Profiles show that the role is varied, dependent on local community needs
When the Ford Institute for Community Building made the commitment to move from leadership development to community development two years ago, the focus began to shift to community builders.
“We have so many Community Ambassadors and Ford Institute Leadership Program grads, and we are inviting them to see themselves as community builders,” says Roque Barros, director of the Ford Institute. “We see everyone as a community builder.”
There are many definitions of community builders in the community development field. “We wanted to use one that modeled how we work and is locally owned,” says Max Gimbel, the Ford Institute’s associate director. “We drew on a team of Community Ambassadors and Leadership Program graduates to craft a definition.
Here’s what they came up with: A community builder is someone who cares about his or her community and takes action to make it better.”
What does a community builder do? The team decided that the work is all about taking the actions listed in the Community Building Approach of listening, engaging to mobilize, skilling up and branching out, planning together, creating change and celebrating and reflecting.
The profiles here are of just a few of the many people who care about their community and are taking action to make it better. “They are humble, hopeful and honest,” Gimbel says. “They are filled with passion, purpose and persistence. They are people like you.”
Engaging community youth
Eddie Melendrez is a boxing coach. He’s a community volunteer, a mentor for at-risk kids in the Ontario area, and a role model for Hispanic youth. Sometimes he’s even a free barber. He’s all these things, but he’s something more: Eddie Melendrez is a community builder.
Melendrez says volunteering has always been an important part of his life. “I moved to the Ontario area in 2006 and didn’t know anyone,” he says, “but I met a lot of people and networked, and every chance I got I helped the community out.”
Today, Melendrez works for Community in Action, an Ontario nonprofit that offers diverse services for people in Harney and Malheur counties. His dream has always been to operate a boxing club that would engage young teens, and a grant from the Youth Development Council has helped that become a reality.
“We have about 30 kids now, with more and more coming in,” he says with satisfaction.
Melendrez’s dedication to the youth in the community even extends to some volunteer work as a barber. “Every chance I get, I’m always looking for ways to connect with the kids,” he says. “At first I was giving free haircuts, but now they have to cut the grass first.”
Listening to learn
When Grants Pass resident David Smith chose a project for his master’s degree in social work, he picked a community issue he cared deeply about —public safety. Josephine County’s well-publicized struggle with providing adequate first responder coverage in the face of deep budget cuts is a divisive issue in the rural community.
In order to get a sense of the community — who cares about the issue, what are they already doing, what are the major concerns and the unmet needs — Smith launched a “listening campaign” that took him around the county to talk to people.
It made for a compelling academic paper, but turned into much more. Smith has been invited to moderate city council candidate debates. He is working with an Illinois Valley task force that is focused on public priorities; four of the top five are related to public safety. He is also participating in a series of Jeffersonian dinners that discuss needs related to public safety.
About a year ago, a group in Mt. Shasta formed around the issue of homelessness, an item in the city’s strategic plan. “Very soon we learned that we have only about a dozen or so chronically homeless, which was the focus of the original planning item,” says Kathy Morter, who was a member of the Mt. Shasta City Council at the time; today, she serves as mayor.
“The much bigger issue in our town was the thousands of on-foot travelers who move through Mt. Shasta. People were not feeling safe. They were feeling like there was too much change, too fast.”
Morter and her group decided to create a team that represented all perspectives and could prioritize concerns. It was a very steep learning curve, she says, but today a coordinating council of eight primary players meet every four to six weeks to sort out priorities and agree on actions.
What does being a community builder mean to her? “It’s about believing that answers will emerge from a group of people who have learned to understand each other and appreciate others’ perspectives,” Morter says. “It happens over the years. It’s slower but there is a synergy that happens when a real connection is made, and out of those ah-hah moments springs new solutions. That’s what keeps me going.”