Reflections on Community Organizing and Resident Engagement in the Rebuilding Communities Initiative

in Asset-Based Community Development, Organizing, Resident Associations

Reflections on Community Organizing

Reflections on Community Organizing and Resident Engagement in the Rebuilding Communities Initiative.

Bill Traynor. Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Reflections of a community’s struggle with resident engagement and community organizing. The report’s focus in on understanding the role and practice of community organizing and resident engagement in the context of a comprehensive community change initiative.


We tried many things; some worked, some did not. Throughout the process, we all participated in a collective struggle to understand and master the challenge of effective resident engagement in a complex, multi-faceted comprehensive community initiative … This monograph is a reflection on their struggle. Its focus is on understanding the role and practice of community organizing and resident engagement in the context of a comprehensive community change initiative. It is based on my own reflections on their work as well as the thoughts and experiences of dozens of residents, activists, and professionals who have been involved in RCI.

  • It is difficult to establish strong and reliable measures of success. To complicate matters further, the rhetoric of resident engagement and community building is now so banal as to render much of it meaningless.
  • The truth is this work is difficult to do well, especially over a long period of time. Moreover, even successful community-based organizations (CBOs), such as those selected to participate in RCI, face significant challenges as they try to build capacity to do this work.
  • At its core is the challenge of engaging residents and other stakeholders to shape new thinking, new policies, new actions, and new visions. Of course, this requires a new approach to how CBOs identify, educate, activate, and mobilize their constituencies.

Lessons learned:

  • Community building efforts can only be successful if they are concerned both with building social capital and implementing an agenda for change.
  • For many groups, the shift to a community-building approach represents a wholesale shift in organizational culture and operations.
  • An investment in developing professional community organizing capacity is necessary to get results from community-building work.
  • Community-building efforts suffer from a dangerous combination of high expectations and meager resources.

Community building is more an orientation than a technique, more a mission than a program, more an outlook than an activity. It catalyzes a process of change grounded in local life and priorities. It addresses the development needs of individuals, families, and organizations within the neighborhood. It changes the nature of the relationship between the neighborhood and the systems outside its boundaries. Community building is based on the belief that inner-city residents and institutions can and must be primary actors in efforts to solve the problems of their neighborhoods. – Lisbeth B. Schorr, Common Purposes: Strengthening Families and Neighborhoods to Rebuild America

  • The first objective of community building work should be building and sustaining a vibrant, active, and representative grassroots infrastructure in places where it has been historically weak. Most communities have achieved some level of community-based organization, and this is certainly true of the RCI sites. But it usually does not add up to an infrastructure.
  • The second objective should be transforming the range of community-building activities in a given community into some form of collective agenda and action for change. A community-building effort that lacks an ambitious agenda to change conditions is a pilgrimage to nowhere.
  • The third objective should be to place residents at the center of the community- building effort; residents must define and drive the agenda for change. Resident involvement is the only reliable indication that the change agenda will indeed be connected to the genuine needs of the community, and that the community-building solutions will have an impact.

Understanding the Field of Community Organizing

The organizers’ role is to identify community leaders, bring those people together around a common cause, and help the group identify its issues and objectives, plan a campaign, and then win. Community organizers believe that:

  • Organizing is about building personal relationships and changing the ways in which people interact;
  • Organizing is essentially a two step process: understanding individuals’ self-interests (broadly defined) and then helping them find connections so they can act collectively with others who share their same interests;
  • A good organizer possesses strong feelings of love and outrage: love for people and outrage at the circumstances in which some people live;
  • Good organizing is about doing a few things extremely well; and
  • Every activity is an opportunity to learn and to grow and to build skills.

In the context of neighborhood transformation, it is important to distinguish among a number of most prevalent forms.

  • Faith-Based/Church-Based Organizing – Practiced by many of the major organizing networks – such as Industrial Areas Foundation, Pacific Institute for Community Organization, and the Gamaliel Foundation — this type of organizing seeks to build an “organization of organizations” to address issues of social and economic justice.
  • Neighborhood-based Organizing – This is place-based organizing focused on building an organization of individuals and grassroots groups at the neighborhood level to mobilize for local changes. Individual and house meetings are the principal organizing techniques used to identify leaders and issues. Typical issues range from crime and safety concerns to housing to city services and open spaces. (e.g.  ACORN)
  • Consumer/Citizen Issues Organizing – Largely practiced by regional coalitions and some statewide citizen action: organizations, this type of organizing focuses on consumer issues  such as health care, utility rates, insurance issues, and other issues that impact the pocketbook.
  • Identity Organizing – This approach is rooted in issues of economic and social justice and is connected with race, gender, sexual orientation, or other group identity.
  • Consensus Organizing – This style of organizing, principally practiced by the Consensus Organizing Institute of San Diego, uses many of the traditional organizing techniques, such as one-on-one and home meetings, in order to identify and build leadership for change. The major distinguishing factor of consensus organizing is that it sees conflict and confrontation tactics as destructive in communities that need to be building connections and bridges.

Community Organizing in the Context of the CBO

Unlike the existing “organizing only” groups like IAF, ACORN, and other community organizing networks, CBOs face unique challenges as they try to develop community organizing and resident engagement capacity. These include:

  • CBOs are place-locked. Their reason for existing is tied to their hegemony in a particular geographic area. This affects the type of organizing and engagement work the group is likely to pursue.
  • CBOs must perform multiple functions. They are not “organizing only” groups. They are service providers, community developers, and advocates. Community organizing is an additional activity. The operations and culture of the CBO affects how easily community organizing and resident-engagement work can be integrated into the organization’s mission.
  • CBOs may or may not have a history that allows the organizations to easily adapt to serious organizing or engagement work.
  • CBOs often do not have the supervisory personnel capable of mentoring organizers and outreach workers and directing their work.
  • CBOs whose main business is community development or service delivery usually are dependent on local, state, and federal government funds for survival. This arrangement can limit the organization’s ability to listen and respond to the needs of an organized constituency.

Community organizing skills are among the most difficult capacities for CBOs to acquire and maintain. In community organizing and resident engagement, talk is cheap. Most actors in the field know and use the lexicon of empowerment, but there is a great distance between “talking the talk” and “walking the walk.” The discrepancy between saying and doing is not necessarily intentional or malicious. The fact is that the difference between poor organizing efforts and good organizing efforts is in the details.

Another factor is the lack of cross-fertilization between community-organizing groups and community-building groups. Many community-building and neighborhood- improvement efforts are valiant struggles against great odds, led by committed, self-taught local leaders. For the most part, training and technical assistance to support such efforts have been minimal or non-existent.

But where to do people learn about power? How do people learn to build democratic organizations? How are leaders to learn the skills of conflict management and strategic thinking? Where do they find out how local markets and systems work?

These organizations and these leaders have not been well served by community organizing groups. For the most part, established community organizing training centers and intermediaries have been unwilling to see CBOs as valuable to the social and economic justice agendas they promote. Rather, they have seen them as a distraction, taking resources and attention away from the “real” organizing work that must be done. And the major organizing groups have been too consumed with establishing and maintaining a narrow niche within a small field to think about expanding the realm of constituent groups for which community organizing skills might be useful.

For their part, many community builders are skeptical and more than a little wary of working with established community organizing groups. Prepackaged approaches, an emphasis on confrontation tactics, and the perception of organizers as arrogant and ideological has turned off many a neighborhood leader and CBO executive director. In some cases, community leaders and CBOs will describe experiences with community organizing groups that “have come in, stirred up a lot of trouble, and left town.”

For years, the dialogue in the field between community-organizing groups and community development groups has been stifling and static. In fact, organizations on both sides have much to gain from the cross-fertilization of thinking, strategies, tactics, and projects. The perception of differences on both sides is far greater than the reality. These perceptions have led to a hardening of the ideological and methodological lines that separate both the organizers from the community builders and the organizing groups from each other. One major factor is the preoccupation with conflict and confrontation tactics that dominates most discussions about organizing. Yet real differences do exist, which need to be better articulated and understood on both sides.

Barriers to Effective Community Organizing and Resident Engagement

  • CBOs must overcome the “caretaker” culture that dominates most agencies.
  • CBOs must learn to share power and decision-making authority with the community.
  • Collaborative governance can be difficult, tiresome, labor intensive, and time consuming.
  • CBOs must learn to please two masters. CBOs have two masters: their grass roots constituency and their funding base, and the two do not speak with the same voice. This dynamic produces a complex range of power dynamics that require a high level of strategic thinking and a high tolerance for conflict by the CBO leadership.

Borrowing from Community Organizing to Improve Community-Building Efforts

  • Identifying Potential  Community Leaders: Community organizing emphasizes  “reading” people and identifying those  people who have something to offer to  the group. An important skill is separating  these people from those that may  appear to be leaders but will not benefit  the group. Understanding what makes a  productive group leader, and learning  how to test for those qualities in the outreach  process is essential.
  • Conducting One-on-One  Interviews: For a community organizer, every conversation  is a valuable building block. In  every conversation — positive or negative  — there is information that can help  shape what should happen next. Every  conversation also is an opportunity to  deepen the personal and professional  relationship between the organized and  the organizer. Learning how to prepare  for and conduct productive one-on-one  interviews is a baseline skill for most  community organizers.
  • Small Group Facilitation Skills: Most decision-making at the community  level takes place in small group meetings.  Learning how to assemble these  small groups and facilitate a productive  and positive deliberation is an essential  organizing skill.
  • Focusing on the Health and  Well being of the Group: The community organizer understands  that a healthy, well-functioning group will  make good decisions. Most people in  the group are not focused on caring for  the group, but someone needs to be.  Often this is the role of the organizer.  Organizers are concerned with questions  such as: What is the dynamic of  the group? Who does the group represent?  Are minority views being heard?  Is the group staying focused on the  work? Is the group making good decisions  that most members respect?
  • Thinking Strategically:  Organizers know that good leaders, and  good groups, are focused on getting  things done. They also know that a  group can be doing a lot but never  achieving real change, such as the  neighborhood association that holds  neighborhood clean-ups every month,  but never asks the public works department  for better city services, or the  tenant organization that complains of  code violations to management, but  never goes directly to the city code  inspectors. Organizers know that strategies  are needed to a) build the group  and b) achieve lasting change. Often  community leaders and groups are not  thinking strategically. The organizer  thinks strategically and then tries to  teach the group to think strategically.

The Five Essential Capacities for Effective Community Organizing

  1. Develop a Culture of  Organizing Throughout the  Organization: People need CBOs to help them develop their potential and to connect with others. As the professional “helpers” in this process we should never do for others what they are able to do for  themselves. We should be challenging people to look for collective, action-oriented solutions to problems.
  2. Create an Apparatus for  Constituent Development and  Social Capital Development:  The CBO must develop an efficient apparatus for outreach, information dissemination, and resident involvement that maximizes the opportunities for residents and others to interact and build interdependent relationships.
  3. Conduct Community  Organizing Campaigns: A CBO needs to develop the capacity to plan and execute community-organizing campaigns that lead to needed changes in community conditions. This may be the most difficult capacity to develop. It requires a high level of strategic thinking, excellent campaign planning and execution skills, and the ability to deal effectively with conflict. Professional community organizers have much to contribute in the way of strategies, skills development, and guidance to groups wishing to build this capacity.
  4. Create Systems for Leadership  Development: It is difficult for CBOs to raise funds to support ambitious leadership development efforts. Nonetheless, many agree that investing in developing the skills, knowledge, self-esteem, and character of individuals
    is the foundation for community change.
  5. Build Strategic Alliances: These are not the same as service collaborative or partnerships. These are opportunistic relationships designed to address systemic issues that are beyond the reach of a single, local organization. Building the capacity to look beyond the traditional physical and political boundaries of the community is critical.

Sustaining Community Organizing Approaches within the CBO

In a large organization, it is not surprising that the least technical activity with the fuzziest performance measures will get the least amount of attention…mistakes or inefficiencies in organizing and resident engagement work can have serious repercussions throughout the organization.

In addition to the five core capacities for effective community organizing that CBOs should develop is a list of activities that CBOs should undertake in order to sustain their newly acquired commitment to community organizing.

  • Invest in Quality Staff Support and Supervision: Organizing is often viewed as kind of a “pedestrian science” that anyone can practice. This perception, coupled with the lack of experienced organizers in senior management positions, means the supervision and support of organizing work is often poor. As a result, organizers will complain of feeling isolated from the rest of the organization. Turnover among outreach and organizing staff is high and seems to be an acceptable norm in the field.
  • Integrate the “Organizing Approach” Throughout: In a CBO, organizing and resident engagement work cannot be seen as a separate department, it must be a way of doing business. While community organizers should lead the work, the approach must be integrated throughout the organization or the organizers and the work will be marginalized.
  • Set Achievable Benchmarks For Involvement: Nothing convinces doubters of the value of a strategy more than success. carefully chosen, achievable targets for involving new people in the organization can have a tremendous positive impact. The goal should be to demonstrate that resident engagement can be achieved with relatively little pain and that it has a positive effect on the organization.
  • Define your Own Style of Organizing: The field of organizing, like many disciplines, suffers from its own brand of elitism. Because effective organizing has always been difficult to quantify, a lot of the traditional community organizing work has been built on the “cult of personality. In the community-building context, the question is, what aspects of community organizing can be adapted to the CBO’s culture and work?
  • Acknowledge and Address the Difficulties of Collaborative Governance: In many ways the practice of collaborative governance is still in a primitive stage. Most of the time, we are trying to build a governance hybrid that is essentially a form of authoritative/hierarchical management with a nod toward greater inclusion. We are stuck in the middle between needing (and wanting) to make unilateral decisions and pressure to defer to residents or partners. There are psychological, social, political, and economic reasons for this tug-of-war. Unfortunately, in the area of power sharing and collaborative governance, an ounce of ambivalence is worth a ton of chaos, confusion, and mistrust. Halfway measures more often than not backfire.

Our task should be to make this collaborative governance workable and as predictable as possible. More codification of methods and practice are needed. More tools and frameworks for teaching and guiding this work are essential. We need an industry-wide exploration of effective and creative strategies for collaborative governance that acknowledges the difficulty of this work.

Identifying Potential Community Leaders Community organizing emphasizes “reading” people and identifying those people who have something to offer to the group. An important skill is separating these people from those that may appear to be leaders but will not benefit the group. Understanding what makes a productive group leader, and learning how to test for those qualities in the outreach process is essential. Conducting One-on-One Interviews For a community organizer, every conversation is a valuable building block. In every conversation — positive or negative — there is information that can help shape what should happen next. Every conversation also is an opportunity to deepen the personal and professional relationship between the organized and the organizer. Learning how to prepare for and conduct productive one-on-one interviews is a baseline skill for most community organizers. Small Group Facilitation Skills Most decision-making at the community level takes place in small group meetings. Learning how to assemble these small groups and facilitate a productive and positive deliberation is an essential organizing skill.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>