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Section 2. Participatory Approaches to Planning Community Interventions

Example: Participatory Planning in The Literacy Project

In 1995, the Massachusetts Department of Education offered a three-year grant to communities to try to reach and serve the families of children aged three and under. Their idea was that, by providing services to families and children at risk, communities might be able to head off some of the problems these children might have later, when they got to school. The Request for Proposals (RFP) had a number of requirements, a major one being an oversight board that included people from all elements of the community that might be involved with families - schools and day care providers, hospitals and other health agencies, human service providers, parents, municipal government, etc.

The largely rural western Massachusetts county of Hampshire also contains several colleges and the main campus of the state university. At the urging of its Human Service Coordinator, Hampshire County decided to apply as a county, and got permission to do so. This decision made the application process much more complicated, because the Director and the agency convening the process had to contact and involve the appropriate people from 20 or so towns scattered over several hundred square miles.

Less than 10 days after the RFP came out, I, as director of an adult literacy program that operated in Hampshire County, sat at a meeting with several school principals and counselors; three doctors; two hospital administrators; three parents; the directors of a day care center, a mental health agency, a battered women's shelter, an agency that operated homeless shelters, a pregnant-and-parenting teen program, an information and referral service, and an anti-poverty agency; and representatives from the Department of Social Services, the county welfare office, the Office for Children, the Department of Mental Retardation, and other state and local agencies; as well as the County Human Services Coordinator.

We spent two long but productive meetings thinking through and planning the grant proposal, which was then written by an administrator at the anti-poverty agency. Using ideas from nearly everyone in the group, the proposal, rather than concentrating on a specific program, envisioned an intervention that encompassed supporting parents in whatever ways they needed. It created a safety net for parents and children that stretched across the whole county, and included both specific and general services and activities. In short, it was an intervention designed for a whole county, rather than a single community, and one that recognized that the needs of parents in that county were varied and constantly changing.

Much to everyone's surprise, our proposal was one of only a small number funded across the state. Ours was the only proposal that aimed at more than a single community, but it had county-wide support, and everyone was committed to making it work. The group that had been assembled to write the proposal agreed to stay together and serve as the oversight board, and the information and referral center housed the program 's coordinator and served as a clearinghouse for issues related to the grant.

The grant program worked on two levels. On one level, it ran activities and programs in different areas of the county - often tied into the already-existing work of county agencies, schools, hospitals, and the like - geared to the needs of families with kids three and under. Some of the grant money was used for outreach to families, particularly those often underserved, to encourage their attendance. Activities and programs included a semi-annual vaccination celebration (a fair with clowns, refreshments, and entertainment at which kids could get both vaccinated and face-painted), and pre- and postnatal parenting classes at one of the hospitals.

The larger part of the grant, however, was directed toward meeting needs expressed directly by parents and providers, and toward creating and maintaining a flexible network of integrated services and support for families that could be activated when a need or a problem arose. A small amount of the grant was used, for instance, to run a "taxi service" of volunteer drivers who helped parents without transportation (remember, this is a rural area, where the nearest store or population center can be ten or more miles away) to get to appointments with the pediatrician or welfare office, to do shopping, or to pick up children from day care.

The board met officially four times a year, and small groups of it met far more often to work out the details of specific new or ongoing activities. More important, the organizations involved worked together far more and in a far more focused way to meet the needs of mutual participants, and to try to narrow in on issues pertaining to young children and their families.

A good example of how the grant worked at its best took place in my own adult literacy program. At one of the Hampshire County sites, a female learner had just had a baby, whom she often brought to class. The instructor, himself the father of two young children, was very concerned about the well-being of the child, who was being fed solids at two months, and who was often ignored for long periods of time. Ultimately, the instructor decided he had to intervene.

He had a conference with the mother, at which he explained that he was concerned for the child, and that he wanted her to get help if she was to continue to participate in the literacy program. Rather than simply leaving her on her own to find assistance, however, he was able to put her directly in touch with a pediatrician, a parenting program, WIC (child nutrition), transportation assistance, and other help, all of which he had arranged through connections set up by the grant. He accompanied her to some of the initial meetings, and "handed her off" to specific individuals who, he knew, would establish relationships with her and help her through the process of learning to take better care of herself and her child.

Far from being resentful, the woman welcomed the help, and the instructor almost immediately noticed a marked improvement in the way she dealt with her infant. Furthermore, both mother and child were now getting basic services - regular medical checkups, help with proper nutrition - that would go toward keeping them healthy over the long term. The lives of that mother and baby were, in some sense, saved by the safety net the grant had set in place. And the flexibility of that net had been made possible by the participatory planning process that had generated the original grant proposal.

The Department of Education had been profoundly dubious when Hampshire County had submitted a county-wide proposal, and had funded it, at least in part, just to see what would happen. The Hampshire County program was, in fact, one of the most successful in the state. The participation in the grant was real and ongoing, and - perhaps even more important - ultimately involved the people most concerned with the issue.

Although I continued, as director of my program to attend board meetings, I also made sure that the instructors who ran the Hampshire County sites of our program were involved, and that their voices were heard in planning and committee sessions. Other program directors did the same, so that by the time I left my program, two or three years later, most of the work of the grant program was being accomplished by community members and by the line staff of the organizations involved, rather than by administrators.

Phil Rabinowitz