Search form

Section 8. Some Lessons Learned on Community Organization and Change

Learn from those who have come together to address issues and bring about community-level improvements.


Photo of a stack of old books on a table.


What is community organization?

Community organization is the process of people coming together to address issues that matter to them. Community members developing plans for how the city can be a place where all its children do well. Neighbors joining in protests to stop drugs and violence in their community. Members of faith communities working together to build affordable housing. These are all examples of community organization efforts.

What are the types of communities that organize?

Community organization can happen in the variety of contexts that define "community."

Shared place

People come together who share a common geographic place such as a neighborhood, city, or town. For example, local residents might come together to address neighborhood concerns such as safety, housing, or basic services. Problem solving through community-based organizations (CBOs), neighborhood associations, and tenants -- organizations are common forms of place-based practice.

Shared experience

Community organizing also occurs among people who share an experience, such as a shared workplace or shared experience with disabilities or health disparities. Those who share a common identity may organize around issues, such as discrimination, that are barriers to achieving common goals. 

Shared interest

Organizing frequently occurs among those who have concerns about the same issues such as jobs, housing, child well-being, or education.

What are some models of practice in community organization?

Should community organization be about collaboration among people sharing common interests or confrontation with those in power? This is a false dichotomy that ignores the context of the work. Several models of practice emerged in various contexts of community organization work (Rothman, 1995).

Social planning

Social planning uses information and analysis to address substantive community issues such as education, child development, or environmental health. For example, planning councils or task forces engage (usually) professionals in setting goals and objectives, coordinating efforts, and reviewing goal attainment.

Social planning might occur in a context of either consensus or conflict about goals and means. For example, information about high rates of adolescent pregnancy, and factors that contribute to it, may help communities focus on the goal of preventing teen pregnancy, and even decisions about using controversial means such as sexuality education and enhanced access to contraceptives. Use of social planning helps build agreement on common results.

Social action

Social action involves efforts to increase the power and resources of low-income or relatively powerless or marginalized people. For example, advocacy organizations, such as those for disability rights or tobacco control, often use social action approaches. They might arrange disruptive events -- including lawsuits, sit-ins, or boycotts -- to draw attention and focus to their concerns by those in power.

Organizers create events, such as a protest or strike, that those in positions of power (such as employers) can avoid or stop by coming to an agreement. For example, people with disabilities might stop picketing a business when it modifies policies that discriminate against people with disabilities. Or, a tobacco company might avoid a lawsuit by tobacco control advocates by eliminating advertising directed at minors. Social action tactics are used in lots of situations involving conflicting interests and imbalance in power; they usually take place when conventional negotiations aren't working.

Locality development

Locality development is another way to get people to work together. It is the process of reaching group consensus about common concerns and collaborating in problem solving. For example, local residents in urban neighborhoods or rural communities may cooperate in defining local issues, such as access to job opportunities or better education, and in taking action to address the concerns.

Community partnerships or coalitions

There are many hybrid models that combine elements of the three approaches. For example, community partnerships or coalitions combine elements of social planning and locality development when people who share common concerns, such as child well -being or substance use, come together to address them. The goal of many coalitions is to change community conditions -- specific programs, policies, and practices -- that protect against or reduce risk for these concerns. These models, and their variations, may be implemented at local, state, regional, and even broader levels.

What are some lessons learned about community organization and change?

The following summaries come from lessons learned from various experiences with community organization practice. The lessons are organized by broad topics related to the work of community organization and change.

The lessons come through experience within:

  • Understanding (and affecting) community context
  • Community planning
  • Community action and mobilization
  • Understanding (and addressing) opposition and resistance
  • Intervention and maintenance of efforts
  • Promoting community change
  • Influencing systems (or broader) change
  • Achieving community-level improvements

Understanding (and affecting) community context

High profile commissions and reports create conditions for experimentation and optimism about public problem solving.

For example, during the 1960s, the U.S. President's Commission on Juvenile Delinquency helped spawn innovative efforts such as those of Mobilization for Youth in New York City. Similarly, in the early 1990s, a national level task force on infant mortality helped launch a multi-site demonstration program known as Healthy Start. High-profile studies such as this help set the public agenda by highlighting what should be addressed and how. Prominent reports frame the dominant explanations for societal problems. For example, a report could focus attention on poverty as a "root cause" of many societal problems or infant mortality as a pressing issue. It might also feature a promising alternative solution, such as equal access to health care or legal assistance, as an innovative way to address social problems.

You might need to use more than one model of community organization practice to fit the variety of contexts in which community work is done.

For example, social planning or locality development strategies may fit a context of consensus about common purpose such as working together to reduce violence. By contrast, the strategy of social action, with its disruptive activity and related conflict, may be more appropriate in a context of conflicting interests, such as organizing for decent wages or safe conditions in the workplace.

Crosscutting issues are good contexts for community organization practice.

Some community issues, for example, neighborhood safety or substance use, affect the majority of people who share a common place. They also offer a solid basis around which a critical mass of local people can work together. When community organization efforts involve people from diverse backgrounds of income and power -- such as educational or public health improvements that affect people across social class -- substantive change is a lot more likely to happen.

Community organization can't always be separated from politics or controversy.

Consider the case of people coming together in a rural community to address issues of toxic waste and environmental pollution. Public debate may focus on both the economic interests of affected businesses, and the health concerns of local residents. It's typical that when two parties are on opposite sides of an issue, neither will get everything they want. Inevitably, a resolution is going to involve politics: the art of reconciling or balancing competing interests.

Poor people can make substantial gains (or losses) during periods of tumultuous change, and related realignment of political parties.

Would there have been a Civil Rights Act of 1964 without rioting and a realignment of the Democratic Party? Political parties want to avoid mass protest or any unorganized behavior if it's at all possible, by changing (or appearing to change) policies, programs, and practices related to voiced concerns. Since mass protest is something those in power try to avoid, it's an important means by which poor people -- with otherwise limited resources -- can achieve power and influence.

Strategies used in community organization should match the times.

In times of turmoil, organizing protests and strikes by the people affected by the issues can yield maximum gains. By contrast, in the long times between periods of disruptive actions, community organization might use less conflict-oriented approaches, such as locality development or collaborative partnerships, to define and pursue common purposes.

Mass protest and grassroots community organization can work together.

When public protests and other forms of disruption increase, so do the grassroots organizations that address prevailing issues. For example, protests regarding pro-life (anti-abortion) interests were associated with increases in local organizations supporting this and other related causes. When public concern declines, so does organizing at the grassroots. Although protest nourishes organization, the reverse does not hold. Organization doesn't produce protest -- it may even retard it (as when agencies may avoid controversy to protect their funding).

Community organizations form when people are ready to be organized.

Although organizations may exist to promote interest in an issue, such as child hunger, little will happen until a significant number of people care about the issue and feel that their actions can make a difference. A big challenge is figuring out when your issue matters to enough people who share a common place or experience, so they can be organized around the issue.

Institutions that want to avoid conflict and controversy may be a difficult base for community organization work.

Consider the case of a school-community initiative to prevent adolescent pregnancy or HIV/AIDS. Although schools are well positioned to deliver information and health services to youth, school officials often oppose providing sexuality education or enhanced access to contraceptives for those who choose to be sexually active. So, human service agencies and educational institutions that rely on public funding may be bad choices for lead agencies in community organization efforts that are likely to draw opposition.

Community planning

Societal and community problems are evidence that institutions are not functioning for people.

Much of the framing of societal problems in the 1980s and 1990s focused on the personal attributes of those immediately affected. For example, stated "causes" of high rates of youth crime may highlight the values and behavior of youth and their families such as "poor anger control" or "bad parenting." Such analyses rarely emphasize the contribution of broader environmental conditions, such as availability of jobs or chronic stresses associated with low income, and the institutions responsible for them. In addition to individual responsibility, public institutions -- such as schools, business, religious organizations, and government -- should be held accountable for widespread problems in living.

It's essential to set realistic goals for community organization efforts.

Community-based initiatives often overpromise, particularly with grantmakers. Setting unrealistic objectives -- for example, to reduce academic (school) failure by 50 percent in the next two years -- sets the group up for perceived failure. Organizations should carefully assess the feasibility of their proposed aims.

If we set only modest goals, we will probably achieve less.

Although goals ought to be achievable, they should also be challenging. Objectives can be overly modest. For example, an overly modest goal might be to reduce rates of school failure (now at 80 percent) by 10 percent within three years. Insufficiently challenging objectives may not bring forth the necessary effort, resources, and degree of change needed to address the community's concern.

Social planning can engage experts (and local people) in helping address societal problems, particularly when there is consensus on the issue.

We can advance locally valued purposes by engaging technical experts and local people in defining problems and solutions. Outside experts, such as university-based researchers or public officials, can assist local people in obtaining and interpreting data, facilitating the process of setting priorities, and identifying promising alternatives. But planning can go beyond the traditional roles of facilitating coordination and communication among agencies to identifying environmental conditions to be changed.

Locality development or self-help efforts can also assist in addressing community issues.

Local people have the experiential knowledge to come together to define local issues, such as neighborhood safety or jobs, and take action in addressing them. Such self -help efforts have their roots in the settlement house movement in urban neighborhoods. They are guided by respect for the autonomy of local people to decide (and act on ) what matters to them.

Local control can hinder collaboration at broader levels of planning.

Planning at higher levels than the neighborhood, city, or town may be necessary to address the broader conditions that affect community organization efforts. For example, the growing concentration of poverty in the urban core, a result of regional planning decisions and other broader policies, is a structural issue that affects community development efforts within inner-city neighborhoods. Although it's desirable for community building, strong local control may hinder the broader planning and coordination necessary to address local issues.

Community action and mobilization

Each individual has the capacity for self-determination, self-help, and improvement.

A basic assumption of community organization is that people most affected by local concerns, including those labeled as "clients" of agency services, can do something about them. This "strengths" perspective highlights people's assets and abilities, not their deficits and limitations. While it acknowledges personal and community competence, it also recognizes the importance of environmental supports and barriers that affect engagement in community life. For self-determination efforts to be successful, we must create opportunities for working together, and increase the positive consequences of community action.

You can't do it by yourself.

Addressing what matters to local people -- good health, education, and jobs, for example -- is beyond any one of us. The idea of "ecology" -- interactions among organisms and the environment -- helps us see community action as occurring within a web of relationships. Community life is enhanced when individual strengths are joined in common purpose -- an expression of the principle of interdependence. We are interconnected: each of us has a responsibility to make this a world good for all of us.

Strong leaders are present in even the most economically deprived communities.

Authentic leaders -- those who enable constituents to see higher possibilities, and pursue them together -- are among us. Yet, they may not always be acknowledged by those in authority. When doing community organizing in low-income public housing, I found that a simple question helped in "discovering" local leaders: "Who do children go to when they are hurt and an adult isn't home?" Such questions help us discover the "servant leaders" among us: those who "lead" by addressing the interests of their "followers."

Community practitioners should never get used to the terrible conditions they see in their community work.

Those doing community work, particularly in low-income communities, are exposed to horrible things: children in uncaring and unhealthy environments; adults without adequate food, clothing, and shelter; and other conditions essential for a decent life. Practitioners should avoid becoming desensitized about how they feel about what they see and hear. Disclosing experiences and feelings to colleagues is one way to help support each other. Community activists must also decide how to use those feelings -- such as anger about conditions in which some people live -- to energize and sustain their work.

People's beliefs and values enable them to stay committed.

To make a difference, those doing community work must be in it for the long haul. People's values, such as fairness or respect for the dignity of others, help sustain their efforts. For instance, a personal or family history of discrimination -- a common experience for many racial and ethnic minorities -- may incline us to embrace the value of social justice and to work for equality of opportunity.

The work of community organization is like that of a "secular church."

Faith communities and religious institutions help shape our beliefs about what is right and good, such as our responsibility to care for others. Community-based organizations, such as a homeless coalition or tenants-rights organization, call us to serve the common good -- things beyond ourselves. As such, they enable us to devote our lives to higher purposes, while working in this world.

Community practitioners have few opportunities to reflect on the work.

Those doing the work of community building are often consumed by its demands. For example, leaders and staff of community-based organizations rarely take time to consider the lessons learned about community action, barriers and resources, or other features of their work. Personal reflection journals and periodic group retreats help leaders and groups to reflect on and review the initial purposes and recent directions of their organizations. As such, they promote "praxis" -- the joining of understanding (theory) and action (practice).

Responding to events and opportunities to build community often takes us beyond what we know.

Community practice is largely an art form. Effective intervention is shaped more by trial and error than by tested general statements about the conditions under which specified interventions (the independent variable) effect desired behavior and outcome (the dependent variables). Yet, attention to the conditions that matter to local people -- crime, drug use, and poverty, for example -- cannot wait for the findings of research trials. We must be decisive in the face of uncertainty, even when the scientific evidence for a chosen course of action is inadequate.

Understanding (and addressing) opposition and resistance

Societal problems sometime serve the interests of those in power.

For example, a regulatory policy that permits environmental polluters to go unpunished serves the economic interests of businesses that pollute, and those elected and appointed officials who may benefit from campaign contributions or bribes. Similarly, the existence of drugs and violence may indirectly benefit elected officials since they often gain public support when they rant against perpetrators of drugs and violence. When those in authority oppose community action efforts (or ignore appeals for substantive intervention), there may be a disconnect between the public interest (common good) and the private interests of those with disproportionate influence.

Racial and ethnic tension and controversies have disrupted and destroyed many community organization efforts.

Race and ethnic differences matter in this work. For instance, most African Americans share a common history of discrimination based on race, such as being followed more closely in a store or being ignored by cabs in a city. When you are part of an ethnic minority, people may assume they can think and speak for you, even if they have given no evidence that they care about you. Accordingly, understandable distrust of the "other" (the majority culture) may breed conflict that disrupts reciprocity and collaboration among people of different races and cultures.

Social action tactics, such as disruptive protest, have many detractors.

Participating in (or supporting) protest can be dangerous, especially for those who remain in the community. For example, following a school boycott launched by residents of a low-income public housing project, it was my friend Myrtle Carter, a welfare mother and visible leader, who was subjected to police harassment. She was arrested and jailed for a minor parking violation while we outside organizers who were also part of the effort experienced only small inconveniences. Activists using protest tactics should expect those in power to retaliate, even by establishing criminal penalties for particularly effective disruptive actions such as strikes.

Less in-your-face social action approaches can produce a strong political base from which to make change.

For example, the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) appeared to be relatively effective in attracting support (and avoiding opposition) for their causes. Consistent with the "I Ching" and other statements of Eastern philosophies, less direct or forceful actions may be less likely to beget opposition and adverse reaction.

Opposition and resistance may come in many forms.

An analysis of the advocacy literature suggests different ways in which change efforts might be blunted. These include deflecting attention from the issue, delaying a response, denying the problem or request, discounting the problem or the group, deceiving the public, dividing and conquering the organization, appeasing leadership with short-term gains, discrediting group members, or destroying the group with slur campaigns through the media. Skilled practitioners can help group members recognize (and avoid or counteract) sources and modes of opposition.

Community organizations may respond to opposition with appropriate counteractions.

Consider the case of local welfare officials (the opposition) who discount claims of a disability rights group that people with disabilities are being denied assistance unfairly. To counteract this opposition, disability advocates might document the number and kinds of cases denied, and use media advocacy about the consequences of denying eligibility to arouse public concern. Depending on the nature and form of opposition, appropriate counteractions may include reframing the issues, turning negatives into positives, going public with opponents' tactics, concentrating the organization's strength against the opponents' weakness, and knowing when to negotiate.

Opposition to change may be like an onion.

Advocates should expect multiple layers of opposition and resistance to community and system change. For example, community organizations working for better schools may face resistance initially from school board officials; later, from local principals; and still later, from teachers. Peel off one layer, and another form of resistance or opposition may be there to protect vested interests.

Intervention and maintenance of efforts

The strategy of community organization should fit the situation.

The broad and specific means of intervention should match the ends, and the context. For example, social planning -- using technical information often with the guidance of outside experts -- may assist in defining goals when people share common interests. Similarly, locality development -- featuring self-help efforts of local people -- may be appropriate for reducing a particular problem, such as substance use or neighborhood safety, around which there is widespread agreement. In contrast, social action -- with its disruptive tactics and related conflict -- may be needed in contexts of opposing interests such as in reducing discrimination or disparities in income or power.

Using multiple strategies usually has an advantage over any single strategy.

Some initiatives -- for instance, a campaign for school reform -- get stuck using one preferred means of action, such as collaborative planning or disruptive tactics, even when the goals or conditions shift. By invoking only one strategy, the organization's actions may be easier to ignore and the benefits of complementary approaches may go untapped. For example, the threat of disruptive tactics (social action) may make support for self-help efforts (locality development) more likely. Flexibility in strategy, and use of multiple means, may enhance community efforts and outcomes.

Being in two cultures promotes creativity.

Some community practitioners operate in more than one system of influence. For example, those who combine research and practice must respect the influences of both academic disciplines and members of community-based organizations. Being open to different audiences helps integrate disparate ideas, discover novel solutions, and transform practice.

The work of community organization takes time, and follow-through.

Mobilizing people for action requires substantial time and effort. Making the calls and personal contacts to bring about a change in school policy, for example, cannot be done solely by volunteers. The stimulation and coordination of community work, like any other valued work, should be paid for. Without salaries for community mobilizers or organizers, follow-through on planned actions is rare.

External support may be both a necessity and a trap for community organizations.

Community organization efforts seldom are maintained without external resources.Yet, financial support usually has strings attached. For example, accepting money from foundations or the government may restrict advocacy efforts. Although often a necessity, outside resources may come at the price of compromising the group's goals or available means of action.

Community organizations often fade away.

When the issue that a community organization was formed around begins to fade, so may the organization. For example, a taxpayer rights organization may dissolve when its goal of blocking a particular public expenditure, such as a school bond issue, is resolved. Organizations that endure after the issue subsides may lose members unless they reinvent themselves to address other emerging issues.

Organizations need small wins.

"Small wins" are shorter-term, controllable opportunities that can make a tangible difference. For example, a good neighborhood organizer might work for improved trash pickup or more streetlights to provide (literally) visible benefits of group action. Without the small victories, community organizations won't retain current members -- or attract new ones.

Promoting community change

The central ideal of community organization practice is service.

Practitioners' interests should always be lower on the list than the interests of those of the people served. Yet, when disciplines, such as social welfare or public health, market training for "professionals" in the work of community organization, they risk creating professions in which the practitioners benefit more than the clients. Professions that certify people -- and not promising practices or demonstrably effective methods -- may emphasize the interests of professionals (or guild interests), and not those experiencing the problems.

Community organization must go beyond the process of bringing people together.

For some practitioners, dialogue among representatives of different groups is a sufficient "outcome" of community development efforts. Yet, local people who come together to address what matters to them are usually interested in going beyond talk, and on to action and achieving results. Community organization efforts should bring about tangible benefits such as community change, problem solving, and furthering social justice.

The primary need is not for individuals to adjust to their world, but for environments to change so people can attain their goals.

Much framing of societal problems focuses on the deficits of those most affected. For example, prominent labels for causes of academic failure might include "poor motivation" (of youth) or "poor monitoring" (by parents). Alternatively, analyses of academic failure might address such environmental conditions as "few opportunities to do academic work" (in schools) and "limited opportunities for employment" (following school). Community health and well being are private and public matters, calling for both individual and social responsibility.

Community-based organizations can function as catalysts for change.

Effective community organizations transform the environment: they alter programs, policies, and practices related to the group's mission. For example, a disability rights organization might modify policies regarding employment discrimination against people with disabilities or establish new job training programs that accommodate people with different impairments. In their role as catalysts for change, community organizations convene others, broker relationships, and leverage resources for shared purposes.

Influencing systems (or broader) change

The level(s) of intervention should reflect the multiple levels that contribute to the problem.

Consider the typical interventions for most societal problems. For example, job training to address unemployment or drug awareness programs to counter substance use, is typical of initiatives trying to change the behavior of those with limited power who are closest to the "problem," for instance, low-income adults (unemployment) or youth (substance use).

When used alone, service programs and targeted interventions, such as for so-called "at risk" adults or youth, may deflect attention away from more root causes, such as poverty and the conditions of opportunity that affect behavior at a variety of levels. Resolution of many societal issues, such as crime or unemployment, requires changes in decisions made by corporate and political decisionmakers at levels higher than the local community.

Systems change does not occur simply by reporting felt needs to appointed or elected officials.

For those with higher economic or political status, simply expressing a concern may have influence on decisions that affect them. A variety of traditional means is available to such groups as a way of exerting influence; they include petitioning, lobbying, influencing the media, supporting political candidates, and voting in large numbers. These means are largely unavailable to those most affected by many societal problems, however, such as children and the poor. Marginalized groups lack the resources to exert influence in conventional ways.

The great power of social movements is in communicating a different vision of the world.

Marginalized groups use the drama of protest -- and the conflict it provokes -- to display realities not widely regarded as important. For example, the media may cover a strike and related protests by farm workers or coal miners, and the violence it often evokes from owners, the police, or others in power. Media coverage helps convey the story of the conditions faced by the protesters, and the unfairness of the action (or inaction) of businesses or institutions that are targeted. The dramatic nature of protest and related conflict can help politicize voters who, through enhanced public support of the positions of marginalized groups, can exert influence on those in power.

Community organizations should seek changes within their power to manage.

Since ignoring is likely and retaliation is possible, small organizations with limited power should avoid seeking fundamental changes in the system. For example, a single grassroots organization in a low-income neighborhood may not be positioned to effect systems changes such as altering the priorities of grantmakers who support work in the community. But, small and scrappy organizations may succeed in bringing about community change when their bulkier counterparts do not.

Community and broader systems change can be brought about through collaboration.

Collaboration involves alliances among groups that share risks, resources, and responsibilities to achieve their common interests. For example, local community-based organizations interested in the well being of children can link with each other to create local programs (e.g., mentoring), policies (e.g., flextime to be with children after school) and practices (e.g., adults caring for children not their own).

Additionally, broader partnerships with grantmakers, government agencies, and business councils can affect the conditions in which change occurs at the community level. An example is altering grantmaking programs to support collaborative work or promoting child-friendly business policies through industrial revenue bonds or new corporate policies. Collaborative partnerships help bring about community and system change when they link local people to resources and institutions at the multiple levels in which change should occur to address common interests.

Achieving community-level improvements

Societal problems often reoccur.

Consider the problem of gang violence that occurred after World War II and reoccurred in the 1990s. Broad social conditions -- wide disparity of income, weak social ties, and related mistrust of others -- appear to affect the likelihood of societal problems such as increased death rates, infant mortality, and perhaps youth violence. Improvements achieved in one era may need to be reestablished by future generations that must again transform the environmental conditions that support the reoccurrence of societal problems.

Most community efforts "chip" away at the problem.

The majority of community interventions do not match the scale of the problem. For example, a community effort may prepare 10 unemployed people to compete for only one available job, or may create 100 jobs in a community with thousands of unemployed. We often make small changes in a context that remains unchanged.

Real change is rare.

Significant improvements in community-level outcomes are highly unusual -- such as cases of reducing rates of adolescent pregnancy or academic failure by 50 percent or more. Yet, in requests for grants, community-based organizations often promise (and grantmakers expect) statements of objectives that indicate significant improvements as a result of only modest investments over a short time. We should not perpetuate myths about what most interventions can actually accomplish.

Development of community leadership may be a positive byproduct of even a "failed" community effort.

Although an initiative may not produce statistically significant changes in community benchmarks or indicators, it may develop new leaders or build capacity to address new issues in the future. For instance, a public health initiative that produces only modest reductions in rates of adolescent pregnancy may develop the capacity to produce changes that matter, such as four years later when the group switches its efforts from adolescent pregnancy to child well-being.

Community documentation and evaluation must help us see what is actually achieved by community initiatives, including evidence of intermediate outcomes (e.g., community and system change) and other indicators of success or "failure" (i.e., community capacity over time and across issues).

Optimal health and development for all people may be beyond the capacity of what communities can achieve, but not beyond what they should seek.

Most community-based efforts, such as those to create healthy environments for all our children, will fall short of their objectives. Yet, justice requires that we create conditions in which all people can make the most of their inherently unequal endowments. Support for community initiatives should be guided by what we must do for current and future generations, not by what limited gains we have made in the past.

In Summary

The fundamental purpose of community organization -- to help discover and enable people's shared goals -- is informed by values, knowledge, and experience. This section outlined lessons learned from the experiences of an earlier generation of community organization practitioners (each with an average of over 40 years of experience). The insights were organized under broad themes of community organization practice.

Community organization often has a bottom-up or grassroots quality: people with relatively little power coming together at the local level to address issues that matter to them. For example, grassroots efforts may involve planning by members of a neighborhood association, protests by a tenants' organization, or self-help efforts of low-income families to build local housing.

Yet, community organization may also function as a top-down strategy, such as when elected or appointed officials -- or others in power -- join allies in advancing policies or resource allocations that serve their interests. Bottom-up and top-down approaches to community organization may work in conflict, such as when appointed officials conspire to make voter registration of emerging minority groups more difficult. Top-down and bottom-up efforts may also work in concert, as when grassroots mobilization, such as letter writing or public demonstrations, help support policy changes advanced by cooperative elected or appointed officials working at broader levels.

Community organization strategies may be used to serve -- or hinder -- the values and aims of particular interest groups. Consider the issue of abortion: those organizing under the pro-choice banner may use protest tactics to advance policies and practices that further individual freedom (a woman's "right" to choose whether to have an abortion). Alternatively, those working on the pro-life side may organize to seek changes consistent with the value of security and survival (an unborn child's "right" to life). Depending on our values and interests, we may support or denounce the use of similar disruptive tactics by proponents or opponents of the issue.

What is the relationship between personal values and qualities -- and the experiences and environments that shaped them -- and the work of community organization and change? Personal background, such as a basic spirituality or a history of discrimination associated with ethnic minority status, can predispose a practitioner to support particular values, such as social justice or equality, consistent with the work of community organization.

What qualities and behaviors of community organizers, such as respect for others and willingness to listen, help bring people together? Many of these attributes and behaviors -- including clarity of vision, capacity to support and encourage, and tolerance of ambiguity -- are similar to those of other leaders.

How do we cultivate such natural leaders, and nurture and support their work in bringing people together? Further research may help clarify the relationship between personal qualities and behaviors, such as those of the "servant" or "servant leader ," the broader environment that nurtures or hinders them, and the outcomes of community organization efforts.

Finally, leadership in community work may begin with a few good questions:

  • What is desired now, in this place, by these people?
  • What is success?
  • Under what conditions is improvement possible?
  • How can we establish and sustain conditions for effective community problem solving? over time, and across concerns?
  • How would we know it?

Imagine a "living democracy" -- large numbers of people, in many different communities, engaged in dialogue about shared concerns and collective action toward improvement. Perhaps these lessons -- inspired by reflections of an earlier generation of community organization practitioners -- can help us better understand and improve the essential work of democracy: people coming together to address issues that matter to them.

Stephen B. Fawcett

Online Resources

Chapter 5: Theories in the "Introduction to Community Psychology" explains the role of theory in Community Psychology, the main foundational theories in the field, and how community psychologists use theory in their work.

Chapter 15: Community Organizing, Partnerships, and Coalitions in the "Introduction to Community Psychology" describes how and why communities organize, bottom-up and top-down approaches to community organizing, and the cycle of organizing.

Theory In Community Organization: People Have the Power! is a downloadable PowerPoint presentation that elaborates about theory in community organization.

Print Resources

Adler, M. (1981). Six great ideas: truth, goodness, beauty, liberty, equality, justice: ideas we judge by, ideas we act on. New York, NY: Macmillan.

Alinsky, S. (1969). Reveille for radicals. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Altman, D., Balcazar, F., Fawcett, S. B., Seekins, T., & Young, J. (1994 ). Public health advocacy: Creating community change to improve health. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford Center for Research in Disease Prevention.

Balcazar, F., Seekins, T., Fawcett, S., & Hopkins, B. (1990). Empowering people with physical disabilities through advocacy skills train. American Journal of Community Psychology, 18, 281-295.

Bracht, N. (Ed.) (1990). Health promotion at the community level. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Brager, G. & Specht, H. (1973). Community organizing. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Branch, T. (1988). Parting the waters: America in the King years 1954-63. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

Brown, M. (2006). Building powerful community organizations: A personal guide to creating groups that can solve problems and change the world. Arlington, MA: Long Haul Press.

Cobb, R., & Elder, C. (1972). Participation in American politics: The dynamics of agenda-building. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Cook, T. & Campbell, D.  (1979). Quasi-experimentation: Design and analysis issues for field settings. Chicago: Rand McNally.

Cox, F., Erlich, J., Rothman, J., & Tropman, J. (1987). Strategies of community organization: Macro practice. (4th ed.). Itasca, IL: F. E. Peacock Publishers, Inc.

Cuoto, R. (1990). Promoting health at the grass roots. Health Affairs, 9, 145-151.

Dass, R. & Gorman, P. (1985). How can I help? Stories and reflections on service. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

Dunham, A. (1963). Some principles of community development. International Review of Community Development, 11, 141-151.

Fawcett, S. (1991). Some values guiding community research and action. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 24, 621-636.

Fawcett, S., Lewis, R., Paine, A., Francisco, V., Richter, K., Williams, E., & Copple, B. Evaluating community coalitions for the prevention of substance abuse: The case of Project Freedom. Health Education and Behavior.

Fawcett, S., Paine, A., Francisco, V., Vliet, M. (1993). Promoting health through community development. Promoting Health and Mental Health in Children, Youth, and Families (pp. 233-255). D. S. Glenwick & L. A. Jason (Eds.). New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company.

Fawcett, S., Paine, A., Francisco, V., Schultz, J., Richter, K., Lewis, R., Williams, E., Harris, K., Berkley, J., Fisher, J., & Lopez, C. (1995). Using empowerment theory in collaborative partnerships for community health and development. American Journal of Community Psychology, 23, 677 -697.

Fawcett, S., Paine, A., Francisco, V., Schultz, J., Richter, K., Berkley, J., Patton, J., Fisher, J., Lewis, R., Lopez, C., Russos, S., Williams, E., Harris, K., & Evensen, P. Evaluating community initiatives for health and development. In I. Rootman, D. McQueen, et al. (Eds.)  Evaluating health promotion approaches. Copenhagen, Denmark: World Health Organization - Europe.

Fawcett, S., Seekins, T., & Silber, L. (1988). Low-income voter registration: A small-scale evaluation of an agency-based registration strategy. American Journal of Community Psychology, 16, 751-758.

Fawcett, S. (1999). Some lessons on community organization and change. In J. Rothman (Ed.). Reflections on Community Organization: Enduring Themes and Critical Issues. Itasca, Illinois: F. E. Peacock Publishers.

Fisher, R. (1987). Community organizing in historical perspective: A typology. In F. M. Cox, J. L. Erlich, J. Rothman, and J. E. Tropman. (pp. 387-397). Strategies of Community Intervention: Macro Practice. (4th ed.). Itasca, IL: F. E. Peacock Publishers, Inc.

Gardner, J.  (1990) On leadership. New York, NY: Free Press.

Gaventa, J. (1980). Power and powerlessness: Quiescence and rebellion in an Appalachian valley. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Greenleaf, R. (1997). Servant leadership. New York, NY: Paulist Press.

Heifetz, R. (1994). Leadership without easy answers. Cambridge, MA: Belnap Press of Harvard University Press.

Himmelman, A.  (1992). Communities working collaboratively for a change. (Monograph available from the author, 1406 West Lake, Suite 209, Minneapolis, MN 55408)

Jargowsky, P. (1997). Poverty and place: Ghettos, barrios, and the American city. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.

Kingdon, J. (1995). (2nd Ed.). Agendas, alternatives, and public policies. Boston: Little, Brown.

Lappe, F. & Dubois, P. (1994). The quickening of America. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Mathews, R.. & Fawcett, S. (1984). Building the capacities of job candidates through behavioral instruction. Journal of Community Psychology, 12, 123 -129.

Morris, A.. (1984). The origins of the civil rights movement. New York, NY: The Free Press.

Newstetter, W. (1947). The social intergroup work process. In Proceedings of the National Conference of Social Work. (pp. 205-217). New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Paine, A., Francisco, V., & Fawcett, S. (1994). Assessing community health concerns and implementing a microgrants program for self-help initiatives. American Journal of Public Health, 84(2), 316-318.

Paine, A., Fawcett, S., Richter, K., Berkley J., Williams, E., & Lopez, C. Community coalitions to prevent adolescent substance abuse: The case of the "Project Freedom" replication initiative. Journal of Prevention and Intervention in the Community.

Paine, A., Harris, K., Fawcett, S., Richter, K., Lewis, R., Francisco, V., Johnston, J., Coen, S. Evaluating a statewide partnership for reducing risks for chronic diseases. Journal of Community Health.

Paine, A., Vincent, M., Fawcett, S., Campuzano, M., Harris, K., Lewis, R., Williams, E., & Fisher, J. (1996). Replicating a community initiative for preventing adolescent pregnancy: From South Carolina to Kansas. Family and Community Health, 19(1), 14-30.

Perlman, R. & Gurin, A. (1972). Community organization and social planning. New York, NY: John Wiley.

Piven, F. & Cloward, R. (1977). Poor people's movements: Why they succeed, how they fail. New York, NY Random House.

Rappaport, J., Swift, C., & Hess, R. (Eds.). (1984). Studies in empowerment: Steps toward understanding and action. New York, NY: Haworth.

Ross, M. (1955). Community organization: Theory and principles. New York, NY: Harper and Brothers.

Rothman, J. (Ed.). (1999). Reflections on community organization: Enduring themes and critical issues. Itasca, Illinois: F.E. Peacock Publishers.

Rothman, J., & Tropman, J. (1987). Models of community organization and macro practice perspectives: Their mixing and phasing. In Cox, F., Erlich, J., Rothman, J., & Tropman, E. (Eds.), Strategies of community organization: Macro practice (4th ed.) (pp. 3-26). Itasca, IL: F.E. Peacock Publishers.

Schriner, K., Fawcett, S. (1988). A community concerns method for local agenda setting. Journal of the Community Development Society, 19, 108-118.

Seekins, T. & Fawcett, S. (1987). Effects of a poverty clients' agenda on resource allocations by community decisionmakers. American Journal of Community Psychology, 15, 305-320.

Seekins, T., Maynard, S., & Fawcett, S. (1987). Understanding the policy process: Preventing and coping with community problems. Prevention in Human Services, 5 (2), 65-89.

Stull, D., & Schensul, J. (1987). Collaborative research and social change: Applied anthropology in action. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Suarez de Balcazar, Y., Bradford, B., & Fawcett, S. (1988). Common concerns of disabled Americans: Issues and options. Social Policy, 19 (2), 29-35.

Tax, S. (1952). Action anthropology. American Indigena, 12, 103-106.

Watzlawick, P., Weakland, J. H., & Fisch, R. (1974). Change: Principles of problem formation and problem resolution. New York, NY: Norton.

Weick, K. E. (1984). Small wins: Redefining the scale of social problems. American Psychologist, 39, 40-49.

Wilkinson, R. G. (1996). Unhealthy societies: The afflictions of inequality. London: Routledge.

World Health Organization. (1986). The Ottawa charter for health promotion. Health Promotion, 1, iii-v.

Yin, R.  (1988). Case study research: Design and methods. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Zald, M.  (1987). Organizations: Organizations as polities: An analysis of community organization agencies. In Cox, F.,  Erlich, J., Rothman, J., & Tropman, E. (pp. 243-254). Strategies of community organization: Macro practice. (4th ed.). Itasca, IL: F. E. Peacock Publishers, Inc.