Beyond Semantics: The Aesthetics of Working With Communities

By    Sep 16, 2015

While at the Creative Communities Fellows Impact House, we were learning about design thinking. We were into day one of the curriculum, and one of the fellows likened himself to that of a service provider and said that we all provide the communities we serve with different creative services. I raised my hand and said, “I am not a service provider, and I don’t work for communities, I work with them.” There was much debate about this. Several people said that this was a case of semantics, that it was just a different choice of words. For me, this is beyond semantics. The way we talk about our work gives insight into the intention and aesthetic choices we make when working with communities. There are aesthetic differences in working for or with communities.


The Aesthetics of Working For Communities:

• The Aesthetic of the Expert is a major aesthetic of the Service Provider. This mode of operating assumes the superior position and places the provider at the center. Centering the service provider doesn’t acknowledge the embodied wisdom of the community. This also says that the provider knows more than the community and that the service provider has the remedy for what ails it. This is dangerous for the community, because what we think we know about a community may not be what is really going on. Working off of what we think we know can lead to a misdiagnosis of community problems, and the choices we make to fix the communities problems can impact communities for generations, so we should consider who the expert really is and who should be centered. Is that the service provider, or is it the people who live day to day in their communities?

• The Aesthetic of the Transactional is inherently adopted when we work from the aesthetic of the service provider. When people enter communities as a service provider, it is easy to make the time about their expertise and projects they would like to do in communities. The power in the relationship becomes one-sided , and the community worker assumes the aesthetic of expert who is there to execute a project, and once the project is done, so is the relationship to the community. A relationship that is built on the transactional lacks any deeper commitment to the community that leads to community empowerment and self reliance. The aesthetic of the transactional does little in the way of community transformation, because it keeps the community dependent on the service provider, waiting for them to come back around again. In working for community change that could stagnate the progress of the community’s work toward justice and equality.


The Aesthetics of Working With Communities:

• The Aesthetic of Community Amplification is a way of working that acknowledges  the culture and assets of the community that was there before the community worker’s arrival.  This way of working acknowledges that there was a community ecology that has sustained the community, and that the community worker isn’t creating anything new. This aesthetic reminds us that whatever tools we use in our work should build upon the strengths of the community. The tools we use should strengthen the communities weaknesses. The aesthetic of community amplification also lifts up those authentic leaders that are at the forefront of leading their communities. These are the leaders that may not hold formal titles, but the ones people go to in times of need. If the community worker is being amplified over the community, there needs to be an evaluation of values and a checking of ego, because there was a community before the community worker arrived, and a lack of awareness of this fact could compound problems in communities where there already exists an imbalance of power.

• The Aesthetic of Skill Transfer is when the community worker makes sure that at the end of their time together, the skills and tools have been transferred from the community worker’s tool belt to the community’s. This fights against the aesthetic of the expert, because the skills no longer rests with the “expert community worker” alone. The aesthetic of skill transfer equips the community for the road beyond the community worker’s engagement. This destabilization of centering of the community worker allows the worker to focus on equipping the community for the long haul that is the fight for justice. If we were to speak honestly, the problems that face our communities were built over generations, and there doesn’t often exist an easy fix for these structural problems that reproduce injustice. If we aren’t strategic in equipping communities to fight for themselves, we could be setting them up for failure.

• The Aesthetic of Community Centering focuses on who is at the center of the processes of community engagement. This aesthetic is a checks and balance against the aesthetic of the expert. The centering of community happens through out the life cycle of the engagement. During the planning of the engagement, this aesthetic goes beyond the community workers diagnosis of the ills of the community, but this aesthetic says that the work should be developed by those directly impacted by the problems facing the community. This aesthetic is about harnessing the embodied knowledge of the community and helping them plan the strategies that alleviate what is ailing them. This partnership should share power without the community worker having more power than the members of the community. During the implementation phase, the authentic leaders in a given community should be centered in the implementation of the project. No one knows their community like the authentic leader does, so it is important to center the authentic leader, because sometimes the community worker gets access only because of the authentic leader, making for an effective community engagement. Lastly, the community should be centered in the evaluation process. They should be centered in the evaluation of what does and doesn’t work. If the Aesthetic of skills transfer has happened, this should be the final tool in their tool kit to develop their own strategies to tackle their problems for themselves.


This is beyond semantics. I am not a service provider. I am a cultural organizer who works with communities. As a cultural organizer, it is important for me to hold to the values inherent in these aesthetics. My job is to amplify the culture of the communities I am working with and show them the power they poses to change their reality. My job is to equip them with tools that accents their culture, so that they can continue to work for the change they seek. I can’t be a service provider, because this is bigger than me. This work is about the health, cultural equity, and justice of our communities for the long haul, for generations to come.


– Joe Tolbert