Healthy grassroots, community organizing empowers people to create self-sustainable leadership around the issues they want to address without subjecting them to the control, direction, or agenda of outside organizations. This type of self-sustainability, however, is challenging work and there is no cookie cutter model. Every neighborhood contains unique networks of relationships and specific patterns of social interactions. Some neighborhoods have active resident associations, others don’t have any associations at all, and still some have community groups facilitated by community institutions. For this reason, it is important for the community organizer to recognize that outreach strategies should be engaged contextually with a high degree of flexibility. This certainly does not mean that he/she should engage neighborhoods without a plan. Community organizers should engage neighborhoods with a plan, especially a community organizing framework that is contextually adaptable.
The Community Organizing Spiral
As a basic framework for organizing resident leaders, I have adopted the Community Organizing Cycle (see image on the right)–taken from page 106 of Mike Green’s ABCD: When People Care Enough to Act. This technique is rooted in Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) principles. ABCD is a theory of social change premised on the idea that effective community development work and problem solving starts with the assets and strengths that already exist in a particular community. Following the steps in the cycle of this framework has been an effective part of my community organizing strategy to help residents catalyze their own self-sustainable, neighborhood associations.
Step 1: Learning Conversations. The most effective way to discover a community’s assets is to engage the first step of the spiral—i.e. learning conversations. These are usually one-on-one conversations that help the organizer discover assets, common concerns, and key leaders within a particular community. Having a set of strategic questions to help the organizer discover components of neighborhood leadership is wise—“Tell me a little about yourself … What do you love the most about your area? What do you like the least? What would you change and how will you change it? Who will you change it with? When do you want to start?” Through the course of the conversation, these questions can help facilitate the discovery of a person’s skills, experience, pain, passion, networks, and capacity to engage community work.
But how does the organizer find the right people to have learning conversations with?
I usually asset map the area that I am focused on. Asset mapping is a way of accessing existing data (online/phone calls/etc.) for each neighborhood in order to inform canvassing activities–e.g. scouting the area to make direct contact with residents for the purpose of conducting learning conversations with them and to identify potential leaders who care enough about their neighborhood to act (there is never a shortage of these folks; sometimes they just need to be energized). I usually ask myself: “Where are the activity centers/spots (community center, schools, parks, shops, etc.) in the area?” Then I enter those spaces to make connections and I engage people in learning conversations. Sometimes, an organization that is part of my social network is already active in the community life of the neighborhood. When this is the case, I make a request to that organization to help me connect with the community that they are already working with by creating space for me to present what I am trying to do (find those who care enough to act to provide them with community organizing coaching) and ask them what they are already doing. If these kinds of opportunities to connect are not available or these kinds of communities are not interested in self-sustainable organizing, the other options for me are to try to connect with home/property owners in the area or to participate in neighborhood block parties.
Step 2: Form Leadership Groups. Once discoveries of assets, common concerns, and potential leaders (people who care enough to act) are made, the organizer can bring people together to form Connector-Leadership Groups. Usually, I gather key people (4 to 10) from a particular neighborhood to facilitate a collective version of the learning conversation model. As the group engages this conversation, they not only develop relationships and trust with each other but they begin to grow conscious of the common feelings they share and the issues they want to address. This exercise usually helps residents form a strong bond and shared vision for their community.
In one neighborhood, I had engaged dozens of learning conversations by the end of the summer of 2016. Having sensed a common concern for neighborhood safety—there were several acts of violence that occurred in that area during the summer—I invited key residents to a community meeting to talk about what a healthier and safer neighborhood may look like for that area. During the meeting, I facilitated a collective version of the learning conversations and immediately residents expressed excitement about feeling like what was lacking in the neighborhood was trust. After the learning-conversations exercise, most expressed that they could begin trusting each other, and they decided to meet several times thereafter.
The excitement that emerges among residents as they make these discoveries should immediately be met with a challenge to practice learning conversations with more residents. Usually, I help leadership groups re-imagine what could emerge if each engaged in a certain amount of learning conversations with neighbors by a particular time.
Step 3: Select an Issue for Action. After engaging learning conversations with several residents, leadership groups should debrief what they have heard and then identify common issues that the community wants to address. The organizer should facilitate this without imposing their own agenda (if they have one). This leads leadership groups into the next step, which is to choose a primary Issue for Action, or a problem the group wants to resolve. In the community mentioned above, residents decided that they wanted to see violent crime in the area decrease and engage in activities that would contribute to this goal.
Step 4: Research the Issue. After selecting an issue for action, the leadership group should then research the issue. This can be done in a variety of ways, from researching on the internet, having meetings with institutional representatives, asset mapping, to engaging areas as a group with cameras and taking photos.
In another neighborhood, the leadership group that I had been working with chose to engage in a park clean up. During the cleanup, a child playing in the playground’s wood chips was stung by a syringe needle. The leadership group decided something needed to be done to remove those chips. In the span of about two weeks, leaders visited other parks across town and discovered that other playgrounds usually use rubber matting and not wood chips. Through some of their research they also discovered that a quarter-mile away from the park there is a methadone clinic that treats patients who suffer from severe heroin addiction, and that many of the patients hangout in the park to consume their drugs. Because there are only two benches in the park and both are located right in front of the playground, patients usually sit on those benches to consume their drugs and toss their drug paraphilia into the playground, along with a lot of trash. That paraphernalia usually becomes hidden in the wood chips. Resident leaders have taken this research and are connecting the dots to form a strategy for change.
Again, the organizer should facilitate this research work by giving direction to neighborhood leaders. Residents don’t always know where to start. In regard to connecting residents with civic leaders, organizers should avoid gate-keeping networks of power or acting as representatives of the community. They should, instead, create spaces for residents to assert themselves. Otherwise, the organizer will dis-empower the resident leaders and make them dependent on him/her for institutional connections.
Step 5: Plan for Action. After a good amount of research, the group should construct a plan of action and do so with the gifts, assets, and resources that they have at their disposal.
In the neighborhood mentioned above, neighborhood leaders crafted a case, or plan of action, for replacing the wood chips in the playground: get city / park officials to replace the playground’s wood chips with rubber matting, especially since there is a methadone clinic down the street, drug use is taking place on the playground, and a child has been injured by a syringe needle.
Step 6: Take Action and Debrief. The next step is to take action, and after action is taken, the group should debrief their experience, evaluate the quality of their action plan, and either try again or celebrate their success. In the neighborhood above, where residents are advocating to rearrange the park’s playground, resident leaders are now setting up meetings with public / park officials to address this request.
After every meeting, I debrief with the leaders by asking the following questions: “What worked? What didn’t work? How can you make your action plan better? What is the next move?” In this way, residents are continually learning and contextualizing their work. Sometimes the victory is instant and a success, at which point, resident leaders are encouraged to put together some form of celebration to honor themselves and to recite the story of the work and mission they have engaged in. Celebration helps residents not get trapped in considering community work as only more tasks on a list, but something that is collectively meaningful, something that is part of a collective struggle. Reciting the story helps residents create a narrative for the community, even a story of redemption that adds a little bit of drama and inspiration to what they are doing.
Step 7: Repeat. After all of this, the group repeats the cycle, increasing their organizational competence to effect positive change in their community.
While this framework has been very effective in my line of work–equipping residents to develop the kind of neighborhood associations that will assert themselves and pursue the change they want to see in their community–I am certain that it will benefit the work of others: church ministers, college campus workers, social activists, community developers, etc. Try it out! You will not be disappointed!