|COMM-ORG Papers 2005||
Rabinovitch--Transforming Community Practice
Chapter 6 - Taking the Time: Honouring the Process
In previous chapters, I have discussed how change agents and practitioners can begin to transform their community. However, without an understanding of the importance of allowing enough time for change, transformation remains philosophical. With the addition of appropriate timing, transformative community practice becomes a practical and radical way of working in community. When all of the layers are understood and incorporated, effective community practice becomes, in large part, a commitment to the reallocation of time, money and resources. More traditional programming cycles that expect tangible outcomes within months have to be reworked to reflect this shift.
In today’s world, community practice rarely dedicates time to building relationships without the expectation of measurable outcomes. However, both government and private funders need to begin to understand the importance of building trust and developing engagement. Funders need to allow proposals that incorporate the phases outlined below. Although I have identified five time phases, these are not rigid, nor are they always separate and distinct. Projects and initiatives vary. The five internal phases—building relationships, visioning, strategic planning, capacity building and implementation—may seem to imply a timeline with a beginning, middle and end, the phases invariably overlap.
Time has to be looked at from more than one perspective. Establishing the start and end point of a community practice initiative has been the topic of much discussion over the years in the literature. In Chapter 3 of Sarason’s The Creation of Settings, he addresses this topic specifically. The change agent’s time commitment may not necessarily coincide with all the phases of the project or initiative. The change agent may become involved before Phase I even begins and/or may continue after Phase V has been concluded. The change agent will also have more than one focus as this chapter outlines. In each phase, the parallel work of the change agent establishing support for the experiential community and building bridges between them and the larger community requires its own time commitment.
This chapter begins with a look at the importance of dedicating enough time to transformative community practice as I have adapted it. It then examines more closely the five phases of my version of transformative community practice, first focussing on work within the experiential community and then on the parallel work with others who are affected by the issues involved, or in a position to support the initiative.
Significant change does not happen overnight. To be an effective change agent, one must make a long-term commitment to the process. Sarason, who dedicated a significant portion of his career to understanding the process of creating new settings, identifies a number of attributes he thinks are necessary for success. Among them is a realistic time perspective for creating the setting. Although some initiatives designed to address specific issues may be time limited, Castelloe, Watson and White point out that “Participatory change is built from long-term goals” (26). Having a realistic time frame is one of the contributions of the change agent.
Indeed, bridging the various perspectives on time is a necessary role for an experienced change agent working with a marginalized community. This is particularly true when the work includes seeking funding from bureaucratic institutions. It is crucial to dedicate enough time to the process to give it a realistic chance of success. At the same time, awareness of the day-to-day reality of members of the community and the human cost of delays and extensions is equally crucial.
The Downtown Women’s Project took two years from the outset of the development phase to the completion of the construction of Sandy Merriman House. Even though nothing was officially approved at the end of the year, with assurances that support would be forthcoming, we hired staff and developed a construction training program which lasted for seven months and was followed by a renovation of the building. After another year, the shelter was officially open for business once again, as with the VSCA, in time for Christmas. During the project, I met regularly with a cross-ministry committee of provincial government representatives. During the same period, I continued to host meetings of street women which had been on-going for close to a year. I discovered different perceptions of time. The women were shocked by how slow the process was and how long it was taking for anything to happen. They were in daily survival mode, many with no place to sleep at night, and for them two years was forever. Government personnel were accustomed to a very different time frame and could not believe how fast the project was moving. It took them six months to develop a mechanism that allowed them to officially communicate with one another. To them, a project that went from start to finish in two years was lightning speed; they found this extremely nerve-wracking and uncomfortable. For the government members of the committee who were paying for and overseeing the project, two years was almost too fast for them to manage. As change agent, my role included representing one group at the table as it met with the other, and interpreting for each the reality of the other—as if they lived on different planets. Sometimes it seemed as if they did.
Because most projects do not have a clearly delineated development phase, it is hard to identify exactly when they begin. PEERS is a good illustration. There are a number of possible points for the beginning of PEERS. Some choices follow:
Although each project is unique and it is risky to generalize, five basic phases of community practice have emerged. Each phase possesses distinct characteristics, even when they overlap. If time is not dedicated to development, important issues may be bypassed, compromises made and conflict created within the group. During both the VSCA and the Downtown Women’s Project, an equal amount of time was dedicated to the start-up development of each project and the outcomes—approximately a year each.
The story of each has several parts and thus could be described as several projects. Each of the examples I use in this dissertation lasted a minimum of two years. The first two years of the VSCA, Downtown Women’s Project and PEERS follow the same pattern fairly closely and confirm that at least two years are needed to move through the five internal phases: Phase I: Building Relationships, Phase II: Creating the Vision, Phase III: Strategic Planning, Phase IV: Capacity Building, Phase V: Implementing the Initiative. In general, the first three phases require at least one year and the next two, another year. Phases IV and V can, and often do, continue well beyond two years. The five complementary external phases focus on parallel work in the larger community and are shown in the table below.
Table 2 - Internal & External Phases of Transformative Community Practice
In all five examples, the role of a facilitator or change agent is central to starting the project, although in the final project, ICCEC, the role of initiator is taken on by a member of the experiential community rather than an outside change agent. This phase is an opportunity for dialogue. It is crucial to include enough time for members of the experiential community to establish what they want. Without enough time at the outset to really share stories and express pent-up emotional responses, constructive action is unlikely at best and, often, impossible. Some communities will require assistance and support to open up to each other and to the change agent, while others will be more than ready to share their stories and experiences. This phase is primarily an opportunity for people to speak about their personal experience. It does not require them to move beyond a focus on themselves.
The first large meeting of the men who would form the VSCA provided an opportunity for everyone to speak. Most expressed anger at being forced to live at a subsistence level. They felt as if they were being unfairly punished for being unable to find, or sustain, ongoing employment. Many were struggling with serious mental health issues. They felt hurt and abandoned by a society that seemed not to care about their well-being. This first gathering was spent venting pent-up feelings of rage. If an outsider had been listening that day, she would not have guessed that anything constructive would emerge from this group. The men seemed completely negative and far too angry to be capable of envisioning a positive way to address their concerns.
Two years later, when the first gathering of street women was held, I anticipated a similar experience. Instead, as we went around the room, each woman told her personal story of childhood abuse and exploitation, troubled adolescence, addictions, and daily struggle to survive. Many felt that they were lucky to still be alive. Most wept as they spoke. As I listened, I was the one who felt rage. They were so consumed by their own sadness and pain that no one expressed anger at all.
In many ways, setting aside time for dialogue and building relationships distinguishes transformative community practice from other forms of community practice. Too often, professionals push groups quickly into plans and focussed action, but action that accurately reflects the group’s best interests takes much longer and requires a good deal more contact than an “outsider” could predict or, sometimes, even tolerate.
A safe environment is essential to working effectively in a community, and trust takes time to build. People must be allowed to express their feelings, air their problems, and exchange ideas. Sometimes communities decide they want to share their stories with more people before moving on to the next phase. Others will want to limit exposure to ensure confidentiality and privacy. There is no consistent emotional atmosphere to this phase; however, it is usually highly charged. Some will be remembering a time before—before they were homeless, before they were addicted, before they entered the sex trade, before they identified themselves as marginalized. In the five examples upon which this dissertation is based, emotions ranged from anger and outrage to grief and shame, and eventually included excitement, hope and a sense of possibility.
One of the primary outcomes of this phase is a sense of shared identification as a community. Sometimes this is the first experience of community people have had. In much of the community organizing literature, there is an assumption that a community exists, recognizes itself, and can be stimulated to act. This assumption does not hold true for people whose “community” has no history of community-building activities. Many of these people have not shared their story with anyone before, including those with a common experience. Often people bring historical conflicts with them into the group, and time and effort must be spent developing a way to deal with conflict. For many, it is their first time consciously identifying as a member of a community; it may even be the first time this physical location or body of people has been named a community.
During the early phases of an initiative, the change agent will focus primarily on reaching out and getting to know the experiential community. She will, however, spend some time researching potential sources of support that can be called upon when the community decides what needs to happen. She cannot be very specific at this point, but in order to be able to act when the community is ready for action, she must do some background work right from the start. She might begin with other service providers, or agencies that work with the same population, just to let them know what activity is being undertaken. She must be prepared for resistance to the idea that experiential communities can play a significant role in the design and development of their own solutions. In the early days of the project that created the VSCA, I went regularly to a weekly meeting of downtown service providers. When I described what I was doing, there was more than one who objected, arguing heatedly. Their main point was, “They don’t know what’s good for them.” In time, as they watched the VSCA grow and develop, many of these same people began to make an effort to include their “clients” in steering the direction of programs.
Other sources of support the change agent may well include are people who can help to fund the initiative when the time comes, such as municipal and regional councils, provincial or state government, private foundations and private-sector allies. This phase might also include traditional research in the library and on the internet, as well as attending existing meetings and networks.
Once people are comfortable together and able to think beyond their own personal circumstances, they begin to notice common experiences and shared perspectives. Beginning with knowledge acquired through personal experience, they have the confidence to make suggestions, and sometimes even demands. This phase provides an important opportunity for the group to identify their own concerns and ways they should, and could, be addressed. Often, what the larger community or sponsoring agency thinks is the problem is not what experiential people have identified as their concern. It is during this phase that members of the experiential community are encouraged to spend time imagining a wide range of possible next steps in the process and come up with a host of problem-solving strategies and plans for the future. Some may be wildly unrealistic while others can be innovative, yet fairly practical. At this point, it is important to allow enough time for people to let themselves consider new possibilities.
The group may decide to create a looser or more formalized structure for problem- solving during this phase, or they may decide to continue in the format developed during the dialogue phase. Again, it is important to anticipate conflict and not expect that the group will form a cohesive whole without disparate or rival positions. Time will be spent listening to each other and to various perspectives. Often, with enough discussion, groups are able to come to a consensus. Decisions are not necessarily required at this point so dissent can be encouraged without impacting significantly on final outcomes.
One memorable meeting of the Downtown Women’s Project took place in a church basement. The food was simple—cheese, cold meats, bread, crackers, fruit and raw vegetables. There were about twenty-five women present, most of whom had come to know each other. We had been meeting for quite a few months by this time, and we had decided that we should begin by building an emergency shelter just for women. That night we talked about the women the shelter would house. There was heated debate between those who wanted it to be for any woman who needed shelter and those who wanted only women who were no longer using drugs or alcohol. I listened, but kept asking for more input from the women who remained silent. For a while it seemed the women who were in the drug-free camp might carry the day. I became nervous. I felt strongly that the shelter had to be inclusive, but I also believed that it was their shelter not mine. I wasn’t quite sure what to do. I did not want to manipulate the outcome. I heaved a sigh of relief when a young woman shifted the focus: “What about us? Are we going to be allowed to bring our dogs? It won’t work if we can’t bring our dogs.” By the end of the meeting we had decided to try to figure out a way to house dogs at the shelter. We also agreed that the shelter would be as inclusive as possible. It was to be for all women, those still using drugs or alcohol, those working as prostitutes, and those with mental illness and who refused to take their medication.
In this phase, it is important that the experiential community be sheltered to some extent from outsiders who might argue against creating false hopes. The change agent or facilitator has to tread carefully, be encouraging but realistic. Unexpected ideas will emerge, ideas that can undoubtably be implemented and, whenever possible, should be supported.
It is during this phase that the change agent’s parallel work must begin outside the experiential community. She will need to start building relationships with potential funding sources and allies inside existing institutions so that as the group moves into the next phase, action is possible. Depending on the fiscal climate and community attitudes, some of this parallel work may include educating those in decision-making positions.At this point she may ask members of the experiential community to join her in this task.
Much has been said about the importance of allowing enough time for dialogue and developing open communications inside the experiential community. Working with the external community also requires that personal relationships be developed. This is particularly important because the change agent will be looking for support for new processes and quite possibly for innovative outcomes. Time needs to be spent bringing funders onside, and that means funders must understand and support what the change agent and the experiential community are doing. Ideally, the change agent will be joined by members of the experiential community in this process, but sometimes they would rather leave building such relationships to the change agent.
I invited two of the women from the Downtown Women’s Project to join me in Vancouver to address a conference of health professionals. Each woman stood in the expensive hotel in front of a body of hundreds, mostly women, and spoke of being recruited into the sex trade as teenagers, of years spent using drugs, of struggling to stay alive, and of their hopes and dreams of change. They had a profound impact on their audience.
After the conference, the women talked about what it had been like to stand up in front of a room full of squares and tell their stories. They were aware of just how easy it was to scam such an innocent and sympathetic crowd. There had been a prize draw and without discussing it they had both figured out how to cheat so they could win. When their names were called, the conference organizers were delighted with the wonderful coincidence; the two women just looked at each other and laughed.
This second phase brings into focus the importance of bridging two worlds. In time, once people are accustomed to having a bridge, they may begin to feel comfortable crossing back and forth, but at the outset the change agent has to expect to be the primary link. During this phase it is important to become acquainted with many people, and ask for their help in exploring yet more sources of support. Once people become allies and are willing to advocate for the project, success is much more likely. Allies may not have direct access to funding sources themselves, but they can make a tremendous difference. A team of community supporters helps to build the vision of the experiential community, and bring it closer to fruition. Once people want a project to continue, they will work on its behalf even if all they do is tell their friends. When a vision is shared by more and more people, it moves closer and closer to being realized.
In an early project, not previously described in this dissertation, I was hired by the local transition house for battered women to raise the funds to build a new safe house. Our project was turned down for federal funding even though the provincial office of the funding agency had assured us we would be successful. Based on merit alone, our case was strong. Ours was one of the oldest transition houses in Canada. We were located in an inadequate rental facility with no space for childcare and with a dining room so small that people had to eat in shifts. We were disappointed and shocked at being turned down. We discovered that a church group had been granted the funding instead. We believed a mistake had been made by Ottawa bureaucrats, thousands of miles away. I made some phone calls starting with someone I knew in the federal government, in Ottawa. I eventually managed to track down the person responsible for allocating these funds. I called him and asked if there was any chance they would reconsider. At first he said all the funds were allocated, but eventually he admitted that in a year, when the first projects were completed, there might be some surplus. At that time, they would re-evaluate the applications. That was a vital point, and I acted. I organized a letter-writing campaign to our local Member of Parliament and sent copies to the Minister in charge of the funding agency. I also began to phone my new contact in Ottawa monthly and developed a working relationship with him. By the end of the year, he wanted to find us the money as much as we wanted him to. And he did. I never met him and I don’t even remember his name but I came to think of him as a friend.
Once the group has articulated as many possibilities and next steps as they can imagine, they are ready to choose one or two priorities and begin to work toward a detailed plan of implementation. It is during this phase that the group will identify its goal(s), objectives and strategies. These may include a range of activities, such as how to change attitudes, prevent others from having the same experiences, create an organization or new setting, develop a service or program, build a facility, host an event, or create art.
They will undoubtably have begun to establish control as a community by this point. Some groups may begin to test the change agent. They may decide to pursue goals not necessarily agreed upon, or make over-ambitious assumptions about what can happen for individual participants. This may be demonstrated while deciding who will take on what tasks. It can be extremely frustrating, as a change agent, to have people agree to take responsibility for things that are far outside of their abilities or agree to take on tasks and then not follow through. This frustration may be felt by other supporters as well:
As a board member [of PEERS] and retired school teacher, it was hard to come into the office and see people not doing anything and getting paid. The files were a mess. There didn’t seem to be any systems. The staff didn’t want any square person to come in and help set up the office. June. (Rabinovitch and Lewis 20)
Over the years, PEERS held fairly regular strategic planning sessions that included both board and staff. When emotions ran high, it was important to have an outside facilitator. Even so, I remember one session that ended in tears and anger, with people storming out. At other times, what worked was to develop an agenda by consensus before the meeting and to choose one person among us to facilitate. These sessions were usually held outside PEERS offices and included food. Sometimes we incorporated games to help with team building. For example, one outside facilitator interspersed brief competitive games, with prizes, throughout the day. At one interval the person with the oldest living relative got a prize, at another the question was, who is the most famous person you have ever met? The group’s instant response to this question was, “Do dates count?” The group decided yes, and some interesting disclosures about a number of Hollywood movie stars were forthcoming.
It is important to enter into this phase with confidence. There are a lot of people, even inside large institutions and bureaucracies, who want to help. They simply need to be convinced that what is being suggested will really make a difference. Developing relationships, building trust and communicating the marginalized community’s goals are key factors in successfully implementing a vision. The positive impact of the transformative process is usually obvious, and many who work in funding institutions appreciate being able to see the consequences of their support. One government employee who played a major role in supporting the Downtown Women’s Project said to me, after providing a substantial amount of money to the project, “Thank you for giving my life meaning.”
Part of our responsibility as change agents is providing a passionately held vision of a community that works for everyone. When encountering closed doors, we have to keep knocking or go around. I am not advocating beating one’s head against a brick wall. It is important to recognize when something is impossible. Nevertheless, we can’t be too quick to assume that change cannot be accomplished.
In order to build a new transition house for battered women in the precise location we had chosen, we needed to purchase the site from the City. It was close to the ocean and an historical cemetery full of pleasant pathways. City Council said yes, if I could get it rezoned. I went to the Mayor to ask for her help, thinking that as a woman she would be supportive of a service for battered women. She was, but said the Council was quite conservative and that there was no chance they would support the rezoning. She suggested that I forget this site and look for another. The site was too perfect to give up easily, so I began to meet with those in the neighbourhood, knowing that if I gained their support, City Council would have no reason to oppose the re-zoning. The neighbours were sympathetic to the cause, but not in their back yard. I persisted, holding block meetings, going door-to-door and having the architect change the design to address some of their concerns. I also wrote a short report for Council each month, so they would know everything that was taking place. They began to feel as though they were part of the project. They could see we were doing our best to meet the needs of the neighbourhood. I knew from experience that the neighbours’ fears of angry men storming the streets was unfounded. When the vote came for the re-zoning, the Council voted unanimously in favour.
During this phase, the change agent will continue to work with the community, but more and more of her time will be spent seeking and finding support for the activities of the group. This phase may see the change agent writing initial grant proposals and attending meetings with potential funders. Whenever possible she will be accompanied by members of the experiential community, but they may soon lose interest. It takes time for community members to become comfortable with participating in such processes. All too often marginalized people are not welcome at the table.
Although everyone involved in the process is learning, there is a point at which capacity building becomes a high priority. Once the implementation process is underway, experiential community members need a range of skills and abilities that they often lack. Some may choose to attend formal classes or training programs to increase their skills. Others will choose to “learn on the job.” Acquiring new skills and developing one’s capacity is not limited to community members. The community practitioner, too, is learning as well as teaching. O’Donnell and Karanja (78) use the Kiswahili word mwalimu to describe this interaction and to describe the role of the community practitioner—it means teacher-learner.
It is hard to imagine the extent of new learning required by some marginalized communities. This can range from specific technical skills, such as using a computer, to basic life skills, such as getting out of bed during the day and being on time for appointments. If capacity building is not identified as a priority during this phase, it becomes difficult for the community to begin to take leadership. Regardless of innate intelligence, many people who live on the margins have spent years just struggling to survive on a daily basis. They have not had the opportunity to develop the range of skills required to live in the mainstream, let alone create an organization or complete a project.
Some projects may be built around capacity building such as the Downtown Women’s Project’s construction training. It is important, once again, to be realistic. Not every member of a group has the capacity to take on all the tasks identified as necessary. During this phase the change agent will act as teacher and mentor. She may also play a role in the development of whatever outcomes the group has identified as priorities. This phase, in most instances, will continue as long as the project exists.
Documenting the change process serves more than one function, and can include meeting funding commitments, sharing the process with the rest of the community, and providing an opportunity for others to learn from experience. The latter might include other experiential communities, policy makers and academics concerned with the issues being addressed. Part of the change agent’s role is informing interested parties about what is happening within the initiative. During the Downtown Women’s Project, this occurred when the provincial ministries involved met monthly to track the progress of the project. All reporting should be done in conjunction with members of the experiential community, at least to the extent that they are aware of what is being reported and agree that it is appropriate information to be shared. Sometimes, the experiential community will decide to take a proactive role. Over the years, PEERS has always made good use of the media as a tool for reporting on the need for specialized services for sex workers, on the development of the organization itself, and on various projects.
Most funders require some kind of written documentation at the end of the project, or at the completion of a funding cycle. This usually takes the form of a written report, and that report is much stronger if it includes first-person accounts by members of the experiential community. Sometimes this can be incorporated into a document useful for the group’s annual report, newsletter, or other internal communication.
Sharing the process with the rest of the community may simply mean circulating reports already written to a wider audience. Sometimes the change agent, along with the experiential community, will decide to share their process with other members of the community through verbal or written presentations. This was the case with the Stories Project completed by PEERS in the autumn of 2003. The focus of the project was primarily internal, in that it involved a group of sex workers who met once a week for many months. Eventually, though, it offered an indirect way for sex workers to communicate with other members of the community through their art and writing.
Less frequently, change agents will document their community practice for academic publications. Unfortunately, the scholarly requirements of most publications make them inaccessible to experiential community members and often to change agents, as well. Documentation is important in order to understand what is happening in communities, including what works and what does not. Documentation needs to be a priority. The academic and policy making communities would be far richer in knowledge if more change agents took the trouble to document their work in a format that would ensure it was read by those who are consulted on a vast array of social issues, including marginalization. It is not unrealistic that experiential people write their own stories, and write about their experiences with transforming community. It is unrealistic to ask that they do so in academic formats.
Documenting the wide range of activity that takes place in communities and sharing that documentation is an important step in the process that is too often missed. This dissertation is one way of redressing the omission.
Once a desired outcome has been identified and implemented by the group, the process will continue to its conclusion. This phase could be described as maintenance, but should not be confused with smooth sailing ahead. It is unlikely that any project that is built on the expertise of the experiential community and incorporates them in substantial roles will ever run smoothly. Some periods will be less problematic than others, but internal conflict, personal crises and complex community relationships are to be expected.
Each of the five examples in this dissertation continued to have difficulties internally and externally for years. There was an internal conflict that split the VSCA and I never really discovered what the problems were. Staff conflict and strained board/staff relations during the life of the Downtown Women’s Project carried over into the operating of Sandy Merriman House after the project ended. Eventually management of the house was taken over by a new society and, at present, the coordinator is a man. Although I am no longer an employee at PEERS, as a Board member, I am aware of the day-to-day dramas and try to address them. Even as I write this dissertation, I am confronted with ongoing personality conflicts and staff who feel unprepared for the tasks they are trying to undertake. A recent email to me exemplifies the climate at PEERS:
Although some experiential communities may eventually manage most of their projects, there will always be a role for community supporters and allies. In some circumstances, the group may need substantial and ongoing support that requires a permanent community practitioner as part of the organization. This was the case with the VSCA. In other situations, existing agencies or organizations may take responsibility for the operation of a project. Of course, this can be problematic when the community agency does not agree with the philosophy of relocating the locus of expertise, and insists on functioning within a traditional service model, as most health and social service agencies currently do. However, more than one model. For example, although PEERS staff maintain and manage the agency on their own, and are responsible for fundraising, program design, development and implementation, ICCEC staff are not. At ICCEC, a style of partnership is being developed that builds on a recognition of the wisdom and knowledge of experiential people, but does not require that they take on all of the tasks of the organization. It may be a function of the size of the two groups, or the specific individuals involved, but this difference emphasizes the need for both flexibility and a commitment to the long term.
At the completion of a project, often a new service or program will have been created. Part of the change agent’s responsibility is to ensure that the necessary supports are in place for that new initiative to be sustained. At this point, she may choose to remove herself from an active role, but not before she is confident that others are available to provide whatever support is needed by the experiential community. My own commitment is to ensure that operating funds are available to allow for the presence of a professional community practitioner (if that is what the experiential community decides is necessary) and to hire members of the experiential community. At the VSCA, I was replaced by a community practitioner who managed the organization for many years, and was himself replaced by another professional practitioner. All other staff came from the membership. The Downtown Women’s Project ended with the opening of Sandy Merriman House, now operated by a traditionally managed agency, but does have former residents and participants in the Downtown Women’s Project on staff. I remain on the Board of PEERS and continue to play an active role in supporting its operations and individual staff. The Summit was a time-limited project, but I continue to be involved in its outcomes, up to and including the development of ICCEC. It isn’t possible to remain involved forever in every project, but as change agents we are responsible for ensuring that such support is in place when we move on.
One can begin with a commitment to work with the most powerless; relocate the locus of expertise; and redesign the role of the change agent, but little can be accomplished if enough time is not dedicated to each phase. Timing is a key component of transformation. Ensuring that there is enough time for engagement, internally and externally, makes it effective. Without enough time the process becomes one more ineffective exercise based on good intentions.