Words have power
Related story: Bird in hand worth two in bush – why storytelling makes sense for community developers
Patrick T. Reardon
Norman Mailer once said that he never knew what he thought about something until he'd written about it.
What he meant was that ideas are vague and wispy until we sit down and put them into words.
The act of writing is a method that we, as human beings, use to tell others what we're thinking, what we believe in, what we're working toward, what visions we see, what plans we've drawn, what roadblocks we foresee.
What's often overlooked is how writing is also a method for telling ourselves all these things.
Writing is a way of talking to ourselves.
When I write, I discover what's in my head. Often, that's something of a mess. So, writing is also a technique for me to clarify my ideas.
Learning how to write
What does this have to do with comprehensive community development?
Neighborhoods are complex places. Finding ways to revitalize them — to improve the lives of the people who live there — is a very difficult undertaking.
Comprehensive community development is a complex way of approaching these issues. It involves this person connecting with that person, this group connecting with that group, many areas of life being addressed at the same time, many sources of money being tapped, many ideas being considered, debated and refined (or rejected).
The version of comprehensive community development that the Local Initiatives Support Corp. (LISC) has created is called Building Sustainable Communities. (I like the name because of its use of a gerund — an "ing" word. An "ing" word gives the sense of something that is rolling along, something very much in the present.)
For veterans of efforts to revitalize neighborhoods, comprehensive community development requires moving beyond brick-and-mortar projects, such as new or rehabilitated housing. It requires learning or re-learning about other areas of importance to communities, such as health, the environment, education and safety. It also requires learning or re-learning skills as a community organizer.
A tall order. But I would like to suggest that there's something else needed as well — learning how to write about comprehensive community development.
Writing in a clear, direct manner
In this work, it's essential to build relationships. And it's essential to develop ideas and plans into a common vision. It's essential for as many people as possible in a neighborhood to work together to implement those ideas.
And it's also essential to write about the effort in a clear, direct manner.
I am, I admit, biased. I worked for more than 30 years as an urban affairs writer with the Chicago Tribune. I've written three books and contributed to four others. For the past year, I have been the editor of the website of the Institute for Comprehensive Community Development.
Words have power.
In many areas of society, that reality is often ignored.
Consider jargon. In some academic circles, for instance, jargon has gotten so thick that someone without a glossary finds it impossible to read an important paper. The use of jargon sends a message: We, the insiders, know what we're talking about. If you can't understand this, you're an outsider. You don't belong.
Not the sort of message that anyone working to build a sustainable neighborhood wants to send.
Bureaucracies love jargon. Why? By piling on enough jargon, you can seem to be saying something without actually having to say something, without actually taking a risk to state an idea clearly and directly. Jargon is a sort of linguistic armor, designed to protect the wearer from a negative response.
The problem is that the use of jargon blunts the possibility of any response, positive or negative.
When building a sustainable community, neighborhood organizers have to spark a response. They have to get the people who live there to respond by joining together and working together, by developing and implementing a common vision.
And what's that vision?
The only way to know is to put it into words. And not too many words!
If those words are vague — "the community seeks public safety improvement" — people will have a tough time buying into the vision.
A clear, direct and specific vision
The vision needs to be clear, direct and specific. For instance, the vision for a neighborhood might include this sentence: "We want to create a community in which we and our children are able to walk the sidewalks and shop on 63rd Street and ride our bikes in the day and night without fear."
From the beginning and throughout the comprehensive community development process, it's important to write clearly and directly. Especially about the process itself.
If the process is spelled out at each stage, with its steps and goals, the effort will run more smoothly than if it's explained by word of mouth.
These clear, direct explanations are important for communicating with those people in the neighborhood who are being recruited to take part in the process.
They are also important for communicating with the news media and politicians and funders.
Maybe most of all, they're important for the organizers of the effort themselves.
In sitting down to write an explanation of a step in the process in a manner that's clear and direct, Sally the Organizer has to refine her ideas and understanding of the step. She has to picture her audience — those people who will read this and be expected to do something because of it. She has to think of what questions those people may have and try to provide answers to the extent she can.
Of course, Sally will probably present this in-person at a meeting of some sort. But, by also providing a written explanation that can be taken home and studied later, she'll reinforce her in-person presentation.
We don't live in the abstract
After a year as the Institute website editor and after writing nearly four dozen stories for the site, I'm leaving to write a book about the history of Chicago. Carl Vogel, who's done a bang-up job as the editor of the Institute's Journal, will now take on the website as well.
This blog post is something of a farewell.
And, in closing, I'd like to add a final point about writing: We don't live in the abstract. We don't live in theory. We don't live in statistics. We don't live in government formulas, or funding mechanisms, or academic studies.
We live in the world, among other people. People respond to people. That's why people respond to stories about other people.
Everything that anyone does is a story. Every time we communicate, we're attempting to tell a story. We're telling a story to our listeners, or readers. And also to ourselves.
Neighborhood improvement is frequently thought of and talked about in the abstract. Too often, it's judged on how one set of numbers matches up against another set.
But, in the physical and psychic world of the neighborhood, improvement comes because Ronald McGee is now talking with Jeremiah Cortez.
It comes because Brian Kirk can now walk to his grade school without fear of gangs. Because, at 77, Delilah Fish is now learning more about her health, or her culture, or her garden at a free class within walking distance of her home. Because Johnnie Hoyne now knows the lady next door and the woman across the street. Because Erica Logan and Gabe Perez now smile every time they walk past a railroad embankment wall, covered in a bright, joyful mural that they and a crowd of other teens painted one afternoon.
When talking about neighborhood improvement efforts, the tendency is to fall back on numbers. Numbers are easy to handle. The stories of people are always a bit cumbersome, always a bit messy.
But the stories of people are where the improvement of a community takes place — or its disintegration. The stories of people show where good things are happening, and bad things.
If you want proof of how a neighborhood is evolving, ask for stories.
If you want to show how a community is getting better, tell stories.
The work of comprehensive community development is essential in helping the overlooked neighborhoods of our cities find ways to prosper.
Key to that effort is clear, direct thinking — and clear, direct writing. And story-telling.
Posted in Communicating, Thinking Out Loud