but to which they could gain access.”

Grisham’s article on extraordinary communities demonstrates how people have changed the place where they live for the better. It does this by first identifying the problem as one of collective learning and then addressing how to go about making changes in collective learning. This, then, promotes a more fully realized notion of education, including what hinders or helps the promotion of that idea.

Phillip Lurie is a program officer at the Kettering Foundation. He can be reached at plurie@kettering.org.

Connections (2011)
Phillip D. Lurie