On Building Bridges and Connecting Communities: A Note From Our Executive Director
They say that the Inuit have 50 words to describe snow. I am longing for a similar richness in how we talk about “community,” a word that is thrown around so loosely that it is in danger of losing its meaning.
The academic dialogue around “social capital,” or the reciprocal bonds of trust between us, can help give us a more nuanced view. Academics discern between many types of social capital: thick vs. thin, formal vs. informal, bridging vs. bonding, etc. The bridging vs. bonding distinction is especially helpful in understanding the challenges facing our society—and the power of our community-building work.
Bonding social capital is the inward type that supports connections within an existing group. Although it’s important and where many of us receive our social support, a society of only bonding social capital would be segregated into hostile tribal groups. Sound familiar?
Bridging social capital is the outward type that spans networks to bring together people who are unlike one another. It is the foundation for a just and pluralistic democracy, and what allows us to turn our differences into our strengths.
What Pomegranate Center has discovered over its 30 year history is that if you create the right conditions, community-engaged placemaking can generate bountiful bridging social capital. This is because place-based projects—a local park or playground, for example—have a unique potential to bring people together.
But the conditions need to be carefully crafted to ensure that participants feel their involvement is meaningful and productive. Community meetings need to be conducted in a way where everyone has a chance to speak, listen to each other, and make a shared decision. And the process needs to move toward inclusive action where people work side-by-side. At the end, participants need to say “We did this!”
This is a result Pomegranate Center has witnessed again and again, through dozens and dozens of our projects. It is the catalyst for our community-engagement methodology, which has been refined and tweaked over 30 years to maximize its social capital building outcomes.
We believe we’re seeing this bridging capital through our work in Walla Walla, where a diverse group of neighbors have come together over the last year to collectively envision the future of their region. There, residents are building their own bridges— between themselves and towards a just, prosperous and inclusive future.