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General Theory of Community Change and the Role of Leadership

A lot of work has been done to understand more about what needs to be in place for a place based community to effectively take action to improve community life and well being. There is a growing body of experience and literature telling us that the best solutions are produced when its people closest to a problem who decided what issues to focus on and how to tackle them. There are many positive examples that support this belief described in detail in many of the materials sited below. The knowledge and resources a community can bring to this problem are often not tapped (or stifled) when people outside a community are the ones promoting a specific solution. We also need to understand what gets in the way and prevents communities from taking positive action. Some of these obstacles reside in structures that deliver advantage to only some members of the community while perpetuating the lack of resources to others, often along lines of race and economic status. As a result, deep divides may exist between individuals, individuals and organizations that are not meeting their needs, and often among institutions and city officials. There are several critical questions for those who want to support community change that emerges from within the community:

1. What undermines a community's ability to organize its members and resources to produce changes that improve the well being of everyone, especially those most in need?
2. What ingredients make it possible for a community to take effective action on issues and opportunities important to its members?
3. What strategies or supports could help a community to develop what it will need to develop and realize a vision of a better life for its members?
4. What is the role of leadership in the community change process?
5. What would indicate the success of strategies or supports intended to help a community develop its capacity to lead community driven change?

We would like you to help us answer these questions. Please share resources, stories and comments. This is a public wiki. If you would like to contribute just let us know you would like to be a writer. We hope together to develop a theory of change about how to build community leadership capacity.

Assumptions

There are a number of assumptions about the value of community driven change that have created the context for this project and we would like to make them explicit up front.
  • Community vitality, problem solving and positive change occur when people across a community connect to identify and tackle the tough problems they care most about.
  • A number of communities are not able to respond optimally to problems or opportunities, often because of structures that reinforce differences in access to resources related to ethnicity, race and economic status; history of conflicts, constituency politics that divide different parts of a community,external market forces, etc..
  • It is possible to provide external supports/strategies that can increase a community’s long term and sustained ability to proactively mobilize its resources to improve the lives of its members.
  • Strong collective leadership that builds on difference (often by engaging in difficult conversations) is a key to a community’s adaptive ability to respond positively to challenges and opportunities.

General Theory of Community Change

To develop a theory of change about building community leadership we are drawing on practice and research from the leadership development field and the community capacity building field.

What creates the capability for a community to act on its own behalf to impact change?

Although there are many types of community (identify, field of work, geography), for the purposes of this exploration we are focusing on community of place. Change is absolute. Change is often imposed on communities by external forces, political agendas that originate outside of the community, economic interests and market forces, an initiative based on research not grounded in the community, changing demographics, etc. The primary question is one of how to support a shift so that change is initiated and enacted from within a community on its own behalf.

Elements of Community Change:

Many people studying community change acknowledge several key areas of change: Purpose, Processes, Relationships and Resources. Below are some of the concrete elements of community change related to these key areas. They are drawn from a quick scan and aggregation of a number of different resources that have been produced about building community capacity. The resources are sited at the end of this brief synthesis. These elements are organized in different ways but are present in much of the research and evaluation findings.

Focus on positive community improvement: Ability to align efforts around a common purpose and goal that will improve some element of community life. Alignment is increased when there is a sense of urgency about the issue being taken on. Sometimes people who have more resources are better able to organize themselves to advocate for a change that benefits only a small part of the community. The community purpose needs to extend to even the most disadvantaged people in the community with a recognition that a problem in one part of the community, like a poor performing school, will effect the well being of the entire community. Alignment around a "community good" needs to bring a class, power and culture lens to whether a proposed purpose is increasing or closing the divide of opportunity and disadvantage.

Work from community history, values and culture: Ability to make meaning together of the community’s history, values and culture in order to build on strengths and willingly engage one another around historic tensions, pain, or mistrust.

Integrate collective process and individual agency: Individuals recognize the opportunity to take effective action with others and they grow their commitment and skills individually and collectively through processes that support: identifying a problem or opportunity that has generated a lot of community interest or concern; developing strategies for achieving some change on behalf of the common goal; and holding one another accountable for following through on commitments.

Learning from Action: Experimentation is appreciated as part of learning and strong feedback loops that support adaptation and keep the work moving in a forward direction. Participants learn to use data to understand and monitor changes in their community’s well-being.

Build relationships that bridge among individuals and institutions: Strong connection and trusting relationships create a strong social fabric from which share frustrations and aspirations emerge to motivate joint action. Among these connections it is important to have the strong ties which create solid bonds and to also reach out to build new ties that bring new ideas, perspectives and resources to the work across different parts of the community. This includes people and institutions.

Understand systems and structures: Individuals and institutions identify the interdependence and intersection of multiple issues and the potential to work on policies or through institutional partnerships in order to leverage larger changes in the system that produce more enduring benefits.

Access and utilize resources: Material and knowledge resources are available to support the work of the community in moving from a shared sense of purpose to action.

What is the role of leadership in community change?

For people in a community to believe that they have the power to create change through their interactions with one another requires thinking differently about leadership. Often times people in communities believe that it is only a few recognized leaders that have the power to do anything. Leadership is unleashed within a community when any individual or group who wants to do something to make things better is supported to act. Leadership in a community is the process by which people in a community come together for a purpose, take action and learn from their experiences about how to create change that will improve their lives. When leadership is seen as a process it is possible for individuals, groups and organizations to acquire, develop and mobilize from within the community the abilities needed to create change. Below are some of the specific capacities that have been successfully developed through leadership strategies. These are individuals and collective capacities that contribute to the likelihood that a community will exercise leadership to organize and generate solutions to challenges or respond to opportunities.
  • Action learning
  • Developing vision and purpose
  • Use of data
  • Group meaning making
  • Storytelling
  • Values identification
  • Relationship building
  • Action planning/organizing
  • Systems thinking
  • Culture, class, and power framework
  • Self reflection
  • Crossing boundaries
Community Leadership Delivery Strategies:

These are examples of delivery strategies that have been used successfully to develop some of the capacities described above, capacities that increase the likelihood that a community will be able to design and implement changes strategies.
  • Community Coaching: Horizon’s
  • Collaborative Leadership Projects: BCBS, Sierra Health,
  • Collective leadership program/training components: KLCC, Leadership Plenty
  • Multi-stakeholder Recruitment Convening: e.g. Theory U
  • Theory of aligned contribution: LAP
  • Network strategies: Lawrence Community Works
  • Popular Education: Promotoras, Horizons
  • Organizing: IAF, Highlander
  • Embedded within Initiatives: Building Healthy Communities
  • Youth development
What outcomes would indicate that a community is developing the capacity to produce positive change that improves the well being of its members?

Individual outcomes:
  • More individuals believe that they can exercise leadership in their community and are willing to commit time and resources to involvement.
  • Individuals who want to take action are finding ways to connect with others and growing their commitment and abilities through joint work.
  • People are successfully building new relationships with people who are different from themselves.

Community outcomes:
  • Communities are able to identify a common concern or opportunity and align their actions to make progress towards their goal. (Community change efforts produce positive result and learning from failure.)
  • Communities are using data, policy change, and an understanding of systems to work on enduring solutions that improve access to opportunity for all members of the community.
  • Active members of the community believe that they will be able to take more effective action on community issues in the future because they have the process, relationships, skills and resources they need to act.
  • More people are connecting, and across new boundaries to work together, even when it requires working through conflict and difficulty.

Resources:

“Kellogg Leadership for Community Change: Crossing Boundaries, Strengthening Communities”, Maenette K.P. Ah Nee-Benham

“Community Capacity Building – A Review of the Literature", Government of South Australia, Dept. of Health

“Capacity Building in Rural Communities: Lessons, Observations, and Opportunities from Leadership Scholars, Practitioners and the Northwest Area Foundation’s Horizons Program”, Diane L. Morehouse

“Engaging in Sustainable Community Change”, "A Community Guide to Working with a Coach” both by Ken Hubbell and Mary Emery

“The Role of Leadership Development in Place Based Initiatives”, Leadership Learning Community

“Theory of Change: A Practical Tool for Action, Results and Learning”, Annie E. Casey

“Using Emergence to Take Social Innovation to Scale”, Margaret Wheatly

“Collective Impact”, Mark Kramer and John Kania

“Mapping Change: Using a Theory of Change to Guide Evaluation and Planning”, Grantcraft

“A Guide to Community Coaching”, Everyday Democracy






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