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The Importance of the Individual

by Erica Swanholm

community: n., pl. 1. a. A group of people living in the same locality and under the same government. b. The district or locality in which such a group lives. 2. A group of people having common interests. 3. a. similarity or identity. b. Sharing, participation, and fellowship. 4. Society as a whole; the public.

-The American Heritage College Dictionary, 3rd edition.

The definition of community implies a group and a similarity of components within that group. Following from this definition then, it is very easy to think of the phrase 'community development' as the process of developing a group or place. This is not incorrect, but focusing on the group does obscure one of the most important aspects of the development process: the development of the individual. In fact, the growth of the individual is essential to the growth of the community; community development, in this sense, is a dialectic process.

There is an absence of literature connecting the development of the individual to the community, as Natasha Friedus noted in "Changes in the Valley: The Role of the Individual in Community Development.[1]" She cites that most of the emphasis is placed on collective action and participatory democracy on the community or group level, while many "educators, organizers, feminists and civil rights leaders throughout history have argued that it is impossible to transform society without first changing the individual." More importance should be placed, then, on developing voice and power at the individual level in order to develop the collective power of the community.

Friebus collected stories of individuals who live and work in the colonias of the Texas Valley at an organization called Valley Interfaith. That organization is based on Saul Alinsky methods of broad-based organizing, and has expanded to include the "careful, deliberate and painstakingly slow work of building relationships," that focus on "attention to people's growth as part of the organizational culture. [2]" One goal of their work is to transform individuals' attitudes about their role in the community. Freibus illustrated this concept in the story of Lidia, a 50-year old Mexican immigrant who lived in the colonias. Lidia had worked low-wage jobs her whole life, and had been reluctant to challenge authority due to cultural upbringing. She became involved in Valley Interfaith and is now negotiating with municipalities to get running water and infrastructure for the colonias; she was also successful at getting an elementary school sited in her neighborhood. That organization empowered Lidia to see herself as playing a vital and important role in the community.

One example of this same concept comes from my personal research at River City Youth Foundation where Cecilia Gonzalez is a teacher. Cecilia is a Latina who grew up in a home that encouraged her intellectual interests; she wasn't brought up in the traditional role of a Hispanic female. Now, Cecilia encourages and challenges the Latino boys and girls in her after-school program to think outside of their cultural box. She asked her group of students once what they want to do when they grow up. When some of the girls would say "doctor" or "lawyer," they would get this response back from the boys: "what, do you wanna be more gringo than the gringas? You should be home taking care of kids." Ms. "CC" said she challenges one of her Latina students with sarcasm--"oh, why are you here playing with computers? Shouldn't you be home taking care of kids and making dinner?" By constantly having conversations with individual girls and boys, Cecilia is both challenging individual students and challenging the group as a whole to question gender roles and power structures in their families.

As noted above, the emphasis on educating and developing each person is partially rooted in feminist thought and practice. A study on women-led community development organizations found that women-led organizations are:

"...directed at changing people's lives, the quality of life in the neighborhood, or people's access to resources and institutions. The comprehensive approach to community development, the concern with the process of community development, the focus on community participation, the human-centered and needs-centered programs, the open-style of leadership--all these characteristics of women-run CDOs involve change at the level of the organization itself, of the individual participants, of the community, and at the level of the community development movement as a whole. These characteristics also distinguish women-run CDOs from most community development organizations, particularly from most CDCs." [3]

A holistic view of the whole development process is a characteristic of women-led organizations. This framework of thinking about community development doesn't forget about the importance of the individual; it connects the individual to the community and the community to the national movement of community-based organizations.




[1] Friedus, Natasha. "Changes in the Valley: The Role of the Individual in Community Development." Masters thesis for the Department of Urban Studies and Planning: MIT. Retrieved 3/20/02.
[2] Ibid, pg. 6.
[3] Gittell, Marilyn, Ortega-Bustamante, Isolda and Tracy Steffy. "Women Creating Social Capital and Social Change: A Study of Women-led Community Development Organizations." Howard Samuels State and Management Policy Center, The Graduate School and University Center of The City University of New York, July 1999. Retrieved on 3/20/02.

this page last updated
May 15, 2002