Contents of Winter 2007 Collaborative Solutions Newsletter:

In this issue:

Addressing Issues of Social Change and Power.

Addressing Issues of Social Change and Power

        In developing collaborative solutions, we encourage groups to take actions that address issues of social change and power and that are based on a common vision. In our last newsletter, we discussed the imperative for a collaborative to act and not just talk. In this issue, we want to illustrate how these actions must address issues of social change and power. Collaboratives, coalitions, and partnerships are often composed of people who provide services that solve problems. Although these services can be critical components in people's lives, they are by no means the only solutions to all community issues. Instead, residents need to have the power to change the conditions of their lives by changing the systems and institutions that affect them.
        Here’s a typical scenario that demonstrates how the available solutions may not match a community’s most serious problems. Imagine that a group of helpers goes into a community and asks residents to identify the major problems they are facing. The people say, “There aren’t many jobs, and the jobs that are available have no benefits. The area is in economic decline and families are hurting.” Imagine that the helpers respond by saying, ”Well, we hear you, but we have a teen-pregnancy prevention grant, so how can we help you?”
        Too often providers dance away from the larger social determinants, from matters of social justice and social economics, because these issues cannot be dealt with by providing remedial services and because, very honestly, they feel that they don't know how to deal with these bigger concerns. Ultimately, we need to help communities, individuals, and families learn to do more than adapt to difficult circumstances. In the long run, we want them to develop the skills to change those difficult circumstances.
        For example, we want to do more than just provide good medical services to families in inner cities experiencing asthma. We also want to help these people mobilize and organize to change the environmental triggers that can cause asthma, including environmental hazards located in their neighborhoods and unhealthy conditions in local public housing and public schools.
        To create healthy communities, we must be willing to address issues of power. Judith Kurland, one of the founders of the Healthy Communities movement in America, has stated that our work “is not just about projects, programs or policies. Healthy Communities is about power. Unless we change the way power is distributed in this country, so that people in communities have the power to change the conditions of their lives, we will never have sustainable change” (Healthy Communities: America's Best Kept Secret, on video; see

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Community examples

            Obesity:  For example, community responses to obesity need to move beyond remedial health solutions that simply intend to change individuals’ eating habits. Addressing the problem of obesity at a community level means mobilizing people to consider issues like food selection in the public schools, the presence in the community of grocery stores that sell fresh vegetables, and access to safe exercise options, including places to walk and bike.

        North Quabbin Community Coalition: The North Quabbin area faced a transportation crisis. Low-income families were unable to go back and forth between the two largest communities to access such vital services as the hospital, the health center, and grocery stores. So the community mobilized. Led by the students in the North Quabbin Adult Literacy Program, the residents, along with the local coalition, first came up with a volunteer transportation system. Then they started advocating for change by persistently working with their state and federal representatives. Ultimately a new public transportation system was developed. In this case, a group of the people most affected by the problem--the low-income residents who were part of the adult literacy program--led the charge for change. Through the literacy program, these residents learned skills to become advocates and problem-solvers and then went on to develop strategies that produced substantial, positive changes in the transportation system that significantly benefited the whole community.

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Collaborative empowerment versus collaborative betterment

        Arthur Himmelman (1996) has contributed to our understanding of the dilemmas in coalitions and collaborative efforts by distinguishing between collaborative betterment and collaborative empowerment. I will quote somewhat extensively from his excellent writings on this topic.
        Himmelman suggests that in order “to expand and enhance self-governance and democracy, collaborative strategies must transform existing power relations and must challenge existing practices of power, wealth, and control that substantially contribute to our growing political and economic social inequities.” Himmelman sees how useful collaborative strategies are in addressing these fundamental issues of social justice.
        As someone who works with many collaborative efforts, he notes "that closer examination of existing coalitions most often reveals continuing domination and control by elites and their gatekeepers, sometimes by accident but usually by design. At their best, many collaborative efforts produce positive service changes in institutions and communities that deserve both praise and replication. Nevertheless, they generally leave the status quo in power relations untouched, because transforming power relations is viewed by most public and private funders of collaboration as outside the boundaries of de-politicized change (change that does not raise questions about or take action to transform power inequities). Indeed, government and philanthropy strongly imply that those receiving service contracts or charity need to abandon political advocacy that could challenge or fundamentally alter the status quo.”
        For Himmelman, power is not defined in terms of dominance but “as the capacity to produce intended results. This definition of power is related to feminist theories that describe power in terms of capacity, competence, and energy in contrast to traditional masculine views of power that define it as the ability to dominate or control (Hartstock 1985). Collaborative strategies should attempt to move the holders of power from domination to democratically shared power.” For this to happen in collaboratives, Himmelman suggests that they need to focus on:

  1. The importance of the quality, inclusiveness, and clarity of this vision for change.
  2. The need for better understanding and skilled practice of community organizing, which can unite diverse interests with a common vision and purpose.
  3. The need to continually expand the base of support for initiatives with new people, especially those who have not been included as decision-makers and leaders.

        Himmelman notes that localized efforts must also be coupled with “substantial policy changes and new funding for human needs at all levels of government, particularly the federal level if such initiatives are to succeed on the scale necessary. No matter how much services are integrated or improved, government is reinvented, or corporations reengineered, a focus on services, programs or profits will never be sufficient to address fundamental social issues of race, class and gender oppression and discrimination. Those using collaborative strategies to resolve these issues must recruit holders and gatekeepers of power in the processes that move them from domination and control to greatly increased democratic power sharing."
        He argues that this transformation can happen “in the collaborative process among community-based organizations and elite dominated institutions, if such processes are specifically designed to do so. Transformational collaboration must be highly creative, strategically planned, skillfully implemented and continually assessed for lessons learned.”

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So how do we address issues of social change in our collaborative efforts?

        What is required for coalitions to begin to think about social change as a core function of their work? What kinds of skills will the coalition need to develop to be effective at social change? What kinds of approaches can a coalition use to effect social change?
        In many ways it's ironic that I am now raising these questions. When I first began to do community coalition-building more than thirty years ago, the basic definitions associated with the concept of coalitions concerned building alliances among groups for short-term political change. The entire idea of coalition-building centered at that time on social change. However, coalition-building later expanded in the U.S. around issues such as the prevention of substance abuse, tobacco use, and teen pregnancies. As it did this, it came under the influence of the health and human services sector. That sector’s dominant mode involves remedial treatment and service delivery, which in turn became the dominant mode in coalitions.
        When coalitions intend to address issues of social change and power, they need to state this intention clearly in their vision, mission, and goals. If their mission is to improve the quality of life for all those living in the community, then a goal can be to build the community members’ capacity to advocate for needed changes. As the coalition proceeds, its members will need to do an environmental scan and look at each issue from an ecological perspective and understand the systems and institutions that will need to change in order for the coalition to achieve its goals (see Summer 2006 Collaborative Solutions Newsletter, link -

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Coalition Empowerment Self-Assessment Tool

This tool, which was originally published in From the Ground Up: A Workbook on Coalition Building and Community Development (Wolff and Kaye, 1995, helps a coalition examine empowerment as an aspect of all its work: goals and objectives, membership, communication, decision-making, leadership and leadership development, use of resources, coalition activities, and coalition outcomes.


        Coalitions often become involved with some form of social change and with power issues when they begin to advocate for resources or policy changes in their community.

Community examples

        The Worcester Latino Coalition was committed to increasing access to high-quality medical interpreter services in health facilities in its city. At one point, coalition members met with the CEO of a large hospital to explain that pulling Spanish-speaking cafeteria workers into the emergency room to translate did not constitute the provision of quality medical interpreter services. After a pleasant discussion, the CEO smiled and indicated that he had no intention of changing the hospital’s practices. However, a few years later, when this coalition joined up with others across the state and created the Babel Coalition, the larger group was able to effectively advocate for legislation that mandated the provision of appropriate interpreter services in hospitals across the state.

        Tobacco Advocacy: Lawsuits against tobacco companies have also been used as a social-change strategy. When the suits were successful, some of the settlement money was spread to community coalitions across the country that were working to prevent tobacco use. Many of these coalitions had clear social-change agendas and worked to pass local ordinances that banned the use of tobacco in restaurants, public buildings, and workplaces. These coalitions became powerful forces for social change. And their efforts were effective. The coalitions working to limit tobacco-use in America have made a comprehensive social change in our culture that is easy to take for granted until travel reminds us of how things used to be. On a recent trip to Europe, our family was amazed at what it was like to be in environments that were smoked-filled--including restaurants, stores, and even schools.

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Organizing and social action techniques

        Saul Alinsky, (1971) a founder of community organizing in this country, employed social-change strategies that stressed conflict and confrontation. His approach to the organization of social action addressed power imbalances by having outside change-agents work to create dissatisfaction with the status quo among the people most affected by an issue. The outside organizers would then build community-wide engagement with the problem and with identification of the issues. Finally, the organizers would assist community members in bringing about change by devising winnable goals and nonviolent conflict strategies (Minkler, 2002).

A community example

        The Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO, description adapted from is a broad-based organization that works to coalesce, train, and organize the communities of Greater Boston across all religious, racial, ethnic, class, and neighborhood lines for the public good. The organization’s primary goal is to develop local leadership and organized power to fight for social justice. It strives to make holders of both public and private power accountable for their public responsibilities, as well as to initiate actions and programs of its own to solve community and economic problems. GBIO focuses on multiple issues. The issues the coalition works on come from within its participating institutions, from the concerns of the people. GBIO is affiliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF, the organization originally created by Saul Alinsky) and is inspired by the 65 other IAF-affiliated organizations working in cities and metropolitan areas across the U.S.
        Key achievements for GBIO have included: leading a state-wide campaign that won passage of the State of Massachusetts’ $100 million Housing Trust Fund; working successfully for a $30 million annual increase in the state capital budget for housing; and organizing with the Justice for Janitors campaign to win significant pay and benefit increases for area janitors. Most recently, as part of a comprehensive health-coverage bill passed in Massachusetts, GBIO has taken the lead in shaping a public debate about what is truly affordable for Massachusetts residents when it comes to health-care costs. More than 350 members of GBIO congregations participated in small-group "affordability workshops," in which each workshop participant constructed a detailed monthly budget and subtracted all non-discretionary, non-health-care expenses from their income in order to identify how much was left over with which to purchase health insurance.

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Getting involved in the political system

        Coalitions often shy away from getting involved with the political system. It is true that 501(c) 3 organizations are legally unable to endorse candidates or campaign for candidates. However, it is extremely appropriate, and generally entirely legal, for coalitions to be involved in educating state and federal legislators about key issues that are occurring in their communities(Arons,1999). There is a difference between educating one's legislators and lobbying them. How can we expect legislators to know about what's really happening in a community without talking to the people who live there? It is clearly legitimate for a coalition to provide forums where legislators can hear about critical issues. It is also appropriate for a coalition to inform legislators about the consequences for their constituents of various pieces of legislation and funding decisions.
        So when we think about coalitions or collaboratives and their role in social change, we need to think about how they can build solid, ongoing relationships with their local political representatives. At the same time, we cannot rely on the political system alone to produce solutions.
        Although becoming acquainted with your local elected officials may seem like a basic and obvious action to take, it is not common practice. In one project, the Health Access Networks (Outreach Works: Strategies for Expanding Health Access to Communities, we were involved in running sixty meetings a year across the state to examine issues of health access. Every month, we held five meetings in different locations. At these meetings, we would bring together a group that consisted of health-access outreach workers, representatives of the area’s hospitals, health centers, Medicaid offices, and people from the statewide health-advocacy group. Together we would discuss what was happening around health access: what the barriers were, and what was working to get people who did not have health insurance enrolled in coverage.
        At the meetings, we would often encourage attendees to call their legislators about a specific bill or funding issue. After many months of doing this, we checked in and asked how many people were actually calling their legislators. Only a few hands went up. We then asked who in the room had ever spoken to a legislator. Again, only a few hands went up.
        At that point, we redesigned the next month's meeting. We began it with a role-playing exercise in which everybody practiced calling a state legislator. In Massachusetts, the process of connecting with a legislator often involves speaking first with a young person who answers the phone and takes messages. The role playing helped demonstrate to the members of this coalition that calling one’s legislator was not a threatening experience. It got them engaged for the first time in that part of the political and social-change system. It also reminded me not to assume that our colleagues in the health and human service system have had experience with calling their elected officials.

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Community examples

The East Bay Public Safety Corridor Partnership: Uniting Against Violence

        (Excerpt taken from a case study written by The Institute for Community Peace,
"You can improve the health of your community,” asserts Deane Calhoun, executive director of Youth Alive! She, along with many others, is an active participant in the East Bay Public Safety Corridor Partnership, a vast public and private coalition involving individuals, community and nonprofit groups, city and county governments, school districts, and law enforcement agencies, located in the San Francisco Bay area in northern California. The coalition’s goal: to build healthy communities by uniting against violence.
         In response to spiraling numbers of cases of homicide involving guns, the partnership was formed in 1993, initially to "reduce crime and violence in order to promote a safer, healthier and more economically viable environment." Its work originally emphasized violence prevention. The successful partnership has become the nation's largest anti-violence collaboration. In 1999, the group changed its mission and endorsed the public-health approach to violence prevention. The partnership now exists "to promote a safer, healthier and more economically viable environment by reducing crime and violence." This change in intention may be subtle, but it stresses the overarching positive goal of work toward "healthy communities."
        "Things are different now," says youth advocate Calhoun. "People used to think, ‘There is nothing we can do about violent crime.’ Now we know there is. We have created a very genuine and substantial message of hope that is spreading to other communities across the nation."
        Thanks to successful efforts by the East Bay Public Safety Corridor Partnership, laws that strictly regulate and restrict access to guns have led to a steep decline in violence that involves guns throughout the urban East Bay region. “In one year, 28 cities and counties, including some outside the region, had passed laws against junk guns. The partnership had taken an approach that involved changing the laws and successfully managed campaigns against handguns in community after community. The coalition’s full youth-violence prevention initiative included many other, more traditional approaches to violence prevention, but the partnership became known nationwide for its gun-restricting legislative component.

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Cleghorn Neighborhood Center (CNC)

        The Cleghorn Neighborhood Center (CNC) is located in a low-income Latino community in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, an economically struggling small city. The CNC shifted from a model of delivering services to the community to a model of community building, community development, and community organizing. As they made this change, the residents talked in their biweekly community group meetings about their hopes for better opportunities in this country. Many thought that helping people earn their GEDs would be a smart first step. As part of their commitment to a community-building model, the Cleghorn Neighborhood Center staff paired the GED training with training in community leadership and community organizing.
        When the students had completed their GED course, one group decided to take its GED exams in Spanish at a local community college and another group took its exams in a larger urban city. Those who took the test at the local college reported that instructions were given in English and had to be translated by the CNC staff. They said that they did not feel very well respected or well treated by the people who administered the exam. The group that went to the large urban area had a totally different experience. They felt welcomed and supported, in part because instructions were given in both Spanish and English.
        Area residents were outraged by the GED testing experience at the local college. They formed an action group, the Adult Education Committee, to work on adult education. With the help of the CNC staff, they arranged a meeting with the college's vice president. At this meeting, the local residents presented their experience and their demands. Seven residents spoke and another 20 attended the meeting. The vice president was impressed and passed on the impressions of these Latino residents to the president of the college, along with recommendations for change. These changes are now slowly being implemented. The residents continue to be involved in their Adult Education Committee and in discussions with the college.

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Power-based versus relationship-based social change

        In the search for collaborative solutions, a conflict seems to exist between those who focus on power-based social change (community organizing) and relationship-based social change (community building). Those who use the power-based approach believe that in order to effect change citizens must form organizations that aim to transform and redistribute power. The relationship-based approach works for change by building strong, caring, and respectful relationships among all members. Extremists from both sides feel that the two approaches are incompatible. They find fault with the other side. Power-based organizing is criticized for its inability to build relationships. Relationship-based community organizing is said to discourage individuals from becoming engaged in political action and power-broking for fear of violating established relationships. This conflict arises frequently and is a challenge for all of us who know how much good work collaborative solutions can accomplish.
        In fact, social change requires a mix of advocacy and relationship building. Jack Rothman’s categorization of community organizing has been the standard for many decades (Rothman and Tropman, 1987). Originally Rothman talked about three distinct models of practice: locality development, social planning, and social action. More recently, Rothman has suggested that many professionals are using a “mixing and phasing” of the three models.
        So, facing these differences in our approaches, how do we proceed?
        Inspiration came to me during a weekly Jewish meditation I attend. There I found this quote: "To be holy is for power and beauty to be in perfect harmony." The words grabbed me immediately. It seems to me that they speak to the significant issues in the world and to the strategy dilemmas described above. The quote suggested to me that there may be a way to find harmony while simultaneously building relationships and dealing with power issues. This harmony may be the future of collaborative solutions.
        When we think of building a community, either of the two approaches will not work as effectively alone as the combination of the two works together. I have seen confrontational community-organizing techniques damage relationships. I have also experienced times when, despite excellent personal relationships, the people in power still say, “Sorry. We won't change the system no matter how much we like you."
        I have also seen situations in which these two approaches have worked together very well:

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Community Example:

        Lower Outer Cape Community Coalition: In this community, our coalition ended up in conflict with the local hospital. The coalition was working on community benefits, as designated by the attorney general. The hospital’s community benefits committee was made up of 22 members, 18 of whom were hospital employees or affiliates. The coalition wanted more real community representation on the committee and protested. Coalition representatives went to the media and pushed hard for committee membership to be opened up. The hospital was not happy. The coalition’s vision was that ultimately it wanted to partner with the hospital, not to back it into an impossible corner. Yet its participants would not leave this issue.
        Later, as leadership changed at the hospital, coalition members were invited to join the search committee for a new CEO. Since the arrival of the new leader, the coalition has been in partnership with the hospital and is moving forward on healthy-community issues. The membership of the hospital’s community benefits committee has shifted in the direction desired by the coalition. In this case, the coalition used power-oriented community organizing tactics at the same time that it held onto its ultimate goal of creating a respectful partnership with the hospital
I suggest that we look at our work in a new way, by creating new theories and a new collection of anecdotes that match the needs of social change for this period of history in which we are living. We cannot ignore power issues in a country where the separation between rich and poor has become extreme, where for-profit hospitals and health care providers are becoming more prevalent, where dollars dominate elections, where the media are controlled by a handful of individuals, and where black and Hispanic young men are incarcerated at alarming rates. We will sometimes need power organizing to address these issues.
        At the same time, we have seen a decline in civic engagement and volunteerism and a decreased sense of neighborhood and community. This shows that we cannot ignore relationship building; community building is still a critical process.
        We need both approaches, and we need models that will allow us to integrate power organizing and relationship building as we work toward social change, using the method that matches the situation and that maximizes our capacity to reach our goals.

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Resources and References



Alinsky, S. Rules for Radicals, Vintage Books, New York , 1971

Aron, D. Oh yes,nonprofits can and do advocate for legislation! A quick primer on lobbying.The New England NonProfit Quarterly ,Fall 1999 p 52-55.

DeChiara,M., Unruh,E., Wolff,T., and Rosen,A. Outreach Works: Strategies for Expanding Health Access in Communities, AHEC Community Partners,2001.

Greater Boston Interfaith Organization

Hartstock, N. Money, Sex and Power: Toward A Feminist Historical Materialism Boston, MA. Northeastern University Press 1985

Institute for Community Peace:

Himmelman, A. On the theory and practice of transformational collaboration: From social service to social justice. In Creating Collaborative Advantage Ed. Chris Huxham Sage Publications, London 1996

McKnight, J. Do no harm: policy options that meet human needs. Social Policy, Summer 1989 p 5-15.

Minkler, M. (Ed) Community Organizing and Community Building for Health, Rutgers University Press, New Jersey 2002

Rothman, J. and J.E. Tropman  Models of community organization and macropractice: Their mixing and phasing. Strategies of Community Organization ed. F.M. Cox, J.L. Erlich, J. Rothman, J.E. Tropman. Itasca, Ill :Peacock 1987

Wolff, T., and Kaye, G. (eds).  From the Ground Up:  A Workbook on CoalitionBuilding and Community Development, AHEC Community Partners, Spring 1995. 

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Resource: Real Clout and Real Clout Workbook

Real Clout by Judy Meredith and Cathy Dunham is an excellent how-to manual for community activists who want to change public policy. Although the focus is on health-care policy at the state and county levels, these materials are generic enough to apply to almost all policy arenas. This extremely smart and practical manual walks you through the steps.
Among the chapter titles are these:

What Is Public Policy? And Who Makes It?
Public Policymaking in the Administrative Branch
Making Public Policy in the Legislative Branch
How to Influence a Public Policy
Practical Applications: Campaign Implementation Tools

Real Clout is available for free download online at Also online is the recent The Real Clout Workbook, written for both grassroots leaders and professional advocates.

Tom Wolff & Associates Recent Clients 2004-2006

Arts Extension Service, Univ. Mass.
Boston U. Sch. Public Health, Campus Community Partnership Program
Connect to Protect, HIV Prevention
CDC Rape Prevention Education
CDC Project Escape, Violence Prevention
CDC Division on Oral Health
Centers for Medicaid & Medicare Services, End Stage Renal Disease Program
Champions for Progress, Utah
Cleghorn Neighborhood Center
Council on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Hudson Falls, NY 
Dept Psychology Wichita State Univ
Dept Psychology Georgia State University
Enlace, Holyoke MA
Health Communities Access Program, HRSA
Holyoke Planning Network
Institute for Non Profit Development Mt.Wachusett Community College
Kansas Health Foundation
Meharry Medical College           
MetroWest Community Health Care Foundation
Mary Black Foundation Spartanburg SC
Mass. SABES (System for Adult Basic Education Support)
Meriden and Wallingford Substance Abuse Council, CT
MATCH, Tobacco Coalition
National Parkinson Foundation,
North Quabbin Community Coalition
Nevada Oral Health Coalition
North Central Massachusetts Minority Coalition
Prevent Institute. School of Public Health U North Carolina
Reach 2010 Coalition Boston Public Health Coalition
SAMHSA, Community Coalitions, Rockville, MD
State Solutions Rutgers NJ
Tennessee Dept of Health  
US Breast Feeding Coalition
West Central Initiative Community Change Fergus Falls, MN
Vermont Conference on Addictive Disorders

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