Community Building: Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts

I have been reading “Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know” by E.D. Hirsch, JR. What I am finding interesting is the link between community and language.

Over the last couple of years, we have worked on developing a Johnson County Library culture. The long-term bet I was making was that creating a highly functional culture would supersede strategic planning. I believe that a highly functional culture will automatically be thinking strategically and be flexible, adaptive and be able to deliver the services our community wants and needs.

The first challenge we needed to face and overcome was communication. I never think you truly solve this issue, but I do believe that effective communication can and should be a practice.

In talking with JCL’s management team, I found that we did not have a shared language to talk about the facets surrounding communication. We spent a year working through the Crucial Conversations curriculum. Now we know that when we have opposing points of view, high stakes and strong feelings we need to have a crucial conversation. Just coming to that realization as an organization has had revolutionary results.

As an organization, we now have a shared language around dialogue; we can communicate our thoughts, ideas and have a shared understanding of how communication works. One outcome is a greater empathy for someone else’s point of view.

The shared language and understanding around the topic of communication has been a keystone in creating a culture and a sense of community here at Johnson County Library.

What happens if you do not understand the terms, ideas, and phrases? I have provided some common phrases to consider.

  1. Let them eat cake
  2. A stitch in time …
  3. It is like sending coal to Newcastle
  4. Are you putting the cart before the horse
  5. If wishes were horses…
  6. My kingdom for a horse

Many of you know these brief statements. Hirsh in his book highlights and shares that these sentence snippets hold a greater meaning than the words alone convey. If you are unaware of the cultural context you can become are an outsider, isolated from the cultural references.

Literacy today means developing the largest possible pool of meaning and understanding of our culture.

Cultural illiteracy can be risky for a community, feelings of disenfranchisement, and abandonment are corrosive. Libraries can play a tremendous role in people’s lives, helping them to develop connections and find meaning. Libraries can unite our communities through books, programs, and events.

Community building is all about finding ways for people to discover new ways to associate their personal lives to their larger civic life. Cultural literacy is the binding force in language that supports understanding. Understanding leads to wisdom and wisdom is the desired state of mind needed to create great communities.