TIMING IN COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT
and the Food Security Process
by David Stott
edited by Jac Slik
Introducing social and economic innovations
What follows are thoughts on introducing social and economic innovations in a community. It is based on my personal experience of 30 years as a community developer but especially reflecting on my experience of the last 2-3 years. This is not intended as a "how to" manual, but more as a personal contribution to what may, or may not work, in other contexts.
B. Working with the community:
Timing in the introduction of an innovation is, perhaps, much more of an art than a science. As I have personally experienced, there were many times when I did not get it just right.
The community developer (and the funding agency) may identify an important issue or concern and may wish to introduce change into a community. However, If the community with which you are dealing is not interested in taking part in the innovation, then it will probably be a failure, or at best, partially successful.
The most common error that I have seen is for agencies or individuals to decide that something needs to be done and then, because they "know best" what to do (after all, they're being paid to do it, aren't they?), they go ahead and try to do it. This is understandable from an accountability point of view. If they are not met, they risk losing their funding. But this attitude excludes community involvement and, as a result, the community developer’s initiative will not succeed.
C. Ask questions so that you will know the community:
How will the community developer meet the needs and concerns of the community? The wise community developer will, first of all, ask himself/herself a few questions such as:
D. Become involved in the community:
I cannot over emphasize the importance of the community developer having a good understanding, appreciation, and respect for the community in which she/he is working.
If you do not already know the community you will he working with, get to know the people. Join local groups, attend meetings or gatherings of people with which you may be working or whose opinions are important to the process of the project.
If you are from the community but know only part of it, try to involve yourself in other parts of the community or work with people who are from those sectors.
If you do not speak their language, whatever that language is, (and there are as many ways of speaking as there are communities), learn it and use it in your speaking and writing.
Yes, it takes time and effort; but if you don't, you will not earn people's respect or co-operation.
E. Raise the profile of the community issue:
Your job should be to introduce or support the issue in a way that people can understand and relate to it.
I have found, for instance, that with the initiatives with which I was involved, the working committee was able to raise the public profile and, with it, community credibility and interest on two different concerns ─ housing and food. This was done by holding an Affordable Housing Fair at a shopping mall in 1997 and then by having a Home-grown Food Festival with displays, information and a pilot farmers' market at a fall fair in 2006.
F. Support the community members while they work on the issue:
You should support the community on an issue in whatever ways they are prepared to address it, as long as they are legal and stand a reasonable chance of being successful.
Your job it not to play the expert or authority, but to offer suggestions, ideas, and support where needed in a manner that people can easily accept or reject.
Do not fall prey to your own expectations or targets.
G. Use surveys and focus groups to identify issues
One of the most common techniques used to gather information is to do a survey to determine public interest on the topic/issue. Another technique to determine public interest is through the formation of focus groups.
However, both can be useful and have their place. these techniques will be much more effective, if they are done in a way that empowers people rather than simply using them as sources of information.
This means inviting people to not only express their opinions, but also asking them if they are interested in taking part in any of the suggestions they have expressed and then inviting them to do so as both contributors to and beneficiaries of the initiative.
For example, with a survey we did with people at our Food Bank in 2006, we not only asked their opinion on what their food issues, concerns and needs were. We also invited them to contribute their own suggestions on good food sources and recipes. Also, the survey should only ask for relevant information in a manner that is to the point, using appropriate language for the target audience.
Finally, a survey should give you an indication, from the opinions, of possible participants and potential "timeliness" of a proposed initiative.
However, it is more difficult, to determine people's preparedness to act on something based on a survey. There can be many reasons why people say they are in favour of something but then will fail to act on it (e.g. wanting to say the "right thing", not having the time or interest to actively support it, or not feeling empowered to do anything about it).
2. Focus groups:
It may be easier to determine the above problems through focus groups.
However, a danger is that, sometimes, focus groups could be mistakenly used to ask people to participate and then not asked to be involved with the process later. I believe that this is a waste of good resources and community potential. These people should be invited to participate in the process if possible, including decision making.
Our present food sustainability initiative for the Western Communities, for example, will be inviting different participants of the food chain (e.g. farmers, gardeners, marketers, consumers, and municipal officials) to meet together to consider what each sector can do to increase local food production, sales and consumption. Each will be asked to consider what its sector needs to do to make this happen and what support it will need from other sectors to be successful. Then, together, these groups will: meet, work on a joint plan, set realistic targets and work to implement them.
If you get a good response, in terms of numbers of people offering to meet and discuss a concern, you know that you have identified a real issue.
The wise community developer will ask him/herself who these community people are, what segments of the population they represent, and how best to involve them in the process. If this is a community wide initiative, she/he will then work to eventually bring these segments of the population together. If the groups or individuals are not well suited to work together or do not wish to work together, she/he can serve as a conduit of information between them.
However, in an initiative with a community wide focus, it is wise to involve as many sectors of the population as possible in the process. In my experience, there are “talkers” and “doers”, idea people and action people. Involve all of them in ways that compliment each other if you can.
A note of caution: Do not attempt to "bring the whole community together" on a concern/issue right at the beginning. If you are dealing with a hot issue or if the range of ideas, concerns and opinions are very broad, you may not be able to come to any agreement of the issues and come up with some possible solutions. As a result, subsequent meetings will draw fewer and fewer participants. Instead, start with a small focus group and gradually increase the involvement of individuals and groups as the issues are identified and a plan of action is developed.
H. Accountability to funding agencies:
As a community developer, how can you reconcile the initial ambiguity of "responding to community interests" with the need for "accountability" or meeting the expectations that are set out by the funding agency?
I have found that we do need to set targets (e.g. target 1 -X number of people taking part in this activity, target 2 - initiative Y achieving Z amount of support or response by a certain date). This must be done with the proviso that the community will be invited to take part in the goal setting and should they choose not to do so, that particular aspect of the program may not occur.
With one recent proposal, for example, I was able to receive funding for up to six proposed initiatives in which our surveys indicated people were interested. In the end, we were able to successfully complete three of those six. The funding agency was very pleased with the results and later funded our proposal for next steps in this area.
That's it in a nutshell. I hope this essay has been useful and I welcome anyone's comments and suggestions. I am thankful to the many people who have helped me in either developing or implementing what is described here. In particular, I would like to thank Dr. Phil Bartle, John Mitchell and Bernice Levitz Packford; but also and most especially, my deep gratitude goes to the truly wonderful people I have had the pleasure to work with in the Western Communities over the past two years.
Note by Phil:
The careful reader will note that there appears to be a difference here when David suggest that it is not necessary to get the whole community in agreement, and the core material on this site which suggests that unity organizing is an essential element fo the mobilization cycle. The difference is in context. Every community is different, and the mobilizer must adapt the cycle to be appropriate for each one. The core material was written initially for low income communities in Africa. David's work is based in a suburban set of communities around the city of Victoria in western Canada, which are relatively more complex, and have higher per capita incomes. In our management training, we say "You do not have to be bad to get better." David paraphrases that by saying, "You do not have to be poor and powerless to become stronger and more selfreliant."
© Copyright 1967, 1987, 2007 Phil Bartle