COMM-ORG Papers, Volume 16, 2010
Women Leading The Change: Community Leadership and Social Change in North East Delhi
By Dave Beck
Legal Education and Support
Women's Health Program
Mobilising the Women
About the Author
This paper explores the results of research carried out with a non-governmental organisation, or NGO, involved in a range of social action and community development projects in Delhi. It outlines the work of the NGO in enabling groups of local women to respond to the many social issues they face. It investigates participants’ understandings of leadership, social action and community change and considers the factors that either encourage or inhibit sustainable community transformation. In particular, it considers the role of indigenous leadership in that process and how those leaders are identified, developed and supported in their role.
Registered as a civil society in January 1997, FODRA works to promote consciousness about the capacity of the poor to effect change by encouraging and enabling their participation in the processes of their own governance. The project is deliberately based in an area of North East Delhi because of a high concentration of the population living in slums and substandard housing; FODRA has resolved to take sides with the vulnerable. In an area with a population of 50,000, FODRA works with 7,500 households. Many of their clients are migrants from the rural areas of Uttar Pradesh. Their vision is for vibrant resilient and self-sustaining neighbourhoods where individuals, families and communities can prosper. They seek to deliver this vision through provision in the areas of micro finance, legal education and support, and a women’s health project.
FODRA’s strategy for embedding micro finance within the community rests on the formation of a large number of self-help groups. There are currently about 130 such groups with a total membership of 1,670 women. The membership generates almost 2 1/2 million rupees per year; this money is then made available for the use of women in the groups in the form of loans. So far there have been no cases of bad debts. These groups are supported through regular training programs covering issues such as management, accounting and record-keeping, leadership and effective decision-making and conflict resolution. Within this capacity building programme a small number of leaders are identified as "social entrepreneurs". They receive additional individual support and training and are given responsibility for managing clusters of self-help groups.
The project recognised that women have a narrower set of income earning opportunities than men in the community due to lack of skills, cultural norms, mobility constraints and limited free time. FODRA's response to this has been to develop skills training programs covering a range of craft skills, business and marketing skills, and literacy.
This aspect of the project aims to develop an understanding and critique of the law and an understanding and assertion of women's rights as a political resource. Violence and discrimination against women is a feature of the local community. In July 2004 in partnership with the Delhi legal services authority, FODRA set up a legal aid cell providing legal support on issues of domestic violence and human rights violations.
This project aims to improve women's health by developing social and human capital (Putnam 2000) in addition to material resources in order to bring about sustainable improvements in health. Their focus is on demystifying health and empowering people to address their own health issues.
Concern about the poor health of children below the age of five within the community inspired FODRA to monitor the trend and sensitise people to the issue. This was achieved through door-to-door visits. Alongside that is a programme of immunisation which has involved more than 10,000 children in 2005.
The tradition within the community has been for home births, relying on the help of traditional midwives. FODRA has strengthened this situation by providing a series of training interventions on issues such as routine care, life-saving skills and detecting complications which ought to be referred to hospital. So far, 18 practicing traditional midwives have been identified for the programme.
Forty cluster health committees involving 572 women have been established. Their role is to identify and understand community health problems and evolve methods to deal with them. They provide a platform for mutual collaboration and action. They engage in dialogue amongst themselves on the reasons responsible for bad community health. They consider wider issues of health such as road conditions, drainage, electricity supply, potable water and waterborne diseases. Their community sanitation programme has aimed to create awareness and disseminate information about the implications of current waste management arrangements. In 2004 they organised 99 community meetings which involved 1241 families. Similarly, they organised 40 sanitation drives involving 720 families. On these days a small group of families clean up their neighbourhood and transport the waste to municipal disposal sites.
In addition to this they have established a door-to-door collection of household waste. Each family involved in the scheme pays 10 rupees a month. In this way better waste management becomes a self-sustaining strategy and gives employment to local people.
The geographical information system they use creates family and community profiles. This is a software-based system storing a 300 question survey collected by local volunteers from every house in the neighbourhood. This enables the organisation to identify community issues, target particular interventions and track progress. It is also used as a tool to represent community issues back to local people as a spur for collective reflection and action. This is similar to the development of codes in Freirean processes (Freire 1972) whereby people’s lived reality is presented back to them as a problem to be solved and as a catalyst for action.
On regular occasions throughout the year the project brings together between 400 and 600 women in daylong events to express the views and highlight the problems through speeches and cultural plays. Local politicians and the media are invited to these events. This show of solidarity and strength has greatly increased their ability to influence decision-makers (Alinsky 1989).
This article explores an aspect of social change based on Thin (2002) who explores four themes which underpin the conception of social change drawn on for this article. They are:
- Social justice – equal opportunity and the achievement of all human rights.
- Solidarity – cohesion, empathy, co-operation and associational life.
- Participation – opportunities for everyone to play a meaningful part in development.
- Security – livelihood security and safety from physical threats.
However, the possibility of social change is circumscribed by the prevailing social order in which one class exercises hegemony over another which results in the “spontaneous” consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant group (Gramsci 1971 p12)
In this state people accept the prevailing order because they are compelled by the current apparatus of state and economy to devote their time to making a living and because they cannot conceive another way of organising society since they have internalised the vision and culture of their oppressor (Freire 1970). They therefore fatalistically accept the world as it is, thereby rendering meaningful social change impossible without critically reflecting on and re-framing their lived experience.
Social change in this conception is much more than merely improvement of material conditions, it must also contain elements of critical education (Allman 2001) and the building up of alliances between social minorities in order to develop a different consensus of what society could be.
The revolutionary forces have to take over civil society before they take the state, and therefore have to build a coalition of oppositional groups united under a hegemonic banner which usurps the dominant or prevailing hegemony." (Strinati, 1995:169)
The challenge then faced by organisations seeking to promote social change is to develop structures and approaches that enable people to develop alternative ways of thinking and acting in an unequal world. Caroll and Ratner (2006) suggest that social action organisations must provide an ongoing basis for alternative formations of identity and community through a process of politicising their constituents and transforming received identity scripts. They must also provide an ongoing basis for alternative modes of satisfying the needs and nurturing the capacity of their community. Finally they must develop a repertoire of collective action that actively and visibly contests hegemonic relations and practices.
In conclusion, the aspect of social change considered in this article is change that reshapes the balance of social power away from ruling elites into the hands of people who are marginalised in the current social order. It comes about through a process of critical thinking and collective action which produces people with a new vision of themselves and their society and new organisations which provide an abbreviated experience of transformed relationships and a power base for political change; it leads to increased levels of social justice, solidarity, participation and security.
There are many understandings of what leadership is. Not all necessarily lead to the social change described above.
Alice Korngold (2006) takes an individualist view of the role of leadership, describing it as envisioning, creating the strategic path, and providing the support for its achievement. Whilst it is possible that this form of leadership could result in social change, it is more likely to reproduce and reinforce traditional hierarchies and social norms since there is no element of critical reflection inherent in this model.
The influential Community Organiser, Saul Alinsky (1989) sets leadership in the context of community transformation and boldly states that the only way that communities can express themselves is through indigenous leaders who are real representatives of the people in that community. They have earned the position of leadership among their people and are accepted as leaders; they have an ability to both speak the language of the community and accurately represent it. This goes far beyond the tokenistic representation employed by most so called community-based organisations.
His observation is that, with few exceptions, these real local leaders are completely unknown outside of the community. They must be discovered by participating in informal situations and being constantly alert to every word or gesture which both identifies and raises the role of certain individuals within the community. Brookfield (2005) agrees that only indigenous leaders can truly fulfil this function since they alone can understand the people, feel their passions and therefore represent their interests. Alinsky critiques approaches to regeneration where professionals decide what is to be done for underprivileged areas without any real participation by or even sustained consultation with the people of the area. That approach is fundamentally authoritarian, fundamentally undemocratic and does not lead to sustainable social change. Alinsky organising is designed to develop citizen power which demands change by the powerful elite; as such it is essentially counter-hegemonic.
Duke et al (2005) state that leadership is crucial to the self-renewal capacity of city regions. Leadership is the driving force in providing exploration, integration and problem-solving with direction, energy and vision. Most of all, in the context of economic development of a city region, leadership is needed to cross the organisational, institutional and cultural boundaries and aim for orchestrated efforts in a narrow isthmus between design and emergence. In this context, leadership is needed for directing that emergence, not control. In general, leadership is required to build the organisation, institutions, structure and mental models for the future, which will secure new resources and develop new capabilities, and in doing so position the region and its organisations to take advantage of emerging opportunities and adapt to change. This understanding of leadership has the potential to be counter-hegemonic but is prone to the threats of colonisation as described above.
Hay and Hodgkinson (2006) highlight the complex context of leadership, which cause leaders to continually strive to make sense of numerous crosscutting and conflicting goals and purposes. This results in leaders and wider community groups engaging in making bargains, exerting and resisting power, coping with conflicts of interest and negotiating understandings. In this confusing context it is all the more important to be clear about the overall aim of leadership.
In Lisa Weinberg’s (2005) ethnographic study of community leaders involved in collective social change, participants reported feelings of powerlessness to effect change before their involvement with the project. Being part of a group gave them the power inherent in representing a constituency along with a strong sense of belonging and support. It also helped with the sheer amount of work generated by such endeavours and served as an antidote to pessimism. Participants gained a belief in the possibility of effecting change. Their experience of making a difference contributed to a sense of self-esteem as well as efficacy. During the process of collective action a number of people described an awakening of sorts, this entailed a new-found sense of purpose and commitment that extended beyond their individual lives and sustained their involvement in the work. People’s initial involvement with the project was based on personal need but quickly developed into broader interests. Her research suggests that the capacity to envision a different future emerges out of the processes of identifying with a group of people who are typically similarly situated and as a group, exercising political power.
Indigenous leaders were supported by the organisation in a variety of ways. Firstly they were provided with information regarding the issues and the politics associated with those issues. They also encouraged people and gave people opportunities to step outside their comfort zones by identifying new opportunities and encouraging leaders to take on new roles. They supported the leaders’ development by regularly acknowledging their strengths and achievements.
One of the behavioural changes identified in Weinberg’s research is increased confidence and public speaking. This is more than simple oratory skills; rather it is giving voice to people’s experience in an effort to affect social change. People reported that they now have courage to ask a lot more questions. The experience of being listened to led to an enhanced ability to listen to others this in turn led to more positive and solution oriented responses. Although strong on personal and organisational development, this work may well operate within current social relations and does not necessarily lead to counter-hegemony.
In his study of informal education in Senegal, Michelle Kuenzi (2006) identifies six behaviours which indicate community participation and leadership, these are that people: cooperate with others to solve a community problem; belong to a community organization; hold a leadership position within an organization; attend organizational meetings; speak out at meetings; and get together with others to raise issues.
Sonia Ospina and Ellen Schall (2001) propose a constructionist approach to leadership which is in keeping with the values and process of community development (Ledwith 2005). This approach understands leadership as both a social construction and a process. This allows them to distinguish between the emergence of leadership as a collective process and the specific practices that individual leaders engage in. Their focus is on shared leadership as it emerges in communities.
They assert that all individuals carry mental models of what leadership is that generally reflect the dominant discourse on leadership, and which in turn mirrors the values and assumptions of an industrial model of organisation. This is typified by a management orientation, personalistic focus, goal achievement domination, self interest and an individualistic outlook. Drawing on the work of Rost, (1993) they list contrasting values of leadership which are more in tune with the post-industrial sensibility. These include collaboration, common good, global concern, diversity and pluralism in structures and participation, client orientation, civic virtues, freedom of expression and organisation, critical dialogue, qualitative language and methodologies, substantive justice, and consensus oriented policy-making processes.
This constructionist perspective recognises that members of society construct their own social world together by assigning meanings to interactions and products of those interactions; a process they call meaning making. Therefore, human behaviour must be understood by taking the point of view of those experiencing it because they are the ones that give meaning to that experience, as it takes place in a precise context. This approach to leadership suggests that the emergence of leadership is collective although leaders involved in the process display both individual and collective forms of behaviour.
From all of the above it appears that the model of leadership which best serves genuine social change is one which arises from and remains embedded in the local community. Within the collective process, individuals develop an ability to envision and communicate a new future based on humanising social relationships. On occasions, leadership advocates on behalf of the community but, fundamentally, it seeks to collectivise community issues and harness the power of the many to affect and sustain social change. Leadership which leads to counter-hegemonic activity must enable people to critically reflect on their socialised roles within wider society as a basis for action (Allman 2001). Leaders in this sense are described by Gramsci as organic Intellectuals involved in active participation in practical life, as constructor, organiser, permanent persuader and not just a simple orator…" [1971 p10]
The focus of the research was to explore what changes in individuals and the wider community have been achieved through FODRA’s work, what the barriers to those changes has been and what factors supported those changes. In particular it focussed on the nature and role of leadership in the change process.
The research took a qualitative stance, focusing on the meanings and interpretations of the participants (Holloway and Wheeler, 1995). One of the main methods of data collection was focus groups ‘not to infer but to understand, not to generalize but to determine the range, not to make statements about the population but to provide insights into how people perceived a situation’ (Kreuger 1994, p. 3). Providing a relatively informal atmosphere, people are encouraged to discuss specific topics in order that underlying issues (norms, beliefs, values), common to the lives of all participants, might be uncovered (Bloor et al., 2001). Rather than identifying individual perspectives, focus group based research seeks to gain access to a sense of respondent commonality (Parker and Tritter 2006). For this reason discussions within this research are reported in the form of generalised statements rather than individual quotes.
Over a period of four days in November 2005, I met with three groups of between 20 and 30 women involved with FODRA - the local Development Committee, representatives from local self-help groups and leaders of local health committees. In addition, I met with project managers and project workers who lived in the area and have progressed from service users to volunteers to paid workers.
We met in community rooms and offices located in the area where they live and work. Not many of the women spoke English and I could not speak any of their community languages and so had to rely on the services of interpreters. This has the effect of putting the research one step removed for the participants and perhaps lessens the reliability of the results. Maria Birbili (2000) highlights three basic problems which arise from the use of interpreters: a) the interpreter’s effect on the informant; b) the interpreter’s effect on the communicative process; and c) the interpreter’s effect on the translation. Temple (1997:608) argues that researchers who use translators need to constantly discuss and debate conceptual issues with their translators in order to ensure that conceptual equivalence has been achieved. In this case the translators were project managers and staff from within the project. This is potentially problematic since the information they passed on would be from their viewpoint as managers and may not accurately reflect the meanings of participants. Their presence within the focus groups may also have made the women less likely to be critical about the project. The paper was, however submitted back to the project managers of FODRA for them to work with the groups of women to ensure that what was written accurately reflected what they said, thereby increasing the authenticity of the results.
The meetings lasted for two hours during which we had a group discussion centring on what changes both in themselves personally and their community had been achieved through their involvement with the project, what was the role of leadership in those processes and how sustainable they thought the changes could be. As with all group discussions, there were many tangents mainly concerning the different approaches to family and marriage in India and Scotland. In focus groups the researcher plays the role of ‘facilitator’ or ‘moderator’; that is, facilitator/moderator of group discussion between participants, not between her/himself and the participants. Hence, where focus groups are concerned, the researcher takes a peripheral, rather than a centre-stage role (Parker and Tritter 2006).
Clearly, not all of what was said was either captured by myself as a researcher or represented in this paper. Similarly, the actual words of the women are not recorded. Nonetheless, the essence of what was said has been recorded. What cannot be captured in words were the energy, passion and enthusiasm displayed by these women. In the face of poverty and poor health, they had generated a collective belief that they could make a difference. Sometimes laughter or anger or grim determination was the tone of the discussions as they ranged over the stuff of their lives. Their enthusiasm to share what they had attempted and learned in those attempts was matched only by their enthusiasm to learn and do more in the future.
The women echoed Lisa Weinberg’s (2005) ethnographic study stating that, previous to their involvement in social action, they felt powerless and without a voice. Their experience of discussing within the group and making challenges to service providers and decision makers gave them a sense of confidence which affected not only their community work but also their self esteem and sense of personal efficacy.
The women identified a range of personal changes which could be broadly categorised as learning. These are in line with what Habermas (2004) identifies as three generic domains of human interest. Firstly the work domain refers to the way one controls and manipulates one's environment. A range of practical craft skills were developed coupled with financial, marketing and business skills in order to provide money making opportunities. This has resulted in increased wealth, a reduction in the activity of loan sharks, and employment opportunities for other community members. Many of them have developed public speaking and facilitation skills and have led training sessions with groups of local women. Their involvement has also opened up opportunities to travel both locally and throughout India.
Secondly, the practical domain identifies human social interaction or 'communicative action'. The regular workshops, training sessions and discussion groups allowed the women to develop new understandings of their lives and their communities based on collective understandings rather than the individual ones, where the individual were blamed for the difficulties in their lives.
Finally, the emancipatory domain identifies 'self-knowledge' or self-reflection. This involves 'interest in the way one's history and biography has expressed itself in the way one sees oneself, one's roles and social expectations.' The women are beginning to look beyond their own lives for causes and solutions to their problems. An understanding was beginning to develop that economics and politics are shaping forces in their communities which they could challenge. They were also challenging understandings of the social roles of women. For example,they now felt that girls should be educated, have aspirations beyond the home and marry when they are older.
All of the above happened within the context of communities and families which were not always supportive of those changes. Joyce Stalker (2001) explores many of the dimensions of conflict and opposition faced by women engaging in education. She particularly focuses on misogynistic attitudes of men. Generally, men in this community are not involved in these processes of development. The women attribute this to the fact that the men have primary responsibility for working and earning money, and have a tendency to drink and gamble, but male attitudes may be an underlying reason that the women have yet to explore.
We can see in much of this the beginnings of counter-hegemonic work, although much of it could be seen as personal and economic development which ultimately does not challenge the status quo. In order to avoid this, the critical thinking about the women’s social constructed role must be deepened and from that strategies for change developed. Unless male notions and practices are challenged and changed, the impact of the project is greatly reduced. Similarly, the groups which have been successful in building the organisation must develop beyond themselves to become the war of position, described by Gramsci (1971) as developing an intricate system of political trenches – newspapers, cultural organisations, trade unions, women’s groups etc.
As individuals, the women reported that they are having an impact on the daily life of their community. One example of this is an informal mediation and counselling service that they provide at times of neighbourhood disputes. Their ability to carry out the service was in part attributed to some legal training they have received through the work of the project and to the confidence the community had developed in them.
Politically, local women are now fighting for their rights and influencing the decision making of local agencies and politicians. They reported that they were also having an impact on the organisations and services within their community. This has been achieved by developing regular interaction with local authorities and politicians. Over the years they have developed local grassroots strength which has in turn challenged traditional local leaders who they say operate on self interest and corruption. They have also productively involved the media which has developed further pressure on agencies to provide appropriate services for the community. Concrete examples of this influence are: provision of electricity to many homes within the area, improvements in sanitation and water quality, and the redoing of the roads. This demonstrates the assertion (Duke et al 2005) that the development of community leadership enhances community capacity to secure resources. It similarly demonstrates some of the elements of Alinsky organising (1989) in the development and use of community power to demand change.
One of these perceived impacts on the wider community has been improvements in sanitation. Through informal education sessions and community clean up days people are beginning to take more responsibility about how they deal with their household waste. This is coupled with better waste collection which they established through self-help and chlorination of water by the local authority, which they successfully campaigned for. A development of this could be to link what is happening locally with global issues.
Through the establishment of micro finance initiatives such as credit unions that provide business start-up loans supporting local entrepreneurs, levels of employment and community wealth have increased. As a result there has also been a lessening in the exploitation of local people by money lenders.
Improvement in health has been achieved through improvements in sanitation as discussed above, plus the development of health knowledge through education programs, and improvement in the uptake of immunisation by allaying the fear of immunisation which was prevalent within the community and which discouraged mothers from having their babies immunized. The project also ran community based clinics and established a network of lay health workers and midwives. These changes were particularly seen in the health improvements in pregnant women and young babies.
In community learning terms, they have been able to cascade the training they have received in community languages. This made the training accessible to normally marginalised elements within the community. From this, people within the community have become more aware of development issues and issues such as gender equality and have taken action to address a range of community problems. This linking of learning and action by community leaders indicates that they are beginning to adopt the role of organic intellectual (Gramsci 1971) but this will only be complete if their interventions leads to a more comprehensive political analysis and strategy for change. Otherwise the process is a mere cascading of learning.
The group was highly confident about the sustainability of a project. Financially, much of their funding is already self-generated; in the future they plan to register with the government and attract direct government funding. Whilst this no doubt offers an opportunity to FODRA, it also opens them to the colonising of the state as indicated by Caroll and Ratner (2006).
The group recognised that a central role in developing sustainable social change was volunteer and group development and training. They have identified and developed a number of volunteers who are now involved in sanitation programmes, micro-credit programs, lay midwifery schemes and self-help groups. They organise and run a program of training sessions on a monthly basis covering issues such as immunisation, local development, and legal issues.
The network which has been established within the community forms the basis for making demands of service providers and politicians. This forms the basis for sustainable social change. The multi-issue nature of the organisation echoes Alinsky’s Community Organisations (Alinsky 1989) as does their emphasis on developing local leadership and exercising mass political power. It also provides a context for developing alternative identities and forms of community (Caroll and Ratner 2006).
One of the main priorities of the organisation is developing indigenous leadership amongst the local women. This is of key importance to them because they recognise that their role is time limited. When they have finished working in the area they want to be sure that there are people to replace them. Their vision is to have a network of local groups which relate to local development committees and which in turn relate to a central committee.
In their view, a good leader is one who listens to the people and who understands community problems. They must be careful to take the people with them and not just be in it for their own ego. They must be honest, confident and once the community issues are clear they must make decisions and stick with them.
They believe that they fulfilled an important leadership role within the community. They are able to do this because they know the community well and they are known and trusted by the community. This enables them to be mediators in local disputes and to advocate on behalf of the community with government officials. They felt that they were modeling a new form of community leadership in contrast to traditional community leaders, who tended to be political leaders or religious leaders who have little contact with the wider community and, in their view, were fueled by self-interest.
They felt that the key characteristics of a good leader are someone who was prepared to sacrifice their time and who had excellent knowledge and skills. This is in line with Choi and Jeongkoo’s research (2005), which revealed that subjects attributed more charisma to their leaders when the latter exhibited greater self-sacrifice and superior competence. In keeping with Brookfield (2005) and Alinsky (1989), they felt that leaders must be community-based and sensitive to the issues and needs within that community. The knowledge and information they have about the community and the wider issues that affect it should be gained through a process of listening to the community and being an enthusiastic learner. They should also be good at explaining things to people in language that they understand. They must have the respect of the community and also respect for themselves. Their life should be a good role model for people – not saying one thing but acting differently. Finally, they have to be able to act quickly and bravely.
It is evident from both the literature and this case study that social action is able to effect change within communities in terms of physical and economic change, changes within structure of local governance and changes in the way people think about themselves and their community. We see from Gramsci (1971) that humanising social change is counter-hegemonic and will therefore be resisted by dominant forces within society. Change strategies must therefore include critical thinking to highlight causes rather than the symptoms of community problems, developing alliances both within the community and globally as well as exercising collective political power to demand a fairer world.
The beginnings of the community organising models suggested by Alinsky (1989) are evident within this case study; identifying and development of indigenous leaders, a broad-based multi-issue organisation which seeks to maximise community involvement and the direct confrontation of power holders. The combination of these features is making tangible improvements in the community’s ability to negotiate and access services and resources.
The development of groups of women who support each other both personally and in the work of the project is the foundation of the project’s sustainability. This indicates the development of bonding social capital (Putnam 2000) which refers to the strong bonds that exist between homogenous groups such as church groups, some ethnic organisations and women’s groups. However, bridging social capital, the bonds between dissimilar groups, seems to be less well developed. This lessens both the impact and sustainability of the project.
The role of both formal and informal learning within the processes of social action is central both in the case study and the wider literature. Use of the three domains of generic human knowledge suggested by Habermas provides a useful way to ensure that learning is not reduced to the acquisition of individual skills, but becomes the servant of community emancipation. The model of delivery which blends formal training, workshops, discussion groups, informal learning and most importantly learning by taking action seems to be an effective one. Local people being not only learners but also teachers is important in terms of the sustainability of the project, the accessibility of learning throughout the community, and the recasting of people as creators of knowledge.
Finally, the lack of involvement of men in the work of FODRA may in the longer term undermine its sustainability. Perhaps they should incorporate Dominelli’s (2006) definition of feminist community work as a central part of their underpinning theory. She states that:
Feminist community work is collective action that aims to transform social relationships in more egalitarian directions and also both women's and men's behaviours alongside changing institutional policies and social norms (p36)
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Dave Beck is Lecturer in Community Development in the School of Education, at the University of Glasgow.