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Section 6. Some Core Principles, Assumptions, and Values to Guide the Work

Learn about values, principles, and assumptions that guide community health and development efforts.


  • What do we mean by values, principles, and assumptions?

  • Core values of the Community Tool Box

  • Core principles of the Community Tool Box

  • Assumptions of the Community Tool Box

The work of community health and development is both science and art. On the one hand, it grows from the lessons of experience learned by community activists and professionals trying to create systems, programs, interventions, and policy that improve the lives and health of everyone in communities.  On the other hand, it stems from the passion for social justice, equity, and fairness that leads people to work to create healthy communities where all citizens, regardless of their backgrounds or circumstances, have what they need.

The commitment to community doesn’t arise out of nowhere.  It comes from and is guided by values, principles, and assumptions that spring from our backgrounds and cultures, from our experiences, and from our conscious decisions about what is right. These values, principles, and assumptions shape our vision of the world as it should be, and motivate us to try to make it so.

The purpose of this chapter is to provide a framework for the chapters that follow. 

What do we mean by values, principles, and assumptions?

The terms values, principles, and assumptions are sometimes used as if they all mean the same thing – the underlying truths on which we base our dealings with the world.  In fact, although they are all “truths” to some extent, they are different in meaning and substance. Although we realize how similar they are, we’ll try to consider each of the three.  Understanding the difference can help us sort out when we’re operating on facts or well-examined experience, when we’re applying moral or ethical rules or judgments, and when we’re responding to emotion or bias or unexamined “knowledge” that may not be accurate.

All of these  – facts and experience, morality, ethics, bias, emotion, “common knowledge” – can be legitimate reasons for action in some circumstances.  (It’s hardly logical to be non-violent in the face of racist police armed with clubs and vicious dogs; the moral imperative for those in the Civil Rights Movement was more important than facts and experience in that situation.) The importance of knowing the difference is understanding your own motivation, and acting accordingly.


Values are our guidelines for living and behavior. Each of us has a set of deeply held beliefs about how the world should be. For some people, that set of beliefs is largely dictated by a religion, a culture, a peer group, or the society at large.  For others, it has been arrived at through careful thought and reflection on experience, and is unique. For most of us, it is probably a combination of the two. Values often concern the core issues of our lives: personal relationships, morality, gender and social roles, race, social class, and the organization of society, to name just a few.


Principles are the fundamental scientific, logical, or moral/ethical “truths” arising from experience, knowledge, and values on which we base our actions and thinking.  In the case of the Community Tool Box team, they are the underpinning of our understanding of community health and development, the truths that shape both our reasons for doing the work, and the work itself.

Scientific and logical principles are derived from experience and experiment, from knowledge (which itself comes from experience and experiment on the part of someone else), from logical analysis, and/or from theory.  They as are objective – as free of bias, untested assumptions, etc., and as firmly based on provable fact or reasoned analysis – as they can be, and are considered true until proven otherwise.  They include the physical and other laws by which the universe operates, and their extensions into the sphere of human action (If you run into a tree at 70 miles an hour, you’ll probably be seriously injured or killed.  If you drive your car when you’re drunk, you don’t have much judgment or control, making it much more likely that you’ll hit that tree at 70 miles an hour. Principle: Don’t drive drunk.)

Scientific and logical principles are typified by such statements as “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction” (Newton’s Third Law of Motion). Such principles are either verifiable by observation – a cannonball shooting out of a cannon drives the cannon itself back in the opposite direction, consistent with Newton’s Third Law – or are supported by all the evidence available – thousands of dinosaur fossils, various chemical and geological dating systems – and are “theories” only in the sense that they can’t be fully proven because of the impossibility of traveling back in time or across interstellar space.

Moral and ethical principles are where values come in.  These principles grow out of deeply held beliefs and values, and are often the principles upon which community work is founded.  Devotion to democratic process, to equity and fair distribution of resources, to a reasonable quality of life for everyone, to the sacredness of life, to the obligation of people to help one another – these all come not from logic or scientific experiment, but from a value system that puts a premium on human dignity and relationships.

One of the clearest statements of moral/ethical principle is that of the American Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson (with Benjamin Franklin’s help) in 1776: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…”

This statement is actually a good demonstration of how values and principles form a loop, with principles based on values. Jefferson and Franklin may have held these “truths” to be self-evident (i.e., so obvious that they don’t have to be explained or supported), but, the certainty of the American founding fathers had to do with their values, not with any scientific proof that they were right.

At the same time, people may hold the same principles, but interpret them through different value systems. Two individuals may both believe, for instance, that all humans are created equal.  For one, this may mean that she has a duty to try to gain equity for all.  For the other, it may mean that since everyone starts out equal, anyone who doesn’t achieve or do well is at fault for his failure, and therefore deserves no help or respect.

Even scientific principles are, in some sense, based on values.  The use of the scientific method, the adherence to empirical evidence (i.e., evidence actually observed or experienced), the willingness to believe the evidence even when it conflicts with religious or cultural assumptions – these are all characteristics of a value system that puts a high priority on logical and scientific thinking.

Some people subscribe to different values, which place much more importance on religious or cultural traditions than on the work of science.


Assumptions are the next level of truths, the ones we feel we can take for granted, given the principles we have accepted. If we accept, for instance, that life is an “unalienable right” – a right of every human being that cannot be taken away – then we will usually assume that killing another person is wrong, or at least that we don’t have the right to do it.

Assumptions are often unexamined. They are the facts or beliefs that we don’t question, because we “know” they’re accurate, even though they may not be.  Most of us have been in situations where we’ve had to face the consequences of our incorrect assumptions.

It is nevertheless true that we all bring assumptions to what we do, and the Community Tool Box team is no exception. We hope our assumptions are based on carefully thought out principles, however, and try to reevaluate them to make sure we aren’t operating on false premises.

What follows are some of the core values, principles and assumptions on which the Community Tool Box is based. The lists are not meant to be comprehensive, and are not necessarily in order of priority.

Core values of the Community Tool Box

We’ll start with values, because, as we’ve explained, they’re usually the basis for the work we do. Our values are a reflection of the way each of us sees and addresses the world.

Although values can and do change as people grow and learn, there are some basic values that most people hold: the need to protect and preserve human life, for instance, or the responsibility of adults to care for children.  These and a number of other values are held by the majority of people in most societies, and are often the foundation of laws and social norms.

Here are some of the values behind the Community Tool Box:

Everyone has a right to a decent quality of lifeThis is a core value for most people involved in community health and development. The Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion, a policy statement issued by the World Health Organization-sponsored First International Conference on Health Promotion (Ottawa, Canada, 1986), embodies this value.  It states that the prerequisites for health in a community are peace, shelter, enough food, adequate income to support individuals and families, a stable ecosystem, sustainable resources, social justice, and equity.

Everyone is worthy of respect and equal consideration. Treating people with respect and consideration doesn’t mean you can’t disagree with them, or even fight against what they’re trying to do. Rather it means that you should approach them as equals who think they’re right, rather than labeling or treating them as evil or stupid.

Any community work or research should have the ultimate aim of being useful in improving people’s lives, particularly the lives of those most in need and/or least powerful.  There’s no point to research or action in health and community work unless it contributes to the quality of life in the community and/or the world. Knowledge is hugely important, but it doesn’t matter much if you don’t do anything with it.

Due to inherent biases we all have, some understood and some we are aware of, it is essential for us to continually increase awareness of our biases and to ensure they do not contradict the higher order values previously discussed, such as ensuring all people are respected.

Fairness demands that everyone affected by research or by an issue – all stakeholders – should have the opportunity for either direct participation or representation in planning, implementing, and analyzing the resulting research or intervention.  Community work, in whatever field, should be about creating new situations with the people affected, not about doing things for or to them.

This work isn’t about power, but about the public good.  Therefore, power and leadership, to the extent that it doesn’t entirely compromise the purpose of the work, should be shared as much as possible.

Core principles of the Community Tool Box

Principles, as we’ve described, are the essential truths on which we base our work.  They’re different from values, in that values are a reflection of what we deeply believe and feel: principles are a reflection of what we think.  Although the reasoning behind them may – and usually does – grow out of our value system, they are generally practical, and aimed not at guiding our overall thinking and behavior, but at putting them – and our values – to work in the real world.

“Fair” doesn’t mean that everyone gets the same thing; it means that everyone gets what they need. This implies that equity involves making sure that those with less have enough for their needs, and aren’t ignored or exploited by those with more money or power.

Community work is far more likely to be successful if it involves all stakeholders from the very beginning. This is the principle that derives from the value concerning the fairness of involving everyone affected by an issue.  It’s stated as a principle because it is a practical statement: planning, intervention, and evaluation all simply go better if there is input and participation by everyone involved.  This participatory process results in more ideas, more widespread support, the possibility of avoiding errors because of ignorance of community history or past performance, and ownership of the resulting action by everyone affected.

Leadership from within the community should be encouraged and nurturedPositive community change is more likely to occur, and more likely to continue, if it is built from within.  The leaders for this work should come from the community, because they know the community so well, because they have the credibility that community membership brings, and because they have so much interest in success. It is also a matter of fairness – it is only right that people should control their own fates. For outsiders to impose solutions and leadership may be effective in the short term, but it hinders the community’s ability to develop and evolve.

Community work takes careful planning at every stage of the process. Assessment and issue identification, strategic planning, implementation, evaluation, and maintenance of effort all have greater chances of success with collaborative planning.  This principle is reflected in the large number of sections that discuss planning.

Evaluation is absolutely necessary, and useful in many ways, although probably most useful as a tool for improving your effort. It can show where changes are needed, pinpoint problems and strengths, suggest additional action, and provide accountability.  A formative evaluation – one that carefully examines the process and content of your effort, compares it to what was supposed to occur, and analyzes the results of what you did in light of how you could improve on it – can tell you whether parts of the process or the goals need to be changed in order for the effort to become more effective. A summative evaluation – one that simply decides whether you did well or not, essentially focusing only on accountability – is far less helpful.  A summative evaluation can often stop an effort in its tracks, when all it needs to become successful is a relatively minor change in execution.

Outcomes matter. While fingerpointing and handwringing over failures to meet goals may not be particularly helpful, it’s important to remember the reason you’re doing this work in the first place. You should be constantly doing your best both to adapt your effort for greater effectiveness and to keep your ultimate goal in sight.

Time is of the essence.  Always allow enough time for things to happen, both in your planning and in your implementation. That means factoring in how long it actually takes to get an effort or program started:

  • Recruiting a participatory planning team
  • Developing a plan
  • Getting the people, the space, the equipment and materials, and whatever else is needed in place
  • Finding funding or other resources
  • Carrying out the actual work
  • Designing, implementing, and analyzing an evaluation
  • Making the changes suggested by the evaluation, and then doing it all again

Allowing enough time also means allowing time in your effort for the desired results to occur.  In some public health programs, for instance, it may take years to know whether a particular method of prevention has been truly successful.  Even in many programs that policy makers see as quick fixes, results may not be forthcoming as fast as they’d like. Programming in the time to get the job done can be frustrating, but it’s crucial to success.

Legislators may see an employment training program as a simple matter of unemployed people learning a particular skill – similar to taking a course for a set number of weeks.  But policy makers often don’t realize that not only do different people learn at different rates, but that some participants may never have held a job, and don’t understand the basics of getting along with supervisors and coworkers, or even of getting to work on time every day. Teaching all the basics in addition to the job skill in question may take a great deal longer than policy makers intend, but will be more effective in the long run.

Don’t bite off more than you can chew.  Aim high, but be honest with yourself and others about what you can actually do, and how much time it will take.

Make sure that your funding and other resources are adequate for what you’re trying to do. Trying to carry out a project without the resources you need is a recipe for failure.  It makes far more sense to scale back your intentions, or to allow more time to get what you need than to go into an effort ill-equipped to carry it off.

Community action should take place at the level and time to make it most effective. The level of community action refers to where the action is aimed. You may be planning action to benefit a particular group, but your effort might be more effective if aimed at policy makers, or at some other group or individual whose actions affect the group you’re concerned with.

By the same token, your effort should occur at the best time for it to have the desired effect. This may mean coordinating it with regular legislative procedures (the issuing of a state budget, for instance), with a particular season (timing a fundraising effort for homeless families to coincide with the winter holidays), with a similar national or international effort (e.g., National Literacy Day), or with current events as they develop. (You’d want to campaign to save an open space when its possible development first came to light, so as to give your effort enough time to rally public opinion and get the facts out.

If you wait till the bulldozers are already pushing down trees, it’s too late.)

Community intervention should be replicable and sustainable. For an intervention to be “replicable,” it has to be able to be repeated successfully in other places and/or with other participants.  The basic elements of the intervention should be effective – perhaps with some adaptation to a different community or population – anywhere, and you should be able to explain exactly how it works, so that someone else can set it up and run it in another situation.  That means you have to understand the intervention’s elements clearly, and know what it is that makes it successful. Since the formula often involves a combination of theory, philosophy, interpersonal approaches, politics, and methods, you have to pay careful attention to and document and evaluate what you’re doing, if you want someone else to be able to do it as well.

For an intervention to be sustainable, you have to be able to continue to operate it for the long term. That includes not only carrying on the work effectively, but also finding the financial and other resources necessary to keep it going, building community support, providing ongoing training for both new and continuing staff, and constantly evaluating and trying to improve what you’re doing.

That leads to the next principle:

Community work is never done. Whatever your work involves – whether a community intervention, an advocacy campaign, a one-time community action to accomplish a particular goal, the founding of an organization, or the establishment of a self-sustaining community initiative – your task isn’t done when you’ve reached your initial goal.  If you don’t work to maintain what you’ve done, or assure that others are doing so, it will fall apart.  To really bring about change in a community, you have to keep at it indefinitely.

Don’t lose sight of your vision, your principles, and your values in the struggle to get things done. It’s often tempting to take any funding that’s available, or to change what you’re doing in order to be eligible for resources.  Sometimes, it might seem that altering your purpose will make it more palatable and less controversial, and will make your life easier.  When these possibilities arise, it’s crucial to review what your vision, mission, and ultimate goals are.  If these need to change because of changes in circumstances or community needs, then they should.  But if the motivation for change conflicts with your values or your vision – or the reason you’re doing the work in the first place – it has to be rejected.  The integrity of your cause and your organization is worth far more, and will contribute far more to your effort, than any short-term financial or public relations gain.

The real goal of community work is positive social change. The ideal, in most cases, is to improve the quality of life for a particular group, or for everyone, in the community. This often means changing some fundamental aspects of the way the community thinks or functions – its attitude toward domestic violence, for instance, its commitment to education or to environmental preservation, its consumption of alcohol or unhealthy food, or its concept of social justice. If you can help the community change its attitudes and behaviors in positive ways, it will become a better place for everyone to live.

Core assumptions of the Community Tool Box

As we’ve explained, assumptions are the ideas we take for granted. They’re not the same as values, because they often stem from logical – or what we believe is logical – reasoning, rather than from deeply held beliefs. They differ from principles in that they don’t usually form the basis of our thinking and action, but guide how we respond to our principles.

It’s almost impossible to list all our assumptions, simply because we’re not aware of many of them. They’re so deeply ingrained in our thinking, we don’t even realize that they’re assumptions: they seem like truths. With that in mind, we’ll try to list some of the most important assumptions behind the work of the Community Tool Box.

Just about everyone wants what’s best for the community. People may disagree both on the definition of what’s best, and on how to get there, but their goal is usually similar: to live in a community that’s as good as it can be in as many ways as possible. If we start with that assumption, it becomes easier to establish common ground, and to begin to work together.  Demonizing those we disagree with is easy and often satisfying, but it leads nowhere.  Assuming instead that others want many of the same things we do can lead to cooperation on some issues, and can at least start a dialogue on others.  That’s far better, both practically and otherwise, than two factions stuck in opposition, with no chance for movement.

Once people understand others’ circumstances, they’re usually willing to help. In the quest for equity in a community, we often come up against attitudes that seem mean and unfeeling.  In many cases, however, these attitudes are the result of people in different circumstances having little contact with one another.  If you know no one on welfare, it’s easy to assume that welfare recipients are all lazy and don’t want to work.  When you’re actually faced with the realities of their lives, however – mostly single mothers living on desperately little money, even in the states where the system is most generous; often lacking all but the most basic skills, and sometimes even those; and faced with losing health care and having to pay much of their income for child care if they go to work – it becomes more difficult to see them so negatively.

If people are treated with respect, they usually respond the same way. Whether you’re dealing with participants in an intervention, with opponents, or with allies, treat them as you’d wish to be treated.  The Golden Rule is generally a good guideline, not only morally and ethically, but practically.

Coalitions, partnerships, and collaborations are built one relationship at a time. It may be relatively easy to bring a number of people and groups together around an issue, but getting them to stay and work together is another matter. The relationships that they build with one another are the glue that can make that happen.

Tip O’Neill, former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, used to say that all politics was local. What he really meant was that all politics was personal, that alliances are built relationship by relationship.  That’s as true for community activists as it is for Congressmen.

People have to believe something is possible before they’ll work to make it happen. This is the reason that a shared vision is so important in community work, but it also hold true on the individual level.  Students, for instance, have to believe they can learn before they’ll put in the concentration and effort needed to do so. If they become too discouraged, the task looks impossible, and it’s easier to give up than to risk continual failure.

An individual or community has to be able to imagine the future in order to make it happen. If there’s no belief in the possibility of change, there’s likely to be no change.

People working together are better off and more successful than people working alone.They’ll have more ideas, develop more capacity to get things done, and feed off one another’s energy in order to keep the effort moving.  If it’s possible, concerted action is almost always more effective in the long run than one person or organization going it alone.

The world isn’t perfect; this work is necessary to create positive social change and make it a better place for everyone.

In summary

Underlying every section of the Community Tool Box are the values, principles, and assumptions that the Tool Box team uses to guide its work. These have to do largely with the fundamental dignity and worth of all people; the ability of – and necessity for – communities to solve their own problems and produce their own leaders; the ethical and practical necessities of health and community work; and the need for positive social change.

This section is meant to help Tool Box users understand the perspective of the Community Tool Box, and perhaps make clearer some of what’s presented there.  It’s also meant to help users think about their own values, principles, and assumptions, to make them conscious, to examine them, and to continue to hold them up to scrutiny as they do this often difficult and incredibly important work.

Print Resource

Fawcett, S. Some Values Guiding Community Research and Action. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 24, no.4 (1991), pp.624-636.