Monday, July 06, 2015

Community Development Practices - Defining Quality of Life

Quality of life – how do you define it and how do you measure it?

I spend quite a bit of time thinking about this question in my work as a community development consultant, working with communities all over the country who are unique and differentiated from one another in beautiful ways.

The optimistic part of me and the part of me that believes in some common universality within the human experience looks for important threads amidst all of that diversity.

Another part of me, the intellectual and philosophical, doesn’t believe we can make statements of objective or universal truth.

Even the image I have used at the top of the post reveals biases about what the artist thinks a quality of life is.

It isn’t that I don’t think there are universal truths, I just don’t think those truth's are ever objective truths, because our perspectives are always mediated through our own or someone else’s experiences and privilege. The bias of the mediation, the others or our own, shape our perspective in ways that can’t be divorced. No one is ever “speaking objectively”, whether I agree or disagree with them.

Something may be VERY true for me, but without a doubt, I will meet someone who can’t affirm that same truth. Still, I’ve never met a person – no matter how different – that I could not find one or two threads of commonality. In the midst of this dance is the art of community development work.

So in my work I try not to run too quickly to the common threads.

I’ll admit it can be hard, both because of timelines and also because of the way my mind works – moving quickly to synchronizing and looking for common elements. I’ve made many mistakes in this regard and I have to work hard to not make them again. I work hard to put my own biases on the table and to always be aware that I speak from a particular vantage point that cannot be separated from my privilege, fears, and personal pain.

So, I have to slow it down - listen deeply and allow for people to be heard.

Often my work is done in the context of community or neighborhood planning, where one of the tools we use is the process of creating an outcome based evaluation tool that starts with creating a baseline for the resident perceptions of the quality of life in the neighborhood.

That baseline is used as a way to prioritize community needs to be addressed by the coalition (usually residents, community groups, the city, etc…). As the work continues, we then re-survey the same residents over time and are able to see whether the quality of life is improving based on the standards that they set.

One of the most interesting parts of this process is getting to the definition of quality of life so that we can even create the baseline survey.

It is true, that the more homogeneous a neighborhood, particularly when it comes to socio-economics, race, and culture – generally the quicker quality of life definitions are arrived at. Still, in very homogeneous communities there can be deep divides around other areas of differentiation. For example single people, partnered people with no kids, and partnered people with kids might have very different priorities around issues affecting children in their neighborhood.

In communities with a great deal of socio-economic, racial, or cultural diversity – the quality of life definitions and perceptions may seem downright antithetical to one another. Yet, in these circumstances, with skilled facilitation, and mature and committed participants, I have often seen how people who seemed to be forever a part were able to come to consensus as they found a deeper understanding of their own perceptions and those of their neighbors.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not pie in the sky about any of this. Sometimes diverse communities aren’t able to come together.

Sometimes an effort breaks down because there isn’t enough common ground.

Sometimes the scope of a project gets limited to what can be agreed upon and often that is much less than everyone one was hoping for.

Sometimes factions break out that end up working for entirely different visions in the same community. That is also the beauty of grassroots advocacy in a democracy, the choice of differentiating, with each working and advocating for their vision in the public square.

Regardless, generally people gravitate towards very common issues related to quality of life in their community. Things like safety, beauty, economic opportunity, appropriate and affordable housing options, access to food, access to recreation, and many other things. In fact, there are studies and theories that put forth common elements of quality of life - the problem is still in definition of what those mean and how to get there.

The difficulty begins when you try to come to a common definition of something like safety or a consensus on how to create safety.

It is difficult, because an individual’s sense of safety is a very subjective and personal thing. While we might be able to find some threads, those particular differences are often held closely, emotionally, and tied deeply to personal experiences that are hard to question.

What IS common for all of us is that we think about and are invested in our quality of life. We all have the desire to live in a community that supports and reflects that definition of quality of life.

What I have found helpful is the process of examining my own definitions of quality of life.

Where do they come from? What definitions are most different from my neighbors and why? Are there any of my definitions that seem unreasonable? What are my non-negotiable (essential) and what are simply my preferences, but negotiable? On an issue of difference, what is the CORE concern I have – what is the ROOT fear I have that drives my perception?

Spending some time doing this self-reflection work better prepares us to engage in community development work with others. It also helps our awareness of what might be going on for others around their own definitions.

I encourage us to take the time to ask our neighbors some of the questions we’ve asked ourselves, so that we don’t assume we know where their opinions come from, but rather get at the root of their perspective and its genesis.

None of this is magic. But, the process of defining quality of life with our neighbors is a powerful tool that deepens our understanding of our differences and also creates an opportunity to find threads of commonality with which to build consensus in moving forward.

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