COMM-ORG Papers 2014, Volume 20

From Rural Roots to Urban Neighborhoods:  Community Neighborhood Organizing Education in Cooperative Extension


Waukesha County University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension 


Community Organizing Background
Cooperative Extension and Community Organizing
Cooperative Extension and the Urban Context
Urban Neighborhood Organizing That Works
     Getting Neighborhood Residents Involved
     Building Block Clubs
     Organizing for Self-Help
     Building Leaders
     Identifying and Organizing Activities
     Partnering with other organizations
Necessary Neighborhood Educator Skills
Adapting the Extension Structure in Support of Neighborhood Organizing
Neighborhood Evaluation
Summary/Implications for Extension
Suggestions for Further Reserach
About the Authors



This paper explains the process of how University of  Wisconsin (UW) Cooperative Extension  organizes and engages residents at the neighborhood level, identifies their needs, delivers educational programs and builds capacity for people to help themselves. UW Cooperative Extension educators have adapted a traditional Cooperative Extension rural delivery model to fit urban neighborhoods. The model describes in detail the eight steps that UW Cooperative Extension educators use when working with residents in urban neighborhoods, the necessary skill sets for delivering neighborhood education, and adapting the Cooperative Extension structure to fit neighborhood organizing.  The process is based on experience learned from delivering educational programs to three neighborhood revitalization strategy areas within the City of Waukesha, Wisconsin. Numerous techniques with examples paint a vivid picture of how Extension educators develop relationships, build trust, and establish credibility within an urban neighborhood. The knowledge shared in this paper has growing implications for UW-Extension as 72 percent of the state population lives in the 25 counties located in urban metropolitan statistical areas.



What happens when an Extension educator walks into a culturally diverse and underserved urban neighborhood with the goal of bringing people together to help them define what they want, and to teach them how to achieve it? 

Is this different from delivering educational programs in a rural community? How can Cooperative Extension educators work in urban neighborhoods where a rural educational approach may not hit the target? Is Extension suited for meeting the needs of urban/central city neighborhoods?  If so, how does the current model of Extension, built on the experiences of working with rural communities and official organizations such as local governments, Farm Bureaus, 4-H, and chambers of commerce, need to be fashioned to fit an urban neighborhood audience.

The ground work for Cooperative Extension was prepared by the United States federal government Morrill Act of 1862 that created land-grant universities and colleges, and the Smith-Lever Act of 1914. The vision for Extension was for cooperation between federal, state, and county government to form an educational system by which university research was to be made useful for and available to community people. Today, Extension educators reside in and provide both community education and direct service to a
county or a multicounty region. They usually have advanced degrees, and work closely with local government, businesses, farmers, nonprofits, and residents on a wide variety of

This paper explains how the Waukesha County University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension office actively adapted the Cooperative Extension education model to create a neighborhood process to work with underserved and unorganized urban neighborhoods. Educators with Waukesha County UW Cooperative Extension used this process to build capacity within urban neighborhoods. 

Community Organizing Background

The different process that Waukesha County Extension developed to build capacity in underserved neighborhoods is partially based on a model of community organizing that is nearly as old as Cooperative Extension itself.  We know it best, however, through the work of Saul Alinsky from the 1930s.  Saul Alinsky, born and raised in Chicago, was working as a researcher in that city’s famed Back of the Yards neighborhood when he felt the calling to help neighborhood people tackle their own problems, rather than just studying them. The model he created helped residents improve their neighborhoods by taking matters into their own hands.  His success at adapting the labor organizing model to neighborhood organizing swept the country in the following decades (Horwitt, 1992).

The Alinsky model of community organizing was gruff and in-your-face very much like the city in which it was invented thus giving it an undeserved reputation of looking for a fight anywhere it could find one.  The famous confrontations of Alinsky groups with government were actually few and far between (Bailey, 1972; Lancourt, 1979).  Much more important were the ways that those organizations were built.  The Alinsky model brought together all the neighborhood-based civic associations from veterans groups to bowling leagues, to create an enduring organization that could advocate for itself in city politics.

The influence of Alinsky has spawned many models of community organizing, some from Alinsky himself and others in reaction to him.  Some of those, such as the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), build neighborhood organizations individual by individual, rather than civic association by civic association.  Some of them, such as the women-centered organizing model (Stall and Stoecker, 1998), focus on empowering individuals in a neighborhood rather than on outside targets such as city hall.  Some of them, such as consensus organizing (Eichler, 2007), emphasize building cooperative relationships with outsiders such as banks and government agencies, rather than addressing the power inequalities between poor neighborhoods and external power holders.  

The asset-based community development model is one of the most distinct departures from the Alinsky model, focusing on the core elements of community social interactions and relationships (McKnight, 2001), and analyzing the strengths rather than weaknesses in a neighborhood to inform the organizing strategy (Kretzman and McKnight 1993).  McKnight (2001) focused on the following four principles:

All the models focus on building relationships in neighborhoods that have historically lacked both relationships and resources.  The goal is to leave behind sustainable relationships between neighbors that can support everything from crime prevention to youth leadership to housing and economic development to environmental justice. All of them, in some way, spotlight the role of an outside educator whose special skills can build those relationships, start up new organizations, and create sustainable momentum for such neighborhoods to rise up from disinvestment and transform themselves. 

All of these well-known models have developed outside of Cooperative Extension.  When we look closely at the history of Extension itself, however, we find a strong history of community engagement.

Cooperative Extension and Community Organizing

Long before Saul Alinsky, the early momentum of community engagement was felt in Wisconsin with the establishment of Farmers’ Institutes in the late 1800s.  While fairly traditional in approach—the institutes were characterized basically by a series of mini-courses—the community organizing that occurred alongside the institutes helped create the cooperative agriculture movement in Wisconsin that provided the foundation for the dairy industry.  At Beaver Dam, for example, those who had attended the institutes were responsible for the establishment of 38 co-ops (UW-Extension Chancellor's Office, 2007).  By the 1920s, as the farm depression preceded the national economic collapse and Extension budgets also collapsed, the organized volunteers continued the cooperative organizing work (Penn State, 1963).

Those Extension agents who helped develop a farmer-based cooperative economy that could counter powerful political and business interests, and who worked with other communities, often risked their careers (Lawless, 2002).  The most famous of such cases was that of Richard Ely, an Extension lecturer at the University of Wisconsin.  His sympathies toward labor and community rather than business interests led to investigation by the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents.  The Regents exoneration of him produced the famous “sifting and sorting” affirmation of academic freedom (UW-Extension Chancellor's Office, 2007).

Cooperative Extension and the Urban Context

The Cooperative Extension Service began as a rural education service focusing on growing an abundance of food and fiber and creating a family system that supported social and economic living for rural people. Today, many people still think of Extension as a rural education service. Jackson and Thomas (2003) argued that political support for Extension programming has remained focused in rural and agricultural areas of the United States.  However, from its beginnings, Cooperative Extension, even in Wisconsin, did not ignore the urban context.    In the early 1900s, UW Cooperative Extension led an urban education program among school kids and their parents to stem the spread of tuberculosis.  They also were part of a large economic, education, health, and industrial hygiene assessment in Milwaukee that led to the development of education programs in the city (UW-Extension Chancellor's Office, 2007).

Cooperative Extension (Mayo and Marsh, 1996) officially recognized a focus on communities, rather than just agriculture, through a series of policy statements in 1958 and 1959. Extension’s objective was to develop the ability of community members to identify and solve problems that affected their well being. Smith and Wilson (1930:362) stated:

“Ideally the community improvement process should be one in which all of the people in a community can be involved. The community-wide approach enables Extension to reach many individuals and groups which it has not been able to involve effectively through traditional methods.” 

This statement paved the way for Cooperative Extension’s work with urban communities and supported the practice of community development as a democratic process where citizens participate in improving their local environment.

In 1961, UW Cooperative Extension created a Community Resource Development Program that was the first of its kind in the country and later became a national model. Also in the early 1960s, UW Cooperative Extension identified a clear need to organize residents of the Harambee neighborhood in the northern portion of central Milwaukee to become active participants in their neighborhood’s future. UW Cooperative Extension’s Urban Initiative in the late 1990s included some neighborhood development training, with particular emphasis in the most urbanized counties of southeastern Wisconsin (UW-Extension 2001a;b;c).  After a one year national study of urban programs, UW Cooperative Extension developed The Urban Initiative to work in defined urban neighborhoods, build partners between UW Cooperative Extension county offices and external partners, and incorporate the resources of urban universities. The Urban Initiative first targeted the four southeast Wisconsin counties of Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha, and Waukesha.  Later, the Urban Initiative expanded to other metropolitan counties in the state. The Wisconsin Rural Leadership Program (2007a;b) also conducted seminars about understanding urban life for the first time in 2002.

Despite a call by Reilly (2003) for University Cooperative Extension to become the engaged institution and extend the Wisconsin Idea to all people, there are only four of twenty-five counties in Wisconsin in a metropolitan statistical area (MSA) where Extension has been involved in urban neighborhood engagement, Kenosha, Racine, Milwaukee and Waukesha.  In Kenosha and Racine, Cooperative Extension educators have provided support to already organized neighborhood groups.  In Milwaukee, Extension got people involved in neighborhood-based urban garding. Waukesha County UW Cooperative Extension works with neighborhoods that do not have their own organizations, starting from scratch to build community relationships and tackle community issues.  The uniqueness of working with unorganized neighborhoods in Extension is important.  One of the golden rules of the community organizing method is for the group to be strictly independent of government, including government agents.  Some would say that, because of this principle, it is in fact impossible for Extension, as a government funded agency, to do effective community organizing. 

Urban Neighborhood Organizing That Works

So how does Waukesha County UW Cooperative Extension implement education outreach and organize neighborhoods?  What challenges does it face?  What are the implications of the practice for Cooperative Extension as an institution? How is urban neighborhood organizing accepted in a county that still remembers its agricultural history? How do Extension educators conduct urban neighborhood community organizing with local neighborhoods that have little experience with it?

Waukesha County UW Cooperative Extension is unique within Cooperative Extension in its strategy of engaging urban neighborhoods that are not already organized. Creating a sense of community is often the main task in such neighborhoods.  Extension educators are not working to build the capacity of existing groups, and they are not serving people one by one.  They are building collective capacity of people to help themselves.  

Much of the community organizing work that Waukesha County Extension “community educators” do is focused in Neighborhood Revitalization Strategy Areas (NRSA—pronounced “narsa”).  A Neighborhood Revitalization Strategy Area is a designation of the federal Housing and Urban Development Department (HUD).  A NRSA must have at least 51 percent of the population being of low to moderate income. Designated neighborhoods must meet stringent economic, needs assessment, planning, and community involvement standards set by HUD. Neighborhood residents must be involved with the NRSA planning process and HUD must approve it before funding is allocated. All HUD entitlement communities within the twenty-five counties in metropolitan statistical areas in Wisconsin are eligible to apply for NRSA designation.

In the Waukesha NRSA neighborhoods there was a steady pattern of rising crime, juvenile delinquency and residential mobility which raised concerns.  UW Cooperative Extension responded to the concerns by organizing a neighborhood planning process that identified community needs, profiled community assets and developed collaborative strategies to create physical, social and economic improvements. The planning process involved residents, businesses, schools, elected officials, community based organizations, law enforcement, and the faith community.  These NRSA planning processes began in the Haertel Field neighborhood in 1999, the Phoenix Heights neighborhood in 2000, and the Westside neighborhood in 2006. Each neighborhood had somewhat different issues and as a result residents crafted different strategies for making each of them a healthier and stable neighborhood.

The next steps involved organizing the neighborhoods and residents to implement their plans. This is where the community organizing process became most critical. Over almost a decade of educational programming the Waukesha County UW Cooperative Extension team developed six written principles that when implemented allow for effective neighborhood organizing and the collective capacity of residents to help themselves. A team that includes horticulture, community development, family living, and youth development educators use these principles. Educators created the principles by researching published literature, adapting small pieces of the research and adding to it based upon experiences and applied knowledge working within NRSA neighborhoods in the City of Waukesha.

     Getting Neighborhood Residents Involved

Text Box: I went there and talked to families. We started by bringing out flowers and planters and organized a block club meeting. At the meeting, people found out who was interested in working on issues.  I did sidewalk talking--approached people when they were outside--and asked people I met to introduce me to others they knew. A casual conversation from a new contact you thought was going to take about ten minutes leads into an hour long in depth discussion on ideas for improving the neighborhood. 

Laura Dombrock 
Community Educator  

All neighborhood organizing starts with getting residents involved in the effort.  It’s not an easy thing to do.  People in underserved neighborhoods have busy lives. Because their neighborhoods do not receive the same level of city services, and don’t have adequate income to replace those services with privatized options, people often have to substitute their labor to keep their neighborhood clean, safe, and secure.  They have often been told by city officials that if they come to this or that meeting, they will get more for their community or for themselves as individuals.  And they have usually been disappointed.  So they are skeptical the next time someone comes around, especially someone “from the government” promising to “help.”

So, trust is extremely important.  A clear vision of how to build trust and credibility with people is absolutely necessary in getting neighborhood residents involved. We studied research on this topic and learned how Joe Garlic, a neighborhood organizer in Elizabethport, New Jersey, accomplished this by first building people.  Garlic believes that it is the little things that are done more than big things that strengthen people and get them involved in neighborhood organizing (Greenberg, 1999).  One of the little things that Garlic did was simply take the time to walk the neighborhood and listen and talk to people. Garlic found that identifying their needs and showing some initial effort to help created a whole change in attitude.

How does Waukesha County Extension deal with this challenge of trust building with residents?  The four most important attributes we learned to build trust are attitude, listening, credibility, and visibility. 

Educators need to have the right attitude when working with neighborhood residents. Often times, an educator needs to put themselves in the shoes of a neighborhood resident to really understand the situation and maintain a positive attitude.  It is important from an organizational development perspective that an educator does not pass judgment on residents or develop a negative stereotype about them.

Listening to what residents say is important.  Listening to their concerns requires patience. A simple question may result in a 30 minute discussion about an issue that is of concern to residents.  The educator must be open to listening to these discussions and facilitating as needed in order to get to the heart of the issue.

Educators also have to build credibility with residents if there is any chance of building trust.  If an educator says they are going to provide them with an educational program or additional information, they must follow through in a timely manner. An educator must also be honest about the situation and make certain that they do not tell the resident that they have all the answers; it is Extension’s role to build the collective capacity of neighborhood residents to work on achieving solutions collectively. 

Text Box: I thought, “we've been assuming what they need.  Let's do a survey to find out what they actually need."  We went door to door through 89 units in December, and met with 53% of the units. My husband went with me and warmed everyone up--we had a box of candy canes to hand out.  We posed topics and then said "what are things not listed here?"  
Ann Wied 
Consumer Horticulture Educator 
Educators need to be seen and visible out on the streets, striking up conversations with people in the community and having face-to-face conversations. This means that educators cannot rely solely on letters and flyers. When Waukesha County UW Cooperative Extension started in the City of Waukesha’s Westside neighborhood, they sent letters and personally called businesses and got 18 people involved.  In another case, 50 letters resulted in only five people recruited. The personal contact and visibility is the key to resident recruitment. 

For example, an educator with a horticulture background may begin a conversation by asking people about gardening or what is their favorite plant or tree. It shows interest in the residents on a more personal level and creates an opportunity to create a positive discussion. It also provides a non-threatening environment and an opportunity to engage in a positive discussion instead of hearing a resident complain about a felony conviction. In addition, it provides an opportunity for the educator to share educational information.

Another way to be visible is to set up a grill in a neighborhood common space. One educator had a cook-out once every month in the summer, and publicized it by word of mouth and flyer.  Actually, people would only need to see the grill and they would stop.  People want to see and touch what the educator was talking about.  The time spent by the educator with the people resulted in relationship building.

A final method to increase visibility, engage residents and establish trust are one-on-one surveys. This is an adaptation of the famous Industrial Areas Foundation one on one relationship building process (Chambers and Cowan, 2003). When used to build relationships, however, UW Cooperative Extension developed a door-to-door survey designed to take 3-4 minutes, but given the opportunity to engage in conversation took 30-40 minutes.  This survey method is also an adaptation of a classic community organizing technique called door-knocking, where the educator knocks on every door in the neighborhood to learn what residents care about, are angry about, and want to work on. 

There is also a growing Latino presence in Waukesha neighborhoods, and personal contact is critical for reaching out to them.  One approach is "personalismo" (Bordas, 1999) which emphasizes conversation, sharing of personal experience, and story telling as a way to build relationships.  It is particularly important to engage in conversations about family in the Latino culture, but the method works across cultures as well.

     Building Block Clubs

The second principle after getting residents involved is building block clubs.  A block club network is similar to the crime-oriented Block Watch but also addresses quality of life issues based on the resident needs.

Text Box: I had one person call up and say, “there's a drug house down the street.” I asked, “have you talked to the neighbors?”I asked her to call a neighborhood meeting and said I'd stop by. I don't say anything unless they start getting frustrated at the meeting and then I'll jump in." 
Jennifer Jones 
Former Community Educator
The block club adapts the house meeting tactic that Fred Ross developed in California and was used so successfully in the farm workers movement (Scharlin and Villanueva, 2000). The one-to-one relationships developed by the UW Cooperative Extension educator have to be connected together, and the residential block is the most natural unit to start that process.  The residential block is the community relationship structure that is most likely to exist to begin with, and is the easiest organizational structure to build if it does not exist.  The block clubs help the Extension Educator learn about issues and concerns and inform residents about educational programs that may meet neighborhood needs.

Waukesha County UW Cooperative Extension has been using two methods of block club organizing.  The first is to start block clubs from scratch, in both homeowner neighborhoods and apartment complexes. The homeowner block clubs are the easiest to create. It is much more difficult to organize renters.  Renters are often more transient than homeowners.  Also, apartment units tend to be too small for meetings and there may be no common space available. At Pine Pointe Apartments, a Section 8 low income apartment complex, UW Cooperative Extension educators convinced apartment owners to provide a meeting space in the complex. Having access to this common space helped in organizing this 80 unit apartment complex into an effective block club. The second method of block club organizing is to restart or transform neighborhood block watch groups.  This involves helping residents see ways of expanding their activities beyond policing to other issues, such as neighborhood cleanups and beautification.  For example, the block watch program at Pine Pointe Apartments decided to work on domestic violence and drug issues.

The challenge is to get residents to the meetings.  Meeting recruitment tactics vary enormously.  There are three basic ways to recruit people to organizational activities.  The most difficult is to appeal to ideological incentives—social justice, equality, etc.  A second, somewhat easier method, is to use social incentives—having friends recruit friends.  The easiest method, especially for new groups, is to offer individual incentives—something people can get only by coming to the meeting. The self interest of residents is important to understand and it is necessary to meet basic needs first such as providing a meal or something tangible that participants can walk away with. Educators have found success in planning events around meal times such as the cook out mentioned earlier and using incentives such as free diapers, frozen turkeys, planters and flowers to get people to that first meeting.  The success of the free planter/flower strategy led to three block clubs that are now also garden clubs.  Eating events, of course, also provide those individual incentives.  Whatever method is used, it is important that the initial gathering is not called a meeting.  Call it a block party, club or event to indicate to people that this is fun as well.

The next step is to get potential members to become actual members and move beyond individual incentives to social or ideological incentives so the block club can become self-sustaining.  Building relationships at those early meetings is crucial.  Neighborhood residents have to feel safe emotionally and the room needs to feel comfortable physically.  For example, the Latino community feels safe at the neighborhood church or the Latino Community Center. Other neighborhood residents prefer the local elementary school or neighborhood library. During block club meetings, the community police officers choose to wear plain clothes to support an atmosphere of comfort. Even then, it often takes a series of block club meetings for people to feel comfortable around the police. 

Block clubs often rise up when there is an issue facing the neighborhood and then lapse once the issue is successfully addressed or no short term solution is achieved.  Keeping a block club going may be harder than starting it. One of the main strategies for sustaining a block club is to constantly recruit members and regenerate membership. The old organizer adage, “an organization that doesn’t grow dies” is true for block clubs as well.

     Organizing for Self-Help

Just like the earliest Extension educators who provided the educational support for farmers to organize their own cooperatives, the goal of UW Extension urban neighborhood organizing is to help residents collectively address and solve their own issues, concerns, and problems.  This also fits the rule of classic community organizing to never do anything for people that they can do for themselves.  The strategy is to build capacity in people, getting them to do things for themselves.  People make the change.  The community educator facilitates the process.

Organizing for self-help is similar to the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” economic planning developed in Puerto Rico in the 1950s (James and Martin, 1981).  Well, a lot of people that the community educators work with don't have boots. Community educators don't hand them the boots, but instead help them recognize they need or deserve them.  Once they get the boots, then it is possible to move to higher order issues. This is why organizing for self-help is the critical third principle in the process.

A strategy of facilitated self-help is empowering on a number of levels.  First, people come to the realization that they can help themselves.  Even more importantly, people realize that they can help each other. People learn a collective problem-solving process they can use long after the community educator is gone. It is a long-term process as someone's life rarely changes in a single education program.  And while it’s important to avoid doing too much hand-holding, because that would undermine empowerment, it is also important to provide enough support in the short-term for fledgling neighborhood groups to get off the ground and become self-sustaining over the long-term. 

Most of the support occurs at the block level rather than the individual level to create self-sustaining neighborhood block clubs.  It is difficult to know when the UW Cooperative Extension community educator can start to reduce support. One sign is when block club members generate their own issues and organize their own meetings.  At that point, the UW Cooperative Extension educator’s role transitions to assistance with organizational troubleshooting and access to educational resources.

     Building Leaders

Building a self-sustaining neighborhood organization that can engage in community-based self-help requires building individual neighborhood leadership.   Building leaders is the fourth principle in the process of organizing a neighborhood. University of Alaska Cooperative Extension specialist Larry Dickerson (2002) defines a leader as a person who recognizes what needs to be done and then sees that it happens. Leaders have vision, know how to make a vision a reality, and understand that not everything can be done by one person.

Text Box: I’m learning how to network better and not be shy.  I figure if I want to be a leader, I have to not be afraid of speaking, getting in front of big groups, brainstorming ideas and developing critical thinking skills – all that stuff that goes along with being a leader.
A Waukesha Neighborhood 
Leadership Graduate  
Dickerson identifies the following qualities of an effective leader:

There is usually no shortage of potential leaders.  Crew, Kim and Schweitzer (1999) conducted a neighborhood resident’s survey in Lansing, Michigan and found that 33 percent of residents were willing to assume a leadership role on their neighborhood block and over 80 percent were willing to participate with their neighbors in building a better neighborhood.  The challenge for the community educator is to identify which neighborhood residents are willing to take on a leadership role and then provide educational support to them in leading, taking charge and building networks to improve their neighborhoods.

Text Box: This is the first time I did not have to wake up my son each morning for class. He was so anxious to attend! Both he and I want to continue in some way in the neighborhood with the new skills that he learned.  
 Of a 6th grade participant  

To build resident capacity within the Waukesha neighborhoods, UW Cooperative Extension developed an eight week leadership series in 2006, sixteen participants taught community building skills in the areas of public speaking, problem solving, diversity, accessing resources, and working together to address issues that impact quality of life in the neighborhood.

Graduates of the eight week leadership series have gone on to accept leadership challenges. One was elected as a Waukesha County Board Supervisor representing his neighborhood; five became neighborhood steering committee leaders;  one served as leader of the cancer relay walk; one became a church deacon; and another was appointed to the city’s Equal Opportunities Commission. They have taken charge to build networks to get things done.

Leadership development also occurs through the ongoing development of the block club.  That begins by identifying “natural leaders” who may not be in official leadership positions, but are the people that neighbors look to for guidance. One way to find natural leaders is to ask people who they identify as a leader on their street or find out who people seek to find out what is happening in the neighborhood. The task is to find and support the natural leaders.  When issues arise, then they can take on the task of organizing their neighbors.   When one of the community educators started hearing about people without beds to sleep in she did a quick needs assessment at one apartment complex and found 27 people who said they had no bed.  She then started recruiting graduates of the neighborhood leadership training program to organize a furniture donation system.

Text Box: We had 30 or so kids involved in projects like clean-ups and flower plantings and since they were doing the most littering, it really helped. I asked the kids to get their parents, and usually had a dozen or so adults involved. 
Steve Chmielewski Community Educator 
Educators have to continually nurture new leadership. It is easy to exhaust existing neighborhood leaders. There needs to be new leaders stepping up to provide organizational continuity. In addition, there is the "leaky bucket" problem.  The most successful leaders also have the greatest potential of moving out of the neighborhood to better housing.

Informal leadership education also occurs when community educators serve as mentors. One resident who came from a life of domestic violence attended leadership training, parenting, building your own family business, and strengthening families programs.  She then went on to be a mentor in a neighborhood after school program.

Building capacity with youth has also been a priority in the neighborhoods.  One of the UW Extension community educators conducted a summer week long leadership training with 5th and 6th graders. The school principal supported the program by identifying potential youth participants and calling the parents to encourage their participation as well.  This supports a family focused urban neighborhood approach where both youth and parents are encouraged to participate together in educational programs. Topics for the series included leadership, team building, and problem solving and community service. The youth designed a lemonade stand as their community project and donated the proceeds to the local food pantry. The long-term goal of the program is to organize the youth into a neighborhood leadership and community building committee.   

Text Box: I am the link [with Latinos] here.  Other agencies don't have a person who is bilingual. Even if the agency is bilingual, you still need to have personalismo.  There needs to be a person in the agency who shares the culture.  If you want to develop a block club and they see you as Anglo, they are still afraid. 
Amy Griel  
Bilingual Community Educator
Latino youth in the middle school participated in a three year program called LaTEENO Leadership. The program focused on youth violence prevention and taught conflict management, substance abuse, self esteem, leadership development and community involvement. During her involvement in the program, one student assumed leadership in the school’s future business leaders club and was an active volunteer in her church and community. She was recently awarded the county’s Young Woman of the Future Award and credits UW Extension’s LaTEENo Leadership for her skills and confidence.  Two other students gained the confidence to present their leadership roles and outcomes in the 2007 CYFAR conference in Chicago. All of these efforts resulted in the creation of the first Latino 4-H club in Wisconsin in a City of Waukesha neighborhood.

     Identifying and Organizing Activities

How do people decide what to do as a group? The fifth principle in the neighborhood organizing process focuses on educational activities.  In this way, it is similar to the popular education organizing model made famous by Myles Horton and the Highlander Folk School (Adams and Horton, 1975).  Popular education begins with identified community needs or issues to develop effective educational activities and programs that address the issues and needs and keep neighborhood residents engaged.  In popular education, in order to support the development of community capacity, residents need to take the lead on any neighborhood project, not the community educator.

However, there is more involved than simply education.  The process must also produce initial impact through the development and implementation of a smaller project that keeps people involved and recruits more residents.  This follows the classic community organizing model principle of choosing issues that are immediate, specific, and realizable (Beckwith 1997).  In other words, the community organizing effort needs to find issues that are having an immediate impact on people, where the community group can choose a very specific focus, and about which they can do something quickly.  Crime is an issue that many residents want to organize around. The challenge, however is to identify a specific crime related issue that the neighborhood organization can visibly address.  In one case, the block club decided to focus on a single drug house.  Working with the community policing division, they reduced drug activity in the neighborhood.  In another neighborhood, the very first project a community organization chose was a neighborhood cleanup. This was followed by a picnic that also made a visible difference and built relationships among the neighborhood residents.

Organizing activities also need to be cross-cultural to serve the Latino communities in the area.  Among the staff is a Latino educator.  Being a native Spanish speaker and an immigrant from Mexico, she has an advantage in developing relationships with other Latin American immigrants.  Because of the isolation felt by individuals, particularly due to language, the organizing strategy is often a bit different.  In one case, she brought individuals together for a family support class and then encouraged the parents to exchange phone numbers with each other to develop their own support group. While this experience of isolation may be most easily definable among Latinos because of language and cultural differences, it also occurs in other low-income populations and such isolation-reducing strategies may be useful in other situations.

It is in developing activities that the traditional government-funded Extension context may be most important and most difficult.  Extension educators cannot be advocates or perceived as an advocate due to the fact that they are government funded. One of the reasons that most community organizations keep government at arm’s length is that they often target government with their activities. They organize their collective community power to demand better services, more accountability, and more equitable treatment from government.

Text Box: We were planning a neighborhood clean-up and a police contact called me and said "'you have a clean up coming?  We have a SWAT hit coming at six, so you need to be done by six.  But you can't tell anybody.'”  So I didn't say anything, I just kept telling everyone, 'you're doing great, you're doing great' and moving them along and got them all out of there by ten to six. I walked up to my car and saw the big black SWAT truck pull up. 
Laura Dombrock
Community Educator 
In the case of Waukesha County UW Cooperative Extension, the funding for community organizing comes primarily from grants. Consequently, adopting a confrontational organizing model could create trouble with funders.  It is also the case that the community organizations being built by community educators have not seen a conflict strategy as crucial to their success.  Rather, as we will see next, they have focused more on building alliances outside of the neighborhood.

     Partnering with Other Organizations

While building block clubs, self-help, leadership, and organizing activities are a crucial part of neighborhood organizing, many neighborhood issues require partnership with other organizations—police, service agencies, food pantries, health service providers, and others.  This is the sixth principle in the Waukesha County UW Cooperative Extension neighborhood organizing process. This is one of the areas where the Waukesha County UW Cooperative Extension neighborhood organizing process differs from the classical Alinsky model and begins to look more similar to the recently developed consensus organizing model (Eichler, 2007) or the asset-based community development model.  In these models, the community educator assists with the organization of those who have structurally or culturally antagonistic interests—landlords and tenants, employers and employees, service providers and clients—together with each other to solve problems.

One of the most challenging implementations of this form of community organizing has been with the police.  While one of the top issues for neighborhood residents is crime, they are also very wary of the police.  Indeed, they are even wary of the community educators themselves.  Even after a whole summer in the neighborhood, one educator was still getting asked “are you a cop?”  Bringing residents out to work on crime issues can be challenging.  The strategy that the community educators use is to increase positive contact between the police and residents.  Sometimes they ask the police to come in street clothes.  Sometimes they organize “cops and kids” events.  Community Educators are the only person that both groups trust, and then take the role of bringing the two groups together.

Waukesha County UW Cooperative Extension educators also attempt to bring small businesses and churches into the organizing process, which is challenging in any context. They are achieving some successes, but are often unable to get much support. The faith community, for example, is different than it was five or six years ago. Due to stressed budgets, churches and small businesses are cutting staff that previously were able to support the neighborhood outreach efforts. 

Necessary Neighborhood Educator Skills

In order to have sustained success in the implementation of the six neighborhood organizing principles, Extension neighborhood educators must have necessary skills to succeed as well. The question is what skills does the Extension educator, as a neighborhood organizer, require?  Boyd Faulkner (1990) identified ten essential traits of being a successful neighborhood organizer:

These are the skills that Waukesha County UW Cooperative Extension educators use to effectively deliver educational programs and organize neighborhoods. Community organizing takes time and patience.  Every neighborhood is different, and often the same neighborhood is different from one year to the next due to the high number of renters, the mobility of the population, and life’s uncertainties.  The people in the neighborhoods that most need organizing are often frustrated, distrustful, and filled with despair. Their life situations are unpredictable.  For a community organizer to succeed in such a context requires a dramatically enhanced ability to listen, be flexible, and be genuine. Creativity, both in framing needs and crafting solutions, is also important. 

In the context of contemporary Cooperative Extension, where one-size-fits-all toolkits abound, the philosophy underpinning this skill set often feels uncomfortable as these skills require giving up the traditional power that the Extension educator carries into communities. In this new process, the neighborhood educator organizes a community process where community members define the issues and develop the solutions. It also requires overcoming the disciplinary distinctions in Cooperative Extension between 4-H, Family Living, Community Development, and Agriculture.  In the Waukesha County UW Cooperative Extension office, the neighborhood educators step beyond the traditional program boundaries. Staff are hired not only for their educational and program development skills but also for their ability to connect with people and build relationships. The skills identified by Faulkner are the foundation for the community educators’ daily work.

The Waukesha County UW Cooperative Extension’s process of community organizing also uses the practice of community-based research (Stoecker, 2005) and popular education (Freire, 1970), where community members themselves direct the research based on the issues they are facing.  The research process upon which such community organizing rests is often invisible, as the community educator that is truly listening is going door to door systematically finding out what community residents care about.  It isn’t treating it as a disembodied needs assessment nor standard research.  It shifts the community educator’s standard of what constitutes good work to include evaluation by people who lack formal education but are experts in their own community situation. This process is different than the traditional model of research where faculty are expected to behave very much like a traditional academic who develops the research question, designs the research project, collects the data, analyzes the results and proposes interventions all in isolation from community accountability. 

Adapting the Extension Structure in Support of Neighborhood Organizing

The community organizing process practiced by Waukesha County UW Cooperative Extension pushes the boundaries of the state wide organization.  First, because it focuses on urban neighborhoods and second, because it transcends traditional disciplinary divisions.  If we are to expand the Waukesha County community organizing process to other urban communities, Cooperative Extension must recognize the centrality and uniqueness of urban neighborhoods.  The implications for Cooperative Extension are profound:

1.  Emphasize the local: Increasing pressure in some states to regionalize Cooperative Extension discourages the type of urban community organizing that requires exactly the opposite—a neighborhood focus.  The depth of the trust issues in our disinvested neighborhoods require the Extension community educator to be present in the community on a daily basis.  That is not possible in a regional model. 

2.  A diverse funding strategy is crucial to sustain an educational programming effort on a neighborhood level. The Waukesha County UW Cooperative Extension office supports its community educators through targeted grant funds.  The NRSA designation mentioned previously is important for Waukesha County UW Cooperative Extension as it provides additional funding for neighborhood educational programs through Community Development Block Grant funds and other sources.

3.  Teach intrapersonal communication skills and encourage flexibility:  Evaluation, strategic planning or any number of other Extension programs often do not meet the needs of neighborhood educators and the communities they attempt to serve.  The Waukesha County UW Cooperative Extension educators have had to learn by doing urban neighborhood door-knocking, bringing residents together to determine their own issues, recruiting participants, building trust, and truly listening.

4.  Break down the barriers between traditional UW Cooperative Extension program areas to work across disciplines. Community issues do not occur in neat disciplinary boxes.  Family, jobs, housing, growth, health, youth, planning, public safety and environmental quality issues, cannot be solved through application of knowledge from a single program area, especially in urban neighborhoods. Encouraging Extension educators to access a comprehensive knowledge set available in all program areas enables them as professionals to meet the needs of changing urban communities. Breaking down traditional program areas as well as working across the disciplines of Horticulture, Family Living, Community Development, strategic planning and leadership development were crucial for success in City of Waukesha NRSA neighborhoods.

5. Redefine impact. Emphasis on the local, flexible and creative problem solving and a whole approach to community come directly from Extension’s rural roots.  These ideas come from a time when people were treated as people rather than as data points, human resources, or service consumers.  It comes from a time when the Extension educator was held accountable by grass roots community residents rather than by politicians, bureaucrats or a professional elite.  It comes from a time when the Cooperative Extension educator, directed by the people, clashed with the official definitions of what was acceptable, building cooperatives and other forms of local resident-based power.

Neighborhood Evaluation

The Waukesha County UW Cooperative Extension neighborhood organizing process was implemented in the Phoenix Heights neighborhood and replicated later in both the Haertel Field and West Side neighborhoods within the City of Waukesha.  A Neighborhood Revitalization Strategy Evaluation survey conducted for the Waukesha County UW Cooperative Extension by the UW-Milwaukee Survey Research Lab found that neighborhood residents in the NRSA neighborhoods felt more connected with city departments, the mayor, and their alderpersons. Respondents agreed that residents were taking more ownership of their neighborhood due to Waukesha County UW Cooperative Extension’s neighborhood organizing process. Both residents and government officials stated that as a result of the neighborhood organizing process there is a better approach for dealing with neighborhood issues that is beneficial for both city government and residents.  Residents are able to communicate effectively with City departments to proactively address issues.  City department heads responded that they are very pleased that this relationship has transpired. The City Community Development Director stated that residents are not calling to complain, they are calling to address concerns and are willing to help and be part of the solution. 

Residents also expressed a growing awareness of social and demographic changes in their neighborhoods.  For example, residents recognized that the growing Hispanic population requires that they understand cultural differences and respond in appropriate ways in order to engage them in neighborhood activities. Residents also expressed a need for additional bilingual speakers to assist with improving communication and identified residents in the neighborhood with bilingual language skills.

When asked what changes were most notable in the neighborhood itself, residents overwhelmingly focused on positive change surrounding improved physical neighborhood appearance, decreased crime, and more involved residents.  These positive feelings were expressed even further as over 85 percent of the 138 randomly surveyed neighborhood households indicated that they would recommend their neighborhood to someone moving from outside the area to Waukesha.

Summary/Implications for Extension

The process explained in this paper does provide an educational framework to engage and organize neighborhood residents in an effort to improve their lives.  This process can be an effective tool for working with a neighborhood or a small community. The Waukesha County UW Cooperative Extension community organizing model shows a path back to Cooperative Extension’s rural roots by engaging people and organizations in urban neighborhoods, developing partnerships and focusing on efforts to help people develop leadership skills and organize to help themselves. 

The implications of this paper for UW Cooperative Extension are growing as the state continues to urbanize.  Approximately 72 percent of Wisconsin’s total population lives in the 25 counties located in more urban metropolitan statistical areas. Thirty-eight of the forty-six largest cities in the state are in these 25 counties.  These cities have distinct urban neighborhoods where the model described in this paper may be adapted.

In addition, this process may be used by Cooperative Extension educators partnering with city planning departments on neighborhood planning.  The educator could adapt the model to engage people in a neighborhood planning process to make certain that planners are made fully aware of the social and cultural needs of the people thereby giving planners the opportunity to incorporate these needs into the physical environment of the neighborhood.

Suggestion for Further Research

This process was developed and used with Hispanic/Latino and White Caucasian audiences.   With a growing African American and Asian population it is suggested that further research be done than would determine what changes to the model might be necessary in order to effectively adapt it to these culturally different audiences.


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About the Authors

Contributors to this paper include Jerry Braatz, Steve Chmielewski, Ann Wied, Juana Avila, Laura Dombrock,  Marcia Jante, and Jennifer Jones from Waukesha County UW Cooperative Extension, and Randy Stoecker from the University of Wisconsin Department of Community and Environmental Sociology  and UW Cooperative Extension, Center for Community and Economic Development.