Contents of Fall 2006 Collaborative Solutions Newsletter:

In this issue:

Taking Action: Addressing issues of social change and power based on a common vision.

Taking Action: Addressing issues of social change and power based on a common vision.

           People undertake collaborative solutions in order to create community change. That is the core premise, the whole idea. In order to move beyond exchange of information and exchange of ideas, efforts at collaborative solution must ultimately move toward actions that result in community change.
           The specific community changes can vary in scope and ambition. Some collaborative solutions aim to improve overall quality of life for a whole community. Others focus on a community’s economic viability; or promote smart growth and the containment of sprawl; or intend to prevent substance abuse, tobacco usage, and violence; or plan to reduce the incidence of asthma. Changes can be targeted at the organizational, systems, or community level.
           A number of years ago, we organized a New England - wide conference on various approaches to promoting healthy communities. We brought together many groups, each of which gathered people from the various sectors of its community to work collaboratively to create community change. The diversity among the groups was amazing. People were working on safe communities, smart-growth communities, sustainable communities, restorative justice communities, community organizing and development, healthy communities, and more. The collaborative solutions approach has many, very broad applications.
           Collaborative solutions do not come about automatically. They don’t happen just because you get the right people around a table talking respectfully with each other. In fact, even meetings that look good on the surface may only produce hot air.
           Community change requires conscious and targeted group action. The following story tells about a collaborative that did create significant change.

Community Story- Transportation on Cape Cod
           In the 1990s, Provincetown had one of the highest rates of HIV infection in Massachusetts. In order to get adequate care, however, people with HIV or AIDS had to travel to Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, a three-hour drive from Provincetown. For those without a car or who were unable to drive, the only mode of transportation was the bus and this required them to patch together a combination of public and private services. The public bus left Provincetown every morning. When it arrived in Hyannis, the people headed for Beth Israel had to change to a the private Boston connector. Unfortunately, that Boston bus usually pulled out on schedule—fifteen minutes before the Provincetown bus arrived. Even after they arrived in Boston, patients still had to make their way across the city to Beth Israel. This was ridiculous.
            The Lower Outer Cape Community Coalition, an organization committed to collaborative solutions, took on the work of enhancing the area’s transportation alternatives. This particular transportation issue arose at a Coalition Transportation Task Force meeting. The coalition called for action. The private and public bus providers agreed to talk and see if they could find a common solution to the problems caused by their uncoordinated schedules. Within a few weeks, the bus schedules had been modified and the Provincetown bus arrived in time for riders to catch the connector to Boston. But even more changes occurred soon after. A few weeks later, the director of the company that managed the private bus to Boston took a ride to see what patients faced when they arrived in Boston. He was so impressed by the arduousness of the trek across Boston by foot and bus that he decided to have his buses stop directly at Beth Israel.
           These simple, no-cost collaborative solutions eluded everyone involved until a conscious process of coalition-building brought together a group of community members who first addressed the issue and then pushed for change..

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Creating a common vision

           A key assumption in any effort to bring about community change is that the people who are working together have a common vision. This common vision needs to be created by the members of the group together. Too often we see situations where a small group of people have written a grant and created a vision that they then invite others to join. Ownership of the idea and process is a critical piece of successful collaborative-solution efforts. It is enormously important that all those involved be part of the process of creating the vision. In fact, it is helpful to revisit your group’s vision at least once a year to make sure it's still where you want to go, as well as to allow all those who have joined you since the past review to be a part of that ownership process.
           Our work with communities often involves simple exercises in which a group looks ahead two to five years, dreaming of what they would like to see happen in that time..

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Tool: Creating a Common Vision

Instructions: Think about the scenario below and discuss it with your partners. Record your answer on newsprint or a regular-sized worksheet.

It is two years from now and a local newspaper has decided to do a feature story on your coalition. The story will focus on the changes and accomplishments that have occurred through the coalition’s efforts over the past two years. The reporters have interviewed you and many other community and coalition members about the history of the coalition, problems and issues in the community, how residents came together, and the changes the community has undergone. The article will focus equally on the accomplishments and on the changes in the way the coalition functions and is structured.

What does the article say?

Think about:

  1. Any changes that have taken place in the community
  2. Any new programs or services that have been created
  3. Who is active and involved and working with the coalition now and in what ways they are working
  4. Any changes in the structure, communication systems, and functioning of the coalition  

As a group, do the following:

  1. Write a headline for the article
  2. Note the priorities that emerge for the next two years
  3. Be prepared to report to the whole group

Remember: This is your VISION of what could happen if the coalition were organized and working together for common goals and changes. Be daring!


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Community action to create community change

           Once a collaborative-solutions effort has a commitment to community change and a common vision, it is time to move into community action. In this context, community action means activities undertaken through the collaborative that are aimed at making community changes that the group has identified. This may sound simplistic. However, we have seen many coalitions and partnerships that are quite busy . . . developing reports, creating planning products, and forming subcommittees to study issues. If you look closely, you will notice that they never step out into the community to actually create change. Marian Wright Edelman, of the Children's Defense Fund, has said that in the beginning of a coalition you get the talkers and later you get the actors, and that she is interested in the actors. I think all of us would agree that we, too, want those actors to be part of our collaborative solutions.

Creating an action plan
           Groups find it helpful at this point to create a strategic plan to clarify where they are headed. Greg Meissen and the Self Help Network (2005) have labeled this a Road Map. Many people call it a logic model or theory of change. Whatever the name, this process outlines how you will get from where you are to your goal.

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Tool: Passport to the Future

I. Who are you (as a program)?

II. What needs are you addressing? How do you know they are needs?

III. Where do you want to get to? (What are your goals and anticipated outcomes?)

  1. What is the ultimate goal, or the end you have in mind?
  2. What immediate and intermediate changes do you expect?
  3. What resources do you need?

IV. How are you getting there?

A. What are you doing now? (What are your activities?)

  1. What is your plan?
  2. What are the activities of your program/organization? Of your coalition?
  3. What does your program look like?

B. How will your activities lead to your expected outcomes?

  1. Why will doing your planned activities get you to your goals?

V. How will you know if you are on the right road/path and getting to the right destination? (How will you evaluate?)

  1. How will you know when you reach your goal? What will it look like?
  2. What will happen when you do get there?

Adapted from material developed by The Self Help Network, Wichita State University

           I think all professionals would think before using the term “logic model” if they could see the grimaces on the faces of community folks when they hear these words. Too many communities have been tortured with poorly implemented logic models. Logic models are an example of trying to help communities engage in strategic planning and then using complex and unfriendly mechanisms and language so the net result is community pain. The basic steps in a logic model are excellent. Our ongoing challenge is to address all these issues with community-friendly tools.

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Changes in programs, policies, and practices

           What kind of community changes are we talking about? Fawcett and his colleagues (1995, Community Tool Box, have developed a framework and a comprehensive documentation system for collaborative solutions. They define intermediate outcomes as changes in programs, policies, and practices. When this was first presented to me more than fifteen years ago, I balked at what seemed like such a narrow set of definitions. Since then I have come to realize that changes in programs, policies, and practices indeed represent the first level of changes that occur in a community on the way to creating its ultimate vision.
           Take the example of working to reduce smoking in a community. We look to implement the policy changes, in terms of smoke-free workplaces, restaurants, and public buildings. We create smoking cessation programs and prevention curricula in schools. We change the community practice of smoking, so that it becomes an unacceptable activity in all spaces, including the home.
           Although the ultimate measures that we look at to determine success may be the numbers of young people who smoke and the rate of lung cancer, the intermediate measurable outcomes of the coalition's efforts are found in changes in programs, policies, and practices. This conceptual framework allows communities to document their progress.

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Key factors for coalitions in successfully creating community change

           It is helpful to see what research has identified as the key factors that allow a collaborative to move successfully toward the creation of community change. Roussus and Fawcett (2000) reviewed a wide range of research studies on coalitions and found that the following variables affect a coalition’s capacity to create change:

  • Having a clear vision and mission
  • Action planning for community and systems change
  • Developing and supporting leadership
  • Documentation and ongoing feedback on programs
  • Technical assistance and support
  • Securing financial resources for the work
  • Making outcomes matter

Other research (Kaftarian,1994) has added another variable:

  • The capacity to address conflict

A worksheet at the end of this Collaborative Solutions Newsletter allows you to assess your community effort in relation to each of these key variables.

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Coalitions as catalysts

           A unique role for coalitions, partnerships, and others who use collaborative solutions is that of catalyst. In order to be a catalyst, a group must be able to step back from day-to-day activities and look at the big picture. From this broad view, the group gains the ability to identify emerging issues; gathers the strength to bring people together so they can create clear visions, solutions, and new directions; and remains available to serve these catalytic functions.
           Most groups that engage in collaborative solutions begin as catalysts for change. Unfortunately, they often become engaged in running programs and lose track of their role as catalysts. To maintain the catalyst function, they need to continue to provide a convening place for community conversations, to always engage new partners in the effort, and to perpetually scan the environment for emerging strengths and issues.
           The core catalytic functions that should never be abandoned in collaborative solutions are these:

  • Acts as a catalyst for change
  • Gathers/convenes people
  • Supports collaborative problem-solving
  • Provides new program development and coordination
  • Monitors collaborative activities

In our next Collaborative Solutions Newsletter, we will discuss the role of power in creating social change through collaborative solutions.

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Community Story: The Lower Outer Cape Community Coalition

           Three years after we had started the first coalition in the North Quabbin area of Massachusetts, a state representative from Cape Cod asked us to help him create a similar coalition in his area, where poverty and need were obscured by the seasonal wealth of this vacation playground. Today, almost twenty years later, the Lower Outer Cape Community Coalition (Hathaway, 2001) covers an eight-town area with 45,000 people, with a mission to improve the quality of life for those who live in the area.
           The coalition has developed a very specific process that its task forces follow when they identify issues. They take the following steps:

  • Identify stakeholders,
  • Define the problem,
  • Investigate options,
  • Design a response,
  • Secure resources,
  • Implement a plan,
  • Evaluate and adapt,
  • And, finally, spin off the project to another agency.

           The last step makes this coalition’s efforts different. The Lower Outer Cape Community Coalition has always seen itself as a catalyst for community change. Although the group has created numerous programs, those efforts are always spun off to other community groups, who ultimately own and manage the solutions.
            Over a fifteen-year period, this healthy-community coalition has created the Interfaith Council for the Homeless (a program for homelessness prevention); The Cape Cod Children’s Place (a child-care center); Healthy Connections (a health-access program); the Lower Outer Cape Community Development Corporation (an economic development agency); and the Ellen Jones Community Dental Center. Annually, these programs generate $2.4 million and provide 33 jobs.
            The Cape Coalition describes itself with the metaphor of a tree. Its roots run deep into the community. The coalition staff’s coordination and gathering functions form the trunk. The task forces that produce the concrete results are the branches.
           All the branches remain connected to the tree.
           For example, even after The Children’s Place was created and spun off, its director stays on the coalition’s steering committee so that child-care concerns can be integrated with all future issues that the coalition addresses. Because of this, the broad range of prerequisites outlined in the Ottawa Charter (peace, shelter, food, income, a stable ecosystem, sustainable resources, social justice, and equity) are all dealt with under the same roof. This coalition illustrates the principle of taking action to create community change and it has found a way to sustain and magnify its actions.

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Worksheets – Self assessment:  How is your collaboration doing on the key variables to success?

Click here for the worksheets (pdf)


  • Community Tool Box
  • Fawcett,S.,Sterling,T. Paine Andrews,A, Harris,K, Francisco,V. Richter,K, Lewis,R, Schmid T (1995) Evaluating community efforts to prevent cardiovascular diseases. Atlanta GA Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.
  • Hathaway, BL Growing a Healthy Community: A practical guide. American Journal of Community Psychology , 2001, 29,  199-204.
  • Kaftarian, S., Hansen, W., Eds. (1994).  Community partnership program center for substance abuse prevention. Journal of Community Psychology, SCAP special  issue, 205pp.
  • Meissen G.(2005) Road Map.  Self Help Network, Wichita, KS
  • Roussus, S. & Fawcett, S. (2000). A review of collaborative partnerships as a strategy for improving community health.  Annual Review of Public Health, 21:369 – 402.

Tom Wolff delivers invited address to the American Psychological Association in New Orleans August 2006 –
“Collaborative Solutions: Building community in New Orleans and across America”

Summary (for full text click here)

           The crises of Hurricane Katrina for New Orleans, and much of the Gulf caused many of us to think about how we might be of help.  On one level it was a personal question, how can I help with my time and resources?  From the viewpoint of a practicing community psychologist I asked, what have we learned in community psychology over the last 40 years that can be of help to whole communities in such crisis situations? Having created a field called community psychology, then surely we must have something to contribute to such a massive community rebuilding challenge.  So that is the focus of today's conversation - what does psychology and specifically community psychology have to offer to the process of rebuilding of whole communities?
           The paper articulates the six crucial components necessary to create collaborative solutions and illustrates each with stories from my work. The six principles are:

  1. Engage a broad spectrum of the community, especially those most directly affected, celebrating racial and cultural diversity.
  2. Encourage true collaboration as the form of exchange.
  3. Practice democracy, and promote active citizen engagement and empowerment.
  4. Employ an ecological approach that emphasizes the individual in her/his setting, and builds on community strengths and assets.
  5. Take action by addressing issues of social change and power based on a common vision.
  6. Align the goals with the process.

Full text of the address is available under “Tools and Resources” at

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