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 2 - A Review of Literature Related to Transformative Community Practice

Activism that achieves social justice through community practice and community organizing is informed by a wide range of approaches and disciplines. Community psychology, feminist organizing, health promotion and population health, international development, popular education and social work each have their own proponents and sets of guiding principles. When examining these approaches, their similarities far outweigh their differences, which stem from historical roots and separation in different fields rather than any substantial differences in ideology or practice today. Within a context of general agreement, each offers its own insights. My work builds on theirs, incorporating direct application as well as theoretical argument.        

Focus on Practice not Research

There is a close link between community practice and community research. In their new and ground breaking text, Community-Based Participatory Research for Health, Meredith Minkler and Nina Wallerstein describe community research as participatory and cooperative, engaging community members and researchers in a joint process. I would describe community practice in much the same terms. Minkler and Wallerstein suggest that to be effective, research must include action as an essential component (5). My work provides parallels as well as an in-depth analysis of community-based research.

There are, however, differences between research and practice. According to Michael Patton, the primary purpose of traditional research is “to generate or test theory and contribute to knowledge for the sake of knowledge” (10). He goes on to say, “Such knowledge ... may subsequently inform action and evaluation, but action is not the primary purpose of fundamental research.” Minkler & Wallerstein suggest that when reviewing new approaches to research, including participatory action, mutual inquiry, and feminist, one of the fundamental characteristics is that they all achieve a balance between research and action (5). The intent of research is to gather and make sense of information however embedded it may be in the community (Kirby & McKenna 35). Practice, on the other hand, is focussed on action.

Since my experience situates me first as a practitioner and second as a scholar, my intention is to translate theory of community practice into usable knowledge for practitioners. To do this requires an examination of what has been written about community practice and its historical roots in community organizing.[3] Many of the scholars and theorists whose work is discussed in the following pages share aspects of my vision of community practice, although few emphasize, as I do, the role the change agent plays in facilitating the voice of experiential community members. It bears repeating that my work builds on theirs, positioning transformative community practice at its centre.

The practice of community organizing emerges from a commitment to improving the lives of individuals (Rudkin[4] xiii), an activity Si Kahn describes as intrinsically radical (113). Organizing is about building community and engaging in a wider struggle for social and economic justice (Fisher and Shragge 6). Community organizing practice provides an ideal forum for carrying out the oft touted principle, “Think globally, act locally.” In fact, a number of scholars suggest that grassroots organizations are fundamental to social change (Castelloe, Watson and White 28; Fisher and Shragge 6). Beyond simply helping individuals, community organizing practice is about building communities and engaging in a wider agenda for social change.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, in a climate of cutbacks and fiscal restraint widespread across North America, many communities have focussed on dealing with immediate social ills such as crime and homelessness rather than a longer term transformation of society. Yet scholars in the field of community practice believe that a redistribution of resources has to be at the top of the agenda (Fisher and Shragge 13; Prilleltensky, Assumptions 522). Community organizing relies on cooperation to redress the historical imbalance between the powerless and the powerful. Such organizing is an implicit demand for a fuller democratization and a redistribution of resources (Kahn 113).

In an exceptionally useful and salient article entitled “Participatory Change: An Integrative Approach to Community Practice,” Castelloe, Watson and White outline a practice methodology developed at their Center for Participatory Change in Asheville, North Carolina. That center emerged in the Appalachian mountains of western North Carolina to integrate community organizing, popular education, and international participatory development. The steps that lead to change, core values and attitudes, and behaviours identified confirm lessons learned in my own practice experience. There are, however, some differences between their work and mine. Although their populations experience severe marginalization as a result of poverty and rural isolation, they do not experience the stigma attached to sex workers and drug addicts, who are judged negatively by the general public and media.

In the community practice literature, some consistencies emerge: the need to change public attitudes, engage the participation of community members, support individual and group development, empowerment, and the role of the change agent. In the following section, I will discuss each of these variables, as well as examine some of the language widespread in the field.

Intersection of Community Practice and Feminism

Underlying my analysis is a personal commitment to activism, feminism and progressive social change. By feminism, I mean an ideology that emerges from the view point of women and supports a progressive transformation of society away from violence, greed, competition and economic disparity toward a society based on tolerance, equality, collaboration, justice and peace. Feminism provides a vision of a society in which the oppressive means of power and privilege are eliminated (Hyde qtd. in Rothman, Approaches 49). One does not have to be a woman to be a feminist; however, inherent in my definition of feminism is a belief that women must play a leadership role in society if progressive social change is to occur.

My background as a feminist activist situates my work as practical or applied feminism at a time when feminism in the academy tends to be theoretical. There are some exceptions. Hill Collins is a scholar who offers a number of insights on oppression and marginalization that emerge from her experience and her analysis of the lives of African-American women. Her work Black Feminist Thought identifies methods of addressing the marginalization of African-American women and provides a feminist perspective that can be transferred to other marginalized groups. Hill Collins describes oppression as any unjust situation where one group denies another group access to the resources of society, systematically and over a long period of time (4).

In North America, oppressive ideologies permeate the social structure to such a degree that they are experienced as natural, normal, and inevitable. “Taken together, the supposedly seamless web of economy, polity, and ideology function as a highly effective system of social control” designed to keep African-American women and other marginalized and disenfranchised groups in an assigned, subordinate place (Hill Collins 5). The production of intellectual work by black women artists and activists is not usually recognized. In elite institutions of higher education especially such women are typically viewed as objects of study, which creates a false dichotomy between scholarship and activism, between thinking and doing. In contrast, examining the ideas and actions of these excluded groups as subjects reveals a world in which behaviour is a statement of philosophy and thus a vibrant scholar/activist tradition remains intact (Hill Collins 17).

Susan Stall and Randy Stoecker assert that feminism has made significant contributions to community organizing practice by recognizing the diverse experiences of community members (733) . Stall and Stoecker state that, although community organizing has always been committed to democratic goals and supportive of humane ends, “since the feminist movement, community organizing has been transformed so that issues that were private have become public, transforming the agendas, constituents and strategies of traditional organizing” (749).

The most fundamental values in feminism and community organizing practice underlie this dissertation; namely, the belief that people have the right to direct their own development, that individually and collectively they know what they need and how to provide it, and that they have the capacity to do so.[5] There is no single set of strategies for effective feminist organizing, which is complex and holistic, and addresses a variety of dimensions simultaneously (Hyde 549; Gutierrez and Lewis 29/30). Fawcett points out multilevel strategies feminist organizing also employs (627). Hill Collins asserts that since “power as domination is organized and operates via intersecting oppressions ... resistance in whatever form must show comparable complexity” (203). The work of feminist organizers embodies this complexity. There are, of course, shared values and beliefs within feminist activities, just as there are basic guidelines for engaging in effective community practice. I believe that transformative community practice offers an opportunity for the application of feminist theory. It is, essentially, applied feminism and offers a way to move beyond divisions between theory and practice.

Shifting Power by Changing Attitudes

Transformative community practice as formulated here, and as first conceived by O’Donnell and Karanja, is designed to facilitate and support working with the marginalized —people with the least power in North America. Before the process of working with the powerless begins, entrenched values and attitudes have to be identified and, in some cases, changed. Community practice scholars agree that it is desirable to pay attention to diverse voices and disenfranchised groups “by putting the last first” (Castelloe, Watson and White 25). Rudkin suggests that services and programs should prioritize “the hopes and needs of the poor, marginalized, exploited, and vulnerable” (xiii). Haywoode points out that “to achieve this will require the elimination of systemic barriers that currently obstruct the participation of experiential people” (131).

Shifting to a model that includes the points of view of those traditionally excluded requires that assumptions must be reconsidered about who the marginalized actually are, what they are capable of, and what they have a right to expect. Thinking inclusively means putting those who have been excluded from decision-making at the centre (Andersen and Hill Collins 450). Decision- making equals power and, as Linda Thurston suggests (65), the powerful have a good deal at stake in maintaining their version of reality and suppressing or denying the reality of others. Rita Arditti agrees with Thurston and adds that mistrusting those in power is a necessary first step for the powerless and requires a refusal to accept the dominant, official version of reality (86).

Within community practice ideology, the language of social Darwinism (the idea that social failure is due to the inherent inferiority of the individual) is no longer acceptable and yet, as Charles Garvin and Fred Cox point out, “a hierarchy of worthy and unworthy poor still exists” (64). This attitude continues to dominate. As Thurston states, “Far too often the (mostly male) powerful still make decisions for the powerless: the well for the sick, the middle-aged for the aging, the ‘sane’ for the ‘mad,’ the educated for the illiterate, the influential for the marginalized” (64).

Part of the work of the change agent is to ensure that attitudes change so that actions as they unfold do so from a place of respect, a belief in the people involved and a recognition that they know best what they need. Terry Haywoode states that “people have a right to shape the decisions and forces that affect their lives, families and communities and this is accomplished, in part, by acknowledging and utilizing the community’s expert understanding of their own needs and strengths” (131). To achieve this requires flexibility and openness to change, not often present in social service delivery systems in North America today.

To impact the way decisions are made and interventions developed requires a shift in power. Throughout the literature, power is identified as central to meaningful involvement. Castelloe, Watson and White state that participatory change “aims to build the power—individual, group, and regional power—needed for grassroots groups to shape the decisions that affect their lives” (25). According to Margaret Andersen and Hill Collins, “the reconstruction of existing ways of thinking to become more inclusive still requires many transformations” (xiii). 

It is more than simply power over the lives in the community in question to which many scholars refer. Michelle Smith and Joyce Hancock suggest that community practice must challenge “the inequities in power and privilege that exist because of sexism, classism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism, racism and all other forms of exclusion” (14). Robert Fisher and Eric Shragge state that the redistribution of power and resources is central to the entire enterprise of effective social change, including community practice, since “social problems cannot be modified without some basic redistribution” (13). To act effectively as a change agent, one must develop an awareness of privilege at multiple levels: age, racial/ethnic group membership, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, disability status, and gender. Issac Prilleltensky states that ultimately the goal is “distributive justice, a fair and equitable allocation of resources and bargaining power in society” (Assumptions 522). Almost everyone writing on the subject agrees that in North America power is in the hands of a privileged elite and that it is the function of effective community organizing practice to change this. As Bill Moyer contends, “the goal of social change is to promote a paradigm shift to an open system dominated by democratic principles and human values, that is, a system that is organized by citizens themselves, without being controlled by elite powerholders in the closed system of an oppressive hierarchy” (25). A redistribution of wealth is not necessarily on every experiential population’s agenda, even though economic inequality may underlie their identified issues. It is incumbent upon the change agent to focus on the needs identified by the community, while recognizing that her work is part of a larger movement toward a more equitable distribution of resources.

Without a positive vision of the future, obstacles appear insurmountable and people are immobilized (Freire and Macedo 270). To successfully engage in the process of progressive social change, the individual and the group must possess a sense of optimism and possibility (Freire and Macedo 270; Kahn 123) and a belief in positive solutions (Moyer et al 25). The work of both scholars and practitioners in the realm of community practice requires a belief that this work can transform society (Kahn 113; Moyer et al 26).

Role of the Change Agent

Examination of the role of the professional change agent is relatively new in the field of social service delivery. In the 1800s and early 1900s, in North America, social services were delivered through charitable organizations operated by churches or settlement houses (Garvin and Cox 72). During the last century, a professional response to social issues emerged. Underlying this new delivery system was the belief that social service professionals knew what was best for people, even without talking to them. Such an attitude persists today (Freire qtd. in Freire and Macedo 247).

As McKnight suggests, it is possible that the creation of what is now seen as the traditional service approach was well intentioned but it “reinforces an institutional need to control people and to establish external definitions of deficiency and need” (Ideas 3). Regardless of the initial intent, once this social service delivery system was institutionalized, decision-making moved out of the community whose problems needed to be addressed (Fairweather 306; McKnight, Society 48; Sarason 122).

This is the historical context of today’s community practice. Despite the acknowledgement that it is paternalistic to treat community members as less capable than professionals (Freire and Macedo 12), their exclusion remains an issue (Chambers 102; Minkler and Wallerstein 4; McKnight, Ideas 18). As a result, supporting and facilitating in-depth as well as comprehensive inclusion has become central to the work of the professional change agent.

The process addressed in this dissertation implicitly requires the change agent to engage in a meaningful way with members of the community. Barbara Joseph et al describe this relationship as a transactive one, in which each party “brings to the effort different/complementary competencies, ideas, experiences and visions” (4). They suggest that, although the change agent may come from outside the community members’ experience, she is not outside the process. The change agent and those she works with and organizes must be closely linked (Stall and Stoecker 744). Time must be dedicated to that connection before moving on to action. Cheryl Hyde suggests that a supportive environment “addresses fears and equals trust, respect, equality and validation of an individual’s experiences” (554). The action which ultimately emerges from a community change process is built on the foundation of relationships developed at the outset, among community members and between the change agent and the community. Together they engage in the process of community building.

  Unlike the “professional” model of conventional social work training, Gutierrez describes the necessary interaction between a change agent and an experiential community member as one characterized by “genuineness, mutual respect, open communication and informality (207). Hyde notes that attention to emotional and personal needs improves the overall organizing effort (554) and Chambers that rapport is key to facilitating full participation (133). Although the process necessarily begins somewhat differently in each instance, and is motivated by a generalized commitment to positive social change, once personal relationships begin to develop between the change agent and the community, personal ties become a motivation in working for change. Hyde suggests that caring about each other becomes important as a context for mobilizing and working for change (554).

Although there is a distinction between professional/work functions and personal relationships (Joseph et al 4), the role of change agent cannot be separated from other aspects of the life and work of an activist. As Hyde (551) states, the successful change agent is a wholistic organizer, deeply invested in her efforts. She finds fulfilment through organizing. Community organizing practice is not nine to five work, nor is it possible to do such work effectively without developing  personal relationships with community members. Such relationships take time and require sustained attention in the long term. Castelloe, Watson and White identify building friendships as a key behaviour. The authors state that “participatory change is built on relationships, friendships, trust, and a sincere interest in the lives and concerns of grassroots leaders. Chatting, laughing, hanging out, and telling stories are the foundation upon which social change is built” (27).

Successful community practice is built on personal relationships that grow and evolve (Alinsky 79). Such relationships must be sustained to be meaningful. The role of change agent can be personally satisfying, but it must be understood to be more than a job (Alinsky 65). Castelloe, Watson and White point out that it is important for the change agent to build confidence through constant encouragement, the highlighting of strengths, and the recognition of accomplishments (27). Moyer, too, describes the importance of the activist employing positive emotions, and personal transformation in order to achieve a vision of a healthy society (39/40). One cannot be engaged in a process of personal transformation during regular and traditional work hours.

As part of the process of building support, the change agent needs to span boundaries in order to help create relationships with outside sources, that is, people who are in a position to support positive outcomes or, in Rothman’s words, to act as “a broker for the initiative” (Planning 39). Ronald Havelock suggests a similar function when he states that the change agent’s role includes “linking the community to much needed resources” (9).

I agree with Rothman when he suggests that the influence of the change agent in community interventions can be considerable (Planning 71). It is naive to suggest otherwise. He notes that the attitude of the group leader (the professional change agent) toward community members strongly influences the types of solutions reached (Planning 54). At the beginning of a community change initiative, the change agent is often identified as the project leader (Kar 1438; Rothman, Planning 54; Sarason 72) and is viewed as both leader and role model (Joseph et al 4). Part of her function over time is to act as a mentor and develop group-centered or indigenous leadership (Stall and Stoecker 744). During the change process, the function of the change agent will shift, for example, from active participant to advocate and observer (Rothman, Planning 39). Eventually, one of the tasks of the change agent will be to help move the group from a dependence on her presence (Alinsky 92) to minimize the group’s dependency on the organizer (Joseph et al 4). However, as Paulo Freire reminds us, “not even the best intentioned can bestow independence as a gift. Only transformation with the oppressed rather than for them is valid” (qtd. in Freire and Macedo 65). 

Listening to the Community’s Insider Knowledge  

In their article on participatory change, Castlelloe, Watson and White state:

At its core, participatory change is a community practice methodology that is based on the belief that marginalized people best understand the challenges they face and how to address them. The work of the community practitioner is to draw forth the vision and plans of people living in low-wealth and marginalized communities, and support them as they create participatory and democratic grassroots structures that give them the resources and power to do what they already know needs to be done. (27)

Chambers states, “change agents can learn from local people, gaining insight from their local knowledge” (156). Generally speaking, there is a consensus among scholars and activists that local input is critical (Gittell and Vidal 25), but by many methods and degrees. For some, simply hosting one community meeting or distributing a questionnaire would constitute soliciting community input. This could be seen as one variety of participation, albeit a limited one. Commonly, when input is sought by senior managers, academic researchers and policy makers, it is from front-line service providers, bypassing experiential community members altogether.

Really listening to the community requires a degree of inclusion that is complex and multilayered. Jennifer Rudkin states that “recognition of diversity, the dimensions of difference, must be comprehensive and include all minority racial and ethnic groups, age, sex, socioeconomic class, sexual orientation, and ability status” (124). She argues that an

emphasis on diversity goes beyond a concern with discrimination and reflects an interest in learning from and appreciating different cultures and different life experiences more generally, shifting from a focus on the psychological toll of oppression to the possible contributions of various cultures. It suggests a positive regard for human differences. (124)

Throughout the literature, scholars of community practice highlight the importance of diversity and inclusivity. Prilleltensky states that by “appreciating diverse social identities we promote respect and enhance collaboration and democratic participation” (Assumptions 522). The goal, according to McKnight, is the “recommunalization” of exiled and labeled people (Society 169).

Hill Collins’ analysis of black feminist thought and her depictions of the circumstances of women of colour provides an important framework for looking at other oppressed groups. As she says, “like African-American women, many others who occupy societally denigrated categories have been similarly silenced” (vi). Moving beyond silence into an active role of speaking out and participating is an essential component of transformative community practice. Black feminist thought provides social theory that questions who has the legitimate right to speak for another, and reflects women’s efforts to come to understand their lived experience as historically unexamined (Galvan 607; Hill Collins 9). Life stories and first person narratives, written by those who have previously been studied by others, are changing scholarship in a range of disciplines from anthropology (Behar 27) to film studies (Ruby Rich 6). The primary responsibility for defining a person’s reality must lie with that person (Hill Collins 35).

As Harding states, the experiences of women and the marginalized have a crucial role to play in the production of knowledge. She argues, as do I, that when knowledge incorporates experiential components, it is more accurate (43). Castelloe, Watson and White state that people in poor communities should not be the target of community development projects (as is the case in almost every community in North America today) but the ones who determine, drive, and control the entire process (10).

In the literature concerning community organizing practice, there is a strong consensus that the participation of community members, whether described as participants, clients or consumers, is critical for success (Alinsky 123; Garvin and Cox 97; Haywoode 124; Rothman, Approaches 41; Sarason 118). Marc Zimmerman suggests that replacing the word “client” with “expert” is a good beginning (44). Many authors argue that the involvement of experiential people should be central to the entire enterprise and be maintained throughout the project[6].

The understanding that those less privileged must teach those more privileged is an ideal much touted in the field of international development, although, rarely achieved. As Robert Chambers, an innovative practitioner in the field, states “Practitioners must learn from local people, directly, on the site and face-to-face, gaining insight from their local physical, technical and social knowledge” (156). Chambers identifies a set of principles that underlie effective participatory development. He asserts that to be effective, community initiatives must incorporate decentralization, democracy, diversity and dynamism. He goes on to say that when projects start from these concepts, they “enhance participation, mobilize local knowledge, use local resources and energy, result in actions that are better adapted and more sustainable” (199). Such projects “adapt fast and fit changes in local conditions, reduce costs, reduce central administration and resolve political problems and conflicts locally” (199). Although Chambers’ opinion may be the exception rather than the rule in international development work, it is based on extensive experience in the field and offers valuable lessons for community practice in North America.

Bud Hall questions the current way in which knowledge and understanding, that is, expertise, is constructed in the North American context. He asks:

“How is it that the most intimate sphere of knowledge—the knowledge of our own culture, families, lives, and bodies—can have been colonized so fully by the portrayal of others: researchers, epidemiologists, medical sociologists, and even health promotion experts?” (xiii)

For those who view the world through the lens of privilege, this is one of the key lessons of transformative community practice—that experiential knowledge must be understood to be at the centre of expertise. In the words of Minkler and Wallerstein, “all women and men have the capacity to create knowledge about their own lives” (qtd. in Hall xiii). Jean East asserts that one of the primary components of a feminist perspective (and I would add any effective community practice) is that the voices and experiences of women (and men) must be central to the process and be the basis for changes in policy and practice (326).


Julian Rappaport defines empowerment as the process by which people, organizations, and communities gain mastery over their lives (Terms122). According to Rothman, empowerment increases an individual’s sense of control over her own life and feeling of self-worth (Introduction 23). The Cornell Empowerment Group defined empowerment as “an intentional, ongoing process centered in the local community, involving mutual respect, critical reflection, caring, and group participation, through which people lacking an equal share of valued resources gain greater access to and control over those resources” (qtd. in Zimmerman 43). Some definitions of empowerment include a commitment to increase the problem-solving capacity of community members, so that they develop the skills necessary to become independent decision-makers (Zimmerman 46).

Rappaport states that empowerment “suggests both individual determination over one’s own life and democratic participation in the life of one’s community. Empowerment is a multilevel construct applicable to individual citizens as well as to organizations and neighbourhoods” (Terms 121). In her work with women who receive public assistance, East notes that the women report “feeling able to take control and [work] for change made them feel powerful” and having “a place of support and community were important factors in their becoming empowered” (317-18). Rappaport suggests that professionals must “help foster social policies and programs that make it more rather than less likely that others not now handling their own problems in living or shut out from current solutions, gain control over their lives” (Paradox 155). Empowerment ideology implies that new competencies are possible and can be learned. Empowerment theory sees disenfranchised groups simultaneously as both marginalized and lacking in social power, and as strong, capable agents of social transformation (Trickett qtd. in Rudkin 305).

Although there is much talk about empowerment, rarely are interventions and policies designed in ways consistent with increasing power. Prilleltensky points out that,

“Empowering interventions and policies are designed to enhance the degree of control that vulnerable individuals exercise over their lives, a concept central to feminist and community psychology. The overarching goal is to increase the personal and collective power of people who are powerless and, in so doing, to reduce domination” (Assumptions 525).

Haywoode (131) and Joseph et al (2) state that to be successful community change initiatives must improve the conditions of people while empowering them.

Many intervention efforts aimed at empowerment enhance self-esteem and thus increase a sense of power but do little to affect real power over resources or policies. It is also useful to distinguish between what Starhawk describes as “power over” and “power within.” Power over implies domination whereas the kind of power implied in empowerment is power that comes from within each person (Starhawk 3/4). Although it may be the goal of successful community practice to increase control over access to resources, this is not an attempt to gain power in the traditional sense. Rather, it is a desire to share power and resources more equitably.

Empowerment is sometimes equated with participation, as if changing procedures will automatically lead to changes in the context or the distribution of resources (Fisher and Shragge 13; Riger 282). Stephanie Riger, among others, is cautious about identifying empowerment alone as an effective methodology for progressive change. She suggests that the experience of power or powerlessness may be unrelated to a person’s actual ability to influence and that confusing an ability to control resources with a sense of empowerment depoliticizes the latter (282). Education and capacity building must go further than providing an analysis of oppression if transformation of lives is going to result, along with a transformative group experience. Castelloe, Watson and White describe the process of capacity building as “strengthening what groups of people are capable of collectively doing and being” (25). In this way, people develop much needed skills, gain strength and confidence and share a vital role in developing a vision for change.

Engagement in community initiatives can result in an increased sense of power for experiential community members. In time and with appropriate supports, they will identify as members of a community, engage in useful dialogue addressing community concerns in a variety of formats and play a role in the development of solutions and their implementation.

Being part of a process that recognizes personal experience as valuable and necessary in the pursuit of equality and inclusion (Smith and Hancock 14) is in itself empowering, but effective community practice must go further. It must enable people to contribute to the process of change. This includes not only playing a role in designing solutions but implementing them as well. Thus, experiential community members become meaningful players at every stage of the process and recognize that they are capable of playing a role in sustaining change. It is essential that the community takes responsibility for its chosen initiatives and commits to being an ongoing agent of change.

Some argue that to formally integrate a philosophy of transformative community practice into existing institutions requires a widespread shift in power beforehand. On the other hand, some know from personal experience that flexibility exists in institutions. It is the responsibility of those inside institutions to begin to push the boundaries. A privileged elite maintain many public institutions using public resources that could be put to better use. Whenever possible, practitioners in hospitals, police departments, schools, universities, and at all levels of government need to ponder ways in which they can begin to work with the most powerless, relocate the locus of expertise and support marginalized community members.Many of us experienced in the field can describe instances of flexibility and creativity which have resulted in outcomes that could not have been achieved by using traditional methods. I have witnessed remarkable successes when people in institutions and government use their positions to accommodate the needs of those they are trying to help. Three examples, from projects described in detail in Chapter 3, follow:

  1. A Ministry of Social Services area manager committed operating funds for an emergency shelter for women, Sandy Merriman House, long before capital (or a name) was found for the project. He did so knowing that it would be much easier to find the funds to build the project with a commitment of operating funds.

  2. A government policy official suggested reconfiguring an innovative idea as a pilot project which became the Downtown Women’s Project in order to access funds from a government program that was still in the planning stages and therefore not yet available to the community.

  3. Federal government staff allowed sex workers to remain anonymous rather than be publicly identified, and therefore they were able to become participants in a federally funded pre-employment training program run by PEERS. Usually such programs eliminated sex workers by requiring a name and social insurance number.


It is important to understand the difference between participation and engagement. Participation implies that a process or initiative is already underway and that members of the experiential community are invited to join. The word “participate” is not generally used to describe initiating or planning an entire process. The community is invited, even encouraged, to participate in an existing activity. Engagement suggests a degree of personal choice, commitment, and willingness that is not necessarily present in participation. Engagement implies an interweaving of responsibility and action and a degree of control not included in participation.

Participation and engagement produce different impacts. With participation, it is far too common for the impact to be minimal. Participation does not necessarily change the process, engagement does. It is the difference between voting on something and being part of the dialogue that decides what is being voted on. In a classroom, it is the difference between participating in a class discussion and being involved in the process of deciding what will be studied and how. Change agents must commit to create and facilitate conditions that support genuine engagement to take place, allowing for new and innovative outcomes that would not be able to emerge otherwise.

Throughout the literature, a key to change is identified as the involvement of the people whose lives and experience are in question[7]. Prilleltensky says that participation and inclusion enhance connectedness and contribute to a sense of community, as well as providing an important methodology for addressing issues since “people have a right to self-determination and a right to direct their own lives” (Assumptions 522).

Engagement, however, can take many forms and mean quite different things to different practitioners. Articulating a commitment and genuine engagement do not always coincide. Central to the engagement of experiential people in a project is understanding their role in that project. It is important to break engagement down into its component parts, otherwise it remains an abstract concept and therefore impossible to implement. In the literature, there are a great many possibilities for engagement, ranging from participants identifying the problem (Fairweather 308; Fawcett 624), to the implementation of strategies or solutions that address the problem (Castelloe, Watson and White 21; Prilleltensky, Assumptions 524).

Few writers differentiate between degrees of engagement. Some refer to activities which take place only once, such as focus groups (Rothman, Approaches 41), or occasionally, such as membership on advisory bodies (Alinsky 107; Joseph et al 3), or on an ongoing basis such as project planning and implementation (Castelloe, Watson and White 21). For others, the long-term goal of community initiatives is that the experiential community members take complete responsibility (Castelloe, Watson and White 15; East 323; Gittel and Vidal 25; Grahame 385; Rothman, Planning 178).

Engagement may mean something quite different to the experiential community member than to the community practitioner. Part of the work of transformation is to accept that even the process of engagement takes place on the community’s terms and not within specific predetermined parameters set up by professionals. Edison Trickett cautions that token involvement may actually reinforce the status quo, for example, when a community advisory group is established but has no decision-making power (qtd. in Rudkin 305). Such groups can be used to legitimize activities not developed or created by the community. Many community practitioners try to differentiate between token and authentic involvement. Castelloe, Watson and White say involvement is meaningful when “people can shape decisions and forces that affect their lives, families and communities” (17). In this experience of engagement, community practice becomes transformative for experiential community members and for change agents.

Although there has been considerable consensus in the literature on the importance of involvement, in the 1970s some scholars and activists advocated involvement but then set up limits for community organizing activities, thereby constraining the scope of activities before involvement even began. In 1971, Alinsky stated that the first activity the organizer should engage in is conflict, “rubbing raw the resentments of the people of the community” by searching out controversy (116). This was intended to push the community into a specific type of action rather than allowing them to choose. In 1972, in his book on the creation of new settings[8], community psychologist Sarason included a full chapter on decision-making and leadership, making it clear that the leader is not a community member but from the outside (53). Again, the assumption of leadership capacity is made before community members become involved and precludes their participation in that decision. In 1974, Rothman stated that participation “is not the method of choice in all situations” (Planning 8). Instead, he suggested that sometimes the change agent should make all the decisions. In the above examples, community change is dictated by the change agent, not the experiential community members; all these male activists and scholars have had considerable influence on the direction community practice has taken.

Although the above examples are from the early 1970s, they are not unique in contradicting the importance of community involvement. Even in 2004, scholars appear to override engagement by leaving significant decision-making to professional change agents. It appears that, although the idea of involvement is highly valued, the reality is little understood and therefore frequently undermined. For example, when considering some of the methods used to build community practice initiatives, Haywoode suggests the objective should be “building and creating holistic neighbourhood environments, rather than emphasizing particular goals such as housing or education” (131). By precluding a focus on what the members of the community might well identify as their goal, the change agent minimizes opportunities for genuine engagement. Castelloe, Watson and White state that a vital reason for building grassroots power is so that people can shape the decisions that affect their lives (25). This is a sound argument for community responsibility for setting goals, rather than the change agent. Professionals should not seek to anticipate or limit the change process.

Supporting and facilitating the engagement of the experiential community is the work of the effective change agent. Castelloe, Watson and White argue that the involvement of experiential community members will result in significant and positive change for the entire community (25). The importance of engagement is supported by work in a number of fields beyond community organizing practice. In Canada, the degree of control over one’s circumstances is recognized as a determinant of health (Canada, Health 2/4), and Articles 12 and 13 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child are designed to promote self-reliance and facilitate the child’s active engagement in her community (Canada, Human Rights 11). Prilleltensky states that when citizens have input into decisions that affect their lives, “it enhances connectedness and contributes to a sense of community” (Assumptions 522).

Capacity Building

A commitment to the individual members of a community must go beyond encouraging their engagement in the grassroots process and include positive change through capacity building and skill development. This commitment is inherent in community practice methodology. According to Gutierrez, “empowering practice presumes that the worker or practitioner does not hold the answers to the client’s problems but rather that, in the context of collaboration, the client will develop the insights, skills, and capacity to resolve the situation” (207).

In community practice literature, participation is closely linked with empowerment and with the development of skills. Sometimes capacity-building and empowerment are described as outcomes of engagement (Prilleltensky, Assumptions 525). Both engagement and capacity-building are required to deeply embed community change initiatives. Without significant engagement in decision-making, planning and implementation of  solutions, capacity-building becomes mere training. Without the development of the necessary skills to sustain change, engagement becomes hollow and, at times, cruel because it provides people with a sense of what could be but without the support and skills to make it so.

The experiential community and the change agent have complementary roles. The relationship ensures mutual learning. Practitioners learn as much from the community as the community learns from practitioners (Castelloe, Watson and White 27). The more the change agent learns about the lived experience of the population the more she will delegate and support (Hyde 551). Over time, community members may be able to take over all of the functions of the professionals and successfully manage the process independently. Sometimes, the professional change agent will play an ongoing role, as both a supporter and facilitator in circumstances and situations as they arise. This is especially true when the professional change agent has a function beyond specifically facilitating community projects, for example, when she is a bridge to other community resources. What may well change is the degree to which all members of the community play a role in establishing how services are provided.

Ultimately, newly created advocacy and service organizations should be structured so that experiential community members, who once informally provided services, are hired as staff (Haywoode 131). It is critical that skill development and capacity-building become an integral part of the community change process (McKnight, Society 169). At the same time, it is important to recognize that the priority for experiential community members is to have their immediate needs met, and this may be true for some time (Joseph et al 3; Kahn 117).

The concept of helping people develop their full potential is not new. Settlement houses placed great emphasis on education as a useful tool (Garvin and Cox 73). It is rather unusual, however, to suggest that experiential community members can and should develop the skills necessary to take on a full range of responsibilities, including as paid staff in new programs and services.

In this regard, engagement gives people a sense of possibility. So do skills, but neither alone is enough. Yet the literature seems to separate engagement and skill-development and therefore weaken this relationship. In the interests of creating collective possibilities, community members need to develop both a personal sense of their roles in the change process and the ability to participate in the process. Further, they must understand they are part of the collective process of change. Believing in change, as well as engaging in it, is a pre-requisite for its continuance.

The on-line Community Organizing Toolbox reinforces the idea that experiential people must develop the capacity to participate significantly in addressing their needs effectively. In the Toolbox, Nina Wallerstein is quoted as saying,

The empowerment process at the heart of community organizing promotes participation of people, organizations and communities toward the goal of increased individual and community control, political efficacy, improved quality of life, and social justice. (qtd. in Neighbourhood Funders Group 3)

Capacity building is an essential component of effective community practice when working with marginalized populations. Any effective community initiative must incorporate participatory tools and techniques and build the capacity of the group to move toward independence.

The change agent must be committed to the process of capacity building, sharing her skills and making the personal development and growth of community members a priority (East 319). One of the purposes of community intervention activities is to build the capacity of grassroots citizens’ groups to solve community problems (Rothman, Introduction 5). A change agent must be a personal mentor to experiential community leaders and encourage them to acquire new skills. They need to take on tasks as soon as they can, and see themselves as capable, contributing team members. When establishing rules or conditions intended to include experiential community members, the change agent needs to ensure that conditions are fair and realistic. This means that the experiential community must play a role in establishing those conditions.

Building the capacity of experiential community members and of the change agent can be a central factor in creating positive outcomes. What experiential community members learn is often the most substantial impact of a community practice initiative (East 326). It  is key that the change agent participates in the training and education of the community (Mizrahi and Rosenthal 3). In order to enhance the experience of gaining control, learning must take place in a respectful environment (Kahn 110). Kahn suggests using creative methods, such as writing, role playing, theatre, drawing, singing, and song writing (111). Experiential community members may need to focus on more traditional educational topics, such as computer skills, literacy, public speaking, and managing finances. Capacity building can also include personal supports such as counselling and life skills workshops (Rabinovitch and Lewis 27).

Skill development may take place within traditional educational institutions; however, it is important to acknowledge that these institutions can reinforce marginalization. People need to be active participants in their learning whatever form it takes. Educational institutions often require and reinforce passivity with a rigid curriculum. This can marginalize individuals further.

Skills are developed through the process of assuming responsibility for change and gaining power (Gutierrez 206). Members develop a more positive self-image and confidence (Stall and Stoecker 741) and learn that everyone has the capacity to do good work (McKnight, Society 172). Participants learn team building, strategic planning and organizational development (Rabinovitch and Lewis 27). They also develop leadership abilities (Kar, Pascual and Chickering 1438).

To understand capacity building, it is important to look at it within the context of popular education, long identified as an important social change activity. Popular education is associated with the work of Paulo Freire and has been carried forward in contemporary practice by Myles Horton of the Highlander Research and Education Center, New Market, Tennessee, The Centre for Popular Education at the University of Technology Sydney,  Australia, and The Catalyst Centre, Toronto, Canada. Popular education involves learning from experience and dialogue. Learning from experience means that, through coming together and reflecting on everyday experiences, people can learn about the larger social, political, and economic world which impacts their lives. Dialogic education refers to educators and students interacting in a way in which both are co-speakers, co-learners and co-actors. These two processes are designed to develop a critical consciousness that, again, involves understanding the wider social, cultural, political, and economic world. Popular education is intended to develop group self-confidence and collective action (Castelloe, Watson and White 10). Although, according to Castelloe, Watson and White, popular education may not always result in action, its methods provide excellent tools for drawing forth ideas and for helping grassroots groups develop their own framework for critiquing the causes of community and societal problems (13).

From the Academy to the Community

The idea that the locus of expertise must be moved from the academy to include the community should be considered as both figurative and literal. This dissertation emphasizes the insider knowledge that experiential people possess. Such knowledge is essential and must be integrated into the design, development and implementation of  new and existing health and social services. Expert knowledge can no longer be seen to reside exclusively among scholars.

Some communities want to move beyond a problem-solving approach to defining the problem and preventing it. Otherwise, collectively, we are trapped in an ever-increasing spiral of need. A logical extension of community practice is to move into the realm of research, a primary mechanism for developing prevention strategies. Most community practitioners know they need to better understand the issues they want to address. Community-university partnerships have emerged in response to people who are tired of being “the researched.” Such partnerships are intended to shift the traditional colonial relationship between academic researchers and the researched community and put the least advantaged first (O’Neill 330). They are supposed to offer communities access to support and knowledge that would make a measurable difference in the lives of members of the community and, at the same time, provide important opportunities for learning and skill development for students and faculty.

Many claim to have a critical consciousness which incorporates, as Ellen McWhirter suggests, “an ongoing commitment on the part of the helper to better understand the causes, dynamics, and consequences of oppression” (323). This requires professionals pay close attention to the subtle ways that status differences are reinforced and move away from a “social problems approach,” which tends to portray people as victims when viewed by the privileged (Andersen and Hill Collins xii). Genuine involvement in research means involvement in every stage of the process—identification of the research question, conducting the research, data analysis and disseminating the research outcomes. All research methodologies used to learn more about the lives and experiences of marginalized communities must include those members as part of the research team.

Anthropologists have been accused of a “tendency to depersonalize one’s connection to the field” (Behar 25). The same could be said for other social scientists and policy makers, even the best intentioned. Research conducted by academics, which situates them as experts on a range of issues they have no personal knowledge of, must be reconfigured so that people cease to be passive subjects of someone else’s study and become an active part of the team. As Louise Kidder and Michelle Fine have noted, “unless ‘victims’ own analysis of injustice is explored, social science research on situations and circumstances of injustice will continue to be a tool for obscuring social inequity” (60).


Because the goal of the change agent is to work with others to support them in addressing their own needs, there must be an understanding of how to do so. Real engagement requires the change agent to work innovatively for positive outcomes. A substantial shift must take place regarding who has input into the agenda for change and who shapes, implements and evaluates that agenda. Experiential people must be acknowledged not simply as stakeholders but as central to the process. In the following chapter are five examples from my own practice, through which I further develop the theory of transformative community practice.