Labeling has a great influence on perceptions, choices, behaviors, and even beliefs. Some communities are viewed only as places of significant poverty and high rates of violence. These negative preconceptions can have a psychological impact on both the residents and those outside the community. This can lead one to believe in a world that is simply broken or one in which heroes are needed to fix communities.
We should identify communities with nuance and empathy rather than use pejorative labels like crime-infested, impoverished, and blighted. Labels can be self-fulfilling prophecies. If someone is told that they are aggressive, they are more likely to behave in such a manner. Alternatively, if someone is told that they are kind, this is likely to influence their behavior in a positive way. A community should not be labelled as anything less than they are.
Society as a whole is stronger when we acknowledge the abilities and potential of our communities and is weakened when we become singularly focused on deficiencies. This is not to minimize the existing challenges but to posit those challenges in ways that point to our shared responsibility to address them. A concentration of low incomes in a particular community are not simply a result of low initiative or skill. There are social conditions that significantly influence these outcomes as well – educational options, infrastructure (sidewalks, lighting, parks), and access to healthcare to name a few.
So how do we best describe a community with a higher than average number of low income families? The adjective ‘underappreciated’ says it best. POLIS sees people, all people, as assets with inherent dignity. Under-appreciating assets is a failed opportunity. Non-profits regularly develop programs without asking those experiencing the issue first-hand what they might do to address the issue and their approaches and outcomes are made less effective because of this oversight.
Residents are the main assets in a community because they have the greatest vantage point for their community’s needs. Communities who may have not benefited from equitable financial investment tend to be rich in other forms of capital. For instance, a community known for having higher amounts of low income housing tend to have residents with stronger relationships among neighbors. Negative labeling would dismiss this very important thread in the fabric of a community.
By acknowledging the dignity of each individual in a community, regardless of the labels, the true beauty and assets of what everyone brings to the table becomes evident which positively influences the way we address any challenges.
Other descriptors that point to shared responsibility are ‘underserved’ and ‘underresourced’. POLIS uses a Neighborhood Stress Index and points to neighborhoods in ‘distress.’ Our hope is that this hints at both internal and external factors that make living there more stressful than in other communities.
However we choose to describe neighborhoods, it’s helpful to remind ourselves that no label will fully describe it and that there are unintended consequences to our labels. The best descriptors point to shared responsibility and are always aided by additional language that makes it clear that all communities have both needs and assets and that solutions to any challenges best stem from focusing more on the assets.