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Learning from Stories of Community Leadership and Change
Submitted by Deborah Meehan on Thu, 04/26/2012 - 12:46
A few months ago we asked you to share ideas about how to support communities who are taking action and producing solutions to the problems they care about most. Now we're sharing some of your ideas, as well as some of our own findings through a community leadership project for the Bush Foundation. In this article we share key elements of community change and important capacities being cultivated by community leadership programs.
Elements of Community Change
Neighborhoods and communities all across the country are struggling economically; many communities do not have jobs, access to healthy foods, healthy places to live, clean air, parks, quality education, or the social and financial capital that enable families and children to grow up educated, healthy, and secure. And yet there are hundreds of ways in which groups of citizens are working together to improve their communities. They are organizing youth, creating community gardens, addressing racial tensions and conflict, and seeking more effective ways to use scarce resources. We are learning from these stories about the kinds of support that enliven community spirit, encourage dialogue and catalyze action. The elements are drawn from a quick scan and aggregation of a number of different resources that have been produced around building community capacity. These elements are organized into different categories but are present in much of the research and evaluation findings.
Focus on positive community improvement: Ability to align efforts around a common purpose and goal that will improve some element of community life. Alignment is increased when there is a sense of urgency about the issue being taken on.
Work from community history, values and culture: Ability to make meaning together of the community’s history, values and culture in order to build on strengths and willingly engage one another around historic tensions, pain, or mistrust.
Integrate collective process and individual agency: Individuals recognize the opportunity to take effective action with others and they grow their commitment and skills individually and collectively through processes that support: selecting a problem or opportunity that has generated a lot of community interest or concern; developing strategies for achieving some change on behalf of the common goal; and holding one another accountable for commitments.
Learning from action: Experimentation is appreciated as part of learning, and strong feedback loops support adaptation and keep the work moving in a forward direction. Participants learn to use data to understand and monitor changes in their community’s well-being.
Build relationships that bridge among individuals and institutions: Strong connection and trusting relationships create a strong social fabric from which shared frustrations and aspirations emerge to motivate joint action. Among these connections, it is important to have the strong ties that create solid bonds and to also reach out to build new ties that bring new ideas, perspectives and resources to the work across different parts of the community. This includes people and institutions.
Understand systems and structures: Individuals and institutions identify the interdependence and intersection of multiple issues and the potential to work on policies or through institutional partnerships in order to leverage larger changes in the system that produce more enduring benefits.
Access and utilize resources: Material and knowledge resources are available to support the work of the community in moving from a shared sense of purpose to action.
What is the role of Leadership Development in Helping to Cultivate the Elements of Community to Change?
The W.K. Kellogg Foundation published a guide, “Grassroots Leadership Development: A Guide for Grassroots Leaders, Support Organizations and Funders” that leads with an article by Rinku Sen who explains, “For a true renewal of democratic values and systems, leadership is required from people closest to struggling communities. Programs that find and develop multiple leaders from marginalized communities play a critical role in connecting community needs to institutional responses.” There are a number of examples of programs that develop individuals and connections among people and organizations within communities to produce powerful results.
- The Kellogg Leaders for Community Change evaluation recounts stories of KLCC fellows speaking to the Governor’s Council of Massachusetts on policy recommendations to better serve the immigrant community. One KLCC fellow is involved in a program that brings males of different races together with elders who help motivate young men of color to stay in school. These fellows were supported in a process with other leaders from their community looking for the “big idea” about how to make a difference, and they did. The process required taking time to create what the program staff calls “gracious space,” an environment in which trust is cultivated through appreciating difference, through open and sometimes difficult conversations that are cultivated in the context of shared concerns and a desire to make things better.
- Lawrence CommunityWorks (LCW) is a nonprofit community development corporation working to transform and revitalize the physical, economic, and social landscape of Lawrence, Massachusetts. LCW’s goal is to create a new “environment of connectivity” where residents can more easily connect to information, opportunity and each other. Their belief is that if thousands of residents are induced to “get back in the game” of working together and taking leadership roles in Lawrence, they can truly revitalize the City. As neighbors connected at regular dinners and talked about what was on their minds, they were moved to act and have been responsible for building a neighborhood recreation center. Thousands of people are connecting to the network and there are many different entry points of involvement and increasing responsibility, from attending a neighborhood gathering, hosting dinners or speaking at a city council meeting. Leadership development is embedded into the way in which LCW is organized.
- The Northwest Area Foundation set out to test an assumption that it is possible to build leadership as a strategy for dealing with poverty in rural communities. They were interested in how to scale this effort, and in the course of five years engaged over 100,000 people in 238 communities across seven states that resulted in almost 2,000 action plans. It was a comprehensive strategy that involved study circles on poverty, a community leadership program developed by the Pew Foundation called LeadershipPlenty and a community visioning exercise. They found that when diverse people sit down to talk and listen to one another about what is happening in their town, they want to do something together to make things better. Many of them had never talked about poverty before and the study circles gave them a chance to make meaning of their experiences in a larger context. As a result, participating Horizons communities started food banks, employment training programs for young people, and job creation programs. Some of the Horizons communities partnered with the Annie E. Casey Foundation to implement Rural Family Economic Success, a program focused on creating wealth in community.
Community Leadership Development Components
Below are some of the specific leadership capacities that have been successfully developed through leadership strategies. These are individual and collective capacities that contribute to the likelihood that a community will organize itself to generate solutions to challenges or respond to opportunities.
- Action research
- Storytelling or story circles
- Values identification
- Action planning/organizing
- Systems thinking
- Culture, class, and power frameworks
- Asset Mapping
These lessons bring a leadership lens to examples of community change. When people are working together to do something about a problem in their community there is not always one person out front taking charge and sometimes taking responsibility for progress. These stories may be overlooked as important leadership stories that could teach us a lot about community leadership and what best supports leadership in communities. We hope you will share your stories.