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One Size Doesn’t Fit All: Understand the Differences and the Similarities in Communities

Funders, policymakers, and practitioners often see “the community” as a single entity. The community is everyone who lives or works in a place. At best, community members are thought of in terms of sectors (e.g., residents, businesses, law enforcement, human services, etc.).  Yet to be more successful in our work, we need to take a granular look at the place where people live and work, and understand the actual community; social relations; sense of belonging, influence, and trust; and emotional ties that people have.  Whether it is about community building, prevention services, or policy advocacy, certain institutions (formal and informal) play key roles as access points for members of that community. These include faith institutions, professional or trade associations, community centers, schools, sororities and fraternities, and civic groups. Such organizations form the social support structure for members of a group or community; however, they may have different functions in different cultures.

For instance, while the church in the Black/African American community plays an important role in organizing and advocating for their members, the role of the Buddhist temple in a Southeast Asian community or mosque in a South Asian community tends to focus on providing spiritual services to its members (Lee, 2004). This tendency, however, has gradually changed over time as Muslim faith leaders have had to address discriminatory acts against Muslims after 9/11. Additionally, almost all groups or communities have a deeper layer of informal organizations that are not visible to the outsider. For instance, in immigrant communities, these informal organizations develop because immigrants may have an urgent need upon arrival in the United States that requires an immediate response (e.g., traditional burial services), or they relocate a network from their home country to their new place of residence (e.g., an alumni network of a university in the home country that has no need to seek nonprofit status). These informal organizations demonstrate how community institutions are there to support members (Lee, 2014).

Lee, K. (2004). The Meaning and Practice of Civic Participation in Four Immigrant Communities in the Washington Metropolitan Region. The Union Institute and University, Cincinnati, OH: Unpublished dissertation.

Lee, K. (2014). Effecting social change in diverse contexts: The role of cross-cultural competency. In Wolfe, S. & Scott, V. (Eds.) Community Psychology: Foundations for Practice (pp. 113-131). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

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