Community renewal is a dominant theme in American society today. It has been said that public administration could and should be a leader in the community renewal movement, yet for the most part the field of public administration fails to "get" community. This study advances and explores a concept of community learning as part of a broader effort to better understand what a community perspective means for public administration theory and practice. The contributions of this study are twofold. First, a concept of community learning is drawn from a variety of literature streams that share an ethos of collaborative pragmatism. Community learning occurs when the knowledge created in the integrative "community process" is fed-forward and embedded at the level of community structure. Furthermore, a "learning community" is found where the community learning process is institutionalized at the level of community structure. While community learning is a term being used to some degree in the field of community development, a concept of how communities might learn has yet to be offered. Thus, the conceptualization offered here seeks to fill this gap in the literature.
This study also explores the community learning concept empirically in the context of an action research project in Wytheville, Virginia. Here participants worked with a Virginia Tech research team to better understand their community and develop a unified "vision" for the community's future. The study revealed that the collective or collaborative learning of the "community process" can occur over time and also in the form of punctuated group "a-ha" moments. In either case, the learning process is one where new knowledge is created in the form of new or altered shared meaning or new ideas. This learning was fed-forward to the community level to become community learning in three ways: (1) as the learning took place in the community field, meaning the participants of the learning process represented the different institutions that make up community structure; (2) through the integrative medium of local media outlets; and (3) through formal and informal processes of knowledge transfer from the group to community level, where the community level was represented by a citizens committee.
As communities institutionalize learning processes they can be said to be "learning communities." Evidence from the Wytheville study provides insights into how this might happen. The implications for the practice of a "new public service" are explored as well as future areas of research relevant to the community learning approach. The study concludes by suggesting what a community perspective for public administration might mean as community learning is a concept based in this perspective.