Volume 15, 2009

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   A Case Study of Community Organizing in a Large Metropolitan Area: Changing Alcohol Policies at Community Festivals

Linda M. Bosma,  Bosma Consulting
Traci L. Toomey,  University of Minnesota
Christine Matter,  Community Organizer
Sherry Timmermann Goodpaster,  New Paradigm Partners
Lindsey E. A. Fabian,  University of Minnesota


     Community Organizers
     Community Organizing Process
     Festival A
     Festival B
     Festival C
     Festival D
Discussion and Lessons Learned
Author Note
About the Authors


Community organizing is an effective social change tool that can mobilize citizens in a collective effort around a wide range of issues and problems (Kahn, 1991). For example, several recent research studies show that community organizing can be used to prevent and reduce public health problems pertaining to alcohol and tobacco consumption. Community organizing campaigns have successfully reduced illegal alcohol sales at bars and restaurants (Wagenaar et al., 1999; 2000; Perry et al., 2002), the illegal provision of alcohol to underage youth by adults (Wagenaar et al., 2000), drinking and driving incidents (Freisthler, Gruenewald, Treno, & Lee, 2003), and illegal sales of tobacco to minors (Forster et al., 1998; Blaine et al., 1997),

While community organizing has been used in several public health studies, few attempts have been made to describe that process and its characteristics in detail. This paper is an intrinsic case study intended to provide in-depth information about the community organizing process centered on changing alcohol policies at community festivals to prevent illegal alcohol sales. Information from this study can provide guidance to citizens and organizations attempting to address alcohol-related and other problems at community festivals and similar events.


The organizing campaigns described in this paper were conducted as part of the Changing Alcohol Policies at Events (CAPE) Project at the University of Minnesota. CAPE was a two-year demonstration project designed to assess the potential effectiveness of community organizing to influence alcohol-related policies at community festivals. Specifically, the community organizing sought to enact policies that would reduce illegal sales to underage and obviously intoxicated persons.


We randomly selected four community festivals from a pool of 38 festivals that had been included in a previous study (Toomey, Erickson, Patrek, Fletcher, & Wagenaar, 2005). Festivals were selected within time periods (two from festivals occurring during the first half of the summer, two from festivals occurring during the second half of summer) and geographic areas (one from each of four quadrants in a seven county Midwestern metropolitan area). Festivals were not selected based on their readiness to address alcohol policies or because they had experienced alcohol-related problems. Festivals ranged in attendance from 7,000 to 65,000 and were located in communities that ranged in size from 6,000 to 68,000 (one urban community, two suburban communities, and one rural area).

Community Organizers

We hired two full-time community organizers. Each organizer conducted an organizing campaign at two festivals. The organizers did not live in any of the study communities. One of the organizers had paid and volunteer community organizing experience. She was a city council member for nine years, so she understood the policy process and was comfortable with outreach, doorknocking, conflict, and negotiation. The second organizer had no professional community organizing experience but had volunteered with political and social justice organizations and was familiar with community organizing concepts. She had worked as a field representative in the insurance industry and was comfortable working in the community, meeting strangers, and dealing with conflict.

We provided two trainings for the organizers to standardize the organizing process. Additionally, the principal investigator and the lead author, a community organizer with over 20 years of community organizing experience, provided support, regular consultations, and assistance throughout the project.

Community Organizing Process

We used a five-stage community organizing process, similar to models used in previous studies (Bosma, Komro, Perry Veblen-Mortenson, & Farbakhsh, 2005; Perry et al., 2000; Wagenaar et al., 1999). The stages are: (1) outreach and assessment, (2) action team creation, (3) action plan creation, (4) mobilization and action, and (5) implementation. The organizing process lasted one year—from the time the festivals were held in 2003 to the time the festivals were held in 2004.

During the two to three month outreach and assessment stage, the two organizers became intimately familiar with their assigned festivals and communities. They learned about the geographic, political and personal dynamics in the communities through observation, doorknocking, and one-on-one meetings with community members (hereafter referred to as “one-on-ones”). Outreach conducted through one-on-ones and doorknocking is an essential part of the community organizing process. A one-on-one is a face-to-face conversation with an individual in the community to learn about their concerns and self-interests about an issue, while introducing them to the community organizing project. It is an interactive dialogue that begins to establish a relationship between the organizer and the community member—it is not a needs assessment or survey interview (Bosma, 2000). This can also be accomplished through doorknocking in the community if an issue impacts people in a definable geographic area. The organizers sought out community members in order to learn the community’s concerns about alcohol issues in general and at their festivals in particular. During this period they also sought to identify people in the community who would be interested in being on an action team to work on the issue, as well as people who were interested in being kept informed about the issue.

After the initial assessment period, the organizers recruited interested persons to be on their action teams. Teams consisted of five to ten members who formed a core group that met regularly. Team members were primarily neighborhood residents, but also included some representatives from several community sectors (e.g., religious groups, civic organizations, public health).

At their first meeting, teams were presented with policy options they could consider for addressing problems related to illegal alcohol sales (to underage or intoxicated persons) at their festivals. These options included voluntary, institutional, or public policies, and were based on both research studies and experiences from other communities. During their next few meetings, the teams identified issues to work on at their festivals and created action plans for how to accomplish their goals.

During the mobilization and action stage, teams identified which decision-makers needed to be persuaded to implement policies and developed strategies to influence these decision-makers. Team members held meetings with key decision-makers in the community, festivals planners and vendors, and other community leaders. The last stage was implementation, which included educating community members and seeking media coverage of newly enacted policies.


This paper is an intrinsic case study intended to provide in-depth information about the community organizing process at the four festivals. An intrinsic case study involves looking at individual cases in great detail to examine their particularity and complexity (Stake, 1995, p.3). According to Merriam (1988), case study methodology is particularly useful in examining process and understanding events, making it well suited for an examination of community organizing. The case will be examined through evaluation data collected during the community organizing process and content analysis of narratives compiled by the community organizers to document their work. As part of the process evaluation, each organizer recorded all community contacts, action team meetings minutes, and action plans into an electronic database.


Festival A

Festival A has been held every August in an urban neighborhood for over 35 years and attracts over 60,000 people. The festival is sponsored by the neighborhood’s business association and features an art fair, amusement rides, concerts, and food. Proceeds are used for streetscape improvements in the business district. The neighborhood has a population of 23,000 and is primarily residential, has a healthy business district, one large industry, and is middle to upper middle class, with half of households having an annual income of over $50,000.

The organizer first conducted a one-on-one with an acquaintance who was a volunteer at the beer tent. Through this one-on-one, she learned that volunteers at the beer tents were trained about preventing youth access to alcohol and were instructed to ask any patrons who appeared to be less than 70 years old to show age identification. She also learned that the business association established several policies for alcohol sales to reduce potential liability because of problems associated with another festival held a few miles away that had become notorious for alcohol problems each year.

The organizer conducted an additional 25 one-on-ones with people likely to have concerns or opinions about the festival. Anticipating that a festival of this size was likely to cause some level of alcohol-related problems in the surrounding community, the organizer doorknocked in the area around the festival, making contact with 23 people. Residents were generally receptive to talking with her and discussing the festival, but were generally more interested in discussing parking problems related to the festival than alcohol issues. Residents living closest to the festival reported tailgating and alcohol consumption in the neighborhood surrounding the festival. Through doorknocking, one resident was recruited for the action team.

Because the business association had already implemented policies at the festival to prevent and reduce alcohol-related problems, it was challenging for the organizer to identify people interested in working on alcohol issues—most people she had contact with generally felt problems related to the festival had been adequately addressed and saw little motivation for getting involved. For example, when residents complained in previous years about parking problems, local businesses gave them gift certificates to compensate for the inconvenience. The organizer also encountered some resistance because she was seen as an “outsider telling us what to do” (Timmermann, 2003a). Still, members of the business association saw her relationship to the University as a possible resource for them. The interest and receptivity of the members of the business association to the project led the organizer to invite the chair of the business association to join the action team.

In addition to the business association chair, neighborhood residents and representatives of the faith community and public health sectors were on the action team. Concern over liability issues and a desire to avoid potential negative publicity that could be caused by an alcohol-related incident motivated team members to get involved. The team decided to focus their policy recommendations on the festival level rather than the city level. While they were interested in pursuing city ordinances, the team decided it would be infeasible as representatives of one neighborhood in one ward to pass policy at the city council level within the given timeline. They also felt that in their city, an ordinance would be more likely to succeed if it came from a city department rather than a festival group.

Because the festival had implemented numerous policies in the previous two years, the team focused on evaluating and improving the existing policies. Current festival policies were reviewed and modifications were made after comparing them to the recommended policies. Although the alcohol sales area was not fenced off, creating the potential for youth access, the team did not think fencing was feasible, and so, instead, opted for increasing security. The team reviewed the festival’s alcohol server training procedures and added information on how to recognize intoxicated customers. In addition, tips for recognizing signs of intoxication were printed on small cards, and provided to festival planners to distribute to staff and volunteer servers. The team also discussed the need to create signage stating festival policies in languages other than English because of the significant number of non-English speaking attendees.

Festival B

Festival B features a large parade, concerts, a craft show, food vendors, and a treasure hunt. The festival is held in an established suburb with a population of 67,000 that is lower to middle class and is still experiencing moderate growth. The festival is sponsored each year by a local volunteer organization whose mission is to promote the community. The location and beer vendors for the festival have changed several times over the years.

The organizer learned about the community and the festival by making 37 contacts through doorknocking and conducting 43 one-on-ones. While only a few of the contacts would eventually be on the action team, many expressed an interest in being kept informed of the project’s progress. Through this outreach, the organizer learned that residents did not like being identified as an ‘inner city suburb’ and that there were strong divisions around racial and economic lines in the community.

The organizer identified eight to ten people who either lived or worked in the community and had an interest in keeping the festival safe to be on the action team. The organizer wrote, “At their first meeting, the group discussed what they knew about the festival, determined what information they needed to make decisions, planned a timeline to work from, and identified key players who would have an interest in their work. They knew the festival did not have any written alcohol policies and that a local fraternal organization was the most recent alcohol vendor at the festival” (Matter, 2003b).

The team immediately began taking ownership and action. They decided to invite a representative of the fraternal organization to come to the next meeting, as they did not want to appear deceptive by excluding them. The team also decided to notify the mayor and city council of the group’s formation. Before the next meeting, team members researched city alcohol ordinances, vendor policies, and invited the police chief to the next meeting to discuss law enforcement’s role at the festival. The organizer noted, “From the first meeting, the members of this team were involved because they wanted to see something happen. These were not the type of individuals who would attend a meeting to discuss, but rather were action oriented and wanted to see an end product” (Matter, 2003b).

Team members gained the police chief’s support and a representative from the fraternal organization joined the team, helping to identify policy goals. Despite repeated attempts, the team was unable to get a response from the festival planners so they decided that city policies would be the most effective approach to pursue. This would institutionalize policies even if vendors changed in the future and would create consistent policies for all events in the community. The group also decided to pursue a “condition of license” approach, since it would be quicker than an ordinance and they wanted the policies in place before the next summer.

The fraternal organization already followed many of the policies, so as a vendor they had no trouble supporting the recommendations. Vendors from other events were sought for input in order to address concerns prior to implementation. Another fraternal organization that sold alcohol at a different festival expressed concern about a policy that would end alcohol sales one hour before the event ends because they had an annual dinner that was only three hours long. The group modified wording of the requirement to address the second group’s concern and allow discretion by the police chief when granting temporary licenses.

Team members took responsibility for contacting and meeting with elected officials and other organizations when proposing their recommendations. Because the team took on these tasks, rather than the organizer, the team developed strong ownership over their efforts and the issue. The team met for three hours on a Sunday to prepare their city council presentation. They made a strategic decision to refer to their policy recommendations as ‘guidelines’, sensing that this terminology might encounter less resistance. The organizer wrote, “The team recognized that it was all in the wording” (Matter, 2003b). The team presented the guidelines to the council, with the police chief present to offer support. The council supported the recommendations unanimously and directed the chief to formalize the teams’ recommended alcohol guidelines.

The team had done such an effective job of educating the council members in previous individual meetings that throughout the council debate the council members answered each other’s questions rather than team members needing to respond. Policy changes enacted included a fenced-in designated alcohol area, a limit of two beers per purchase, teaching servers to deal with intoxicated persons, and banning underage persons from the alcohol service area unless accompanied by a parent. After the meeting, the police chief surprisingly announced he intended to implement a departmental program to provide alcohol server training for festival alcohol servers—this demonstrated that he had taken ownership of the issue.

Team members worked with the police department to create the guidelines and a packet of information, including signage, to distribute to vendors. The team then decided to generate media coverage of the new guidelines through press releases, cable television coverage, and church newsletters. A summary of the group’s results was mailed to everyone the organizer had contacted through one-on-ones and doorknocking when the project had first begun.

The team attended the festival together to observe their policy work in action and then held an evaluation meeting afterwards that included police and vendors. All team members felt the policies had worked smoothly. Although the festival planners never attended team meetings, the team sent mailings to the planners to keep them informed. After the festival, the planners contacted the organizer to see if the team felt their efforts had been successful and to confirm that the festival had implemented the policies correctly.

By meeting with decision makers and vendors prior to submitting proposals, the team was able to gain trust, anticipate concerns, and adapt their guidelines accordingly without compromising their intended goals. Participation by a vendor was helpful since he was supportive; lack of participation by the festival planning group did not hamper their efforts. The group was strategic, action-oriented, and very focused, which all contributed to their success. Having the proposal of guidelines come from residents (not the organizer) was important, and the police chief’s support lent credibility to their effort.

Festival C

Festival C is held each Fourth of July in a rapidly growing suburb that until recently was mostly rural. The festival features a parade, beauty contest, street dance, carnival, car show, and fireworks. Volunteers organize the festival, with only loose support from the city. Some community members still see the festival as a small town gathering where “everyone knows each other”; however, recent growth has brought many new residents to the city and the population has grown to 63,000. Minimal alcohol policies were in place at the beginning of the project and a fraternal organization was usually the beer vendor at the festival.

Many people in the community were leery about the CAPE Project when the organizer began her outreach, as the city had just experienced two well-publicized, high profile policy battles, one on an affordable housing project and the other on a smoke-free ordinance. Prevailing sentiment was that the organizer was another outsider trying to push an issue. The organizer learned that long-term residents still tended to think of the community as the small town it once was, where all the residents know each other, and hence felt alcohol policies were not necessary. On the other hand, many new residents who have recently moved to the community for employment did not feel this sense of community.

The organizer conducted 32 one-on-ones and made 43 contacts through doorknocking. She felt that doorknocking was less successful in this suburban community than it had been in her other, urban community. People were suspicious and reluctant to talk, or often appeared more interested in their yard work than in talking with her. Through her one-on-ones, it became apparent that one volunteer, often referred to as “Mr. Fourth of July,” was largely responsible for organizing the festival. Many people were not comfortable talking to the organizer before she had talked to this volunteer because they did not want to do anything without his knowledge or involvement; hence, the organizer decided it was necessary to meet with this volunteer and convince him to join the action team. The organizer wrote, “This was difficult from start to finish. Don’t kid yourself on this one. People like [Mr. Fourth of July] volunteer hours and hours of their time planning these events. They may review their own methods and procedures but don’t take kindly to having an inspection from the outside, much less ideas for improvement. In [this community], however, I would not have had a team without [the key volunteer] on the team!” (Timmermann, 2003b).

Once this key volunteer came on board, the organizer was able to put together the rest of the team. The main motivation for team members to join the team was a desire to prevent future problems. Initial meetings were informational, with University staff presenting policy information and the festival volunteer sharing information about the festival’s history and current alcohol policies. A police officer attended an early meeting and verified that alcohol problems do exist at the festival and reminded the group of the political dynamics of implementing policies that affect popular community groups. By the second meeting, a team member volunteered to chair the group and work with the organizer to strategize between meetings. The organizer wrote that she “worked to see that at each meeting each member had a task, even if it was only reserving the room for the next meeting. There was one team member who frequently volunteered for everything. I wanted team ownership shared and solved this dilemma by asking team members to take a task, rather than ask for volunteers” (Timmermann, 2003b).

The group debated whether to pursue policies at the festival or city level, but decided citywide policies that would apply to all festivals were the best route. This also made the issue less personal for the key volunteer, who felt less targeted when the focus expanded to include all festivals in the city. The study festival could then be seen as leading the change, rather than being the target. Once the team determined their policy recommendations, team members met individually with council members. While the organizer accompanied team members to these meetings, team members took the lead in presenting the issue. Only one council member refused to meet with the group, insisting it was a waste of the team’s time because she wholeheartedly supported their cause. While this may appear positive, the organizer warns, “I caution organizers, however, to beware of council members like this. By the time we met with the council as a whole, [this council member] was the least informed and even posed a hint of resistance” (Timmermann, 2003b).

The team next met with city staff to prepare for a work session with the city council. The organizer noted, “The work session was amazingly successful. The council supported the policies and wholeheartedly wanted to take the process one step further and make a change to the ordinance reflecting these policies. The only policy not accepted was the one recommending a certain cup size for alcoholic beverages. The council directed the attorney to draft ordinance language and incorporate enforcement measures, and then bring back the draft language to the council for approval. The team was overjoyed!” (Timmermann, 2003b).

Joy turned to frustration after the team reviewed the city staff’s draft of the policy recommendations which was vague and omitted several items. The team was met with hostility when they tried to address these concerns at the next city council meeting. According to organizer’s narrative, “The team was baffled and totally mystified. No one understood why this happened” (Timmermann, 2003b). Prior to a strategy meeting with the team, the organizer contacted the city to get a copy of the revised draft language, and was informed by staff that the ordinance had been approved already. He apologized that the team was not notified. To the group’s amazement, when they reviewed the new ordinance, it contained all of their recommendations, including requiring alcohol to be sold in an enclosed area, using wristbands to identify individuals age 21 and older, training alcohol servers, restricting age of servers, and having a manager or lead worker on duty. The one exception was that they did not limit the cup size for alcohol. Though confused, the group was pleased with their success. The team developed materials to educate community groups who might apply for temporary liquor licenses about the new ordinances and solicited funds from a foundation to pay for wristbands that would be used to help identify underage versus of-age individuals at the festival.

Festival D

Festival D is a county fair sponsored by an agricultural society. The festival has been held for nearly 100 years and features 4-H livestock competitions and exhibits, a demolition derby, concerts, bull riding, and a family day. The festival is held in a formerly rural community with a population of 6,000 that is gradually being consumed by a growing urban area. Alcohol sales and consumption are restricted to a beer garden sponsored by a fraternal organization, which also owns the park where the festival is held. At the project’s onset, the festival only had one alcohol-related policy—alcohol use was not allowed outside the beer garden, which was enclosed by a fence.

The organizer conducted 46 one-on-ones and made 60 contacts through doorknocking in housing developments near the property where the fair is held. The organizer had the best response from people who had lived near the fair site for 10 to 15 years and who saw the fair as part of their community. The organizer recruited three team members through doorknocking and the remaining members through her one-on-ones. Nine people who either lived or worked in the community and surrounding area were recruited for the team. Team members were motivated to join because of their connection to the fair more than because of a connection to the community.

As the team began to make decisions, they discussed how to involve the beer vendors. It was decided to invite the vendors to the next meeting before asking them to become part of the action team. The team did not want to be viewed “as outsiders that were going to tell the [fraternal organization] and the fair board what they must do” (Matter, 2003a). The fraternal organization and the fair board were invited to the next meeting; city officials were not invited because team members were uneasy about getting involved with local politics. The fair board was receptive to the policy suggestions, but the vendors were initially defensive and felt singled out. A key aspect to diffusing this suspicion was inviting them to a meeting where they got to know the team members and their reasons for involvement. Several team members related stories about receiving help from the fraternal organization. This helped establish trust between team members and the fraternal organization. In the end, the fraternal organization discovered they were either already doing or planning to implement all the recommendations the team was making.

A few months into their work, the team heard a rumor that the fair location might change. A change in location might make a policy that only impacts the current fraternal organization irrelevant (e.g., if the fair moved from the land owned by the current vendor/fraternal organization, a different vendor might sell beer at the new location), so they decided it was necessary to change the fair board policy. Shortly after making this decision, the group decided to take a two-pronged approach and pursue policies with both the fair board and the city. The organizer wrote, “It seemed that they had gained confidence with the knowledge they had obtained and some team members were becoming leaders and had expressed a willingness to speak with council members and the festival planners” (Matter, 2003a). The team approached the county sheriff’s department and the city police chief. Both reviewed their policy proposals and gave their support. In the meantime, they kept the current vendors informed of their activity.

A team member met with council members prior to the team’s presentation before the city council. The organizer and team members also met with the city administrator to gain an understanding of the council process and learn appropriate protocols. The police chief could not attend the first hearing but made the council aware of his support, lending credibility to the group. The first council meeting went well, but the council wanted input from all affected vendors (i.e., vendors at other festivals held in the community) before passing the policies.

The team made a point of contacting all concerned parties to try to learn about their concerns and garnersupport before the next council meeting. The team was responsive to vendor’s concerns because they knew it was important to appear reasonable to the city council. The team felt that obtaining some of their goals was better than obtaining none. This tactic pleased the police chief and raised the group’s credibility in his eyes—he saw them as a serious group that was also rational. In the end, the team got more than they asked for. They had proposed their policies as a condition of license, but the council passed them as an ordinance, giving the policies even greater weight. The fair board never responded to the team’s request to implement new policies, even though they had given an initial impression that they wanted to adopt the policies. Had the team only pursued policies at the fair level, they might never have gotten policies adopted. A two-pronged approach proved to be a wise strategy.


Only one of the four festivals in the study had any significant alcohol policies in place at the onset of the project. By the end of the one-year organizing process, this festival had enhanced its alcohol-related policies and the three other communities had passed policies regarding alcohol use and service at festivals at the community level. The communities, festivals, and their histories varied. Despite these differences, several themes emerge from these examples (Table 1).

Table 1: Themes of the Community Organizing Process across the Four Festivals

1. All four communities were engaged by outside organizers and willing to work on policy.

2. Community members were motivated by their concern over future problems; a current crisis was not necessary to mobilize community members.

3. The initial outreach and assessment phase was critical to recruiting solid team members.

4. Teams members were initially engaged to work on one specific festival, but soon were motivated to think more broadly and expand their scope to citywide policy.

5. Law enforcement placed a valuable role in three of the four teams.

6. Concerns about liability prevention motivated festival planners and vendors to support the policies.

7. It was necessary in all four communities to form relationships with festival planners or vendors, and it would have become problematic if they were excluded.

8. Team members wanted to see the results of their work and be sure policies were carried out and implemented.

9. Meeting individually with council members before going to public hearings was essential in order to garner support and address concerns.

10. Team members took ownership over the issue and were thus willing to take a leadership role. Team members, not the community organizers, did the work.

Discussion and Lessons Learned

In each festival, the community organizer came in from outside the community with a predetermined issue but was able to successfully engage community members in the issue. The least active community had a well-developed set of policies in place prior to the onset of the project but even this team worked on the issue.

All four communities acted on the issue in order to prevent future problems. In no community had a tragedy occurred to mobilize the communityand none had reported serious alcohol-related problems at their festivals. This suggests that community members can be engaged proactively to take policy action before developing large-scale interest or concern in the community.

An initial outreach and assessment phase was necessary to lay the foundation for the organizing process and identify productive team members. The one-on-ones were important for establishing relationships, identifying team members, understanding the self interest of a broad base of stakeholders, and establishing credibility. Ultimately, the members recruited by the organizer were key to the groups’ successes. As one organizer wrote, “It is important when gathering a team together to identify people’s motivation for working on an issue; some saw the efforts as a piece of the puzzle to creating a cultural change toward alcohol, others saw it as an effort to keep their local community safe, and yet others were motivated by working on policy. Each team member may have had a different reason for joining, but ultimately, they were motivated to help prevent illegal sales of alcohol at their community festivals and events” (Matter, 2003b).

Though communities began by working on one festival, all four teams soon saw value in working on citywide policy so that all festivals in the community would be covered under the same policy. Three of the teams pursued city-level policies, and the fourth urban neighborhood would have pursued city-level policies if an undertaking of that scope had been feasible in the allotted time. Adopting city-level policies decreases risks of alcohol-related problems at all events in a community and also takes the focus off of any individual event so that its planners are less likely to feel singled out. This suggests that targeting one festival can initially engage citizens, but organizers should be prepared to work with groups to propose citywide policies that apply to all the community’s festivals.

Law enforcement played a useful and supportive role in three of the four teams although they were not team members. Law enforcement officials provided insights that informed policy decisions, helped to illustrate severity of existing and potential problems, and provided credibility for the teams’ agendas with community members and elected officials. Police chiefs in two communities were instrumental behind the scenes in advising the group and garnering support. At a third festival, it was evident that it was also necessary for the chief to support the policies. This suggests that groups working with festivals should meet with local law enforcement to share information and build relationships. This can lead to obtaining law enforcement support and buy-in early in the organizing process.

The alcohol vendors were private organizations at all four festivals. Framing the issue as liability reduction and prevention helped these organizations overcome their initial defensiveness. Team members were concerned about how these organizations perceived the team’s efforts and took great care to maintain positive relationships with them even as they moved their policies forward. Teams did not want groups to feel attacked. The reasons for this may be twofold. First, these groups must continue working and living together in their relatively small communities. Second, they had more desire to be seen as a positive force for safety than a negative force on the attack.

It was necessary to develop relationships with the festival planning group and/or vendors in all four communities. In one community, a team could not have formed without the festival planner. In another, because many alcohol policies were already in place and the planning group was receptive to the project, including the planners was logical. In the other two communities, it was difficult to get responses from the planning organizations, so relationships with vendors took on increased importance. The teams and vendors negotiated the specifics of the final policy recommendations to the councils. In all cases, not connecting with festival planners or vendors early on in the process raised suspicion in the community. Delaying contact with those groups any longer could have caused serious credibility issues for the organizing effort. Since none of the festivals had reported alcohol problems, this may have contributed to team members’ desire to collaborate with the vendors or planners. If the selected festivals had been known to have serious alcohol-related problems, groups might have felt differently about involving vendors or planners on their teams.

When working on city-level policies, a critical step was for team members to meet with council members and key city staff individually before presenting their policy proposals at actual meetings. Teams saw this as necessary to ensure that council members understood the group’s goals before the public meeting and allowed the teams to address concerns or make adaptations if necessary. The city council member who refused a meeting and professed to be ‘supportive’ for Festival C proved problematic at the council meeting.

In each team, the team members developed a strong commitment to the issue and became comfortable taking leadership positions to support policy enactment. Team members were active between meetings and took on tasks that ranged from reserving a meeting room or making phone calls to writing media releases and meeting with council members and vendors. This became their initiative, not the University’s. As noted by one organizer, “Community organizing worked. This particular team never did choose a chairperson, but members of the team helped facilitate and took parts of the agenda at meetings. Different team members spoke up at key times and kept the group on task…There were many leaders in this group…They respected one another’s ideas and had good cohesions...This created a sense of ownership of the team’s work and acknowledgement that although the organizer won’t be around next year, the team members can keep it going” (Matter, 2003a).


Although the festivals and communities in the project varied greatly, the organizers were able to establish productive action teams in each community that took ownership of the issue and became engaged in working on alcohol policies to prevent future problems at community festivals. The experience in these four communities suggests that community organizing can be a useful strategy for changing alcohol policies at community festivals in order to prevent alcohol-related problems. This case study can also provide guidance to citizens and organizations attempting to address various problems and issues at festivals as well as other community events.


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Author Note

Community organizing is inherently about people in communities. The authors wish to acknowledge the contribution and work of the many community members who were involved in this study.

About the Authors

Linda M. Bosma, is the President of Bosma Consulting and oversaw the community organizing aspects of the current study. Traci L. Toomey is an Associate Professor in the Division of Epidemiology & Community Health at the University of Minnesota and was the Principal Investigator for the study. Christine Matter and Sherry Timmermann Goodpaster served as Community Organizers, and Lindsey E.A. Fabian, a Senior Coordinator in the Division of Epidemiology & Community Health at the University of Minnesota, served as project coordinator of the study.