The first step in conducting a community assessment is to define the community. This may seem obvious, but it’s often not done. And not defining community can be an underlying source of misunderstandings throughout the process of conducting a community assessment. Here is an example of a situation where different definitions of community could cause problems later, if left undiscovered. Suppose you have convened a committee to address the increasing rate of excessive weight gain among women during pregnancy. Most committee members primarily serve the low-income community, and two of the committee members serve primarily middle- and high-income pregnant women. If a definition of community is not discussed at the start of the committee’s work you could run into conflict between those providers who serve primarily low-income women and those providers who serve middle- and high-income women. Through a discussion of community you may decide to keep working together as a team but recognize that some intervention strategies will be different depending on the income level of the target group. Or, you may decide to have two different community assessment teams but jointly meet every four months to review progress and share results. Most programs target a specific subset of the population, for example, elderly women in the community of Roxbury, children in school district #123, or the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe. When conducting a community assessment using the Moving to the Future materials it is important to know your target audience and other elements of the community that interact and influence that target audience.
The Community Definition Worksheet in this section includes questions to help you understand that community is broader than the target audience and more comprehensive than a geographic boundary. Finally, defining community is an ongoing process. The more you work with and learn about your community, the more you will broaden your definition of community. You may be familiar with social marketing campaigns or health communication programs where you define your audience by differentiating among age groups and focusing on smaller, more homogeneous subgroups (Kraft and Hollander 2004). This process is, in some ways, the opposite of what Moving to the Future encourages in this defining community step, but the two processes are not exclusive of each other. In fact, your team could go through the process of conducting a community assessment using these Moving to the Future materials and decide to launch a social marketing campaign to convert your community to an active living community. And one of the first things you would do in developing the social marketing campaign would be to define your audience using a narrow list of characteristics such as attitudes, demographics, patterns of behavior, or community power status.
Use the Community Definition Worksheet to help you start the work of defining community. A good group activity at an initial coalition meeting is to have coalition members complete the worksheet prior to the meeting, then compile the responses and have a group discussion of the responses. The key points from this section on defining community are:
- Take the time to define your community with your team members.
- Think broadly about community.
- Keep revisiting the definition.