Building Trust in “Root-bound” Communities

Trust Building Community Development

Whether it’s your first time in a new community or a community you’ve lived in your entire life, working as a community organizer (animator, researcher, aid/relief worker, developer, facilitator- whatever the case may be) requires a unique set of skills and attitudes that differ from the skills we are taught in the course of our normal daily and professional lives. One of the central skills needed to be a successful community worker is the ability to build and maintain trust.

While trust is a critical factor for success in virtually all aspects of life, I would argue, the type trust one seeks to gain in the course of our everyday personal and professional lives is different from the type of trust one seeks to gain as a community worker. To help in this discussion, I would like to distinguish between two types of trust; embedded vs. generalized. Embedded trust is developed organically throughout the course of our lives with people with whom share a common identity (e.g. family members, schoolmates, neighborhood friends, religious affiliation, sports team members, colleagues, etc). Embedded trust is one of the strongest forms of trust. The other form of trust is “generalized trust” which has less to do with specific relationships than it does with the general willingness of people in a community to trust one another.

Generalized trust, to a large extent, is developed or eroded by the macro-social and political structures affecting a particular community. For example, without a functioning system of justice and due process (western or traditional) the risk of everyday social and economic interactions is increased. In such an environment, people avoid social and economic transactions with people they don’t know well because when something does go wrong people there aren’t institutions to deal with the conflict and so people are forced to seek their own justice – which can and often does tear families and communities apart, sometimes for generations. To the contrary, when there is a functioning system of justice and due-process the risk of a bad transaction is much lower and so people are more willing to engage with people they don’t already know.

How does generalized trust and embedded trust interact? The two types of trust are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I would argue that a healthy community has a balance of the two. Too much embedded trust and not enough generalized trust creates a situation where you have cliques that don’t interact with one another – I often refer to the problem as being a community being “root-bound.”  The term “root-bound” is a term used to describe what happens when the a plant outgrows its container which forced the roots to get tangled among themselves where they aren’t able to get sufficient nutrients and water. The solution is to break-up the roots before replanting it in the ground or a bigger container. For a community, an over-reliance on embedded trust also limits the resources and opportunities available to that community and/or the various cliques within it. It can also be seriously limiting for minorities who aren’t able to access the resources and information available to members of the dominant groups.

Too much generalized trust (and not enough embedded trust) is also not healthy. This is a scenario often described for many Western communities where over time, people have become disconnected from family, religion and civic institutions. This can be problematic in times when collective action may be required such as during times of crisis, in the course of healthy democratic functioning but also, family/religious/civic participation has been positively correlated with psychological well-being.

Now that we have a better idea of the concepts of embedded and generalized trust, what does this tell us about our role as community workers? It should be relatively clear at this point that as community workers, one of our principal roles should be to foster a healthy balance between generalized and embedded trust. Below are some specific points for building both types of trust within communities.

Rebuilding Healthy Community Roots

  • First of all, it is important to remember that cliques in communities often form in response to unreliable or oppressive macro social and political structures and thus may have social, political or economic utility. And that truly healthy relationships aren’t likely to occur until the broader macro social and political context is transformed into something that fosters more generalized trust. The key is not to break-down or break-apart the trust within cliques but to create low-risk opportunities for cliques to interact with one another and with outside networks.
  • While many cliques may have their basis in cultural institutions. Most cultures also have institutions that function to build connections between groups (ceremonies, festivals, rites, kinship rules, etc.). It’s important to learn about these cultural mechanisms and build upon them.
  • As community workers, we can facilitate the development of trust between groups by serving as a bridge, developing trust with and between different social groups.
  • If you are working in your own community it’s important that you avoid or (more realistically) are transparent about your standpoint on particular issues, allegiances and obligations to any specific group or clique.
  • If you are from outside the community, you can leverage your lack of embeddedness to develop a reputation as a neutral “bridge” between relatively closed groups (it’s also advised to be transparent about your standpoint on particular issues, allegiances and obligations to any specific group or clique).
  • Whether you’re an outsider or from that community, you should seek to be a model of transparency, openness, and trustworthiness. A situation where you’re open and transparent about yourself but people don’t feel like you’re going to spread information they shared with you in confidence. Doing so will position you as a valuable intermediary that can help bridge groups and access information and resources from the outside.

Building Embedded Trust When it Lacks

For organizers working in more urbanized or westernized community settings where you have relatively high levels of generalized trust but low levels of embedded trust, building embedded trust among individuals (solidarity work) may be your biggest challenge. Below are a few recommendations for building it.

  • It’s important to recognize that in such contexts, because people are disconnected and have been for so long, they may not fully realize what can be gained through organizing. Just the same, they may not realize that anything can be gained. In Western (cash-based) society, the options available to us for improving our life have been limited to what’s available through the market and very limited democratic processes (e.g. that a better life can only be obtained by increasing my income). To overcome this tendency, it’s important to open up people’s thinking to the spectrum of ways things can be accomplished outside of traditional market forces and political processes.  
  • Solidarity is difficult to build when some people stand to gain more than others and when some people take-on a disproportionate amount of risk. Building relatively flat organizations that emphasize member’s roles and responsibility vs. top-down authority will create an environment where the risk and rewards and more equitably shared by all, thus increasing a sense that “we’re all in this together”.
  • Western culture places emphasis on the individual (white males to be specific) and so we’re often not taught the normative cultural understandings and behaviors that promote effective voluntary collective action and solidarity. Unpacking the taken-for-granted assumptions in Western culture (individualism, patriarchy, survival of the fittest) can go a long way towards building more effective organizations – this is often referred to as “anti-oppression” training.

This is just a short list of ideas for building trust in communities. Please share your ideas and thoughts in the comments. Topics discussed in this post are also discussed in our online courses Community MobilizationDevelopment and the Politics of EmpowermentCommunity-Based OrganizingCommunity Participation and Dispute ResolutionParticipatory Monitoring and Evaluation.

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