Words Matter When Building Communities

By COE 2026 Board Member and former Kruse Scholar Autumn Chmielewski

In the effort to build and strengthen communities, words matter. Words are the literal foundation that built Communities of Excellence 2026 and the work that has happened in communities across the nation under this banner since the organization’s inception. The knowledge, tools and framework we share are based on words that were intensely debated and intentionally selected.

Countless hours were poured into taking a known and tested quality framework that has realized success across multiple sectors, the Baldrige Framework, and adapting it to something that would work in a community setting. The languages of the industrial, healthcare, and education sectors where the quality framework has proven to be successful, are not the same as the language of community. The language of community is more complex, nuanced and far more important. The language of community is the language of life.

Capturing that complexity and writing a performance excellence framework that could be shared broadly across different geographic locations, cultures, races, ethnicities, religious beliefs, ages, and economic classes felt like an insurmountable task. The language of that framework took years to develop because of the numerous challenges involved in defining and writing something like this for a community. The framework that is being shared by Communities of Excellence 2026 is meant to guide communities through a process where they bring together leaders, both formal and informal, to evaluate their community’s strengths and weaknesses and work together, across sectors, to find common ground in improving their community in measurable ways for everyone. The very definitions of community and leaders themselves were greatly debated because of the importance of getting it right.

The words we choose to use shape our realities. They can unite us in calls to action to defend basic rights and decency for everyone, or they can be used to divide us in a language of hate that pits majorities against a perceived “other.” They can strengthen the ties that bind us by championing shared commonalities, or they can weaken our very social fabric by exploiting our differences.

The language and work of Communities of Excellence 2026 is an attempt to understand and respect the unique talents, strengths and challenges of each individual and community in our country. This framework is an opportunity to bring to light systems bias and inequities that have held too many back for too long. This is a chance to discuss those systems, to acknowledge the gross inequity and unconscious bias that permeate the daily existence for millions of Americans. And it’s a call to work collaboratively to forge a systems change solution that will create communities where all are truly welcome and given the opportunities they need to succeed.

While this is a good start, it’s not enough. We still have work to do on our end. The language we use at Communities of Excellence 2026 will continue to be examined and refined to ensure it is inclusive and reflective of the larger realities of everyone in our community. Assumptions about “sustaining vitality” must be challenged so that we can have real dialogue about who America has been great for and what needs to change to ensure no one is left out of the conversation and work going forward.

But the real work will be done in communities across this nation. It is up to every one of us to engage in authentic dialogues about where we are, how we got here and how to move forward together. The language we all choose to use throughout that process will be of paramount importance. We must choose the language of inclusion and equity. We must stand firm in the principles of human decency and respect for everyone. And we must be thoughtful in the words we use because our communities depend on it.

Read more about Autumn Chmielewski here



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