Contents of Winter 2005 Collaborative Solutions Newsletter:

In this issue:

Collaborative Solutions - Engaging the Community

1. Agency-Based and Community-Based Approaches.
2. Four approaches that work:
            Leadership development
            Community outreach workers
            Community organizers

      Right Question Project

       In our last newsletter, we talked about the six key components of collaborative solutions. In this newsletter, we would like to focus on the first component in more detail: Engaging a broad spectrum of the community, especially those most directly affected by the issues.

The Community as an Empowered Partner – a Tale

       Len Syme, a respected professor emeritus of public health, recently reviewed his career’s work in light of the concept of the engaged community. His personal, frank, and self-critical analysis offers a good place for us to begin our discussion of the importance of engaging the community in our work.

      "While we in public health know the importance of involving community partners in our programs, we also know how difficult it is to do. The challenge of involving the community is especially difficult if one has been trained, as I have been trained, to be an arrogant, elitist prima donna. I am the "expert," after all, and I help people by sharing my expertise.
       "Let me begin by describing my own humbling attempts at community involvement through a smoking-cessation project I directed several years ago in Richmond, California. I came to the project with a dismal record in assisting people individually to quit smoking, so in the Richmond project I resolved to take a different tack; I designed the Richmond project as a community project. By having a block captain in every neighborhood in Richmond, I planned to involve the business community, the schools, and community groups. My idea was to change the climate in Richmond with regard to smoking by challenging its acceptance, its values, and its attractiveness.
       "Toward that end, I wrote a brilliant 5-year research grant and sent it to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). It was a bold, expensive project at $2 million, and for that reason NCI sent a large site-visit team to discuss it. By the end of the visit, NCI agreed that my project was brilliant, and in fact later used the design as the basis for the nationwide COMMIT study conducted in more than 20 communities around the nation.
        "With NCI's enthusiastic support, we proceeded to implement the project for 5 years. Our team worked hard, followed the design carefully, and at the end of 5 years we compared the results we achieved in smoking cessation with our 2 comparison communities, Oakland and San Francisco. We found no difference in smoking quit rates. It was only later, after I finished brooding, that I understood the challenges of that community-partnership model. Richmond is a very poor city. It has many unemployed people, high crime and drug use, very few health services, and air pollution from nearby oil refineries. Of all the problems faced by people in that community, I doubt that smoking was very high on their priority list. But of course I had never asked them about their priorities, and even if I had, I probably would have persisted with my plan anyway; I was, after all, the expert.
       "I learned another painful lesson from that experience. Early in the Richmond project, a group of teenagers came to us and said they would like to make a rock video about smoking. They offered to write the music and the words, but wanted our help to invite a famous rock star — I can't remember her name now — to spend one day on the project, and they wanted a music-video director from Hollywood to come, too. We hadn't budgeted for such expenses, but we did it anyway. The rock star came in her limousine and the Hollywood director showed them how to set up the scenes for filming. Afterward, the students showed the video they produced at a large movie theater in the community. They printed the tickets for this show, made the advertisements, and served as ushers, and the sold-out show received a long standing ovation from the audience. The video was subsequently shown in many places around the world, and the community received royalty money for it.
       "Unfortunately, the video was not part of my brilliant research plan, and we had no money to evaluate its benefits. So the one thing in the project that came from the community — and incidentally the one thing that probably made the biggest impact — was not conceived, implemented, or evaluated by our research team. So much for my brilliance.
       "To add to my embarrassment, the nationwide COMMIT study, based on my Richmond design, reported its results: the study failed to show a difference in smoking cessation rates between the study and comparison communities.
       "Why was it so hard for us — for me — to see the importance of embracing the community as an empowered partner?"

(Syme, S. L. Social determinants of health: the community as an empowered partner. Prev. Chronic Dis. [serial online] 2004 Jan [date cited]. Available from: URL:

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Engaging the Community

          Syme’s stories, comments, and questions are provocative.
       In our experience, those who approach community work from a framework of community development or organization understand from the outset how critically important it is to conceive of the community as an empowered partner. However, in many situations, the resources for working in community are held by the health and human services system, not by groups focused on community development. As a helping system, health and human services are deeply flawed when it comes to working with communities. John McKnight has pointed out that health and human services institutions see the community in terms of its deficits, and they find meaning in their capacity to fix those deficits.
        McKnight strongly suggests an alternative approach based on a community’s strengths and assets. This approach includes three simple steps (1) identify the community's assets, (2) connect these assets, and (3) harness the assets to a community vision. While these steps are simple, they require people who know the community well enough to identify its strengths and to have access to its key members.
        Successful engagement of a broad spectrum of the community also requires that solutions to an issue be developed by those who are most directly affected by it. As long as we continue to "do for" rather than "do with," we will continue to experience the kinds of failures and frustrations that Syme describes so well.
        Why involve the community? What are the benefits of involving grassroots organizations and leaders? What essential and missing offerings do they bring to the table?

       • Local community groups can communicate with people that outsiders
          can’t reach.
       • Community members know about, and can connect with, both formal
          and informal leaders.
       • The often-overlooked informal leaders have constituencies,
          knowledge, and clout.
       • Community members know what has and hasn’t worked in the past.
          They are the community historians.
       • Community members can promote ownership of and participation in
          the project.
       • Because of their breadth and depth of local knowledge, community
          members are the best architects of the solutions.
       • Community members can help create positive social norms.
       • Local community organizations build local leadership

Agency Based and Community Based Approaches

         In our work, we have found it constructive to help programs clarify the assumptions behind their approach to the community. It’s most important to be able to distinguish between agency-based and community-based initiatives. Too often, we talk about developing a program in which the community will be an empowered partner, but the strategies we use are agency-based rather than community-based. Community empowerment can only be achieved through the community-based approach. The chart below allows us to look at the difference between agency-based and community-based approaches. (The chart comes in part from the work of David Chavis and Paul Florin, with adaptations by Tom Wolff and Gillian Kaye.)

Approach Weakness/deficit Strength/asset
Definition of
the problem
By agencies and/or
By local community
Role of professional(s) Central to decision-making
Resource for
Primary decision-
Agencies and/or
Community members
Potential for community ownership Low High
control of resources
Low High

       If you determine that your programming and work sit in the “agency-based” column, yet, like Syme, you would like to have the community as an empowered partner, a big question arises: How do you move your work to the "community-based" column?

       We’ve seen programs that tear their hair out around this question, yet often the answer can be quite simple—if you are willing to commit resources to your vision. Good results can be obtained with small or large amounts of resources. So instead of complaining about the lack of community response, we can do something about it. All we need to do is make a commitment and use our resources wisely.

Four Approaches That Work

       There are four ways in which we have seen communities use small or large amounts of resources to increase community members’ engagement. Each has a high percentage of success. They involve the use of:

1. mini-grants,
2. leadership development,
3. community outreach workers, and
4. community organizers.

        Let’s look at these approaches one at a time.

# 1 Mini-grants

      Mini-grants are small grants aimed specifically at engaging the community. We’ve seen mini-grants as small as $100, and as large as $5,000. In general, the grant is small enough not to interest large institutions, but large enough to be attractive to community associations and grassroots organizations that are interested in the issue at hand.
       In one community, we were working on the issue of traffic safety. Other than the police department, it was hard to identify members of the community who were interested in traffic safety. By offering mini-grants of between $200 and $500 on issues related to traffic safety, we were able to bring many groups out of the woodwork. These included the volunteers on the town’s ambulance, who saw the effects of people not using car safety belts; a Girl Scout troop; a health educator in the high school; and a church group. Small amounts of money given to these groups led to interesting and innovative approaches to traffic safety. More importantly, they made connections within the community and set up new partnerships for the traffic safety program.
      Here’s another example. In Rockford, Illinois, a violence-prevention program was trying to build a partnership with the Black community without much luck. The program offered $5000 in mini-grants to Black churches that wanted to become involved in summer programming for youth that would focus on violence prevention. A number of churches applied and were awarded grants. Over the summer, as the churches began to offer their programs, the violence-prevention program trained church groups in critical violence-prevention issues and built meaningful partnerships with them. By the end of the summer, a number of ministers had joined the board of the violence-prevention initiative and an ongoing partnership was formed to address community issues of violence prevention. (See, The Institute for Community Peace)
       Before you offer mini-grants, you will need to find answers to a handful of critical questions:

      • how you will get the word out to groups to apply,
      • how you will help informal community associations fill out a formal          application,
      • how you will keep the application simple,
      • how you will support the groups in completing their tasks, and
      • how you will maximize the potential for building a partnership with          these community groups during the mini-grant period.

(For more information see Tip Sheet on Mini Grants in Tools and Resources (mini- grant tip sheet)

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# 2 Leadership Development

       When we develop projects for people in what we have identified as “target communities” and ”target populations,” we often bemoan our inability to find members of those communities who can come forward and take leadership positions. It’s enormously helpful to change our thinking so that we assume that community leaders already exist and it's our task to locate them. While we’re making assumptions, we can also assume that members of most disenfranchised populations have not had the opportunity to learn leadership skills. Therefore, in addition to finding the existing leaders we need to create opportunities for other people to develop leadership skills.
       Our experience leads us to believe that in any community there are large numbers of people who would like to become leaders and are willing to work to gain the skills of leadership. However, in disenfranchised communities many (if not most) of these people won’t believe that they have what it takes to be a leader. They have absorbed negative social messages and have backed away from leadership roles. Leadership development and training give these individuals the skills and the self-confidence to become both effective and empowered.

       In Athol, Massachusetts, when we began a grassroots child-abuse prevention program, we knew that we would need to provide leadership opportunities for “at risk” parents and other interested people. We found a leadership-development program that worked. Called Master Teacher, it was also simple to implement. The Athol community’s Valuing Our Children child-abuse prevention program has been using it for more than a decade to train parents as community leaders. (The program was developed by Marge Slinski; They created a variation of Master Teacher that they called ACE (Active Community Education).
       One community leader, Maggie Britt, described her experience this way: “I took the Master Teacher program and learned leadership skills for community volunteering. I learned for the first time that I could participate in my child's education. I started volunteering at his school, and then got a job as Assistant School-linked Coordinator, to run after school activity programs. The Master Teacher program helped me understand the value of volunteering in my community. The program also offers ongoing training, to help me to continue to grow as a leader in my community." (Community Catalyst Newsletter, Community Partners, March 1998 Vol.7, No.1)
       There are numerous other leadership-development curricula that are of great value. Another one that we've employed is the Right Question Project. We originally worked with RQP to help train low-income parents to become advocates for their children's education. Since that time, RQP has broadly expanded its vision and developed many resources that can be checked out at their web site (; for more information- see Resources in this Newsletter).
       An investment in leadership development pays off throughout the community and for many years. Most importantly, the community will gain valuable new leaders drawn from disenfranchised populations. For your specific program, these newly trained leaders can become the most crucial link between you and the community.

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# 3 Community Outreach Workers

      Community outreach workers are a growing group of key personnel in health, human services and community development. Community outreach workers act as connectors between residents (consumers) and the local system of services and programs. They are especially being used in health and public-health programs to provide information and care to critical populations that have traditionally lacked access to services. These workers can do a wide array of jobs in the community. They can provide health promotion, social support, advocacy, community organization, and case-finding services, and they can act as change-agents within the community.
      What makes community outreach workers unique is that they come from the community that they work in and they are familiar with its characteristics. This familiarity gives them the ability to efficiently develop and implement strategies designed to address local, specific needs. They comprehend the myriad situations of individuals and families in their communities. They understand the local culture. They become the link between formal helping programs and the community.

      In Massachusetts, the state passed legislation that essentially provided universal health-care coverage for all children. We were faced with the challenge of enrolling all uninsured children in available programs, but how? We turned to a model based on the local power of community outreach workers. First the state had to be convinced that the outreach workers could solve their problem. Then we lobbied for $1 million in local grants. Using these resources, an army of outreach workers was built to engage every community and sub-community across the state and inform eligible parents that their children could have universal health-care coverage. Because of the local grants, there were outreach workers in most new-immigrant communities, communities of color, rural communities, and urban communities with large numbers of disenfranchised residents. The program was enormously successful, and Massachusetts became one of the most successful states in the nation in enrolling uninsured children. (In the Resources section of, see Outreach Works, M. DeChiara, E. Unruh, T. Wolff, and A. Rosen).
      The field of community outreach workers is becoming increasingly recognized, structured, and formalized. Within the American Public Health Association, there is now an official study group dedicated to community outreach workers. These workers provide an enormously effective method for engaging and empowering a broad spectrum of the community.

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# 4 Community Organizers

      Community organizers offer a fourth way to engage a diverse and broad spectrum of the community in partnership. Community organization is the process of mobilizing and bringing together individuals and groups to collectively address and improve community conditions. Community organizers help groups (1) identify common problems and/or goals, (2) gather resources, and (3) develop and implement strategies for reaching the goals that they’ve collectively set. Community organizers work to mobilize members of their identified community, so that people can come to the table in community-wide efforts that involve both broad representation and effective organization. When that happens, the community as a whole becomes a mobilized partner.
      Too often, a lone community resident who sits at the table with representatives of the formal sector does not see themselves as a legitimate representative or carrying any negotiating power. This is well illustrated in the remarkable consistency with which community residents introduce themselves at the start of meetings. As we go around the table, the formal-sector representatives will say, "I'm John Doe from ABC hospital" or "I'm Jane Doe with QRS School." All too often, the resident will say, "I'm just Mary Doe." Whoever taught people to say "I'm just . . . " as a way of introducing themselves? And yet I have heard this refrain in communities from coast-to-coast. Organizing provides a framework so that residents can come to the table and say,” I’m Mary Doe from the XYZ Neighborhood Association".
      When the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition in Massachusetts wanted to increase residents’ involvement in their coalition’s efforts, they hired a community organizer. This person’s goal was to revive neighborhood associations across the city of North Adams. Earlier in the century, there had been a long history of neighbor associations, but they were dying out. The organizer was able to revitalize these associations. As a result, neighborhood conditions improved, more residents participated in the coalition's efforts, and the mayor and the city publicly recognized the importance of neighborhoods.
      In another example from a different part of Massachusetts, the North Quabbin Adult Education Center saw its mission as not just teaching literacy but also empowering and organizing its adult students. The students became community organizers and the mainstay behind the community-wide effort to provide transportation among the communities within the region and between that region and the major cities both to the east and west. The persistence of this group of adult learners led to a brand-new, federally funded transportation system that in its first year provided 23,000 rides.

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      As an alternative to complaining about the lack of community engagement and our inability to involve those most affected by any given issue, we suggest that there are effective, simple options: mini-grants, leadership development, outreach workers, and community organizers. Pick one to experiment with. Try it—you’ll like it!

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Community Development Can Work Even in the Most Stressful Environments

      Even in extreme situations community engagement can be a critical component of success for social programs. I recently read a fascinating newspaper column by Rob Schultheis in The Boston Globe (12/27/04). Schultheis described his observations of the Army civil-affairs teams and their work in neighborhoods in Baghdad, Iraq. This is an area that is certainly as high-stress and conflict-ridden as anything I can imagine. Yet even in this environment Schultheis discovered the success of a community-development approach. The Army’s civil affairs teams have done neighborhood-level aid work, including repairing sewers and building parks and soccer fields. They’ve helped establish neighborhood councils and women's groups, and they’ve nurtured these associations until the groups became important parts of local community life. Schultheis notes that because of this kind of civil-affairs intervention, these neighborhoods have remained islands of calm when other parts of Baghdad were going up in flames. Schultheis concludes that “turning enemies into friends is a whole lot cheaper than fighting them” (Schultheis’ book, Waging Peace, will be published in June 2005.)

      Engaging a broad spectrum of the community, especially those most directly affected by the issues can bring the community to the table as an empowered partner. Our success in communities depends on our capacity first to set this as a goal and then, more importantly, to learn how to succeed in reaching it.

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       COMM-ORG offers abundant information about community organizing and community development. COMM-ORG is an online conference that maintains a listserve for its participants. This is a lively and very helpful listserve. Its web site ( includes papers, syllabi, and tools focused on community organizing. The mission of COMM-ORG is 1) to help connect people who care about the craft of community organizing; 2) to find and provide information that organizers, scholars, and scholar-organizers can use to learn, teach, and do community organizing; and, 3) to involve COMM-ORG members in meeting those goals. The basic beliefs of COMM-ORG are that community organizers and academics can both benefit by exchanging information and resources. COMM-ORG membership is composed of about half academics and half practitioners. Recently, a client called me and asked if I had a job description for a community organizer position. When he called I was not my office, so I suggested that he join the listserve of COMM-ORG and post his question as a request. Not only did he get numerous responses, he also was referred to a part of their web site where he found more than 200 previously posted community-organizing want ads that he could use as models. This is a terrific resource.

The Right Question Project (RQP)

       The Right Question Project (RQP) is another very useful resource for building community leaders. RQP helps people engage in expanding democratic participation by helping people help themselves. RQP is an easy-to-use educational strategy that has already had enormous impact on the lives of low- and moderate-income families. RQP seeks to empower people so that their encounters with the outposts of government (schools, the health care system, housing programs, and so forth) become opportunities to act democratically and have democratic experiences. They call this “microdemocracy.” RQP products available on the website ( include:

1. The Question Formulation Technique
2. Parent Involvement in Their Children's Education: Curriculum and
     Report Cards.
3. The Tool: Workshops on practicing the question formulation skills and
     applying them
4. Applying the Question Formulation Technique to Health Care: Using
     questions to advocate for my child
        We have partnered with RQP in school, community and health care settings, and always gotten great results.

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