Culture and Context Influence Capacity Building
Culture and context significantly influence capacity building. Political, economic, social, religious, ethnic, class, environmental, and historical factors all influence capacity building (James & Wrigley, 2007, p. 5). One way of understanding the culture and context in which your community work takes place is to tap into local knowledge.
Tapping into Local Knowledge
Local knowledge refers to the "dynamic and complex bodies of know-how, practices, and skills that are developed and sustained by people and communities with shared histories and experiences. These specific skills and information allow them to survive and master their everyday life. This collective wisdom shapes and defines individuals and the communities in which they live. Passed down from generation to generation, this collective knowledge helps to identify the relationships between people, place, and nature, and forms the economic, social, and spiritual foundation of a community or culture" (C. S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems, 2010).
Tapping into local knowledge is not as easy as asking a community member, "What is your local knowledge?"—because local knowledge is often implicit or unconsciously known. Understanding the nuances of a community can be especially challenging if you are a "visitor" in the community.
Alison Gilchrist (2009) recommends that "visitors" to a community make informal connections and engage in conversations as strategies for developing rapport, building trust, and understanding the particular culture and context of the community. She suggests you:
- Make every day chit-chat or small talk a priority.
- Recognize or take advantage of opportunities to form relationships with community partners.
- Make face-to-face contact, even if it's not the most efficient mode of communication.
- Keep in mind that non-verbal cues are important in building trust, especially at the beginning of the collaboration.
- Make a habit of "popping in" or "hanging around" places where you are most likely to bump into your community partners in informal settings.
- Participate in discussions "around the edges" of meetings (e.g., arrive early, help set up or clean up, visit in the hallway or parking lot afterwards).
- Keep in mind that it is easiest to build trust in person, then by phone, then in writing (e.g., letters, emails, or texts).
Unless you intimately understand both the culture and context of your community, you may unintentionally propose solutions that are superficial and unsustainable in the long term. By tapping into local knowledge, you are more likely to collaborate with your community partners in ways that build capacity for long term change.
"Being Lost Without the Students"
As part of her service-learning requirement, Alicia had to keep a log of her activities and journal about her thoughts and feelings. She wrote about her reflections on Zoe's "being lost without you" comment.
When she got her journal back, Alicia read her instructor's feedback. Her instructor suggested that Alicia might consider adopting a capacity building mindset—an approach to community work that provided the help to community partners but did so in a way that strengthened the community partners' knowledge and skills. Her instructor clarified that capacity building was an intentional strategy to prevent dependency relationships from forming. Alicia's instructor encouraged her to talk with Zoe more about this and to see what might be possible at Riverfront.
Alicia read her instructor's feedback and wondered what she might do. She was really good at listening to community partners, writing new webpage content, and uploading the materials. Alicia really liked doing that kind of work. It was so satisfying to do something for someone who needed her help. She was not at all sure she would be good at capacity building instead.