4 Responses to “Vending Machines or Barn Raising: The Role of Local Government in Community Building”

  1. John Stephens

    Rick – I like many parts of how you think the barn raising model may be the best fit for local government leaders envisioning their role in community development.

    A couple of challenges for your thinking:

    a) Who gets served? Per barn raising as something that works in a stable, tightly-knit community (you cited Amish practices) seems quite different from the splits in many communities, and different perceptions of need and fairness in community development. Other blog authors have cited neglect of neighborhoods and challenges of revitalization without supporting private sector and public sector actions which result in gentrification and further disadvantage for low-income residents.

    For example, contributor Stephen Hopkins wrote: The problem I see now is that with all of these good things happening in Durham, not many poor blacks are benefiting, in fact we are being forced out of our neighborhoods, and young blacks men and women aren’t getting the good paying jobs and the black owned businesses are dying out. https://cele.sog.unc.edu/when-progress-is-at-odds/

    So, how do you address this apparent weakness of the barn-raising model?

    b) Opportunity to participate: many standard forms of participation – e.g. public hearings, government-created advisory boards – tend to draw unequally from different neighborhoods or groups and sets of interest in the community. Whereas the barn raising metaphor is focused on a short-term effort, with a strong sense of mutuality (and reciprocity – I work on your barn now, I can expect your help later), I do not see how this applies to the rules on funding of community development projects and mainly impersonal forms of accountability which guide local government’s role in grants; tax abatements; help on streets, water and sewer service, etc.

    • Rick Morse

      Fair points John, though I believe the contrasting metaphors are not so much at the level of specific strategies and more at the level of perspectives. Thus I think the transactional “vending machine” approach lends itself to in-groups and out-groups (I’m getting what I want out of the machine versus I am not getting what I want out of it) whereas the barn raising, transformational approach inherently thinks in terms of the whole community, and everyone coming together to improve the community as a whole. Thus if there are pockets of the community in decline, the natural response would be for the whole community to come together to lift that up (raise a barn in that neighborhood, if you will) as opposed to thinking transactionally in terms of making sure dollars going in equate with services going out (an accounting that doesn’t work when you are talking about alleviating poverty or overcoming other historical disparities). So I’d say that one framework or philosophy is better than another for approaching community development. But the specifics on the ground are more complex than just one lens or another, of course. I would say though that in terms of community development, the vending machine model seems to fit the deficits-based, outside-in approach, while the barn raising model reflects an assets-based, inside-out approach.

  2. Melody Warnick

    Local government as barn raising! I love it! I’ve often thought that one of the best things towns and cities can do to improve their livability and loveability is to welcome engagement and investment from their citizens. Make it easy for a citizen with a good idea to make something interesting happen in your town! But a lot of local governments haven’t figured out how to do that. They’re remain inaccessible, opaque, and bound up in red tape and cultural traditions. Next column: examples of how communities create a barn-raising model for themselves.

  3. Kevin Amirehsani

    To somewhat echo what John mentioned, my fear is that this dichotomy is either caused by our deeply-held culture of individualism in the US, or the deeply-held divisions in our community whose fault lines are often based on race and ethnicity. In this view, “vending machines” or “barn raisings” are symptoms that local governments have less ability to address. I would love to be proved wrong by empirical data, but from experience and studies I’ve perused, I think some of the best examples of community-led engagement initiatives have come from relatively culturally homogenous areas, like direct democracy in New England small towns or successful campaigns against food deserts in majority-Black neighborhoods in Greensboro, Oakland, and elsewhere. I used to work on the budget engagement side, and so I have seen examples counter to this in Hartford, San Antonio, and a few other cities, where municipal administrations make a real attempt to garner budget-related feedback from minority areas of their city, and (sometimes) incorporate this feedback into their city budget. But, sadly, efforts like this are few and far between, and even when they work, I would argue that they’re only addressing the low-hanging fruit of civic engagement. Still, I would love to be shown otherwise…


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