COMM-ORG Papers 2005

Rabinovitch--Transforming Community Practice


Contents | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Notes & References | Appendices

Chapter 1 - Setting the Stage

If you are trying to transform a brutalized society into one where people can live in dignity and hope, you begin with the empowering of the most powerless. You build from the ground up.

 Adrienne Rich,  “Going There and Being Here,”  Blood, Bread and Poetry: Selected Prose, 1979-1985

At one time not so long ago, on the west coast of Canada, to be gay or lesbian meant to live on the margins, either hiding one’s true identity or living in isolation among others who shared one’s secret. Now, here in Victoria, being a lesbian no longer requires one to hide or be isolated. I am able to live in the centre of my community and be public about my sexual orientation. I have a wide range of choices as to how I want to live my life. I have work, a partner, children and a mortgage, much like my neighbours who treat me as they do each other. I am friends with many who are not gay or lesbian; a few are public figures in my community. My sexual orientation may affect my choices and decisions but such choices are not limited by a cultural construction of lesbians as beings who are outside the acceptable limits of behaviour and therefore marginalized.

Before I attempt to map out my family configuration and identify all the roles within it (some of which don’t even have a name), I’d like to say something about my children. They are 17 and 18 and both left home in the summer of 2003 to go to college on academic scholarships. Their friends’ parents are fine knowing that my kids come from an unusual family. Each child is extremely accomplished in her/his chosen and (fairly) gender-traditional interest areas—he in sports, she in the arts. Their teachers, coaches, employers, co-workers and families of origin appreciate them and enjoy having them around.

When it was time to plan a celebratory dinner for their many accomplishments as they left high school and moved on, at the table were the two “real” moms (one biological and one non-biological); each one’s live-in current partner; Nancy, who became our daughter’s “other” mother when Hannah was age two, with whom she has spent one night a week for fourteen years; Doug, a gay physician who gradually joined the family seven years ago and who is now the proud donour-dad of a girl and a boy in two separate lesbian households; and Colleen, the woman with whom my ex became involved after we split up. Missing was Andre, the kids’ donour, who has become a sometime presence since our daughter decided she wanted to know him three years ago. Since the kids had the same donour, that meant that our son was going to meet his dad as well. Andre comes for a visit each summer with his two sons, half-brothers to our kids. Our family may not look like anyone else’s but we don’t feel marginalized.

I often think that the biggest obstacle to transformation and positive social change at the beginning of the twenty-first century is not the unequal distribution of resources but the overwhelming sense of hopelessness and despair that pervades North American culture. In the pages that follow, I offer a model for substantial positive change that has emerged from twelve years of working on five projects in my community. I decided to pursue a doctoral degree in order to expand the ways in which my activism can make a difference in the world, by adding teaching, scholarly research and writing to my commitment to community practice. I see myself as a bridge between the academy and the community, bringing years of work with marginalized groups to a dialogue already underway in scholarly literature. For the purposes of this work, community is not bound by geographic or political boundaries.

I bring to my work a specific set of skills and life experiences that emerge from my identity as a feminist, lesbian and lifelong activist. I am white, Jewish, a mother and middle class. As someone who has had access to higher education and the opportunity to work professionally as a change agent[1] for most of my adult life,  I acknowledge my membership among the privileged. I have been honoured for my work by my community and have received national recognition for my projects. I bear witness to a method of community practice that is transforming.

It is a privilege to be an agent of change. I am aware of how fortunate I am to be paid to follow my passion. Audre Lorde articulates the energy I get from my work when she writes about her own experience:

My fullest concentration of energy is available to me when I integrate all the parts of who I am, openly, allowing power from particular sources of my living to flow back and forth freely through all my different selves, without the restrictions of externally imposed definition. Only then can I bring myself and my energies as a whole to the service of those struggles which I embrace as part of my living (120).       

As activists and change agents, we must offer both hope and a clearly delineated route to progressive transformation, locally and globally. People need to recognize that everyone has a choice—either to give in to hopelessness and despair and allow conditions to worsen, or become part of an effort to build hope and possibility. Many have become convinced that, collectively, North American society can do nothing; that poverty, violence, destruction of the environment, and extinction of habitats and species are all inevitable.

This dissertation is written for those who care about what is happening in communities across North America, those who are interested in community and social change. My work is inter-disciplinary and touches on a number of fields. In Appendix A, I review the scholarly disciplines—Anthropology, Economics, Education, Health, International Development, Planning and Development, Political Science, Community Psychology, Religious Studies, Social Work, Sociology, and Women’s Studies—that intersect with my analysis. I hope this text will be of use to scholars who are change agents and scholars of community practice. I have been working in the community for a long time and offer my own experience as a means of connecting theory and practice in an effort to rend the false split between the two.

This chapter provides an introduction to the process involved in writing this dissertation, the field of community studies, and the theoretical model on which my dissertation is based—transformative community practice. I will discuss what it means to move and remove margins and the need for a change agent (or professional practitioner) who facilitates and supports progressive community change.

Introduction to My Process

When I first began my doctorate, I intended to focus on lessons learned while engaged in community practice and to write a guide book on how to work more effectively with marginalized communities. After reading through a number of related how-to books, I began to wonder what I could add to the existing literature. I thought it might be more interesting and valuable to write a story rather than develop a set of recommendations. I began work on a memoir of my community organizing activity. That seemed to leave out too much. The end result is a combination: an analysis of community practice based on my story.

 As a life-long feminist, I am acutely aware of how important it is that women tell their stories. For thirty years, feminist scholars have written on the importance of personal voice. In the following pages, I describe my experience as a change agent. Some of the stories of the men and women with whom I have worked intersect with my story. Thus, it has been difficult to decide how much of my own and others’ experience is appropriate for me to share. I have had to balance the ethics of how much I can include in much the same way Judith Tannenbaum does in Disguised as a Poem, in which she writes about her experience of teaching poetry in prison. For the last twelve years I have worked with homeless men, street women, sex workers, and sexually exploited youth. They have remarkable and important stories; yet, that is not what you will find in the following pages. Their stories are their own to tell, not mine.

Throughout this dissertation, I use the word “experiential” to mean somebody who has day-to-day lived experience, currently or in the past. I choose this word, rather than “client” or “consumer,” in part because the experiential women with whom I work like it and use it themselves. Unlike the word “client,” “experiential” does not identify a person by her relationship to a program, service or professional or the word “consumer” which suggests someone who purchases or uses goods or services. “Experiential” is merely descriptive, saying, in essence, “I have been there.”

Social Change Through Community Practice

I find a considerable amount of the literature on community practice, within a number of academic disciplines, to have a substantial degree of consensus on how best to work in the community. I do not intend any disrespect when I say that much of the historical literature on community practice seems self-evident today. It can surely be considered a tribute to Saul Alinsky, often described as the father of community organizing, Jack Rothman, and Seymour Sarason, leaders in community psychology, and other writers that their contributions have been so well integrated into the field of community practice.

Because there is such a strong consensus, for example, that participation (or engagement) is a good thing, I would expect to see more evidence of it within the social service policy and delivery system in Canada and the U.S.A. However, I know from experience that engagement is not taking place in my own community. I also know that Victoria is a very progressive community in British Columbia which is one of the most progressive provinces in Canada, considered a progressive country. Yet, even in Victoria, the number of visible homeless is increasing, there is an increasing number of children and families living in poverty, the sex industry is thriving, and there are inadequate services and supports for people struggling with addictions and mental health problems. I know that the local police (on whose Board I sit as a government appointee) spend 80% of their patrol time dealing with addiction and mental health issues. I wonder, since there is  a clear consensus in the community practice literature on participation, why there is little evidence that it is being implemented.

Even people who endorse participation as an essential ingredient in a new way of doing business do not seem to know how. In order to be constructive change agents, professionals need to be trained not only in how to develop programs and services but in how to support experiential people to do the same. From the outset, the relationship between professionals and the experiential participants has to be made explicit since it is only through the synergy of their combined knowledge that they will be able to create something new and better. No amount of research can replace first hand experience and no amount of first hand experience can make-up for lack of support and funding.

 In this dissertation, I will demonstrate how experiential people can address their own problems by building on their lived experience rather than be marginalized and excluded from the process. We need to recognize and acknowledge the expertise of everyone—those who are drug addicts, HIV positive, and in the sex trade. It is critical to ask what they want, listen to them, trust their expertise and support and facilitate the implementation of their solutions.

I am writing this for others who, like myself, want their work to matter, but instead are increasingly frustrated. Large amounts of money are dedicated to addressing poverty, homelessness, mental illness, and addictions; yet, so much money is used ineffectively. Community research grants are consistently inaccessible to community groups; programs and services are designed and developed by policy makers and managers, and then delivered by professional service providers. In the current fiscal climate of cutbacks and restraint, and as measurable changes fail to emerge, government’s willingness to continue to commit resources to help marginalized people is decreasing. Governments and the private sector have argued for decades that the cost of addressing social issues and the causes of marginalization is too high. I would argue that it would be far cheaper in the long term to develop programs and services designed by people to meet their needs than to support the status quo. Solutions may vary greatly from one jurisdiction to another (and even from one neighbourhood to another) but solutions developed by people to meet their own needs could replace expensive bureaucracy and infrastructure with practical, functional scaled-down solutions. A fraction of the billions being spent can be redirected  at the community level, and the efficacy and efficiency of this new model will be clearly seen. Good intentions are not enough. Conditions must actually improve, and the people whose lives are targeted must be allowed to judge whether that improvement is real.

Many health and social service practitioners, among others, believe that it is unrealistic for everyone to play a meaningful role in addressing their own problems and situations. However, years of working with those who have a history of addictions, homelessness, sex work and mental illness clearly demonstrate that an enormous amount of information is missed because of such convictions. It may be difficult for such workers to accept that someone who is high on drugs and appears incoherent has something useful to offer regarding her treatment. Yet that is precisely what I suggest. She may not be able to participate when she is high, but, in my experience, addicts possess a great deal of knowledge about how and why they began using, what would have prevented it and how to assist them in becoming fully functioning members of society.

Transformative Community Practice

Transformative community practice (TCP), as developed by Sandra O’Donnell and Sokoni Karanja, includes the experiential community in the design, development and implementation of outcomes. TCP requires that the community in question plays a decision-making role at every stage by breaking down barriers and building alliances. It offers an approach to community practice that engages the experiential community and thus has a transformational effect on all those involved—the participants, the change agents and the larger community.

This practice is built on the work of many who have gone before—community organizers, community psychologists, feminists, and social workers—and utilizes their vision as a blueprint for action. This approach is derived from my own work and others, work that encourages people to address their own problems, work like that of the Center for Participatory Change in North Carolina as described by Paul Castelloe, Thomas Watson and Craig White (7) and O’Donnell and Karanja in their work with extremely low income African-American communities for which they coined the term transformative community practice (67), a term I began to use before discovering their work.

O’Donnell and Karanja describe transformative community practice as a model built on indigenous involvement:

Transformative community practice seeks to change (1) how individual people in the community see themselves, developing deeper understanding of who they are and what they can accomplish; (2) how they see themselves in relationship with others in the community, building a collective identity and sense of common purpose and efficacy; and (3) how people outside the community view the community and its people (75).

To O’Donnell and Karanja, and to me, transformative community practice is a way to develop new relationships between the experiential community and social and health services, policy makers, banks and businesses, elected officials, civic groups and funders. This is a process that transforms expert’s views of and relationships to marginalized communities, encouraging such people to see assets as well as needs, and be guided by the experiential community’s own vision for its renewal.          

Effective community practice cannot be accomplished by recipe or learned from a text book; nevertheless, transformative community practice offers some useful basic principles by shifting the locus of expertise in regard to vulnerable populations to the experiential community. Community members need to become recognized as experts of their own experience and thus qualified to design, develop and implement solutions. The work of the change agent then becomes critical in facilitating and supporting the voices of experiential people so that they play a meaningful role in the transformation process. To date, far too much policy and practice designed to address poverty, isolation and marginalization has been developed by people who do not understand what it is to live outside the dominant culture.

I believe that transformative community practice can be used effectively by people who work inside institutions and bureaucracies; it is not the private preserve of community organizers or those who identify themselves as activists. Transformative community practice, as defined by O’Donnell and Karanja and adapted in these pages, provides an effective way of working no matter what constraints surround one’s circumstances. For example, Dr. Doug McGhee, who works with the youth clinic in downtown Victoria, recently decided to begin to address the problem of crystal meth use. Instead of using a traditional medical or research model, he went directly to the youth, in essence, using transformative community practice. Together, they made a video, Reduce Speed, about crystal meth use in Victoria (available from the Vancouver Island Health Authority The video is widely acclaimed for its insider knowledge and frank dialogue and is now being used throughout the province.

My adaptation of transformative community practice requires a commitment from all stakeholders—those with personal experience, those with professional training, and members of the larger community. It is a form of community practice that requires a degree of collaboration and partnership which may feel risky to those who are used to making decisions themselves. To engage in a process of transformation requires letting go of expectations and allowing the process to dictate the outcome. Time must be committed to allow participants to vent, for trust to be established, and relationships built before any measurable outcomes can be expected or even anticipated. When the first gathering of homeless took place that eventually resulted in the creation of the Victoria Street Community Association, the men used the opportunity to express long-held anger about their conditions. It took many months before enough trust was developed to move to constructive suggestions. Outcomes, when they begin to occur, must emerge from those who are experiential rather than from government or others. The outcome of such a process may be unknown at the beginning, but with the involvement of the experiential community, a positive solution will evolve, as I myself have witnessed more than once.

The process may involve creating new institutions, organizations, and services, or refashioning existing ones to be more responsive and useful. Change agents must be flexible. Currently, it is rare that developing programs and services includes recipients in identifying their needs or ways to address them. Including recipients will make the process less orderly, but their involvement will benefit everyone. It must be understood that a commitment to transformative community practice requires the change agent to work blindly, creating recipes for food she’s never tasted and using ingredients she can’t always identify. Sometimes it will taste strange, but at other times it can be marvellous beyond her wildest dreams. In essence, I would suggest that transformative community practice is radical theory in action.

Before going any further, it is important to differentiate between change and transformation. In community practice, the goal is to facilitate positive change that improves the lives of the community members involved. Traditionally, the focus has been on change and has meant a commitment to meeting the needs of the marginalized. Many programs and services have been created with a focus on rehabilitation, training and employment so that everyone can become functioning members of the community. A shift from change to transformation requires  rethinking that goal. It is not up to us, the professionals, to address the needs of the marginalized. The work of the change agent is to move the margins so that everyone can play a role in addressing their own needs. We need to work with community members to ensure that they set the goals for any services or programs developed for them. Such outcomes may include harm reduction far more than rehabilitation. A commitment to transformation rather than change recognizes that, as a result of working in community, everyone is transformed—the participants, the change agents and the larger community. Nobody emerges from the process as they went in. Transformative community practice requires a complete reorganization of the way a community functions. What I am suggesting is complicated and can be chaotic. It is, however, far more effective than what is currently being done. In the business world, technology is forcing a change from traditional hierarchy to a new decision-making organization, heterarchy, that resembles a network. So, too, must the health and social services sector change so that those who are viewed as passive recipients become integral to the design, development and implementation of services.

[Re]Moving the Margins

Transformative community practice, I believe, provides a methodology that begins the process of [re]moving the margins. The term [re]moving the margins implies both moving and removing the margins. A necessary first step (but only an interim one) is to move the margins closer to the mainstream, although the ultimate goal is to remove the margins altogether. In order to begin that process, groups currently labeled marginalized need to become a recognized and accepted part of the community and thus part of the change effort. Part of [re]moving the margins is moving beyond the dichotomy of us/them thinking.

For years, feminists have been providing a radical analysis of oppression. Lorraine Gutierrez and Edith Lewis point out that it is important to recognize the contribution of women of colour to feminist causes and analyses (36). Women of colour bring a lived experience of oppression that no amount of study can duplicate. In addition, scholars such as Patricia Hill Collins bring insights based on their own experience (Hill Collins is an African-American) into the larger picture of oppression, insights which can be usefully applied to other populations and other circumstances.

Like other academics and activists, I often refer to marginalization in my writing.  According to Sandra Harding, marginalization is a concept that emerges from a dominant subjectivity or standpoint (43). However, people’s own daily lives are central to them, not marginal. Harding suggests that the dominant ideology creates margins as inevitable aspects of everyday life, through what Hill Collins describes as entrenched ideologies, such as racism, sexism, poverty and other forms of social injustice.

Those in the existing power structure have internalized a number of beliefs that maintain marginalization and act in ways that make it seem inevitable. For example, the most common response to the suggestion that sex workers have a right to be accepted members of a community is that prostitution is the oldest profession in the world, and therefore nothing can change. This is an unsound argument, based on an unsound premise. Many “professions” must have pre-dated prostitution: building shelters, finding food, planting seeds, helping in childbirth, raising children, teaching skills, healing. Even religious ritual, politics and creative art probably came before prostitution. However, the myth certainly works well for those who want to maintain the status quo.

The over-riding goal of community practice must be to remove barriers that marginalize people. History demonstrates that in Canada and the United States many groups that were once marginalized and disenfranchised have become decision-makers in the mainstream. There was a time when women did not have the right to own property or vote. I do not suggest that all women now have equal status, rather that women are not relegated to second class citizenship in as many areas or as thoroughly as in the past. A similar claim can be made for other groups whose status has significantly improved, namely African-Americans, Japanese in Canada and the U.S.A., Chinese-Canadians, and Aboriginal peoples. Each has fought hard to be included in mainstream dialogues that concern their future, and each has made significant gains.

Some communities are becoming more inclusive and less elitist. In many countries, gays and lesbians are winning the right to marry and live as respected members of society. Gay marriage is sanctioned in Latvia, joining much of Northern Europe, Canada, and Australia in accepting a community that has a long history of marginalization. The ultimate goal of effective community practice is to change perceptions so that members of a community are able to live in different ways.

Increasing the power of the least powerful is consistent with the feminist goal of transforming to a world without oppression, where everyone is safe and valued. This includes access to all the rights in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.[2] Feminist scholars emphasize the importance of viewing and understanding the structure of current North American society in its continuing subordination, of the weaker by dominant groups in the power structure, both individually and collectively. An essential component of transformative community practice, I would suggest, is to address personal problems while making political change.

Need for Change Agents

In my own experience, as a change agent I have found significant resistance to the belief that the oppressed and marginalized are capable of leadership and of acting in their own best interests. I have found instead dichotomous thinking which argues on the one hand that people are oppressed and need to be helped and therefore cannot help themselves, and on the other hand that although they are oppressed, these same people have the capacity to help themselves and therefore should be left alone to do so. As with so many dichotomies, reality rests in between. The circumstances of many marginalized people arise from a combination of personal and social conditions. In North America, it would be absurd to deny the very real impact of race, class, gender and sexuality and other experiences of personal oppression on marginalization and isolation. Many negative conditions begin in childhood (sexual abuse, violence, lack of education) and intersect with other oppressive situations.

John McKnight is one of the best known advocates for the position that oppressed and marginalized people should be given the opportunity to take care of themselves, their conditions and situations, without the involvement of professionals. He argues that social services are unnecessary and, in fact, often make matters worse by manufacturing need. McKnight states that there is nothing that can be done to change the way health and social services are structured to make them anything but “useless, controlling, exploitative or harmful” (Community 25). In McKnight’s vision of community, all resources currently dedicated to supporting the infrastructure and bureaucracy of health and social services, as well as the systems of service delivery, should be handed over to the community of  “exiled and labeled individuals” (Community 169).

McKnight posits three possibilities for addressing the needs of people currently identified as marginalized. The first is a therapeutic vison, much like the current service delivery system, with a professional to meet every need. Some services may be less available in the current climate of cut-backs and fiscal restraint, but lack of access does not change the goal or the expectation that needs must be addressed by trained professionals. The second is an advocacy vision which “foresees a world in which labeled people will be in an environment protected by advocates and advocacy groups ... a defensive wall of helpers to protect an individual against an alien community” (Community 168).  His third variant understands the community as the basic context for enabling people to contribute their gifts...where those who were once labeled, exiled, treated, counselled, advised, and protected are, instead, incorporated into community, where their contributions, capacities, gifts, and fallibilities will allow a network of relationships involving work, recreation, friendship, support, and the political power of being a citizen. (Community 169).

Most people would agree with McKnight that the status quo practice is not improving conditions for people who live outside the mainstream. At the same time, it is naive to suggest that everything would be better by dismantling all the supports and services currently provided by the complex health and social service system and replacing them with a combination of community associations and fee-for-service professionals. Without assistance, many would remain in negative situations even if, as McKnight suggests, they were given cash to change those conditions. As the women at PEERS have told me, it would take very little time indeed for a lump sum to make its way into the pockets of a few unscrupulous individuals, with drug dealers at the top of the list.

Meeting the needs of marginalized and oppressed groups requires something not included in McKnight’s three options. To be effective, a change agent must act to both increase the power of the powerless and relocate the locus of expertise. It is not fair or necessary to act on behalf of experiential community members or, on the other hand, to say, in effect, “Here are the resources. Do it yourself.” The work of the community practitioner lies in the space between these two worlds. The change agent must work with the community, not do for them, and she must make a sustained commitment. Moving from the traditional model of service delivery to one in which the role of the experiential community is central is paramount. This includes working together in identifying problems, designing strategies, developing initiatives, and (this is key) implementing decisions and outcomes. It may be that, at some future time, after a significant transformation, McKnight’s vision of a world without services will come to pass.

Almost everyone who writes about community practice suggests key qualities for the role so that her work endures. To create a new initiative requires skills that complement the experiential community and make the creation of something as daunting as a new program, service or shelter seem possible. Much of the work requires skills and experience initially found among professional change agents rather than experiential community members. Such skills cover a wide range and may include organizing and facilitating group visioning and planning sessions, developing grant proposals and lobbying for funding, and building support through community networks and coalitions. In order to successfully create a new program or service, a great deal of knowledge is required. In this context, the change agent acts as a bridge between the community with the identified need and those decision makers and administrators who can support the solution.


My work is a bridge leading the academy to the community. I offer my interpretation of transformative community practice as a support for effective social action. Transformative community practice, defined previously (page 16) and enlarged upon in the  following pages, provides a method of moving towards a positive future. In the chapters that follow, I include a review of literature related to transformative community practice, a summary of five projects that makeup the framework of this dissertation, and a close look at the role of the change agent working with marginalized people and involving the mainstream community in order to support the marginalized. At the centre of my analysis are the people who experience oppression; these are members of a community who live in the conditions which the privileged define as marginalization. This dissertation looks at changes that emerge when, rather than being marginalized, the experiential community is placed at the centre and supported by a change agent.