Module 17b: Building Relationships with the Community

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Module 17a: Building Relationships With Individuals
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Module 17b: Building Relationships With the Community
Module 18: Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy

After working through this module, you will be able to:

  • Explain why taking time to develop and nurture relationships with the community is important to developing equitable and inclusive library programs and services.
  • Implement approaches for getting to know the community.


It is important that those of us who work in libraries and schools build relationships with the communities we serve. Everything we do from developing new programs or services, to engaging families and communities in supporting teen literacy, to building coalitions to address educational opportunity gaps requires us to be connected with the community – its people, its institutions, and its culture and history. Building relationships allows library staff to engage in collaborative and participatory community engagement, to listen to community members, and to work with them to develop the programs and services they want and need.

Too often, labels like “at-risk” or “high-risk” are used to describe communities of color and other traditionally marginalized communities. Terms like this communicate a deficit view – one that focuses on the problems a community faces, their needs, and deficiencies rather than on the assets that exist. Every community has assets – facilities such as community centers or parks, valued businesses, and community organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club or the YMCA Leaders Club. But communities also have assets that often go overlooked – the talents and skills of individual people, or strong cultural and historical identities.  Taking an asset-based approach does not deny the existence of challenges in a community, but it recognizes that good things exist in all communities and that those things can be highlighted, encouraged, and used to support communities. By identifying the assets of a community, it is possible to build ties between the library, the school, and local people, institutions, and organizations, in order to share and maximize resources and identify ways individual community members can share their talents with youth.

One of the most important resources in a community are the “community connectors” – members of the community that the community sees as leaders. Sometimes the community connectors are people in positions of authority, people who make key decisions in local organizations like churches, schools, government offices, or volunteer organizations. Other times, the community connectors may not hold formal leadership positions but instead are people who have high levels of social participation and social status within a community. These are the people who others point to when asked “Who do you turn to for advice or information?” or “Who would you choose to make a decision that would affect this community?” Building authentic, respectful, and reciprocal relationships with community connectors is critical to effective community engagement.

In this module, we discuss two asset-based ways to get to know the community your library or school serves – community visits and community asset mapping. Both of these methods provide valuable information that library staff can use to build relationships with communities.


In your journal, write down everything you already know about the community your library or school serves, including who you think are the formal and informal community leaders. Don’t do any research or talk to anyone; just draw on your current knowledge of the community. Examine your list. What gaps in your knowledge exist? Make note of which aspects you’ve identified that are asset- or deficit-based.

community Visits

When we think about getting to know our community, many of us immediately turn to demographic data. While collecting demographic data about a community is an important first step, it provides a limited view – a snapshot that is often devoid of context. One of the best ways to connect and create an authentic bond is to go into the community.

Teaching for Change recommends community walks as a great way to deepen awareness of the community; form meaningful relationships between school staff, parents, and other community members; and identify potential resources (including people). The Advancement Project [PDF] (2012) defines community walks as “a method where you walk through a neighborhood of interest to map and collect information about that neighborhood’s resources and dynamics. It provides a first-hand view of the community, its people, and its assets” (p. 11). Community walks can be combined with interviews of community members along the walk to find out more specifics about the community, its history, its culture, and its assets. They can also include photos and videos.

Community walks are especially powerful when they are organized and led by youth, family members, or other community members and are engaged in by groups of people from the library or school. The walks can be general or they can focus on a specific objective such as learning about a particular neighborhood, understanding the culture of a particular ethnic group, or changing deficit thinking about the school, library, neighborhood, or youth.


  • Teachers Connect with Families, Neighborhood During Community Walks – This article from Teaching for Change explains the benefits of community walks and provides links to two walks that took place in Washington D.C. communities.
  • Community Walks Create Bonds of Understanding – In this Edutopia article, you will read about a community walk at Oakland International High School (OIHS) in California, which serves newly arrived immigrants from 33 countries who speak 32 languages. The walk described in this article focused on learning about the community and lives of unaccompanied minors from Central America.


This short video shows how, in one urban high school, teachers and students worked together to meet neighbors; explore the community; productively change deficit thinking about schools, neighborhoods, and youth; and increase enrollment.

Community Asset Mapping

Community asset mapping is a comprehensive and formalized way of inventorying community strengths and resources, depicting them in a graphic format– a map, a web, a spreadsheet, etc., and then analyzing them to identify potential partnerships.  Once community strengths and resources are inventoried and depicted graphically, you can more easily think about how to build on these assets. Community asset mapping is most effective when it is done by a team. Just like with community walks, community asset mapping is most powerful when the team includes members of the community.

AmeriCorp Vista identifies six categories of assets most often used in community asset mapping:

  1. Physical Assets – Physical assets in the community include land, buildings, transportation, and facilities that can contribute to community strengthening.
  2. Economic Assets – Economic assets include what residents produce and consume in the community, in both formal and informal ways, through local businesses, or bartering and trading relationships.
  3. Local Residents – Local residents are those who live in the community. Residents’ skills, experiences, capacities, passions, and willingness can contribute to community strengthening.
  4. Local Associations – These include associations in the community primarily run by volunteers, such as athletic clubs, faith-based groups, and others that can contribute.
  5. Local Institutions – Local institutions are public spaces in the community such as schools, libraries, parks, government entities, and nonprofit organizations.
  6. Stories – Stories carry the memory of a community and can describe the potential of a community based on previous times as remembered by those who live there.



Now that you understand the potential benefits of getting to know the community your library serves, make a plan to either organize and carry out a community walk or create a community asset map.  Both of these ways of getting to know the community will involve:

  • Identifying  and building relationships with community members
  • Defining your community or neighborhood boundaries
  • Defining the purpose
  • Identifying the methods you will use to gather data
  • Reporting back
  • Determining how to use your new understandings of the community

Here are several tools to get you started:

After you have completed your map, work with your partners and other stakeholders to translate your new knowledge into a plan of action for the library: how will you bring this community into the library? How will you take library programs and services to them?


Building and Sustaining Relationships – This website provides information building relationships and outlines an 11-step program.


Co-create Authentically with your Community This article offers tips on how to co-create with community members & organizations and utilize what you learn during your community asset mapping. 

School Libraries: 2021 Fostering Relationships Between Students and Community Members shares several examples of how school librarians have been able to incorporate assets from their communities into their school libraries. 

This Reimagine Libraries field guide was created using participatory design and shares steps that public libraries can take to support diverse communities during crisis.

But Wait!

In this section, we address common questions and concerns related to the material presented in each module. You may have these questions yourself, or someone you’re sharing this information with might raise them. We recommend that for each question below, you spend a few minutes thinking about your own response before clicking the arrow to the left of the question to see our response.

My school is a charter school or magnet school and the students come from all over; few live in the community surrounding the school.
In this case, you will want to think about two “communities” to get to know. First, are the caregivers and families of the students who attend your school. What are their skills, experiences, capacities, and passions that they can contribute to community strengthening? You can gather this information in a number of ways from surveys, to focus groups, to conversations with individuals.  The second community is the businesses, organizations, government agencies, etc. that surround your school. Too often magnet schools and charter schools can be disconnected from the community where they are located. This can not only mean that the school doesn’t take advantage of community resources, but it can also mean that the students feel alienated from the community. Read the blog post What’s Your Story from Rethinking Schools to find out how one school used art to connect with their community.


Additional Resources

Grover, R., Greer, R. C., & Agada, J. (2010). Assessing information needs: managing transformative library services. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.


Go Back:
Module 17a: Building Relationships With Individuals
You Are Here:
Module 17b: Building Relationships With the Community
Module 18: Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy