Community Development: Discover, Think and Act

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My name is Zhou Qiuhua, I am now in my early twenties, and I come from the Zhenro Foundation. In this not especially famous foundation, which has no guiding theory or experience but does have five different leaders, I abide by the principle of‘simple, interesting, and not sentimental’ public welfare. As a newcomer in the public welfare sector, I went to Ya’an (a town in Sichuan Province that witnessed a terrible earthquake in 2013), I received a lot of training, and I saw some tears. But I don’t do this work because I have a big heart, I just do it because I enjoy it. Now I am exploring urban communities, and I hope to be able to cultivate a bit of happiness.

Today I have just got back from an “environmental education carnival” in Shanghai. During the meeting, I introduced full-time mothers to concepts such as the community, public welfare in the community and community construction. But most importantly, I invited the participating groups to work together with us for the community.

I admit that I am currently rather obsessed with projects on urban communities. But why? It is not obvious, because I have spent two thirds of my life in a small village of Northern Fujian and villages are always the places which I love the most and where I feel most comfortable. However, my interest in urban communities stems from the work I have been doing in a foundation for over a year now.

In 2013, I started my career in the public welfare sector with the Zhenro Foundation, where I worked as an administrative assistant and participated in disaster relief projects and industry-support projects. Luckily, unlike what I expected, it didn’t take me a long time to find an interesting and suitable issue to work on. I found my path after about a year, through three different experiences that I had in 2014.

July, 2014 Shanghai

Due to the requirements of my work, I started my life in Shanghai in July 2014. Except for the subway that deluded me into thinking I was managing to lose weight, what left me the deepest impression of my life in Shanghai was the community I lived in.

I lived in two different places in Shanghai; one is Baoshan, where I stayed in an old house that I shared with a group of strangers who all came from different parts of China. We lived together in the same physical space, but we didn’t have much communication with each other. The landlord didn’t bother to talk with us except when he asked for the rent. I could do nothing except stare at my computer after work, never mind how boring it got during the weekends.

The other place is Pudong, where conditions were largely preferable. I lived together with a colleague in an old campus area where I was surrounded by Shanghainese speaking the Shanghai dialect. The flat was as tiny as 53 square meters, with two bedrooms and one living room. I was amazed at the landlord’s design which created so much useful space so economically, and at the same time I was also surprised by the layout of the building, with four apartments on each floor. However, it was quiet in the corridors, where everyone seemed to stick to a ‘keep silent’ principle.

As a newcomer, I tried to break the silence. However when I would smile at someone they would just avert their eyes; and when I would try to say hi to someone, they would shut the door. Even when I just moved my umbrella towards an old woman who was taking out her garbage, she chose to walk faster.

Compared to the village, urban civilization has taught people how to refrain, and how to communicate while keeping a safe distance. Many people like that distance, but do we ignore the need for more intimate interaction and communication? What can we do to satisfy both the need for peace and quiet and the need for communication? All in all, I was kind of upset by all this civility when I was in Shanghai. I tried to ask myself questions, but couldn’t figure out the answers on my own.

November 2014 Taiwan

Every year the foundation offers study tours on public welfare. The theme for 2014 was ‘Taiwan community construction’. In spite of some doubts, I went to Taiwan and started my trip. We traveled all around Taiwan, from city to countryside, from coast to inland, and from Taipei to Kaohsiung. We saw how community waste classification is designed in Taipei; we witnessed community participation in Taumi and felt the power which can come from inside a community at Yonghe Community University (永和社区大学). I met many excellent community workers, but I still didn’t encounter many projects of urban community construction.

Seeing many community initiatives being promoted on public Wechat accounts, I was quite moved. But what left me the deepest impression was Yonghe Community University. When we entered the community university, we could see community figures giving speeches in almost every classroom while adults listened to them carefully. During the daytime, the campus hosts the Fuhe Junior High School (福和国中) for young people; in the evenings, it becomes an open community university. It seemed like everyone we met was energetic and experienced in community development. In Taiwan, I came to feel that an excellent community project is energetic and fun, and it can bring change to communities. Because of geographical proximity, the Zhengro Foundation started to support the Rural Reconstruction Centre of China and promoted a ‘community university” in Fujian Province. Some college students accepted the concept and participated in the project. However, over the past two years the whole idea has basically not gone very far, and some of the projects have been merged into a government project, while some of them have just fallen apart. The contrast between what I saw in Taiwan and how our project ended made me start to wonder what the key to community construction is. It might be culture, community resources, community industry or professional abilities. Later on, it fell into a very basic thing – community relationship building.

December 2014 Suzhou 

With what I had learnt in Taiwan, I started to take action in Suzhou. My foundation initiated a pilot project called ‘hello, community’ at the end of 2014, which intended to introduce the concept of community construction starting from the construction of public space. We hoped to help community residents get to know each other better in public spaces by improving their communication skills, getting them to participate in activities and organizing activities independently. The role of community’s public spaces is not just providing services to the community, but exploring possibilities for community residents to live together, and enhancing mutual contact and cooperation. During the project, and with the help of some volunteers, we discovered what the communities’ needs were, and then we encouraged and promoted communities to build up independent groups and clubs. We tried to allow community residents to develop a community identity through the construction of community relationships. I felt very happy that I was able to get deeply involved in this project.

At first I was pleased from the feedback I got from this activity, with people saying things like ‘its really meaningful’ and ‘I will come back next time’; I then got more and more excited by the change and the participation I saw in some people, who were saying things like ‘I can help’, ‘I can be a project volunteer’ or simply‘that’s interesting’. In the end, I found that my sense of accomplishment came from us setting forth a possibility to change the current situation of urban communities. Although we couldn’t make sure the project design would be effective, we carried it out in a spirit of trial and error. Urban communities are so complex that there is no single comprehensive plan that can change everything. My team and I were just trying, but that is how change takes place.

Following the simple logical flow of ‘discovering problems–making a plan– taking action – optimizing the plan – taking action again’, I chose the community. To be frank, little pioneering work has been done on the issue of urban communities in China, nor do we have much that we can use as reference. As a naturally pessimistic person, I always feel some kind of doubt and uncertainty. But I am mostly happy inside.

There is a lot to work on in the community, so come and join us!

In Brief

A girl who works in the Zhenro Foundation talks about how her first experience of urban life in Shanghai and a visit to Taiwan stoked her interest in projects to help urban communities.
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