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Section 1. Strategies for Community Change and Improvement: An Overview

  • What does it mean to organize for community change?

  • Why should you engage in community organization?

  • What are effective strategies in community organization?

  • How do you bring about change through community organization?

Throughout the Community Tool Box, our authors talk about different ways to improve our communities, and how to do all of the tasks, small and large, that make an organization work and work well. But broadly speaking -- how does all of this work? What are the overarching strategies that work to improve our communities? Why do some grassroots organizations fail, while others do great things and flourish?

Throughout the Tool Box, we offer many suggestions of what we feel are "right" ways to approach community work. Our belief in the equality of all people, for instance, or in the importance of individuals' efforts to improve their communities -- are not topics of specific sections, but make up the foundation of what we do. These beliefs and ideas are at the base of all of our work at the Community Tool Box.

One such idea is that of community organization -- the idea that people can and should come together to talk about what matters to them, and then work together to successfully change their communities. As this idea is a common thread woven throughout our work, we'd like to use this chapter to make it explicit, and try to explore it more fully.

So, then, on the following few screens (and in the next few sections) we'll do just that. In the remainder of this section, we'll give a general overview of community organization -- what it is and how you do it. We'll also give brief explanations of different ways of looking at community organization. Although all of the strategies we will discuss have quite a bit in common, it may be helpful to separate out and compare different approaches in order for us to look more clearly at our work.

What does it mean to organize for community change?

Community organizing is the process by which people come together to identify common problems or goals, mobilize resources, and, in other ways, develop and implement strategies for reaching the objectives they want to accomplish.

As you can see, it's a big idea -- it's really a way of looking at all of the work that we do. Because of that, it encompasses many of the other ideas discussed in the Tool Box. For example, effective community organization will generally include:

  • Gaining an understanding of the community. The first key step is learning what the community is like, and what is important to its residents.
  • Generating and using power. There are many types of power; depending on the nature of your organization and your long term goals, your organization may have (or need) different types. Different kinds of power include:
  • Political or legislative power -- for example, you could work to pass laws to make it more difficult for young people to get hold of alcohol or tobacco
  • Consumer power -- your organization might organize a boycott against a company whose policies are environmentally unsound
  • Legal regulatory power -- your organization might take a delinquent landlord to court
  • Disruptive power -- employees of an organization might go on strike as part of a demand for better working conditions
  • Articulating issues. A crucial part of effective organizing is being very clear about what people find important, and what you feel should be done about it.
  • Planning purposeful action. Action planning is central to effective community organization.
  • Involving other people. Community organizing works in large part because of the strength that exists in numbers. The idea that "what we can't do alone, we can often accomplish together" is what community organization is all about.
  • Generating and using other resources. While involving many people is at the heart of any community organizing effort, a group will need to obtain other resources as well. These may include cash, gifts in kind, and other forms of donations or support.
  • Communicating with your community. There are many ways to effectively get the word out and let the community at large in on what you are doing, why you are doing it, and why they should be a part of it.

An important point to remember is that community organization is fundamentally a grassroots process. It's not about an outside "expert" telling a community what it should work on. Instead, it's about community members getting exercised about something, and using that energy to create change. In short, community organization is all about empowering people to improve their lives, however that might be best done.

A fundamental lesson for the community organizer is that you don't organize people to do something you think should be done; instead, you find out what is important to people in the community, and then help them reach their goals.

Community organizing, done right, leads to a shift in power: you're building a power base among a broad group of people. Many times, community organization is done among those who have traditionally been denied a voice, or whose needs have been ignored -- the poor, the homeless, certain minority groups, etc.

Why should you engage in community organization?

Organizing members of a community -- no matter what your goals might be -- has some general advantages that will occur if the work is well done. These advantages include:

  • A greater ability to bring about the changes you want to see. The collective voice of many people working together on a problem is usually much more powerful than a single voice.
  • Empowerment. Involving people (especially those who haven't traditionally had much power) in improving the conditions which shape their lives can increase people's sense of their own worth and capabilities, helping them to live more fulfilling lives.
  • Increased self-sufficiency among community members. Organizing people to bring about change helps maintain a high level of ownership by people for their own destinies. Ultimately, this reduces the amount of outside help that will be needed.
  • Increased social support. By bringing together diverse groups of people who are working for the same cause, people get the chance to talk and learn with others they may not have met otherwise. Both professionally and socially, community organization offers ample opportunity for growth and enjoyment among those who come together.
  • Greater equity in the society.  When people gain control over the forces that shape their lives, it changes the balance of power in the community, spreading it more broadly and distributing it more nearly equally.  That, in turn, changes for the better the circumstances of those with the least power, making for a more just society.

What are effective strategies in community organization?

There are many different ways for a community to bring about the changes it wants. In the Community Tool Box, those we are most interested in are those in which people come together to improve life in their communities. This occurs in different ways, and for different reasons. Thus, there can be slightly different ways of looking at the process of organization. The four ways that follow will be discussed in more detail in the subsequent sections of this chapter.

Organization for locality development. Also known as community development, locality development focuses on community building by improving the process by which things get done. For example, it emphasizes the ideas of community competency--the ability of the community to solve its own problems by learning skills such as group facilitation and critical thinking that are crucial to community work -- and through working to build harmonious relationships among people from different racial, ethnic, and social-class groups. A lot of weight is put on how people think and feel about things. The idea of "helping people help themselves" is key to this concept. Organizations such as the Peace Corps and VISTA offer good examples of what we mean by locality development.

Social planning or policy change. Whereas locality development focuses primarily on the process of working together, social planning focuses on getting results. That is, it emphasizes solving specific social problems, such as a lack of adequate housing or a very high crime rate. Delivering goods and services and avoiding the duplication of those services are important ends in this type of organizing.  It is often initiated by community officials or planners, or as the result of state or federal programs.

Because it is driven primarily by statistics and other types of data, social planning may be seen as more "scientific" than locality development. For example, an organizer might point out that, "Records from the health department show that only about 65% of the children entering kindergarten are fully immunized; we need an initiative to make sure all of our children receive the immunizations that will safeguard their health."

The use of "experts" may be considered a necessary part of this approach because of the importance placed on statistics and other data. This is more true of this type of organizing than for any of the others that we will discuss.

Organizing for social action, or systems advocacy. When we think of the civil rights demonstrations in the South in the 1960s, or AIDS activists conducting "die-ins" in front of the White House in the 1980s, this is what we are talking about. Social action organizing is highly adversarial, and the concept of social justice is a dominant ideal.

In social action organizing, members of a certain group -- often those who are discriminated against or low on the economic ladder, and thus have little voice as individuals -- come together in order to make demands on the larger community for increased resources or equal treatment.

Coalitions are broad groups that bring together people and organizations from throughout the community, including many groups that may not normally work together. For example, a coalition working to increase AIDS awareness in the community might bring together officials from the health department, representatives from the faith community, young people, business leaders, and members of the GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered) community -- groups that sometimes don't see eye-to-eye.

The power of coalitions comes from the idea of strength in numbers -- bringing together many diverse people gives you the power you need to make the changes you want.

When looking at these four strategies for community organization, it's very clear that these approaches are not completely distinct from one another. A group that is mostly concerned with the processes of locality development will nonetheless have, some results they want achieved, and they may well use the more strident tactics of social action to achieve those results. And certainly, a coalition might choose to use any (or more likely, all) of the other three strategies at some point during its life span.

However, our hope is that by separating these ideas -- even if the separation is somewhat academic -- we can help organizers to think systematically about their desired ends and the means it will take to get there, as well as to organize their work in accordance to their values.

How do you bring about change through community organization?

Community organization can be done in many ways; how you do it will depend on where you are working and what your specific goals are. More detailed "how-to's" are found in each of the strategy-specific sections that follow this one.

However, some of the basics are pretty much the same, whatever your ultimate goals might be. What follows then, is simply a general overview to get you thinking about the fundamentals.

  • First of all, and most obviously, you need to involve people in your community efforts. This is the heart of community organizing. This may be done in many ways -- from informal conversations, to going door-to-door, to using more formal methods of recruitment.

Door-knocking is a classic tactic in community organizing that is still used regularly by community activists. Going door-to-door in the area that interests you with a short script like the following can do a lot to spark original interest.

"Hello, I'm ____ and I work with ___. We’re asking people in the neighborhood about how the community can be improved. Would you be willing to take a few minutes to talk about what you think should be looked at or changed?"

Be careful here. There may be some members of your group not comfortable going door-to-door as a way to get the word out. They may be unsure about the safety of the neighborhoods they are visiting. It may also be illegal for your organization to communicate with community members through door-to-door visits. So, before you begin your campaign, check the comfort level of your members and examine local laws to make sure that a door-to-door campaign is safe and legal!

  • Next, from the comments and suggestions you have heard from community members, identify the issue that seems to be of the greatest concern. Three questions are especially important to consider when deciding to tackle a problem:
    • Is it important enough to people that they’re willing to take action about it?
    • Is it specific? For example, violence may be a problem -- but what kind of violence are people concerned about? Domestic violence? Violence in our schools? Muggings after dark?
    • Can something be done to affect it in a reasonable amount of time? You may not be able to do much locally to change global warming, but you can probably do quite a bit to encourage energy conservation and the use of green building techniques and power sources.

Then, those who want to do something about the problem should reframe it as a goal. That gives people something positive to strive for, and enlists them in building the community, rather than simply eliminating something harmful or annoying.  It not only makes working on the current issue more compelling, but prepares people to continue the community-building process in the future.

It also allows you to narrow down the issue to something clearly achievable.  Suppose the issue identified by the community is traffic.  It’s noisy, it pollutes, and it’s gotten a great deal worse over the past ten years, so that what was a ten-minute drive now takes 45 at rush hour.  What’s a clear goal that will address the issue?

There are a number of possibilities.  Improving and expanding public transportation is one, and one that a community initiative could probably have some influence over.  The designation of bike lanes and the building of off-street cross-town bike paths is another.  Each of these presents a clear, goal that not only represents a community organizing success, but that can inspire people to participate in the next campaign, which might have a more ambitious goal.

  • Developing your strategy is the next step in community organizing. What your strategy will be will vary greatly, depending on what type of organizing you are doing. However, in all types of organizing, members of your group will want to come together and develop agreed-upon answers to the following questions.
    • What are your long- and short-term goals?
    • What are your organizational strengths and weaknesses?
    • Who cares about this problem?
    • Who are your allies?
    • Who has the power to give you what you want?
    • How can we make our work enjoyable for community members to be a part of?

It's important to build your organization's strategy in a logical manner. People like to look upon themselves as being reasonable. Thus, organizers should develop the strategy in such a way that each escalation of activity makes sense, so that neither members of the group nor the larger community see what is being done as overblown or reactionary.

A small town in eastern Kansas organized to protest the introduction of a roadway through environmentally-protected and spiritually sacred Native American wetlands. Two organizations in town began by writing letters to local government officials requesting that the road be constructed around the wetlands rather than through them.

When that didn't work, the groups became more active. Newspaper articles were written, and community members were encouraged to write their local representatives in protest. Residents attended local council meetings and vocally protested the decisions of the city government.

When the letters and verbal protests were unsuccessful, the organizations staged rallies. After the rallies did not get the desired results, the community members began to protest along the portions of the roadway that had been constructed. The protests were ignored in much the same way the letters, council meeting attendance, and rallies had been.

Finally, the two organizations hired attorneys and sued the city to prevent the roadway from being constructed -- a move which never would have been condoned by residents at the beginning of the dispute. The lawsuit attracted the attention of the EPA, and soon federal agencies became involved. To date, the groups have been successful in blocking the completion of the roadway.

  • From strategies, your organization should develop specific tactics for the strategy you have chosen. Examples of tactics include boycotts, petitions, demonstrations, meetings with people with power, and so on. As we discussed in the last step on developing strategies, members of the group must be sure that the tactics fit the situation -- that they aren't too extreme (or too weak!); that they target the appropriate people; and that they have a good chance of being effective.
  • The next step in community organizing is to choose specific actions to carry out the strategies and tactics you have developed. These action steps are the bread and butter of your community work. They should be very explicit, specifying who will do what in what way by when.
  • The organizer should set goals for immediate, short-ending wins, and these wins should be celebrated. Most community work takes a long time; some of it is never done. Your organization's goals may be very large -- ending child abuse; developing a thriving neighborhood in what is currently a run-down, crime-infested area; or an end to all forms of discrimination. These are goals that will take a long time to reach; they may not even be completed in our lifetime.

Because of this, it's important that the group does win something very quickly. It's important for the morale of the group to feel you really are making progress; that your work is not only for a good cause, but you're also going about it in the right way. No one likes to feel that their work is useless, that they are giving up precious free time for a lost cause, or that they are not appreciated for all of their work. So make celebrations of your work -- and the people doing it -- a regular part of your organization's life.

  • Finally, the organization needs to keep on going. As we said above, community work never ends. Your group may be organizing people to work on specific goals. But when your group has won (or when you have decided it's time to bow out gracefully), then it's time to rest, regroup, and move on to the next campaign.

In Summary

The power of an organized community working together to reach agreed-upon goals is nothing short of spectacular. There is no more important step to take than organization when trying to improve life in our communities. And so, it is crucial for those of us working for our communities to understand how to do so effectively.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a tremendously powerful organizer. In a speech in Memphis in 1968, he rallied listeners with the words, "Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge, to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation." We at the Community Tool Box ask that you take that opportunity -- that you work to organize people for a better community, a better nation, and finally, a better world.

Contributor 
Jenette Nagy

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Windcall
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If you're working hard to change the world, you know it's an endless struggle... a struggle that can leave you exhausted even when your work is fulfilling and affirmative. You might need a chance to step back, take a break, catch your breath in a place where you can stretch out and see the far horizon.

That's why we established the Windcall Resident Program. Since 1989, it has been a place of retreat and renewal for people engaged in work for social change. Our principal aim is this: to honor and help conserve the commitment and energy of those who work towards a more just society. If you've been doing this difficult work and need to step back to see what's ahead, we encourage you to apply to Windcall.

You may apply to stay at Windcall for two or four weeks during one of its residential sessions. Summer residencies are available during June and July, with a January 15 application deadline. Fall residencies extend from after Labor Day to the end of October, with an April 10 application deadline.

Windcall welcomes residents at no cost during their stay. There are only four guests at any one time. We offer a partial travel stipend for those in need, and we encourage residents to drive whenever possible so that once here they can take full advantage of all that southwestern Montana provides.

Print Resources

Berkowitz, W. R. (1997). Community and neighborhood organization. Chapter for Handbook of Community Psychology.

Bobo, K., Kendall, J., Max, S. (1996). Organizing for social change: A manual for activists in the 1990s. Minneapolis, MN: Seven Locks.

Fawcett, S. B. (1999). Some lessons on community organization and change. In J. Rothman (Ed.), Reflections on community organization: Enduring themes and critical issues. Itasca, IL: F. E. Peacock Publishers.

Rothman, J., Erlich, J. L., & Tropman, J. E. (Eds.). (1995). Strategies of community intervention. Itasca, IL: F. E. Peacock Publishers.

Online Resources

Institute for Social Justice Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN)
Contact: Elena Hanggi 523 W. 15th Street, Little Rock, AR 72202. Program: Training for members of ACORN; week-long and 2-day training sessions for others; special training for unions and in operation of radio and television stations.

Center for Community Change
CCC helps the economically disadvantaged improve their communities and change policies and institutions that affect their lives by developing their own strong organizations.

The COMM-ORG Mission

  • To help connect people who care about the craft of community organizing.
  • To find and provide information that organizers, scholars, and scholar-organizers can use to learn, teach, and do community organizing.
  • To involve all COMM-ORG members in meeting those goals.

The Midwest Academy
The Midwest Academy is one of the nation's oldest and best known schools for community organizations, citizen organizations, and individuals committed to progressive social change.