Building Community Connectedness

From March to September 2016 the Jackson County Public Library (JCPL) and Jackson County United Way (JCUW) engaged over 300 members throughout the county from all walks of life and backgrounds in 25 deep conversations about the kind of community we want Jackson County to be.  People came into these conversations with honesty and a willingness to share and for this we are deeply grateful.  In return, JCPL & JCUW are committed to broadly sharing what we heard so that anyone in our community who wants to take action can get involved. 

The purpose of these conversations were to listen to county residents in order to change JCPL and JCUW’s culture to be one that is turned outward. A turned outward culture makes decisions and actions on what is best for the community based on shared hopes and concerns. 

JCPL Library Director Julia Aker said, “By partnering with JCUW, we were able to get outside of the library walls to actually hear some conversations about the community.  Libraries are no longer just stacks of books.  We are here to serve the library district in the best ways we can to help the community without duplicating efforts.”  JCPL used initial findings to drive their 3-year strategic plan at the end of 2016.  

This is the county-wide aspiration we heard: Jackson County residents want a community where people choose to live, a community that is healthy and vibrant with places to go and things to do.  We want to be known as a place where we work together to take care of our neighbors and generations.

JCUW is focused on the shared aspiration that will drive the next steps of our work in the county.  While the bulk of the conversations engaged residents in the kind of community we’d like to live in, it also addressed concerns.  Here are the things that came up in most conversations and specific voices that were echoed repeatedly: 

Community Connectedness & Pride- People want others to be engaged and be a part of the community.  “Be involved. Stay involved.” People want a community that is proud of itself and takes care of the appearance of the community. “A well-kept community: nice parks, yards mowed, no weeds in sidewalks, no graffiti, no trash in yards.”  “Our hometown should take pride and want it to be something.”  People want residents from the community to feel pride in where they are from and want to see young people move back home after obtaining education. “We see a future here, our children must see a good community to attract these students to come back after college.” People want all residents from the community to feel invited to community activities and events. There are concerns that language barriers and poverty create unequal access for community members to come together and drive success. “Outreach and creating an inclusive and welcoming environment will get people more active and involved with the community.” 

Community Investment, Collaboration, and Follow Through- People want a community where the public and private sector invest into the community with both time and money. We heard people say things like, “I want to live in a community that is willing to invest in itself.”  People are demanding real collaboration where partners work together for the betterment of the community.  “We need more people and organizations working together to move the needle in a coordinated effort with collaboration.”  People want to ensure that follow through happens as promised.  “We have started with HCI (Hometown Collaborations Initiative) and Vision 2025; there have been collaborative efforts with lots of groups and people participating in discussions and planning for a stronger future.  We are getting people involved and building engagement.  There is stronger collaboration now than there has been.”  In summary people felt strongly that, “We are all in this together.”

Other main concerns included:
Growing Poverty Rates & Working Poor
Getting out of Poverty
Safety of Children & Adults (particularly seniors)
Drugs & Mental Health
Lack of Social Gatherings & Places
Quality Education & Accepting Diversity

During our time with residents, people also talked about their trust in people and groups. What we heard was residents trust in organizations with a broad scope of influence and those they have a current relationship with.  While people believe big organizations should be involved, there was no consensus about which organizations are trusted.  Trust is in short supply due to the lack of relationships and decisions made without public input.   

Residents also shared they want to see progress- too many residents have seen many community plans come and go without much to show for it.  For people to believe this time will be different, they need to see clear attainable goals, objectives, and a timeline identified.  They also want to see strong partnerships, more collaboration, and more community leaders involved. Members of the community also say that they too will need to get involved if Jackson County is to become a community where attitudes change and people are respectful and respected.  

When people were asked what kinds of things would generate a sense of change, these things were noted:

People want to build relationships with fellow residents, emphasizing the need for more opportunities to gather together.  They also specifically noted more individual volunteering opportunities (including serving youth and those in need of accessing services) being available.
People want to create and utilize modern ways of communication across the county and better advertisement of community resources, activities, and events.  

JCUW is working towards these shared aspirations in the community: a healthy community, a vibrant community with places to go and things to do, and working together to take care of our neighbors and generations. Initially, JCUW is going to focus on two big issues: Helping People get out of Poverty and Drug Abuse. 

Tonja Couch, Executive Director, shared, “We will do our work in a way that helps build community connectedness at the same time.   This includes convening members of the community to talk about how they can get involved and organizing spaces where people can come together to create informal networks and take action on these issues and community conditions.”  

JCUW is ready to take action and is encouraging other groups, organizations and networks to do the same. To start, JCUW is widely sharing what we have learned from the community. Couch stated, “Many community leaders, civic organizations, and workplace campaign partners have heard the information and are considering how they can use the information to reshape current work.  We’ve also shared with residents at the Farmers Market.” 

With our first small pockets of action we hope to demonstrate what is possible when the community works together. This summer and into the fall, we are working with others to host Neighborhood Block Parties and a few free summer events for families in the parks.  Couch shared, “These are an important step in getting people to know each other and provide engaging activities.  Real connections are made and developed at neighborhood block parties through building neighbor relationships and encouraging others to learn more about available resources in the community.”  

JCUW hosted their first Parks Neighborhood Block Party on Monday at Kasting Park engaging  nearly 150-200 residents; another is scheduled for Thursday at West Side Park; July 27th at Gaiser; & August 3rd at Shields with the End of Summer Party.  Free hot dogs and activities are provided by: Aldi’s, Anthem, Fraternal Order of Police and Save-A-Lot. JCUW is also happy to come to other pre-planned events with rock painting and aspirations sharing. 

JCUW already has a few residents who have committed to hosting parties.  Connie Hernandez, Mi Casa co-owner and mother of three, shared, “For me, we are new to the neighborhood; in the past our best relationships come from neighbors and we want to connect with our neighbors.  This is important work- the community has said it is, so individuals should sign up to create a stronger sense of community.”   

JCUW is asking for more neighbors to host parties this summer or early fall and provides a neighborhood block party kit to help plan the event, door hangers to invite neighbors, and will come to set up a #JacksonCountyRocks painting activity and share more about this community connectedness work. 

JCUW is making it easy to host the event. Hernandez continued, “Don’t let fear keep you from doing it.  Don’t think, ‘I don’t want to spend time or money on this event’- you don’t have too!  Encourage your neighbors to make it a pot luck pitch in, have everyone bring a chair- just get to know your neighbors.”  

JCUW wants to see a community where we do work together to take care of neighbors and generations.  Couch asked, “How can we ensure that neighbors are helping neighbors if they don’t even know their neighbor’s names?” 

Hernandez agreed, “Neighbors take care of us and we take care of them.  It builds a safer community when you know your neighbors.” 

Moving forward JCUW will also begin to convene experts and interested community leaders to look at more in-depth actions we can take for the major pressing issues regarding helping people get out of poverty and how to tackle the drug issue.

If you have questions – or would like to host a neighborhood block party please contact Tonja Couch, Executive Director, Jackson County United Way or 812-522-5450.

What do you think? 
We’d love to hear from you to understand what you think about the information we’ve heard.  

Please let us know if this resonates and think about these questions in order for our whole county to move forward on what residents see as the opportunity for hope and possibility. 

1. What do you make of what we are learning?
2. What are the implications for the work that each of us does in our community? |
3. Where could we use what we are learning?
4. What possibilities are there for moving ahead?