Contents of Summer 2006 Collaborative Solutions Newsletter:

In this issue:

Employing an Ecological Approach: Building on Community Strengths


  Employing an Ecological Approach: Building on Community Strengths

            The core premise of an ecological approach to community building is very simple.  It states that we need to understand the behavior, the issue, or the problem that we are looking at in any given community in the context of both individuals and their environments/settings. These settings may be physical, economic, social, environmental, or organizational. As simple as this premise is, it is unfortunately disregarded most of the time.  In an American society focused on the individual and the success or failure of that individual, we too often over emphasize the individual and underemphasize their settings. As William Ryan (Ryan,1972) showed us many years ago, we seem most comfortable “blaming the victim.” Certainly most difficult of all is to address the problem by looking at the interactions of the individual in their settings. Yet this is what is needed.
            Let's look at an example. One headline issue in American culture today is obesity, especially obesity in young people.  The initial and dominant discussion had to do with weight loss, dieting, and encouraging physical activity for young people. This discussion focused on how difficult it is to encourage these behavioral changes among those who are already overweight. Often this is where the discussion stopped -totally focused on the individual.  Now, however, the issue of obesity is also focusing on settings.  There are ongoing headlines about taking soda and junk food out of schools, a dominant setting for young people.  There are major projects and funding looking at the built environment (the physical and structural aspects of a community) and sprawl to see how the design of our cities encourages or discourages physical activity.  Recent research shows the link between obesity and the physical environment in terms of walkability (Frank, et al 2006).Other studies also link obesity to social support and collective efficacy (Cohen, et al 2006). Increasingly, obesity is becoming a topic where we look at both the individual and the ecological environments. Understanding obesity in terms of the interaction between individuals and their settings is the only way we will ever get a handle on the issue.
            Many years ago, while working for a mental health center, I met with a group of elders to do a needs assessment. When I asked them the broad question, “What are the major issues affecting your life?” they replied, “Access to transportation from the rural hill towns, affordable health care, and having enough dollars to live.” Then I said to them, “I work for mental health center. Could you tell me what are the issues that most affect your mental health?” And, they said to me,”Doc weren’t you listening?” And then repeated that the things most affecting their mental health were transportation, affordable health care, and not having enough dollars.  These ecological stressors were the major issues in their lives and therefore in their mental health. Traditional mental health centers would not know what to do about these issues but would most likely focus only on the psychopathology of the elders and their needs for mental health services. The elders’ broader ecological concerns would be ignored, even though they are the major factors in their mental health, because the ecological concerns would be outside the scope of a mental health agency’s mandate. Too often the response by an agency is based on its funding source not the needs of the clients.
            I have recently been involved in a project that focuses on reducing drinking among college students.  Here, many of these interventions focused on the campus and on the students. A careful look at the campus setting will show that colleges and universities do a relatively good job of attending to the campus ecology by controlling alcohol access on campus. If they sell alcohol at a campus facility, they are very careful about checking IDs and limiting intake.  They ban alcohol from dorms. In most places, this approach then moves student drinking off-campus. Off-campus is where the students buy alcohol. Off-campus is where they find other students with apartments, who host large parties. Off-campus is where the kegs are purchased and consumed. So, this specific project looks at the campus community partnerships, because in this case the important ecological settings are off-campus.  Questions that are raised include: Do liquor and package stores check IDs carefully before selling alcohol?  Are the bars similarly cautious? What do landlords and neighbors do when there are wild alcohol-fueled parties?  How do the police and the courts handle offenders? Are there any real consequences for the students? 
            One can quickly see that a campus that focuses most of its substance abuse prevention activities on the alcohol knowledge and attitudes of students on campus may be seriously limiting its potential effectiveness by focusing solely on the person and not the broader ecological settings. But it gets even more complex. This example of college drinking illustrates that even an ecological approach can be limited if the settings that one looks at are only on-campus settings and one ignores the off-campus settings. An ecological approach always requires looking at the next concentric circle out from the individual to an ever expanding set of ecologies.
            The importance of an ecological approach goes well beyond health and mental health issues.  We find the same limitation of thinking around poverty, literacy, and school achievement. Community problem-solving approaches are often limited by their failure to fully take into account all the ecological factors that impact the outcomes they are trying to achieve.

Page Top

An expanded definition of health using an ecological approach:

           Many years ago, while working on community development, we discovered the literature and activities of the healthy community movement, an international movement started by the World Health Organization. Their goal is to create healthy communities in the broadest sense. WHO articulates the ecological factors and premises in the Ottawa Charter. According to the Ottawa Charter the prerequisites for health are: peace, shelter, sustainable resources, education, food, income, a stable ecosystem, social justice and equity. This is an excellent description of ecological factors that are critical not only to our physical health, but to our over all well-being. The healthy communities concept allows for a broad ecological approach to issues of health. It is a useful model for community problem solving with an ecological slant and an important contribution to the field (Wolff,2003)
            The ongoing national discussion about health and health care focuses on access to care whether it's the Medicaid Part D access to medications for elders or concern about those who are uninsured.  The focus is getting health care to individuals in order to improve their health.  Although I'm a great supporter and believer in health access, it is important to remember that the research tells us that only 10% of our health and of our country’s health is determined by our access to health care.  The remaining 90% is explained by the social determinants of health, along with biological factors such as genetics. Social determinants of health, as documented in the World Health Organization book, Solid Facts  (WHO, 1998) include stress, early life factors, social exclusion, work and unemployment, social support, addiction, food, transportation, and the social gradient (which is defined as the social and economic circumstances that strongly affect their health throughout their life). Social determinants reinforce the Ottawa Charter idea of approaching health issues from an ecological point of view since these are the variables that are most responsible for our health status.
            Another contribution to our thinking on social determinants comes from the work of David Chavis (2006). Chavis notes that “Social and medical research over the last 150 years has shown that four factors have the most far-reaching and powerful effect on the psychological, social, and physical well-being of people.  These factors are based on the degree to which people feel/have:

  • A sense of community
  • Connections to other networks for resources and exchange
  •   Individual and collective control
  • Adequate economic, financial assets and other resources”

These factors reflected four consistent themes that emerged from the scientific literature that can be summarized as: community, connections, control, and cash.
            Chavis suggests that when we approach collaborative solutions around community issues, we always need to be looking at the ecological factors of community, connections, control, and cash.  This will also be crucial when working with issues such as: literacy, asthma, access to dental care, poverty, racism, or bilingual education.
            By now you may be saying, so what's the point? This is all so obvious. We know this.  Yet, if you look around and listen to the discussions of almost any group developing community programs you will hear that they consistently focus on the individual  rather than the settings in which individuals find themselves, and the interactions with the settings. For example, with asthma, the medical community will focus endlessly on whether or not the child has been well diagnosed, is on the right medications, and is taking the medications. Often overlooking the triggers in the community that actually set off the asthma in the first place. We also talk about the failure of those on welfare to want to get a job and to work without first assessing whether or not there are jobs, ESL programs, and work skills training that will allow them to enter the employment market.  The ecological and economic realities of trying to raise a child while working at the same time are not considered.

Page Top

Settings have both assets and deficits:

            A second major factor that often limits our capacity to productively use an ecological approach is our exclusive focus on community deficits rather than community assets.  I've had four communities in Massachusetts proudly tell me that they have the highest teen pregnancy rate in the state.  What a bizarre thing to brag about!  And yet it is that claim that bring them funding for programs, because our whole helping system is based on deficits not assets.
            The same remedial mentality that has us focus on pathology, shortcomings, and deficits of individuals is carried over to our views of their communities.  So, we will describe communities as poor, dirty, hopeless, and full of problems like drugs, teen pregnancies and school dropouts, ignoring the community's assets.  John McKnight (Kretzmann & McKnight 1993) has made a great contribution to an expanded ecological approach by articulating the shortcomings of helping systems that continually focus on deficits, instead of assets.  McKnight encourages us to look at our communities as sources of strength, and assets. We need to learn to catalog these assets, help the community to become aware of them, and make use of them. As we take an ecological approach to collaborative problem solving, we need to always be asking about a community’s strengths as well as its struggles.

Page Top

A New Approach to Community Assessments

     The classic needs assessment done in a community asks people,” What are your problems?” “How can we, the formal helping system, solve them for you?” This is a formula for disaster.  The first question makes the assumption that this community only has problems and lacks assets/strengths. The second question makes the assumption that the only people who can solve the identified problems are the professionals who are asking the questions. An asset-based ecological approach would dramatically change the way we conduct every community assessment we do from now on.  We would ask four questions instead of the usual two:

  1. What are the strengths of the community?
  2. What are the issues that the community is struggling with?
  3. How can you (the resident) be part of the solution? How can you help in the community building process?
  4. What do you want from us, the formal helping system?

 If we went from the usual two questions to the new four questions, we would begin to approach every community and community  problem that we address from an ecological point of view and from an asset-based point of view.  The effects from this could be revolutionary.
            Appreciative Inquiry (2006) actually goes even further, seeking only positive statements and moves us totally away from looking at problems as part of a community building approach. I will explore the relevance of Appreciative Inquiry to our work in the next Newsletter.

Page Top

An Example: The Institute for Community Peace and Ecological Stages

            Let me illustrate how an ecological approach can enhance community collaborative solutions. For many years, I have been a consultant for the Institute for Community Peace (formerly the National Funding Collaborative of Violence Prevention.)  ICP is a national organization committed to community development and empowerment approaches to addressing issues of community violence. Their mission is to promote the development of a safe, healthy, and peaceful nation by mobilizing community resources and leadership. ICP supports strategies that emphasize resident engagement, community empowerment and expanded national attention to the range of factors that contribute to and can prevent violence. ICP was created by a number of funders who were gravely concerned by the growing violence in communities across America. They began by working in ten communities across the country to prevent violence.
            The initial focus in most of ICP’s communities was on the violent individuals and their victims, such as gang members or abusive men in domestic violence situations. Over time as each community built a violence prevention collaborative, their work became more focused on ecological settings. This broadened their view of the issues.  Their interventions began to move away from individuals and towards the community’s settings.
            The experiences in these communities demonstrate how the ecologies that are focused on by community coalitions can change over time and develop increased sophistication. In New Orleans, their coalition rejected the emphasis on violence prevention and instead became the Crescent City Peace Alliance which prioritized the peaceful outcomes that they were seeking.  In Spartanburg, South Carolina, the Stop the Violence collaborative focused on the violence in some of their poorest communities by working to improve housing conditions.  In Santa Barbara, the Pro Youth Coalition worked directly on gang violence, and engaged the gang bangers as part of the solution, to create positive settings for other youth.  In Rockford, Illinois, the Violence Prevention Collaborative found ways to engage black churches as allies in violence prevention with black youth. The Rockford collaborative understood that black churches were critical ecological settings for disseminating violence prevention messages to the black community.  In Newport, Tennessee, the CONTACT Council always operated from a holistic/community development perspective and never solely focused on individuals, but always on the broadest settings. These operations included: saving the Dead Pigeon River, fighting racial discrimination, creating ways for the black-and-white community to work together, and supporting economic development. In Newport, they understood that all these ecological settings were part of creating a peaceful, nonviolent community.
            As a result of the experiences from these ten communities, the Institute for Community Peace developed a set of developmental stages (Bowen, et al 2004) regarding ways that communities engage the issue of community violence over time. These stages very much reflect the ecological approach and expand our thinking by adding the dimension of time.
            How do the various ecologies evolve over time in a given effort? In the ICP model the local environment is tackled first. Creating safety in that setting is the first goal. As time goes on, the efforts move further out from the local neighborhood to the broader community and then further out to larger institutions and to society at large.

The ICP model includes the following stages:

  1. Creating safety. Here, the focus is on stopping crime and healing the community.  This includes: acknowledging the pain and loss, attending to community spirit, addressing community crime, providing crisis intervention, and mobilizing residents toward immediate threats.
  2. Understanding violence. Here, the focus is on gaining clarity about violence issues and mobilizing the community. This includes: organizing multiple sectors (including those most affected), understanding the nature, dynamics, and levels of crime and violence, assessing community resources, and developing community-driven targeted solutions.
  3. Building community. Here, the focus is on building human, neighborhood, and system capacity, and creating a safe infrastructure. This is accomplished by: developing leadership skills, engaging residents in civic activities, educating the public and raising awareness, addressing inter-relationships among forms of violence, changing systemic approaches.
  4. Promoting peace. Here, the focus is on re-framing violence by attending to factors that alienate and isolate community members. This includes: shifting community norms, promoting a culture of nonviolence, addressing the ‘isms’and root causes of violence, and addressing community image problems.
  5. Building democracy and social justice. Finally, the focus is on holding residents, large institutions, and society accountable for sustaining peace.  This is accomplished by: developing effective and participatory citizenry, advocating for and implementing an agenda for social change that promotes a just and civil society.

    As one can see, these stages start with the neighborhood and expand to encompass ever larger ecologies, ending with the nation.


As this issue of the Collaborative Solutions Newsletter illustrates an ecological approach to community building, is simple, crucial and yet often hard to actually implement. An ecological perspective requires that we look at situations as if flying high above the ground so that we can take in what is happening to the individual and the ever enlarging environments that surround that individual from the neighborhood, to the community, to the region, to the larger institutions, systems and attitudes in the nation. From this viewpoint we can appreciate both the assets and deficits of these environments. Finally we can come to understand how these environments can change and develop over time.


Appreciative Inquiry
Bowen, L., Gwiasda, V. & Brown, M.  Engaging community residents to prevent violence Journal of Interpersonal Violence, Vol. 19, No 3, March 2004, 356-367.
Chavis, D. Strategic factors for building community: the five C’s community, connections, control, cash & collective action, Campaign Consultation Inc, 2006.
Cohen, D., Finch B., Bower, A., &  Sastry, N.  Collective efficacy and obesity: the potential influence of social factors on health , Social Science & Medicine, Vol. 62, Issue 3, Feb 2006, 769-778.
Frank, L., Sallis, J., Conway, T., Chapman, J., Saelens, B & Bachman, W. Many pathways from land use to health: associations between neighborhood walkability and active transportation, body mass index, and air quality. Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 72, No 1, Winter 2006, p75-87.
Institute for Community Peace
Kretzmann, J. & McKnight, J. Building Communities From the Inside Out,  ACTA Publications, Chicago, 1993.
Ryan, William , Blaming the Victim, Vintage Books, New York 1972.
Wolff,T. The healthy community movement: a time for transformation, National Civic Review ,Vol.92, No.2, Summer 2003, 95-111.
World Health Organization  Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion, 1986.
World Health Organization  Social Determinants of Health: The Solid Facts, Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization ,1998.

Page Top

Tools: Force Field Analysis

         Force Field Analysis was created by Kurt Lewin to help groups analyze situations and develop strategies for supporting change.  The core assumption is that all situations are dynamic and therefore motion is always possible; we are never stuck.  Thus we can understand any situation as resulting from those forces that are supporting and those forces that are opposing change.  In using a force field analysis a group first sets a goal or vision and places that across the top of the sheet of paper.  Then all those forces that are supporting getting to that goal are listed on the left-hand side of the paper. Following that the opposing forces are then listed on the right side. Interestingly, we often more easily identify those forces that are opposing our efforts than those things are supporting it. Changes are created by strengthening the supporting forces or reducing the impact of the resisting/opposing forces. After discussion of the filled out force field analysis chart, the group then moves to the second worksheet on Action Options  and brainstorms ways to either strengthen the supporting forces or reduce the resisting forces.  The charts below will allow you to apply this to an ongoing project. Try it out!  

Force Field Analysis


Project Goal: 

Supporting/Facilitating Forces

Opposing/Resisting Forces


What is working to support your goals?




What is working to oppose your goals?




Project Goal: 

Supporting/Facilitating Forces

Opposing/Resisting Forces


Actions to be taken to strengthen the supporting/facilitating forces




Actions to be taken to weaken or reduce the opposing/resisting forces

Page Top

Resources on community assets:

  1. Mapping the assets of your community: a key component for building local capacity.  Southern Rural Development Center  http:/
  2. Search Institute. The Search Institute provides leadership, knowledge and resources to promote healthy children youth in communities.  The heart of their work is a framework of 40 developmental assets which are positive experiences
    and personal qualities that young people need to grow up healthy, caring, and responsible
  3. Assets Based Community Development Institute (ABCD) is built on the work of John McKnight and John Kretzmann .ABCD makes available publications, workbooks, tools, and trainings.


Subscribe to Collaborative Solutions:


Click here to view newsletter archives.