Photo Credit: Even though fire often appears to burn all of an area’s vegetation, new life emerges. Could community capacity also be hidden, just waiting to flourish? Photo by Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management via Flickr Creative Commons
Jana Carp is a fourth-generation resident of northern California. She taught urban planning and community development at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina from 1999-2012, where she involved students in asset-based community projects regarding stream restoration, local food systems, historic downtown revitalization and more. Previous to consulting on community engagement with the Fire Learning Network, Jana focused her research and writing on the Slow Movement. Her publications, international presentations and college courses on “Slow” and “Slow Down and Go Outside” consider the roles of social interaction, social-ecological resilience and culturally specific lived experience in achieving tangible community benefits. Jana has a Master of Arts in Religion and Art from the Pacific School of Religion, a Master of Urban Planning and Policy and a doctorate in public policy analysis from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
The first time I heard about the concept “fire adapted communities,” just a year ago, I could feel my mind expanding. I imagined what it could mean for the small towns, hills and forests in northern California where I grew up, places that I now recognize as threatened by catastrophic fire and other challenges. As I’ve learned about fire adapted landscapes, I remembered a special summer activity in elementary school. Following a local naturalist, the amazing Mrs. Terwilliger, we hiked up a narrow, fern-lined trail shaded by oaks and bay laurels. We arrived at Phoenix Lake, where a wildfire had burned about an acre of chaparral so recently that it still smelled of smoke. After gridding the burned area with string, we were each assigned a segment and took notes, getting really dirty in the process. We returned regularly to identify changing conditions. I remember doubting that anything good could come from that blackened dirt. But soon beautiful grasses and wildflowers emerged, and butterflies flitted around. Now, I am again learning that great benefit can come almost magically from a fire’s destruction.
At the Phoenix Lake burn, the prerequisites for resurging life were there all along. Can we say the same for the resilience of human communities? I am working for the Fire Learning Network in fire-prone, “low capacity” places throughout northern California. In these places, the civic and advocacy organizations that embody vibrant social and political interaction in “high capacity” communities seem sparse, insular or even absent. It is hard to get people to show up for educational programs, hard to recruit homeowners to implement defensible space, hard to make contact with a forest inholder whose land lies across a potential firebreak. Yet the vision of fire adaptation calls for great community capacity: working together across conventional boundaries to create a safe and resilient future for everyone. Are there opportunities for a proactive relationship with fire to thrive in such apparently bleak situations? Yes, and they require working slowly and not being in charge, so that community members build distributed responsibility and ensure resilient relationships.
Engaging Communities by Putting Their Assets First
The work involves spending relaxed time in a community, meeting people, finding out who they are and what they do, and encouraging their creative ideas for contributing to a better fire future. This kind of relationship-building comes naturally to us as social animals, but these days, it isn’t easy to slow down and make meaningful connections with people we don’t already know or with whom we don’t share a professional background.
There may be obstacles – lack of time, competing demands on attention, the usual “we need more funding” problem, wanting or needing fast and quantifiable results, and plain old negativity – but there is a path through these difficulties. The key is to switch the focus from a community’s deficiencies to what it is blessed with. Simply identifying a community’s existing strengths and resources affirms how its members support the community’s wellbeing, and reveals how these community assets might be used to fulfill what the community needs. Facilitating this work can be joyful.
For those who want to try an asset-based approach, there are straightforward guidelines. “Community-based asset mapping” involves finding naturally collaborative people and then facilitating developmental steps that build community capacity. See this handout for more information. I am in the first stages of this work in rural northern California, gathering together members of communities – fire professionals, ranchers, cooks, teachers and others – to talk with each other about how they wish to contribute their skills and resources to their fire future. They are banking on their accumulated knowledge and experience with fire, the land and the people. They are generous and hopeful, eager to teach and willing to learn.
Community-Based Asset Mapping: Informal and Local
There are many possible formats for community-based asset maps. But what does the map itself look like? It can be a literal map, showing the locations of individuals, groups, businesses and organizations that have gifts and available resources. But other asset maps are documents: inventories of assets, organized in various ways, like a directory for example. Or an asset map can be as simple as a collection of stories about a community’s history. The important thing is that community members use their existing resources (their assets!) to do the work of creating, reviewing and updating the asset map. If outside experts do the work instead, the transformational possibilities of the process will be limited.
It’s also important to understand that “community,” for asset-mapping, is defined as place-based. Community members are those who share a common location and interact socially about matters of common interest through local organizations and institutions. Further, “community” is self-defined. Members generally recognize each other and know the boundaries of their place, whether it is a residential neighborhood, a rural community along a certain network of roads, or a small town.
The Seeds of Hope
Community-based asset mapping is challenging and rewarding. It’s important to take the time to identify participants who are community-minded, inclusive and collaborative. It’s also crucial to advocate for community members’ creative initiative, particularly if someone’s professional expertise threatens to dominate, rather than inform, the choices of the group. But successfully negotiating these experiences is a practice that in and of itself grows community capacity. It can be a resurgence of community members’ sense of belonging, their commitment to self-governance, and even their hope for a sustainable, fire adapted future.
One principle of asset-based work is that in virtually every community, there are people who enjoy doing it with their own style and with good results. This has certainly been my experience with multi-stakeholder stream restoration, local food systems, and other efforts. It’s easy to understand why: building on existing strengths is doing more of what a community is already good at, while concentrating primarily on problems tends to define the community, incorrectly, in terms of its deficits. The same is true of the local individuals, organizations, businesses and agencies. Daily life in a community involves people telling stories, hatching ideas, healing each other and the land, mourning, problem-solving, teaching, learning, playing music, arguing, reconciling and laughing, just to name a few. This is where the magic of community lives and perhaps where fire adaptation can find a home.
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