Benchmark Institute is a training and performance development organization dedicated to increasing the quality and quantity of legal services to low-income communities.
  Our Training
  Learning Portal
  Best Practices in Learning
  Orientation to Legal Services
  About Us
  Support Us
  Contact Us

By Earle Warner

The legal services community in general, the communities served by programs, and the communities within a program or office are, in most cases, richly diverse. We are blessed with people of many races, ethnic backgrounds, cultural heritages, lifestyles, religions, and values. We would do well to grow in our knowledge, awareness, appreciation and respect for the diversity around us. One of the ways for us to grow in this respect is to consciously go about discovering the communities around and among us.

This article will suggest some areas in which we can begin to pursue the discovery of our diverse world. Through discovery comes appreciation and respect. The discovery process is not a do-gooder activity to be engaged in lightly. While exhilarating and rewarding, it is time consuming and hard--harder than blaming, accusing or playing the victim. It is a serious effort to come to grips in a meaningful way with issues of diversity.

We are presented with an extraordinarily diverse world everyday--in our communities, our workplaces, our lives. However, as creatures of habit and routine, we often fail to become aware of the divergent people and communities around us. The first step in a process of discovery is to discard the eyes of routine and to look instead with the innocent eyes of a conscious stranger.

We each need to adopt the view of someone arriving in a community for the first time. Of course, we carry with us the experiences of our past, but, as strangers in new territory, old habits and assumptions about the way things ought to be won't fit. To discover the world in this way is to look with the eyes of an innocent child. It means to put aside our assumptions, prejudgments and routines in order to see the fresh universe around us.

We need to put aside our worries about the ills of our society to take inventory of the strengths, the power, the beauty of our communities. When we discover and understand the strengths, we will have a much clearer picture of how we can address the problems. We cannot build from weakness; we must build from strength. As part of discovering our communities, we must pay attention to how they serve their members, to how they survive and support their people, to their healthy aspects. If we can understand these, we may well discover the answers to those things that have gone awry. In understanding the processes by which things have gone right, we may find antidotes to curing the things that have gone so wrong.

What might a stranger discover about a "new" community? What kinds of things might s/he notice? The list that follows includes some of the aspects of a community. It is not a definitive list, but rather, a starting point. After all, part of the discovery is finding for yourself new ideas about the world you live in and new things to learn.

1. The physical--How is the community laid out?

a. Areas which subdivide the larger community (e.g., neighborhoods, blocks, conglomerations of houses)

b. Boundaries (e.g., wide streets, freeways, vacant lots, railroad tracks, rivers, walls, agricultural fields)

c. Open spaces

d. Areas mostly dedicated to particular activities (e.g., residential areas, apartment complexes, business districts, strip malls)

e. Exclusive areas-places adopted, formally and informally, by specific groups

2. The economics--How and where does the community take care of its financial business?

a. Resources (e.g., grocery stores, drugstores, gas stations, banks, restaurants)

b. Services (e.g., welfare offices, post offices, health facilities)

3. Socializing--Where and how do people get together?

a. Natural gathering points (e.g., parks, street corners, local cafes,

recreation centers, playgrounds)

b. Meeting places (e.g. churches, stores, front yards, stoops of houses, porches, shade trees)

c. When and under what circumstances do people gather?

4. Movement--How do people get from one place to another?

a. Pathways, common routes

b. Transportation networks, formal and informal (e.g., people with

vehicles who give others rides, bus routes)

c. Modes of transportation (e.g., bus, walking, mass transit, taxis)

5. People networks--How do people work together to carry on the life of their communities?

a. Natural leaders-people who are respected and whose counsel is followed, often not the formally recognized leaders

b. Caretakers-natural helpers ("Give of what you have; keep but what you need" people)

c. Community advisors-people whose advice is trusted and relied upon; consejeros

d. Invisible (to the outside world) natural groups

6. Families--How are fundamental living units organized, and what do they do?

a. What does "family- mean in the community? (e.g., extended families, tribes/clans, gangs, religious groups)

b. What is the place of families as they are defined by the community?

c. How do these families operate?

d. How does the "family" fit into the structure of the community?

e. What roles does 'family" play in the functioning of the community?

7.History--How did the community come to be what it is?

a. How did the people create the community?

b. How did people get to this community?

c. Why are people here? Why do they stay?

d. What events shaped the character of the community?

e. What have been the changes over time in the community? Why did the changes happen?

8. Traditions--How do rituals, events and customs play a part in the community?

a. What are the celebrations, significant events, habits, routines, shared understandings?

b. What events bring people together?

c. How do the traditions give meaning and structure to the lives of the people and the community?

9. Language--How do people talk about their community and their world?

a. What dialect binds the community?

b. What words do people use to describe their lives and worlds?

c. What are the 'codes' people use to identify themselves as part of the community?


To discover a community, you have to go out and engage with it. You must use your senses to experience it, and you must record, mentally and in graphic form, what you experience. Some techniques include:

Walking around the community at varying times

Driving around the community (windshield tour)

Drawing maps. Use colors to distinguish features and pins or dots to locate places and things.

Meeting and talking with the people of the community, especially outside formal settings

Keeping a journal on your community experiences

Recording (e.g. taping) oral histories of community residents (once you have established the level of trust that permits this)

Sharing in community activities

Visiting places in the community where people gather

Knocking on doors, introducing yourself, and talking with people

Listening and observing -- a lot

While trained social anthropologists may claim to be able to function alone, most of us need someone to talk with and share what we are learning. A reflective partner can be someone from the community, someone you trust, perhaps a coworker.

A reflective partner is someone who will listen to your experiences, ask nonjudgmental questions, point out gaps in your knowledge, help you make sense of difficult areas, and celebrate your discovery process. To be effective, a reflective partner should not be intent upon forcing his/her perceptions upon you, but rather s/he should draw out of you what you are learning, helping you become more conscious of the sense you are making of the world through your discovery process.

It is a challenge and a risk to let go of the safety of your present view of the world to engage in community discovery. You must be willing to examine the community in a new way, and, to an equal or perhaps greater degree, you must be willing to examine yourself and to change as the discoveries you make change your models of the world around you. It may seem more secure to retreat behind the walls of your present assumptions and view of the world. Still, if each of us were to take time to look anew at our communities, our world, we might well find a way toward a future with hope and understanding and without fear.