COMM-ORG Papers Volume 17, 2011

Participatory planning in a rural Mexican village: Lessons for community development and planning education

Marie Kennedy, Chris Tilly, & Mercedes Arce


From apathy to participation: two vignettes
Why participatory planning for community development and why a "hands-on" project?
Methodology and setting
     San Miguel Analco
     El Colegio de Tlaxcala
Steps involved in the course and the project
     Introducing students to the approach
     Preparing to "hear" the community
     Gathering information from secondary sources in parallel with learning techniques for later stages of the work
     Key informant interviews
     Focus groups
     Community-wide assembly
     Strategies and action plans; work with the community task force
     The final report
     Results for the community
     Results for the students and the Colegio
Challenges and some strategies
     Challenges are shaped by educational and societal culture
     Possibilities are path-dependent: If social actors are accustomed to particular rules of the game, it’s hard for them to deviate
     Technique matters
     Effectively dealing with elites
Discussion and Conclusion
About the Authors

From apathy to participation: two vignettes

Two students and one of the authors waited for jornaleros (day laborers) to show up for a discussion about the particular needs and resources of this least advantaged group of San Miguel Analco residents. And waited. Finally one couple came. At their suggestion, we went to the fields to round up more participants. When we approached the only man we found still working cutting alfalfa, the first question from him, before he declined to come, was “What are you going to give me?” A later meeting, rescheduled at a time supposedly more convenient for jornaleros, attracted not one participant. Students expressed skepticism that anything called “participatory” could overcome being associated with the participation touted by vote-garnering politicians who rarely kept their promises, but offered gifts to attract voters to pre-election “participatory” meetings.

Several weeks later, 80 residents of Analco watched as each of four student-facilitated workshops posted the results of the votes prioritizing goals for community improvement. In a village that the presidente del municipio

1 had characterized as so divided that Analco lost breakfast money for schoolchildren because they couldn’t agree on who would manage the program, each workshop of randomly assigned participants had come up with the same priorities. As people raised their hands to join the working group that would develop specific projects addressing these goals, it was clear that the community was ready to forget old differences and to work together for the good of the whole community. Students realized that participatory planning could be an effective tool for breaking through community apathy and division.

How we got from one scenario to the other and what it means for community development and professional education is the story of this paper. Utilizing the case study of our student-faculty participatory planning project in San Miguel Analco, we will argue two propositions: 1) participatory planning is an effective tool for community development; and 2) structured “hands-on” projects are essential in linking theory and practice in professional education.

Why participatory planning for community development and why a “hands-on” project?

In our view, community development “is more than just bricks and mortar, specific job creation, or legislative reform. It is helping people to increase their control over decisions that affect their lives, developing their capacity to intervene in their own environments, and bring justice to their lives.” (Kennedy & Mead, 1996, 101; Friedman, 2007). This is especially critical when working in the interests of people who have been left out of effective decision-making over the very issues that affect the development of their communities, as was the case in San Miguel Analco (Burns,, 2004, World Health Orgnization, 2002, ). Leaving the people of Analco better equipped to plan and effect change on their own was perhaps even more important than the concrete results of our project. In other words, we were seeking to contribute to community empowerment2.

A good definition of community empowerment is offered by African-American scholar and journalist Manning Marable:

Empowerment is essentially a capacity to define clearly one’s interests, and to develop a strategy to achieve those interests. It’s the ability to create a plan or program to change one’s reality in order to obtain those objectives or interests. Power is not a “thing,” it’s a process. In other words, you shouldn’t say that a group has power, but that, through its conscious activity, a group can empower itself by increasing its ability to achieve its own interests. (1992, 246).

Community development that is empowering in this sense requires a planner to work with a community rather than on it. In order to do this, a planner must develop her ability to truly “hear” the community and to facilitate meaningful participation from those most affected by the problems being addressed. Courses integrated with a “real-life” field project help students “become professionals capable of helping the community articulate and reach its own goals rather than professionals imposing their values on the community in the name of professionalism” (Kennedy & Mead, 1996, 102-103; see also Friedman, 1999, Mott, 2005, Reardon, 1997, and Seitz,, 2002.). Within this context, in field projects, we seek to give students the opportunity to learn and demonstrate specific research and planning skills (e.g., historical, quantitative and qualitative research skills, resource and needs assessment, interactive goal-setting, strategy formulation and proposal development) while learning how to integrate expert knowledge with local knowledge so that “discussions and decisions are enhanced but not dominated by expert knowledge and voices” (Seitz 2001). This can best be done in a hands-on situation where students additionally learn to respond to changing circumstances, something not easily replicated in a classroom situation (Kennedy and Stone, 1997).

The educational benefits of this type of project are enhanced by selecting grassroots, un-funded or under-funded, groups with which to work. After graduation, most students will work for a public or established nonprofit agency or in academia and will have limited opportunity to work directly with the grassroots. Yet, key issues and trends are sooner apparent at the base than in the bureaucracy (Gastón, Kennedy and Ryan, 1986; Mott, 2005).

Methodology and setting

The case that is the basis for the arguments of this paper is a community development participatory planning and action research project facilitated by faculty and graduate students at the Colegio de Tlaxcala (COLTLAX), in San Pablo Apetatitlan, Tlaxcala, Mexico. A team of eight regional development doctoral students worked under faculty supervision to learn and earn academic credit while facilitating a comprehensive planning process in collaboration with a small rural community. COLTLAX professor Mercedes Arce along with Marie Kennedy and Chris Tilly from the University of Massachusetts worked with these students for one semester in the winter and spring of 20073. In analyzing this collaborative project we use participant observation, drawing on written products of the class and extensive field notes maintained as events developed (Arce, Kennedy & Tilly, 2008, 215-293; Kennedy & Tilly, 2007).

This community service learning course differed in several problematic respects from the many collaborative field projects of this sort that Kennedy had supervised in the past. First, no organized community group invited us into the community to undertake a specific research or technical assistance project. The impetus for the course and project was Kennedy’s teaching/research Fulbright in participatory planning (based on a request from COLTLAX), but the original project for which the Fulbright was awarded fell through.4 When Kennedy and Tilly arrived in Tlaxcala one week before classes were to start, they had to quickly find another participatory planning project around which to center their course. At Arce’s suggestion, we arranged through the office of the presidente del municipio to work with one of the Natívitas communities. We were more or less thrust on a community which had no prior experience with us or COLTLAX upon which to build a trustful relationship and the nature of the project to be undertaken had not been negotiated with an organized community body.5

Secondly, the project was intended for masters students, since the masters degree is generally considered to be the professional practice degree. Instead, doctoral students were assigned to the class, with two related complications—the students had not chosen the course, but were assigned to it, and these particular students had already begun work on their dissertations and rather naturally wished to focus on their individual topics rather than the community project.6

Thirdly, the course was scheduled for only one semester. Kennedy, who had supervised numerous faculty/student field projects over 40 years of teaching and practice, had long ago decided that such projects needed to extend over at least two semesters in order to properly prepare students to work in a real life situation with sensitivity to community culture and values (Kennedy and Mead, 1996). But, because the original project (in which Arce would have already been working with students for a semester prior to Kennedy’s and Tilly’s arrival) had fallen through, our course was limited to one semester.

A somewhat minor difficulty was that written materials in Spanish that took a participatory approach to planning and research were hard to find7 and for a technical manual, we relied heavily on Miren Uriarte and Marilyn Fernández Perez’ excellent Involucrando a la Comunidad en la Planificación: Un Manual Para Técnicos. In addition, various exercises and lectures that Kennedy had developed were translated into Spanish.

A final way in which the project differed from earlier of Kennedy’s projects is that this was a relatively resource-rich class, with three professors for only eight students and a Fulbright grant to pay for supplies. While this helped somewhat to overcome the difficulties noted above, it also makes it riskier to generalize from this experience. On the other hand, every planning situation presents particular opportunities and challenges. In this case, the first challenges were the nature of the community itself and of the Colegio de Tlaxcala.

     San Miguel Analco

Located in the Municipio de Natívitas in the state of Tlaxcala, San Miguel Analco is a small rural village of about 1500 people residing in the town and another 200 or so working in the United States. Bernardo Nava, Chief of Staff in the office of Presidente de Municipio, described Analco as the most marginal and isolated of the municipio’s 13 towns. Indeed, that proved an apt description.

The distance from the county seat is much greater than the two or three miles one travels over a pothole scarred road to reach the village. The Mexico City-Puebla highway separates a small section of Tlaxcala from the rest of the state—that small section is San Miguel Analco, surrounded on three sides by the state of Puebla and on the fourth by the highway. Only a narrow dirt road separates Analco from its closest neighbor, the Puebla town of Tlaltenango. Culturally and economically, the people of Analco relate more to Puebla than to Tlaxcala. For example, the celebration of the Battle of Puebla is a more major celebration than Carnival in Analco. Men and boys supplement agricultural work with jobs in factories and in construction in Puebla and women and girls travel to Puebla to serve as domestics or to work in maquilas. Yet, Analco is also cut off from the city of Puebla, where the jobs are. While the highway passes directly alongside the village, there is no nearby on-ramp. Workers from San Miguel must travel a round-about and time-consuming route in order to reach jobs in the city.

In describing Analco, Nava noted that the local government has little to do with the village anymore. This was borne out, when he had to find someone else to guide us to Analco on our first visit—he did not know the way! In his view, the people of Analco were divided by historic controversies and unable to manage the little aid that was available. According to Nava and the presidente, Guillermo Cabañas Téllez, the people of Analco constantly demanded that the government solve their problems without making efforts on their own behalf. So, local officials took the path of least resistance—they simply stopped relating to Analco at all.

Older residents of Analco remembered a better day, when the river was clean, when fruit production boomed, when the passenger train stopped at Analco and they could sell their produce to passengers or hop on the train and travel to the capital to directly advocate for their interests. But, those days were long past when we began to work with the village. What we found were people cynical about any possibility for improvement in the village, young people anxious to leave for almost anywhere else, parents who pulled their kids out of school to work in the fields, and old people lost in their memories.

      El Colegio de Tlaxcala

El Colegio de Tlaxcala is a small autonomous research and graduate degree-granting institution. Masters and PhD degrees are offered in regional development and in government, management and democracy. On average, students at the Colegio are older than typical graduate students. Most have full time jobs, largely in the public sphere, and many have families to support. In general, they are seeking to advance in their jobs, expecting to increase their income and possibly to change careers. They mostly attend classes at night and have little time to do work outside of class time. The eight doctoral students who were in our class were bright and motivated, but not well prepared academically. In spite of a Colegio requirement that doctoral students have strong English-language abilities, only two of our students were able to speak and understand English at an intermediate level. Quantitative and writing skills were at a lower level than would be expected of doctoral students in the United States. Yet, these students were in their fifth semester and beginning work on their dissertations.

In addition to teaching, most of the Colegio faculty are engaged in research and consultation in the public sphere with both governmental and non-governmental organizations. Given that both faculty and students are involved in the “real world”, it was with some surprise that we learned that course work in the Colegio is almost entirely focused on theory. Students are not typically involved with the work that their professors are doing in the community and they are not able to structure internships as partial fulfillment of academic requirements. In short, theory and practice had not been united in the academic work of students8.

Steps involved in the course and the project

Although phases of the project and class were overlapping, we will treat each step separately, so as to convey the pedagogical and community-building approach taken.

      Introducing students to the approach

We started off with a brief lecture on what Kennedy calls transformative community planning and an exercise focusing on the meaning of “development” and “empowerment” that drew on students’ own experiences in planning, whether as a planner or client of a planning project. Reporting back from their small group work, students enthusiastically appreciated the opportunity to link specific experiences to a theoretical framework, commenting that this was the first time they had done so in their academic work, which had been almost entirely theory-based. As one student said, “We’re always talking about theoretical things, but this is great because it asks us about our own experiences.” 9

      Preparing to “hear” the community

In order to achieve a transformative outcome, a planner needs to begin a community development planning process without preconceived notions of what are the problems and, especially, the solutions in a given community. This means really hearing what the community has to say. Step one is for the planner to acknowledge and then set aside his/her own attitudes, values, prejudices and preconceptions (Kennedy 1996, 99-100; 2008, 136). Of course, this is a step that must be continually revisited throughout the planning process.10

In order to prepare students to actively listen and hear what Analco residents felt were the problems and resources in their community and what their vision for the future was, students completed several exercises.11 The first of the three exercises we assigned in this phase of the project was a walking tour through Analco. Each student was to individually take the exact same prescribed route. They were told that this was not a formal research project, but rather was a way to get at their own positive or negative responses to the neighborhood, and to see what they could determine just from using their own senses about socio-economic factors, the history of the neighborhood, its physical boundaries, etc. They were told not to interview people. In the next class, students discussed their findings. As is typical of this exercise, students came back with different reactions to Analco, ranging from positive to negative. However, even though the differences were clearly stated in the what students reported, students shied away from identifying differences, leaving that to the instructors.

Two students joined the class after this first assignment and completed their walking tour the next week. In spite of clear written instructions, these two students went together on the tour and, as was clear from their information-packed oral presentation which contained no personal impressions, they had interviewed people in the community and done a statistical analysis of Natívitas. When questioned, one responded by saying “This is how we always start a community study, so I just did it this way.” Another student in the class explained why this did not accomplish the goal of the assignment, which was “about getting in touch with our own impressions first.”

The second assignment in this phase of the project was designed to get people to think about what they valued and what they might want to change in their own neighborhood. Again, when students reported back, it was clear that not everyone valued the same things. Taken together, the exercises were intended to help students to distinguish between a personal preference and a professional analysis. Making this distinction remained particularly difficult for the two students who had arrived a week late to the class.

The final exercise in this phase was for each student to draw a “mental map” of his/her own neighborhood, indicating what they felt were the boundaries, places where they felt most “at home”, places where they felt unsafe, important buildings, etc. (Gould, 1986). Two students lived in the same neighborhood, but their mental maps were quite different, again emphasizing differences in personal values/perceptions—a male student’s map showed the prison and a soccer field while a female student’s map showed neither of these but did show a children’s playground which did not appear on the man’s map.

We also asked students to keep a diary of their experiences and impressions of Analco, as a way of continuing to check in on their own preferences/prejudices.

      Gathering information from secondary sources in parallel with learning techniques for later stages of the work

Readings were assigned and in-class time was utilized for exploring different research methods: survey research and interviewing techniques, oral history and focus group methods, action-research compared to participatory action research, and quantitative research compared to qualitative. In general, students wanted very specific rules for each method that they could follow in a step by step way—perhaps appropriate for some of the more quantitative methods, but missing the sense of the more participatory methods, which emphasize engagement, interaction and trust-building.

Throughout, there was a tendency for students to spit back exactly what they read or what the teachers said, rather than thinking through things for themselves. For example, when asked what level of resident participation in research and planning would make sense in Analco and why, one group of students reported from their small group that participatory action research would be best and then proceeded to cite almost word for word the advantages listed in the readings, without acknowledging the particularities of our situation—including that Analco was an apathetic and poorly organized community, in which residents would not immediately jump into participation.

Meanwhile, students were assigned to one of three groups to develop a profile of Analco, relying primarily on secondary data sources. One group gathered and analyzed demographic and economic information, while the second group provided data on a whole range of topics—transportation, health, education, environment, crime, the town budget, and the number of registered voter and number who actually voted and for which parties. The third group was to develop a “present-oriented” history of the community to address the question of how Analco came to be what it is today.

Given the lack of documentary historical material, the historical research group eventually had to rely on oral history12. This led to an interesting discussion on who writes history, whose story gets told, and what power is involved in being able to tell your own story. Perhaps because doing oral history is not an exact, step by step process, students had a difficult time with this research method—the report was vague, not tied to dates, and lacking follow-up questions. that appeared obvious to us. Conversations that the teachers had in the community yielded much more historical information.

One piece of contradictory data from the first two groups pointed to the limits of supposedly factual hard data (that is, if the groups had accurately reported the information): the first group noted that the population of Analco was 1,243, about half under the age of 14 while the second group found that 900 people voted in Analco. We decided to go with the figure that the auxiliary president of Analco gave us—1800 people of whom about 200 were in the U.S.

      Key informant interviews

As a group we identified particular people in the community who would be important to interview, either because they held a position of some authority (e.g., the auxiliary president, a teacher, etc.) or an elder in the community. In teams of two, students were assigned people to interview; altogether 22 interviews were conducted.

Notes of varying quality were written up for each interview. Sometimes, information was left out of notes because the interviewers felt it was obvious. Other times, students had difficulties in posing follow-up questions and clarifying apparent contradictions between one interview and another.

      Focus groups

Focus groups were held with the following groups: elderly women, elderly men, adult women, young women, adult and young men combined, and children.

A challenge in any participatory community development project is to hear from the more marginal people in a community, to hear from those not used to speaking in public, not facile at articulating their concerns and visions (Connell 1997; Kennedy 1996). The focus groups were intended to stimulate meaningful conversations among the participants in each group, building trust and consensus in the community. Ideally, the focus groups would be a setting for collective learning by “listening and moving people into a ‘space of unknowing’ together: by designing conversations in which they can let go of their assumptions, learn from others, and create something new together” (Colussi 2009, 14).

In order to improve our chances of hearing all the voices, we chose to separate women from men, youth from older folks, day laborers from land owners. We were only partially successful. For example, we had intended to have meetings with adult men separate from young men, but attendance was so low that these groups were combined. As predicted, the older men dominated the conversation, essentially silencing the youth. Even more striking, was our inability to get any meeting with day laborers, arguably the most marginal group in the community. As our students explained, the response described at the beginning of this paper from the jornalero who asked what we were going to give him before he declined to come to the focus group was the result of the custom among political parties in Mexico of giving a gift—a bag of cement, a blanket, a t-shirt, or whatever—to each attendee at so-called participatory meetings that typically precede an election. Since promises made at these meetings are usually promptly forgotten after the election, anything called “participatory” has been discredited. In fact, attendance at focus groups was generally low, with the exception of the children’s group.

Students worked in teams of two to facilitate and take notes in each session. In class we discussed various techniques that could be used to stimulate participation and each student team prepared a plan which they presented in class. Each focus group was to get a sense from the participants as to what the needs and resources were in the community and to move quickly to setting goals for the future. One team adapted exercises such as the “problem tree” from A New Weave of Power, People & Politics: The Action Guide for Advocacy and Citizen Participation (VeneKlasen 2007). For goal setting, some chose to use a nominal group method designed to make sure that each person contributes to the discussion. This method requires writing ideas down, so it was rejected for the groups with older residents, given that we had found that about half of the older population was illiterate.

In most sessions, students had difficulty getting a conversation going. Participants responded to questions posed by the student facilitator, rather than engaging with each other in a discussion. Students tended to stick with their prepared questions and asked each participant the same question, moving from one person to the next. As in the interviews, they often failed to ask follow-up questions that were not on their pre-prepared list. The notable exception was the session with children. Rather than a question-answer format, the student facilitators utilized a popular education approach. For example, they had the children draw pictures of what they would like to see in their community.

Students were instructed to encourage residents to focus on goals—on their visions for a better community 5 years in the future—and to think about resources available within the community to achieve their goals. This was difficult for both the student facilitators and for the community residents. Residents had a hard time moving beyond their complaints and their sense that the only viable strategy for fixing things was to petition the government. Students had a tendency to leap too soon to specific solutions to problems.

      Community-wide assembly

We had planned that a coherent set of goals would emerge from the interviews and focus groups which we would present and prioritize at a community-wide assembly. From the assembly we planned to recruit a committed group of volunteers to work with us to develop strategies for achieving high priority goals and action plans for high priority strategies.

In planning for the assembly, we were faced with three challenges: 1) attract attendance to the assembly, recognizing the difficulty that we had had in attracting people to focus groups; 2) translate the complaints that emerged from the interviews and focus groups into visions for a better community in the future; and 3) develop a participatory approach to prioritizing goals which didn’t depend on written responses, given the high incidence of illiteracy.

We had been relying on the auxiliary president of Analco to recruit participants for the focus groups; we now decided that we needed to do the community outreach directly. Getting a sizable attendance at a community-wide assembly required basic organizing work—leafleting people as they left mass, door-knocking at every house in the week before the assembly and, on the day of the event, when people were late in arriving, sending a sound truck around, mentioning some of the issues to be discussed and promising a taquiza following the meeting. In the end, it was worth it—about 80 adults turned up to the assembly and a committed task force of volunteers was recruited to develop strategies and action plans.

Poring over the notes from interviews and focus groups, we were able to develop the mirror image of all the problems that people had brought up time and again—that is, visions of what Analco would be like if these problems were solved. These were consolidated into six goals for the future of Analco.

The assembly agenda that the class designed included presenting to the whole group a brief summary of the problems that folks had expressed13, the resources within the community and the visions for the future. Participants were then divided into 4 discussion groups to prioritize three of the six goals for immediate work and to identify volunteers for a task force to work with the COLTLAX team to develop strategies and action plans, primarily reliant on resources within the community.

A system of prioritizing goals that did not rely on the written word was used in the workshops. Visual symbols were designed for each of the six goals and reproduced on large posters, one for each workshop. Each participant had three colors of “post-its”; following a discussion, they these were affixed to the visual symbol of their first, second and third choices of priority goals. Assignments to small group discussions were made randomly, breaking up groups of friends who had arrived together. This proved very important to breaking down the historic divisions in the community, getting people to engage with people they may not have spoken to in years. When the result of the voting in workshops was reported to the reassembled group, it became clear that in spite of divisions in the community, there was overall consensus about main goals for improving life in Analco. Every workshop had prioritized the same three goals: Agua and drenaje adecuados; población sana; and más oportunidades para la educación.14

      Strategies and action plans; work with the community task force

The volunteer task force worked with students and faculty to develop strategies to achieve three priority goals: . The task force was divided into three groups, one for each goal. Feeling that it was important to leave the project with some concrete results, focus was directed to action plans that could be carried out primarily with the resources of the community. In two meetings working with students and faculty, the task force developed an action plan for each goal.

      The final report

A 60 page final report that included the early historical and socio-economic data as well as all of the strategies and action plans was presented to the task force at the end of the semester. It was later published as part of a series put out by the Autonomous Indigenous University of Mexico (Arce, Kennedy & Tilly).


What are the lessons of this experiment for planning and for professional education, particularly in Latin America? In the analysis that follows, we first summarize the evidence for our two central propositions: that participatory planning enhances community development, and that hands-on involvement with communities enhances professional education. We do so by means of a pair of straightforward before-and-after comparisons: San Miguel Analco before and after, our students before and after.

However, in addition to addressing the “yes/no” questions implied by our two main propositions, our case study offers important insights into the more complex questions—what are some of the challenges and how to address them to generate community participation and manage field-based education in productive ways. So, the bulk of this section presents findings that can help guide such activities in other settings.

     Results for the community

Just putting Analco on the radar screen of the local government had at least one positive effect—the gigantic potholes in the road to Analco were fixed by early April. But, the major immediate projects happened as a result of the task force work: 1) a volunteer team borrowed a back hoe and cleaned out the septic that was overflowing into the agricultural fields; 2) Analco had always been eligible to receive equipment and a part time doctor for the health center from DIF (Comprehensive Family Services)15, but was unable to assemble a committee to manage the program—now that there was a committee (the task force), Analco received this help; 3) arrangements were made for students at a nearby teachers’ college to provide after school mentoring to the tele-secondaria16 students and the education sub-committee began visiting parents of schoolchildren to encourage them to keep their children in school, explaining the importance of education in the changing economic situation for Mexico’s rural communities.

As these plans were realized, an interesting thing happened—the community undertook additional projects. For example, the jornaleros who would never come to a focus group voluntarily cleaned all the streets of the town, another group of volunteers painted the health center and the toilet near the athletic fields was repaired . The elected auxiliary mayor told us: “We were stuck in a pothole. You helped us finally get out of it.” With the community in motion, suddenly, the government came through with a number of resources that had previously been promised, but never provided, such as a long-needed sewage treatment plant and help with various productive projects through the SePuede Program, such as greenhouses.

     Results for the students and the Colegio

Students expressed enthusiasm after the very first exercise, saying that this was the first opportunity they had had to reflect on their own practice and experiences related to theoretical concepts. Although they were initially skeptical about the value of residents participating in problem definition and goal setting, by the mid-semester course evaluation, all eight students felt that learning and applying participatory approaches to community development planning would be very useful in their doctoral studies and in their profession. At the end of the class, one student spoke for the group in saying, “This class was a very good experience, because we’ve spent a lot of time on theory, but it’s very different to go out in the community and try to engage in practice”.

At the end of the semester, we asked students how the course/field project might be improved in the future. By offering suggestions for improvement, student responses showed that they had taken ownership of the process in contrast to the early days of the course, when they had been reluctant to offer any criticism. The points around which there was consensus among the students included: 1) a field-based course such as this one should occur earlier in their study, before they had begun writing their dissertations, so that these participatory methods might influence the type of dissertation they would do; 2) it should be a two semester course; 3) more time should be spent on the theory (!); 4) more time and attention should have been on developing new and broader leadership within the community. Only one of the eight students remained disgruntled about the amount of time the course/field project had taken.

In the end, three of the students changed their dissertation topics in order to continue to work in Analco and a fourth incorporated some of the findings regarding education into his dissertation. A fifth student volunteered to work with the community along with Dr. Arce in the Fall, although not as part of her dissertation.

The Colegio has made a participatory planning “hands-on” course a regular part of the curriculum of both the masters and doctoral programs. The state government, which had not lent support to our original proposal to evaluate citizen participation in planning, has requested that COLTLAX students and faculty work with other relatively marginal communities on community development, utilizing the same participatory approach.

Challenges and some strategies

Following, we discuss the challenges we faced in teaching and applying participatory approaches to planning for community development in the context of our COLTLAX course with San Miguel Analco. However, differences between this experience and experiences we have had in the United States, Cuba and Nicaragua are only differences of degree—wherever we have worked in this way, we have faced similar challenges. That said, each challenge is embedded in a particular cultural context.

     Challenges are shaped by educational and societal culture

          Hierarchy, deference, reluctance to challenge or disagree

Higher education and political culture in Mexico is quite hierarchical and forms of respect are somewhat rigidly observed. This showed up in unimportant ways—e.g., despite requests to do so, students were unable to call Kennedy and Tilly by their first names as did students in the U.S.—in fact, even though students were informed that Kennedy does not have a PhD, they continued to call her doctora. More importantly, deference to authority (in this case, the authority of the professors) meant that students didn’t challenge statements or assignments made by the teachers. Instead, if they disagreed with an assignment, they simply didn’t do it. For example, in the socio-economic analysis from secondary sources, the two students responsible never consulted two of the sources of data that had been assigned. When questioned, they simply said, “We decided that it wasn’t important,” to which Tilly responded, ”Well, then, you have to say on what basis you omitted this part of the assignment—you have to argue with me!”

Reluctance to disagree surfaced even between the students, who are presumably peers. For example, in discussing the walking tours, there were obvious differences in perceptions of the community—some found it very sociable, others not, some thought it looked prosperous, others not, and so forth. Yet, it remained for the teachers to point out these differences, this being the main point of the assignment. As we worked through the other exercises in this initial phase of the project, the students became more able to point out differences—by the time we got to the mental mapping exercise, the two students who lived in the same neighborhood but who had noted totally different things on their map were able to point this out and speculate as to why they experienced their neighborhood so differently, which led to a good discussion on the consequences of assuming that others would share your preferences for certain planning outcomes.

The disinclination to interrupt someone, especially an elder, nearly ruined all that we had accomplished in the assembly. At the very end of the assembly, when all were gathered together and feeling empowered by the consensus that had been reached, an older man got up and began complaining that this wasn’t the first time that people had come saying they were going to help, but that nothing ever came of it—“Do you think that this is the first time we have had a training? The government does nothing for us, you can’t even enter the presidencia in the cabecera, they don’t listen to us...”. As he went on and on, the enthusiasm that had been generated began leaking out like a balloon deflating. Yet, none of the student facilitators jumped in. Instead, Professor Kennedy, knowing that this would be considered rude in Mexico but having been acculturated in the U.S., interrupted the man, saying, “That’s why we have to work together and utilize resources within the community and not depend on the government to develop the community.” As she talked, giving examples from other countries where life improved when a community worked together, there was much head nodding and several more volunteers stepped forward to join the task force. Evaluating the assembly in the next class, students said that Kennedy’s intervention was critical to the success of the assembly. However, they acknowledged that it would have been almost impossible for any of them to have cut off the older man’s diatribe. This led to a good (but all too short) discussion of how one might control this sort of highjacking of a meeting in the future.

          Rule-bound and role-bound

Students had a hard time improvising. Although most had jobs in the “real world”, their education had been strictly classroom-based. They expected a set of rules for each research method and primarily relied on quantitative research. They had no experience in improvising in the face of unexpected situations, of responding to inconsistencies in the real world. For interviews and focus groups, they prepared a script, a list of questions or a particular exercise. Instead of using their questions or exercises as a jumping off place for stimulating a rich discussion, our students tended to religiously follow their “script.” Rather than responding to a participant’s answers to a question with follow-up questions or examples, the student facilitator typically would simply go on to the next question on his/her list, thereby cutting off rather than stimulating discussion and debate. As a somewhat extreme example of the inability to depart from a prepared format, while one teacher and two students sat with two jornaleros waiting for more to arrive for the focus group, the two students remained totally silent. Tiring of waiting for the students to begin a conversation with the jornalero couple, the teacher began talking with them about their lives, their families, their work schedule, and so forth, sharing experiences from her own life in the U.S. As it turned out, this was the most direct information that we were able to get from jornaleros, since we were never able to get a group together. When the teacher questioned the students later as to why they didn’t join in with the conversation, they said that since it wasn’t the focus group, they didn’t feel comfortable talking. In other words, they appeared to be stuck in their role as facilitators of the focus group and couldn’t just relax into having a conversation. After that, the teachers tried to stop calling them focus groups—saying they were just discussion or conversational groups. But, it was really too late to change the students’ mind set.

Interestingly, a notable exception was the focus group with children—in that case the student facilitator got a very lively discussion going about the problems in the communities and by having the children draw pictures of their visions of a better community, she was able to elicit some very creative ideas. Was this because this student was a particularly adept facilitator? Or, was it because these were children and the same rules didn’t apply?

Learning from the focus group experiences, we prepared for the assembly workshops by doing role-playing in class and these were much more successful. And, this success spilled over to the three task force work groups. Of course, in the latter case, the teachers also played a much more central role as we were anxious to end our project with some concrete results.

          Discrediting of participation and politics

From the start, we confronted deep skepticism on the part of both students and residents that anything good could come from a so-called participatory process. Based on research of participatory planning in three Mexican cities following the end of one party rule, Andrew Selee concludes that: “Mexico’s long history of using the discourse of ‘participation’ within a corporatist, one-party dominant system means that many innovations that claim to be participatory actually have no such intent even today” (2009). Politics was viewed by both community residents and our students as basically corrupt, self-serving and deceptive and not a channel by which the needs of ordinary people could effectively be addressed. We were told by our students that any process called “participatory” would be discredited as being associated with politics. They explained that participation was attached to gatherings organized by politicians in which, in order to garner votes, promises are made which are promptly forgotten after the election. Furthermore, to get folks to attend these meetings, the political party gives everyone a gift. We had nothing to give except our energy and skills and we weren’t about to promise anything specific, just that we would carefully listen to the community and help them transform their ideas into action.

A related problem was that our students were being educated to be professionals who would be able to make decisions about what would be best for people in communities like Analco. They had had no training in how to utilize their skills in ways that empower communities to make informed decisions for themselves. In other words, their education encouraged them to think of the residents of Analco as objects and of their role as to work on the community rather than with the community.

Students gradually changed their viewpoint as they became familiar with case studies of participatory planning through lectures, discussions and their readings. They were particularly influenced by Dan Connell’s article describing a participatory development case in Irian Jaya (1997), Arce’s experiences working in Cuba (2006) and Kennedy’s work in Nicaragua, with a myriad of U.S. community organizations and with homeless women (2008).

Analco residents were slower to come to trust that their participation would lead to positive results, as evidenced by poor attendance at most focus groups and the older man who expressed his skepticism at the end of the assembly. However, as concrete projects were completed, more people got involved in working to improve their community, which, in turn stimulated the government to provide more assistance to Analco. It’s not clear how we might have gained the trust of the community earlier. Based on her experience working in Cuba, Arce was adamant that we accomplish some immediate improvements in Analco, not just produce a report with a full range of strategies and action plans. This proved to be absolutely critical for overcoming community reluctance to participate.

     Possibilities are path-dependent: If social actors are accustomed to particular rules of the game, it’s hard for them to deviate

          Education: Students are trained in rote learning and technocracy

The experience of the two students who were unable to follow the directions for the walking tour, substituting data analysis and interviews for getting in touch with their own prejudices and preferences, gave us a clue early on as to how difficult it would be to get students to step away from a technocratic approach to problem-solving. This continued to be somewhat of a problem (though decreasingly) throughout the project—students wanted teachers to tell them in detail what to do, they wanted step-by-step instructions, and they had a tendency to leap too quickly to specific solutions to problems, based on what they had learned in their previous courses.

Working with students earlier in their graduate work before they are so set in their ways and extending the length of the course/field project to at least two semesters so as to have more time to discuss case studies and the theory behind participatory methods would do a lot to overcome this tendency to revert to book learning and technocratic solutions.

          Community: The community was grounded in the patronage system, but now had lost its patron

With the exception of the children, focus group participants and interviewees pretty uniformly saw petitioning the government as the only viable strategy for addressing the problems they identified in Analco. They even had trouble envisioning a better community, tacitly leaving the government responsible for making improvement plans. But, in the case of Analco, the government had given up on Analco—the staff of the office of the presidente of the municipio had even stopped going to Analco or talking to residents if they came to the cabecera, because Analcans just demanded that the government fix things and never did anything to help themselves; they couldn’t even overcome divisions sufficiently to handle the little aid that was available. The presidente and his staff even refused to attend the Assembly, saying that residents would “just complain and ask us hostile questions.”

The success of the Assembly can be attributed in part to the fact that the teacher/student team turned around the many problems that people had listed into visions for the future. This way people focused on their goals for Analco rather than everything that was wrong, putting people in control of planning for the future. Focusing on strategies that relied primarily on resources within Analco meant that projects could be completed quickly without counting on the government. This made a partial break with the historic reliance on patronage.

Of course, for larger projects such as a sewage treatment plant, the government had to be involved. But, once the community took responsibility for making plans and directly accomplishing what they could with their own efforts, the government began to be active on behalf of Analco. Were they shamed into action? Or was it simply that Analco suddenly appeared back on the radar screen of various government agencies?

     Technique matters

“Institutions of higher learning must be very clear about what the goals of community-based education are; it is not enough to have students working in unsupervised internships or doing scutwork in the communities. We need to have clarity about what needs to be achieved educationally, and as faculty we have a responsibility of saying what that is. There is a real danger in confusing community service education with charity. ” (Kennedy quoted in Campus Compact 1998, 5). Certain principles and techniques are important in increasing the likelihood of productive educational and community development outcomes.

          Ladder of activities

The stages of this course and project were described in some detail earlier in this paper. Each of these stages is important. Each develops knowledge needed for the next stage and the particular ordering of the stages builds trust and relationships with folks in the community. To review: 1) outside facilitators/planners (whether students, faculty or professionals) getting in touch with their own impressions of the community, so they can set aside their preconceptions and prejudices in order to be open to actively listening to community residents; 2) gathering background information, both current and historical, so as to have a rough idea of the “facts” of the community, how it developed to be what it is today and what, without intervention, the trend for the future is; 3) identifying and interviewing key informants—that is, spokespeople for various sectors (political, religious, education, etc.) of the community—in order to get a fix on what influential members of the community see as community needs and resources and how they envision the future; 4) focus groups, designed so as to “hear all the voices,” that is, to have discussions with youth separate from adults, women separate from men, day laborers separate from land owners, etc.; 5) gathering the whole community together, with an idea of building consensus on goals for the future and identifying community leaders who will move the process forward; 6) working with a planning team made of community members to develop strategies and action plans; 7) carry out the action plans; 8) design and implement a participatory evaluation of project outcomes.

This is a somewhat idealized version of the process of our Analco course/project. In practice, various stages were overlapping, we weren’t able to get all the key informant interviews or focus groups that we planned, and we never undertook an evaluation at all. Perhaps most critically, given the lack of community organization in Analco, the divisions within the community and the reliance on patronage relationships, we were not able to turn over leadership of the planning team to community members until after the Assembly.

Depending on the level of organization in the community, how broad the community development project is, and how well defined it is before the faculty/student or professional team gets involved, a planning team made up of community members might take leadership in earlier stages of the project than was possible in Analco. Virginia Seitz (2001) describes how these stages might play out when an indigenous community planning team can be formed to take on leadership early in the process:

A key component of [Participatory Planning for Sustainable Community Development] is the formation of a Community Learning/Planning Team which provides leadership and accountability for the planning process and monitors the outcomes. The Learning/Planning Team identifies members’ priorities (and those of un-represented stakeholders) as well as members’ understandings of current and historical context, core community values and knowledge of social, economic and environmental systems, and preferences for policy and monitoring approaches.

Regardless of how developed the community is, having a well-specified framework allows the planner to improvise productively without going off the rails. Although we were not able to work with an effective community leadership until later in the process, our framework kept us on track to develop a plan based on the values, needs and resources of Analco rather than from some abstract concept of what a community such as Analco is or should be.

          Adapt to local circumstances

It is important to adapt the organization of each part of the process to the particular community. This was sometimes a challenge given our students tendency to want to follow the “rules” given in a specific reading about focus groups, for example. Nonetheless, there were a number of ways in which we attempted to adapt our process to relate to the particular character of Analco. Several examples of both successes and failures follow.

Certain groups in any community are less likely to be heard in a planning process. The successful participatory planner will make extra efforts to involve representatives of the most marginal groups. In Analco, our planning process was less than ideal in that we failed to get a discussion with jornaleros, arguably the most marginal group in the community. And, we were only able to get a handful of young men to participate in a focus group. Nonetheless, through individual conversations with a couple of jornaleros and with several rather disaffected young men, we were able to get a partial picture of the viewpoints of these groups.

We learned in our initial profile of Analco that a large proportion of older adults in the community was illiterate, so we had to think of how to best present our findings and their options in the Assembly. Consequently, students orally presented the summaries of problems and resources with drawings on flip charts which were then posted to emphasize that we had “heard” what they had told us in the many interviews and meetings. Most importantly, we designed visual symbols for the six goals that we were asking people to prioritize. While the whole group was together, these visual symbols were posted at a large scale and referenced several times so that people would remember them. After a discussion in each workshop, participants voted by putting three different colored post-its on the symbol of their first, second and third priority goals.

Students were clear that it was critical in Mexico for voting to be transparent. The visual system we had adopted for voting in workshops worked well to demonstrate transparency. The sheets with the post-it votes from each workshop were displayed to all once the entire group had reassembled.

How discussions are best organized depends on the specific dynamics of the community. In a well-organized community, a clear set of goals would have emerged from interviews and focus groups. However, in Analco, we had not been particularly successful in organizing the focus group discussions to formulate goals; participants generally couldn’t move beyond a litany of complaints. As we organized for the community-wide Assembly, we knew we had to be more proactive. We took two approaches that worked to begin to unite the community in planning for the future.

1) Posing visions rather than problems was critical to the success of the Assembly workshops. We had hoped to surface visions (or goals) from the interviews and focus groups, but Analco residents were so beaten down and entrenched in the patronage system that they were generally unable to be future oriented. By translating and organizing the problems that they had raised into a set of goals of what Analco could be in 5 years, the student/faculty facilitators were able to, as the presidente of Analco put it, help the community “get out of the pothole” in which they had been stuck.

2) Achieving community consensus on goals for the future in the Assembly depended on breaking up the cliques that had emerged from historic divisions within the community. Giving out color-coded name tags as people arrived assured that residents who arrived together would each get a different color designating which workshop they would attend. By this simple method, people found themselves in discussion with others with whom, in some case, they had not been speaking in years. Deflected from old arguments to discussing visions for the whole community, they found that they had common interests. This new unity, however fragile, gave a basis for moving forward in the planning process, which, over time, would hopefully lead to a stronger unity as the overall situation of the community improved.

     Effectively dealing with elites

Getting access to a community and getting approval for including field education as part of accredited professional curriculum often means you have to go through channels of elected officials on the one hand and university administrators on the other. But, as in the case of Analco and the Colegio de Tlaxcala, one often has to go beyond these “elites.”

          Community development

The Natívitas government was dismissive of Analco, but was willing for us to try to do something as long as it didn’t cost them anything. They made the initial contact with the auxiliary presidente of Analco, but then pretty much washed their hands of us. The Analco presidente, while consistently cordial, proved unable or unwilling to convene most people in the community. After trying to rely on the Analco jefe to do our organizing, we had to go back to doing our own community organizing. This produced a good attendance at the Assembly and proved critical to the success of the project.


Dr. Arce had for years been advocating for integrating field-based learning and service utilizing participatory methods into the COLTLAX curriculum. She had had little success, until she invited Kennedy to apply for a Fulbright to teach participatory planning. The prestige of the Fulbright and of the U.S. scholars led to approval for an experimental course. The success of our course led to COLTLAX finally making this sort of course/project an option to be offered annually to both masters and doctoral students.

Of course the elitism of academic institutions didn’t end there. Kennedy was the Fulbright recipient, was lead teacher in the course, which was based largely on her more than 30 years of teaching participatory planning in the field, and has published widely about participatory planning (but often in popular rather than academic journals). But, she is a woman and her highest degree is a Master of Architecture. Her partner Tilly is a man with a doctorate in economics and planning with an extensive publication record in academic journals, but with limited experience in participatory planning. Nonetheless, he received much more respect from the COLTLAX administration and was consistently deferred to in discussions about integrating this type of teaching into the curriculum.

Discussion and Conclusion

We chose to write about this case in part because the outcomes were surprisingly positive. We have often used the methods described in this paper with success, but rarely have we moved from such an inauspicious beginning to such a fruitful end. It is important to acknowledge once more the relatively resource-rich nature of our intervention. One possible interpretation of the results is that if one could assign three professors to each group of eight challenged graduate students, and could send three professors and eight graduate students to every struggling village of 2000, one could really make a difference in both education and community planning.

Surely the level of resources makes a difference, but in our view a careful examination of the evidence points to other, more interesting conclusions. It was not the volume of pedagogical resources, but the vivid experience of interacting and trying to work with a gritty, beaten-down community that excited students. In fact, after the first few weeks, students spent much more time in the community than in the classroom, as we directed them to expand fieldwork and replaced some class sessions with focus groups and the assembly itself. (The faculty head-count did come into play in our ability to sit in on simultaneous focus groups and conduct parallel interviewing in order to offer intensive feedback to students.

Similarly, in transforming the community, what mattered most was sympathetic and disinterested ears, and the know-how to take a few simple steps—restating complaints as visions, doing extra organizing to attract more residents to the asamblea, breaking up the cliques for discussion—that moved dialogue in a new and more productive direction. It is true that given the partisan and patronage-ridden nature of Mexican politics, this kind of help was more likely to come from a university than from a government agency. Universities are not uniquely qualified to provide this assistance: even in the highly politicized environment of present-day Cuba, the city government of Havana and a variety of NGOs do so (Kennedy, Rivera, and Tilly 2003, Uriarte 2002). But we would argue that professional education programs in particularly have both a tremendous opportunity and a tremendous responsibility to bring participatory methods to disadvantaged communities.

In conclusion, the case of San Miguel Analco offers one more bit of evidence for our two propositions. Participatory planning did indeed help Analco get out of its pothole and working together on commonly defined goals with concrete results. Carefully structured hands-on work in the community did indeed animate and educate students, helping put the theories they had learned into perspective. We have tried to point out many of the challenges that arise in implementing these methods, but also to suggest that the challenges can be confronted and to some degree surmounted. In our view, the model of combining hands-on learning with participatory planning is a very promising one.


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1 A municipio is similar to a county in the United States. The presidente is the elected head of the municipio.

2 Kennedy has developed these ideas more fully in a number of articles. See Kennedy 1996, and 2008, Kennedy & Mead, 1996, Kennedy & Stone, 1997, Gastón, Kennedy & Ryan, 1986.

3 Mercedes Arce, at the time of our project, was the Director General de Vinculación y Extensión (Director of Outreach and Extension) and a professor/researcher in the Regional Development Department. Dr. Arce is now a professor of Communication and Culture at la Universidad Autónoma de la Ciudad de México and a research at the Grupo Interdisciplinario de Mujer y Trabajo.

Marie Kennedy is a professor emerita of Community Planning at the University of Massachusetts Boston and is currently a visiting professor in Urban Planning at the University of California Los Angeles.

Chris Tilly, at the time of our project, was a professor in the Regional Economic and Social Development Masters Program at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He is now the director of the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment and a professor in Urban Planning at the University of California Los Angeles.

4 Originally, Kennedy’s Fulbright project was to have been a graduate course in participatory program evaluation in which students, as part of their course, would carry out an evaluation of planning projects in the state of Tlaxcala, with an eye to improving citizen participation in state-funded projects. This evaluation had been requested of the Colegio by the governor of Tlaxcala, who offered financial support and access to personnel and records. However, during the time between Kennedy’s application and her arrival in Tlaxcala, a new governor had been elected, one who was not interested in this project and who withdrew support and access.

5 Kennedy had faced an analogous situation when, at the request of the Sandinista government, she facilitated a comprehensive planning project with nine communities on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. See Kennedy, 1996, 96-97, and Kennedy, 2008, 133-135, for a brief description of this project.

6 The student team consisted of: María Amelia García Reyes, Tomás González Lima, Claudia Hernández Zavala, Maria Eugenia Herta Cortés, Maribel Meza Parra, José de la Luz Sánchez Tepatzi, Rosalío Valseca Rojas, and Arturo Vásquez Corona.

7 Even books that were originally published in Spanish were unavailable in Mexico City bookstores—e.g., Fals-Borda, Orlando and Muhammad Anisur Rahman, Action and Knowledge: Breaking the Monopoly with Participatory Action-Research, which was originally published in Spanish in Colombia and Chile, was now unavailable in Spanish.

8 With a few notable exceptions—e.g., the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana—this emphasis on theory unrelated to practice is typical of Mexican higher education.

9 Unreferenced quotations are from field notes taken by Kennedy and Tilly from January-June 2007.

10 In the middle of the project a preconception that all jornaleros were men prevented a student from including a woman jornalero in an invitation to a focus group for jornaleros.

11 These exercises can also be effective to use with community residents and students were encouraged to think about how they might use them later in the process.

12 Later, the students did find some original historical documents in the municipio, and with the help of a history student, they copied and organized these documents for use by the community. This became another product of the project.

13 Although we didn’t want to emphasize problems, we wanted people to know that we had heard them.

14 Roughly translated into English, the three goals were: Adequate water and sewage; a healthy population; and more opportunities for education.

15 El Sistema Nacional para el Desarrollo Integral de la Familia (SNDIF).

16 After the sixth grade, the children of Analco are taught through television programs. There is a monitor but no real teacher. Drop-out rates have been very high as soon as children enter secondary school.

About the Authors

Marie Kennedy is Professor Emerita of Community Planning at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and Visiting Professor, Urban Planning, at the University of California Los Angeles.  Chris Tilly is Director of the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment and Professor of Urban Planning at the University of California Los Angeles.  Mercedes Arce is Professor of Communication and Culture at la Universidad Autónoma de la Ciudad de México, and Researcher at the Grupo Interdisciplinario de Mujer y Trabajo.