5 Rules of Community Engagement

in community engagement, Organizing, Place-based communities

Excerpts from From the Ground Up: Community’s Role in Addressing Street Level Social Issues, by Jim Diers. This is the fourth report of the Core Challenge Initiative, a three-year public policy research and communications project, and a major component of the Western Cities Project of the CanadaWest Foundation.

Building strong communities is not easy. Even so, my 32-year background in community building has taught me some simple rules of engagement that still hold true today.

1. Have Fun

Cesar Cala, a community activist in the Philippines and now in Calgary, told me, “The problem is those GD activists.” “GD activists?” I inquired. “Yes,” he said, “the grim and determined.”

We all know those sour activists who act like civic engagement is their cross to bear. They love to complain. Who would want to get involved with them?

The key is to make community life fun again. As my friend Jeff Bercuwitz says, “Why have a meeting when you can have a party?”

[Some examples Jim cited: the Statue of Lenin erected in the Artist's Republic of Fremont, and the Blue Tulip Party of Elgin, Illinois]

2. Start Where People Are

Saul Alinsky, who is often described as the father of modern community organizing, complained that too many activists start with the world as they would like it to be rather than the world as it is. If you want to get people engaged, he advised, you need to start where they are. This is true on several levels.

First, the closer the action is to where people live, the more likely they are to get engaged. While there will undoubtedly be a larger turnout for a citywide meeting, there will never be a higher percentage of participation than if the meeting is held at the block level. A more localized meeting makes transportation and child care much easier. It also gives people a greater sense that their participation is important. After all, if they don’t attend, who will? And, if they aren’t present, they might be in trouble with their neighbours.

Second, if you want to get people involved, you need to be cognizant of their language and culture. This seems obvious in working with immigrants, but even when communicating with people who speak the same language as you, it is important to use words that are familiar to them. Too often, we use jargon or acronyms that comprise a sort of secret code known only by members of a particular profession or by hard core activists. Not only do we fail to communicate, but those whom we are trying to reach come to believe that they lack the expertise required for participation.

Third, in trying to recruit people, it is important to start with the networks to which they already belong. Too often, we think that people aren’t organized simply because they don’t belong to our organization. In fact, just about everyone belongs to at least one network, either formal or informal. They likely don’t have time to join yet another group. Besides, they have developed relationships within their existing network that make them comfortable.

It is especially difficult to recruit people whose age, income, ethnicity or other characteristics set them apart from the existing members of your organization. If you want to create a multi-cultural community effort, it generally works best to identify and build alliances with the key networks involving people who are underrepresented in your membership. These local networks could be centered on neighbourhood, nationality, faith, education, business, recreation, environment, history, art, crime prevention, service, a hobby, or something else. There are literally dozens of networks in every neighbourhood. When these networks are aligned, the community can exercise tremendous power.

Fourth, we need to focus on people’s passions. Too often, we try to convince people to care about our cause — what we are passionate about or what we are paid to promote. And, when people don’t join us, we call them apathetic. In fact, no one is apathetic. Everyone cares deeply about something. People will get involved to the extent that we can tap into their passion. The key is to start, not with an answer or with a program, but with a question: “What is your dream or what keeps you up at night?”

Finally, in order to start where people are, you need to know their call. I learned this lesson from John McKnight, Director of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute. McKnight taught me that different kinds of people respond to different kinds of calls, just like ducks. Too often, though, we only use the loon call and wonder why only the loons turn out.

Typically, the meeting (not the mating) call is the one that we use. For most people, this is the worst possible call. They’re afraid to come to the first meeting because they know they will be on the sign-in sheet and be sentenced to meetings for the remainder of their life. Those who have come to meetings usually see few if any results. And, many people are shy. They may attend meetings because it is the only option they are given, but they don’t feel like they are making a contribution.

In fact, everyone will get involved if they hear their call. Most people respond to the social call of community meals, parties and festivals. Shy people may respond to the volunteer call as a tutor or mentor. And, everyone seems to love the project call. With projects, unlike with meetings, people make a short-term commitment and they see results. There’s a role for everyone – young people, elders, people with disabilities, architects, artists, construction workers, etc. The more varied the calls they utilize, the more broad-based and inclusive the organization will be.

3. Strive for Results

While it is important to start where the people are, it is crucial not to leave them there. This is especially true of people who have felt powerless and are getting involved for the first time. They need to see results if they are going to stay involved. So, you probably don’t want to start by working on world peace or global warming. Alinsky talked about the importance of focusing on issues that are immediate, concrete and realizable. Once people have a sense that they can make a difference, they will be more ready to tackle the larger issues.

4. Utilize People’s Strengths

Activists tend to focus on the problems in their community. As a result, they look outside the community for the solutions and overlook the abundant assets that exist in every neighbourhood and in every individual. Everyone has gifts of the head (knowledge), heart (passion), and hands (skills). Identifying ways in which people can contribute those gifts to the community is a wonderful way to get them engaged. This is especially true for labeled people such as prostitutes, drug users, at-risk youth, immigrants, and homeless and disabled individuals.

5. Celebrate Success and Recognize Caring Neighbours

Getting results is important, but much of the potential value is lost if you fail to celebrate your success and thank those who made it possible. Neighbours need to know that people like themselves were responsible. The sharing of such stories inspires people about what is possible when they work together and build on their assets. Public recognition also motivates those being recognized to do more.

Lessons learned – from Neighbor Power, by Jim Diers

in community engagement, Organizing, Place-based communities

Get the Book

Excerpts from Neighbor Power, by Jim Diers. I will conclude by summarizing what I have learned about community, community organizing, community initiatives, and the role of government.

A neighborhood is not the same as a community. A neighborhood is a geographic area that people share, while at community is a group of people who identify with and support one another.

Strong communities are those that rely on their own resources, including the assets that each and every person possesses.

Individual reciprocity is not sufficient. Communities are most powerful when they take collective action. The process of building that kind of power is called community organizing.

The key to community organizing is to start where the people are. The more local the activity, the higher the percentage of people who will get involved.

Organizing entails building on existing networks. Most people are already organized and cannot reasonably be expected to develop an entirely new set of relationships and find time for yet another organization.

Starting where people are also involves identifying their interests. That means listening. The organizer should be prepared to hear and understand interests that may be different from her own.

If a common interest involves an issue, that issue should be framed in a way that is as immediate, as specific, and as achievable as possible. People get involved to the extent that they can have an impact on the things they care about.

Community plans, projects, and social events are good ways to bring people together. Whatever the approach, whatever the issue, it is best to think big and start small.

Community self-help projects tend to have qualities that are missing in projects generated by institutions. Innovations are more likely to emanate from community efforts. Communities have a knack for converting a problem into an asset.

Wrap-up: Coverage of Pew Research Center’s “Neighbors Online”

in community engagement, Organizing, Place-based communities

Pew’s Neighbors Online report, published Wednesday, provides baseline data on neighborhood communications. Join the Q&A with author Aaron Smith, over at e-democracy.org’s Locals Online. Several media outlets reported on the report, and here are a few that did more than reprint the overview:

  • Chicago Sun-Times: Folks use digital tools to take role in community – “Leonard’s experience mirrors the findings of a study released Wednesday. Contrary to assumptions that people who go online hole up in their basements, the study showed the opposite: Internet users are more likely than non-users to talk face to face with their neighbors about local and community issues.”
  • CivSource: More going online to go local – “Steven Clift, director of E-Democracy.org – a nonprofit organization that works to develop civic engagement and online community building strategies – called the report an “excellent start,” in an interview yesterday. The report puts numbers to what we’ve instinctively thought about neighborhood activity online and I think it will certainly move the field of discussion along.”
  • Christian Science Monitor: The Internet probably won’t turn you into a hermit, study finds – “Far from being more reclusive, Internet users are more likely to meet their neighbors face-to-face and engage in community issues, a new study reveals. The findings suggests that talking in person or over the telephone remain the top two ways that people living close to one another keep up on community developments, even in an increasingly digital world.”
  • e-democracy: Neighbors Online – What have 27% of Internet Users Discovered? Women Lead the Way. Need More Inclusion – “So now we have numbers on the digital participation divide we must close: Only 2% of those with household incomes under $30,000 are on a neighborhood e-mail list; only 3% of Hispanics; only 2% of rural residents.”
  • New York Times: Friends, Neighbors and Facebook – “There’s no need to pine for a return to the pre-Facebook, cardigan-swaddled idealism of Mister Rogers and his charming “neighbors” and “friends,” but it is important for us to remember that tangible, meaningful engagement with those around us builds better selves and stronger communities.”
  • ReadWriteWeb: Neighbors Rely On Word of Mouth, But Online Gains – “The biggest effect that online tools have had on neighborhood interactions is in providing an avenue for learning about and interacting on local issues to individuals who might not engage in these issues through more traditional means.”

Although all of Pew’s survey respondents are from the United States, the report has global implications. See this analysis by UK-based Kevin Harris, author of the Neighbourhoods blog, reprinted here in its entirety with Kevin’s permission (thanks Kevin):

Online communication in neighbourhoods: not just people we know

The latest Pew Internet Project report has just been published, on the topic of ‘neighbors online’.

It’s based on telephone interviews with 2,258 Americans, and while I didn’t read anything that hit the wow-box it certainly helps us think about communication at neighbourhood level. The questions asked about face-to-face interaction with neighbours, telephone contact, and a range of local online resources.

Unsurprisingly (and as last year’s Pew Internet study demonstrated) internet users are just as likely as non-users to discuss local issues face-to-face. People in higher income households and with higher educational attainment are more likely to talk face-to-face with neighbours about local issues.

Between 4% and 11% of all those surveyed exchange email with their neighbours about local issues, read a blog dealing with local issues, or are signed up to a locally-focussed online forum or social network. This is baseline data, hopefully Pew will repeat the questions every now and then.

For me the most interesting finding was this: (more…)

AmeriCorps Member Revitalizes Neighborhood

in community engagement, Organizing, Place-based communities

via Serve.gov | Stories of Service: Profiles in Service: AmeriCorps Member Revitalizes Neighborhood.

By Fred Wong

On April 21, 2009, President Obama signed the Serve America Act into law – the most sweeping expansion of national service in a generation. To mark the one year anniversary, we are going to spotlight the stories of everyday service heroes who are transforming lives and local communities across the country. Here is Effy’s story.

Five years ago, Mika Community Development Corporation recruited its first AmeriCorps member in the Shalimar neighborhood of Costa Mesa, CA. Her name was Effy Sanchez. During that year Effy walked door to door in this neighborhood trying to discover what neighbors were interested in changing to improve their community. She listened over and over. Finally it was clear. The neighbors wanted their park back.

It was a tiny park. It had been taken over by drug users and gangs. It was riddled with paraphernalia dangerous to children. The park caused such fear in parents that they brought their children to school and back home holding their hands the whole way and they did not allow their children to leave the house.

Within a year, Effy organized a neighborhood committee. With the committee established, neighbors were able to collaborate to make the community safer. The neighbors arranged a new neighbor welcome program, organized meals for the sick, and established a trash clean up schedule for the elderly.

Eventually, Effy arranged for meetings with the Parks and Recreation Department to upgrade the park. She coached the committee members in negotiations with the department. Today they have their park back with lights that work and a new playground. It is a community center where residents interact. The committee has since moved on to other successes.

In her second year of service, Effy began walking and listening to the Maple neighborhood, a second target neighborhood. She organized a local citizens group to take responsibility for the neighborhood. The group’s greatest undertaking to date has been organizing and developing an after-school learning center to help students succeed. The group used its meager resources to rent a center (which was an apartment) and provide snacks and supervision. The group engaged church volunteers from a nearby supporting congregation to help operate the center.

Mika CDC has now been an AmeriCorps program four-and-a-half years and it is working in its fourth neighborhood. Costa Mesa is stronger and better because AmeriCorps members are teaching residents, churches, non-profits, and the city how to implement Asset Based Community Development principles and practices in their neighborhoods.

Learn more about AmeriCorps.

The Craigslist Foundation San Francisco Gathering, Part 2

in community engagement, Organizing, Place-based communities

Toward the end of 2009, the Craigslist Foundation began a series of discussions around their plans to focus the foundation’s efforts on strengthening communities, with some emphasis on neighborhood-based communities. This began with a meeting at The Case Foundation in Washington DC, which included Michael Smith, Kari Dunn, Cindy Gallop, Jessica Kirkwood, Marsha Semmel, Michael Karpman, Rhonda Taylor, Ron Carlee, and Siobhan Canty. They “chatted about the need of organizations with libraries of unpublished case studies and ideas, connecting local changemakers with the big picture of systemic change, bringing essential info to people at exactly the time they need it most, and using storytellers to communicate long (or boring) case studies in more entertaining and inspiring ways.” (see How Can We Build On One Another’s Successes?)

In the second meeting, at end of January 2010, they gathered twelve more friends in San Francisco “for a different take on the conversation: Beth Kanter, Chris Gates, Craig Newmark, Frank Schulenburg, Gwyneth Borden, John Lyman, Kate Stahnke, Matt Garcia, Pamela Wheelock, Peggy Duvette, Rob Miller, and making it all amazingly fun was our facilitator Allen Gunn. Here, we talked a lot about the importance of people over information, how to reach those who aren’t online, what motivates people to tell their success stories, which organizations have already been doing work in this area, and what audiences might be most in need of improved information flow.”

A week later, they posted their “theory of change”: that “that place-based communities and neighborhoods must be strengthened if our society is to flourish and our democracy advance — and that Craigslist Foundation can play a catalytic role in assembling the talents of key partners and collaborators capable of offering people in communities the tools and resources they need to take greater responsibility for where they live, work, and play.” (see Catalyst for Community Vitality)

In this article, they also said “this translates into a role for us in convening successful organizations and people across all sectors — nonprofit, government, business, philanthropy — to work intentionally and together toward building stronger local communities and economies.” A month later, on  March 9, Craigslist Foundation announced that it was going on the road to learn more about “how people build stronger neighborhoods and what prevents others from joining in the fun.” They hosted small group discussions in Washington DC, New York, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Austin, San Francisco, and Portland, Oregon in March and April.

I was part of the seventh and last of these meetings, posted photos of participants and their ideas, and transcribed their post-it notes below. Also in this meeting: Aaron Goodman, Ali Williams, Amelia Kolokihakaufisi , Anne Marie Engel, Bruce Richard, Clint Mitchell, Ka Yun Cheng, Karen Kwok, Kathie Lowry, Kristarae Flynn, Terri Forman, Maura Mccarthy, Nick McClintock,  Patrick Flanagan, Peggy Simmons, Toby Leavitt, and Winston Dong.

To keep track of the discussions and to create “a place to listen to the community, share some of our ideas, highlight cool projects we encounter, and generally keep the community up to date as our programs are developed”, CLF created the lab at craigslist foundation, and a uservoice forum that asks people to submit and vote on answers to the questions: What stops you from impacting your community? What has worked well for you?

Things I know that I wish I could share with leaders in other communities

Can't read the one on the top left

  • I didn’t get a good snap of this, sorry (see pic), so the way it reads to me is this: How do you break down barriers to regorible thaking? (i.e. minimize appepridics of competrif nit & cissided resources)
  • Illegible/illegible mentoring
  • I don’t wish, I share
  • The adventure of education abroad
  • How many options there are for raising money
  • How to create concepts that are large scale, inventive, and sizzling in getting people in cohesion faster
  • I know good ways of getting people of very different backgrounds together, as equals, so everyone walks away changed
  • How to facilitate community action/impact of people averse to talking to institutions and developers (more…)