Community development has always been a concept that seemed inherent to me, one that didn’t need a phrase, a discipline, a professional society, and a field of scholarship. I think of it as being a responsible citizen. But I’ve learned there are many definitions of community, and many of development – so many in fact, that it deserves clarification, which encouraged my own examination of experiences, thoughts, and biases.
For me, community has nearly always had a spatial or geo-reference at a gut level. Neighbors, be they residents, businesses, churches, or government – community has always inferred my neighborhood. I grew up with the notion that loyalty to your neighborhood, and neighbors, was the only acceptable way to behave. Spoiling the nest just doesn’t come naturally to me.
Similarly, I grew up with the notion of development as something positive, akin to growth, and that growth can be painful, but it’s nearly always good. Improving yourself, your home, your school, your workplace, your neighborhood, your city, your state, your nation, your world – who wouldn’t want that? It wasn’t until adulthood, and bumping up against others that had radically different concepts of growth that I questioned myself, my own limited experience base, and my own intellectual ghetto.
It has taken me half my life to expand, and deepen the notion of what community is all about. I am still loyal to my neighborhood, but there are so many other kinds of communities defined by something other than proximity. And I’ve also learned much more about development. My own pursuit of agriculture first opened my eyes as I discovered what development really meant in villages of sub-Saharan Africa. Or the first time I flew over South Korea and gasped at the landscape, where the re-order of neighborhood from that of clustered rural agricultural villages to vertical urban cities adjacent to rows of plastic hoop houses seemed to be happening in real time. The Saemaul Undong Movement is one to study.
Community development means far more to me now than it used to. With so many dimensions, so many choices, so many possible outcomes – and so much at stake – I don’t assume as much as I used to. Communities are intentional, as is their development. They invite, and need, our participation.
John Gardener, Ph.D. has been an entrepreneur, an agricultural researcher, a passionate champion of sustainability, a teacher, a leader of community economic development and a senior academic administrator. He is the Provost and Dean of the Bainbridge Graduate Institute.