How to Organize a Community

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November 22, 2011

In this piece, activist Anita Hunt (AKA Liss of Lissnup) gives some pointers on building a neighborhood organization. A good issue, the author tells us, will “be a real improvement in people’s lives; be non-divisive, and develop a sense of power for the group.”

by Anita Hunt

All neighborhoods are different, with different players, problems, and possibilities. This outline is intended to serve as a compass to point your group in the right direction. Bringing together a diverse group of people to achieve a common goal is a difficult task, which requires a variety of social skills and great investments of time and other important resources. Whenever possible it is advisable to utilize the services of an expert community organizer to assist in getting your neighborhood organization started. Grassroots organizing builds community groups from scratch, developing new leadership where none existed and organizing the unorganized. It is a values-based process where people are brought together to act in the interest of their communities and the common good.

Why Organize?

Power is not only generated through successful protest-based campaigns. Community organizing groups can also gain recognition similar to the way unions gain recognition as the representatives of workers for a particular business or trade. In this way, representatives of community groups are often able to bring key government officials or corporate leaders to the table without engaging in “actions”, through the power of their reputation. As the famous community organizer Saul Alinsky said, “the first rule of power tactics” is that “power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have.” The development of durable “power” and influence is a key aim of community organizing.

Community organizing starts with the recognition that change can only come about when communities come together to compel public authorities and businesses to respond to the needs of ordinary people. It identifies and trains leaders in diverse communities, bringing them together to voice their needs and it organizes campaigns to ensure that these needs are met.

Step One – Listen to Others

Discover common interests through one-on-one meetings, surveys, etc. To get started, you will need a small group of committed neighbors who share the same point of view regarding the needs of the neighborhood and share your willingness to form a neighborhood association to address neighborhood issues. This small group of individuals is referred to as the Core Group.

The final number of people in your Core Group will depend on whose input you feel will help best define the important the issues that neighborhood residents will rally around. It is important for members of this Core Group to be able to work well together and share a common vision regarding important issues affecting the neighborhood. Members of the Core Group should feel a need to form a neighborhood association to address neighborhood issues.

As far as possible, try to reflect the whole community in your core group membership either through membership, kinship or representation. Inclusiveness is essential to avoid being seen as “elites.”

Note: Don’t have more than 10 people in the Core Group

Before you begin asking people to organize, you have to convince them of the benefit of forming a neighborhood association. Some of the points to be made are that neighborhood associations:

  • Facilitate meeting the neighborhood’s common goals
  • Empower a neighborhood to control what happens in the area
  • Provide the neighborhood with an effective communication link with local authorities and other influential groups
  • Help members work for the preservation and improvement of the neighborhood
  • Let members take part in the decision-making process that directs the neighborhood’s actions
  • Can plan social activities for the neighborhood
  • Offer an “umbrella” under which many seemingly separate concerns can be grouped and strengthened by collective support.

Some examples of interest groups to be considered for the selection of neighborhood residents to be represented in the Core Group are:

  • Homeowners selected to represent each block or street
  • Business owners
  • Apartment residents, managers, owners
  • Church leaders
  • School teachers or administrators
  • People whose views are respected by other members of the community.

When you have a commitment from five to ten people, move to Step Two.

Tip: If the Core Group gets too large, it will become unmanageable and result in low productivity.

Step Two – Have an Informal Meeting

Meet with the Core Group identified in step one. Try to set up a meeting at a comfortable place, such as someone’s home. Do this quickly, before your contacts lose interest. The first meeting of the Core Group is very important. It sets the tone for future meetings. It is important to be organized. Have a tentative agenda prepared. Try not to let the meeting drag on. An hour is usually a good time frame for most meetings. If possible, present all of the members of the Core Group with a copy of the agenda a week before the meeting.

Suggest and agree short term plans together. How can you involve more people in deciding what should be done in the neighborhood? After the Core Group has defined key goals and tasks, the size of the organization will naturally expand as committees and task groups are developed to achieve the goals of the neighborhood association.

This is also a good time to begin inquiring about sources of seed money and other types of resources available to assist your group with such things as printing flyers, record-keeping, and to assist with the cost of mailing or distributing information to the community. if you are organizing a community where financial hardship is a significant issue, consider searching out sources of funding from charitable organizations, or wealthier communities, such as ex-patriots.

During this initial meeting the group will need to:

Choose a temporary chairperson – A good organizer will always place achieving the goals of the organization above being elected to be the chairperson. So if the group decides to select someone other than the person who convened the group, that should not deter the conveyer from being an active participant in the ongoing process. There will be many other opportunities to utilize one’s leadership abilities. This role needs to be temporary because the community should have a voice in selecting permanent leadership.

Determine the boundaries of the neighborhood – An important step at the beginning of a neighborhood plan is to determine the neighborhood’s boundaries. Typical boundaries may be determined by roads or natural features along the border of the neighborhood. A review of a location map and a tour around the area may suggest logical boundaries for a manageable sized area.

Develop a complete list of neighborhood residents – Once boundaries have been determined, a complete list of residents and property owners should be obtained. The list should be kept current throughout the process to allow every neighbor to become involved. In order to get a complete list, you may need to go door-to- door.

Discuss each person’s ideas concerning the problems and needs of the neighborhood – Select an issue the neighborhood will rally around. This issue should be easily understood, and stated in a manner that can be easily communicated and understood in press releases, in newsletter, on pamphlets and brochures, and passed along by word of mouth.

Discuss goals, projects and concerns – It is very important that the initial goals of the group be small and easily achievable. Nothing breeds success like success. If you find that the group has reached a stumbling block and does not seem to want to move forward often the cause will be that the goals are too large and too difficult to achieve.

Begin discussions on ways to achieve goals - To begin with, a quickly drafted list of potential actions and tactics is a good way to focus attention and energy. Try not to let this spiral out of control into a rambling discussion about the pros and cons of individual activities, and avoid letting any one action dominate the discussion too early in the planning process or your organized community could be transformed into a protest group with no agreed aims, structure or methods.

Identify and recruit additional leaders – Identify other potential leaders in the neighborhood. The importance of a pool of qualified leadership is often overlooked as a neighborhood association develops. Strong leadership gives an organization guidance, stability, and continuity from year to year, motivation to take action, and unity of purpose. The task of recruiting and developing leaders has to be an ongoing activity through the lifetime of any neighborhood association.

Determine special skills, talents and willingness to participate – Identify any special talents, expertise, skills, helpful resources and/or any special areas of interest any member might possess. Also determine each Core Group member’s willingness to participate and help.

Note: Some group members might not be able to attend meetings, but possess a special skill that can be of use to the group without their attending meetings. Be sure to be flexible and afford members a variety of ways to participate, while making sure to keep the flow of communication between attendees and non-attendees equal so that no one feels excluded.

Determine a convenient frequency, time and location for members to attend regular meetings – The Core Group will need to meet several times before it will be ready to hold a meeting with the entire neighborhood. The Core Group should meet together as many times as needed to formalize an organizational strategy before the first meeting of the entire neighborhood. Once the entire neighborhood is involved the Core Group will want to continue meeting as an advisory board for the newly formed neighborhood association.

Some general points to keep in mind are:

  • Your contributions to the neighborhood are your abilities and skills to organize. Therefore, try to delegate other responsibilities.
  • You should search continually for many “potential” leaders, not just one or two.
  • Leaders can become burned out. Focus on delegation, task-sharing, and have deputies stand in regularly so that they are fully engaged and prepared to step in when necessary.
  • Keep your organization open and flexible enough to bring new members and leaders in to your neighborhood association.

The importance of qualified leadership is often overlooked as a neighborhood association develops. Strong leadership gives an organization:

  • Guidance
  • Stability
  • Continuity from year to year
  • Motivation to take action
  • Unity of purpose

Step Three – Hold a Larger Community Meeting

Try to agree on common interests and come up with first steps to take on a problem. Schedule a follow-up community meeting, if necessary.

Because you have talked with all of the members of the Core Group in advance, and they all share a common vision, the discussion should be focused and flow well to accommodate all of the interest of the members of the Core Group.

Follow the guidelines for the Core Group meeting, but add in actions to communicate details throughout the wider community using posters, flyers, word of mouth etc. Your first community meeting could difficult to predict in terms of size, so try to choose a location where a small group won’t seem “lost” but with room to expand to accommodate a larger group if your efforts generate a high level of interest. If your planning and communicating skills are well developed, you should have a quite a crowd on your hands, depending on the strength of feeling within the community about the issues you will be addressing.

Step Four – Research

Explore issues of concern raised at the community meeting in more detail with the Core Group. Identify stakeholders (government officials, businesses, and residents who likely have a self-interest in the issue). Think about forming sub-committees to spread the workload and allow any local expertise to be put to effective use while keeping everyone interested.

Step Five – Choose an Issue to Begin With

A good issue will:

  • Be a real improvement in people’s lives
  • Be specific and winnable
  • Have a clear target
  • Be non-divisive for your neighborhood
  • Build leadership (many people must be able to get involved doing things)
  • Lead to new issues, related to the self-interests of people
  • Be consistent with the values and vision of the group
  • Develop a sense of power for your group

Tip: Don’t choose an issue that’s too big to start with, or you risk overwhelming new, inexperienced members and dooming your project to an early failure.

Step Six – Decide What to Do on This Specific Issue

Will you use community meetings with officials to gain commitments from them? Will you use the media? How will you seek to involve new people? How will you build the strength of your organization? Make plans based on what you learned in talking with people and in your research. You might decide that you need to do a little more research if something happened that you didn’t expect. Do more research and change your plans accordingly.

Tip: Always keep a written record of your plan and keep it updated. This will provide guidance for your association in later stages.

Step Seven – Do it!

Step Eight – Evaluate What You Did – Learn from What Worked AND What Didn’t

Hold an evaluation meeting with your key people. Did you get the things accomplished that you wanted to accomplish when you began? How did your leadership work? Is there anything you would do differently? Was new leadership developed? Are you different as an organization than when you began? How? If any parts of your plan failed, have an open and honest discussion about it as soon as possible while the events are still clear in everyone’s mind, and before any disillusionment has time to take hold. Be positive and objective, and keep the emphasis on learning. Avoid the temptation to blame any one person or team.

Step Nine – Celebrate Your Victory

Volunteers who never have fun can get burnt out. So have a party! Invite the media and everyone who helped you accomplish your goal.

Step Ten – Build New Leadership in Your Group

If you’ve found any great leaders through your efforts, be sure to give them the opportunity to lead.

A part of your job as a neighborhood organizer is to identify and develop leaders. The task of recruiting and developing leaders has to be an ongoing activity through the lifetime of your neighborhood association. When identifying new leaders for your organization, look for individuals who have shown that they:

  • Want to succeed and want their group to succeed
  • Communicate well with people
  • Can motivate people to take collective action
  • Are knowledgeable about the neighborhood, its people and their interests
  • Have an allegiance to the neighborhood and the association
  • Know how to share power

Note: Do not try to do everything yourself. Delegate responsibilities to other Group members.

The following is a list of possible responsibilities which could be delegated to other members in the Core Group:

CONDUCTING A NEIGHBORHOOD INVENTORY
A neighborhood inventory is a collection of facts about the area including the population, type of housing, land use and other elements unique to the neighborhood. Your area may be eligible for historic designation.

ISSUE IDENTIFICATION
Issues and concerns can be identified through surveys sent to the residents or through a series of neighborhood meetings. The concerns may deal with crime, physical improvements, transportation corridors, preservation of unique features, rezoning, social functions or other special interest concerns such as neighborhood renovation.

REVIEW NEIGHBORHOOD GOALS
The draft neighborhood plan should be reviewed and changed as you continue to form.

PLAN REVIEW AND EVALUATION
The progress of the plan must be monitored and evaluated on a regular basis to ensure its success. Periodic evaluations should be done to recognize successes, detect problems, and suggest improvements in the program.

Next Steps – Create Your Neighborhood Plan

Now that you have successfully created a Neighborhood Group and tested the water with an initial action, it’s time to use that as a foundation for the future, with a longer term plan. If a neighborhood is viewed as a permanent home for families and as a continuing investment for their future, then steps need to be taken to address changes that will occur. A neighborhood plan is a template that provides a framework for present and future decision making. The health and vitality of a neighborhood depends on the ability of its residents to plan for its future. A neighborhood plan contains broad statements about what the residents would like to see happen (goals) and principles they would like to see followed (policies). It also contains suggestions for strategies on how to reach goals. Remember not every goal requires change. For example, if a community currently enjoys a particular facility they want to keep, the goal is maintaining that aspect, while pursuing changes in other areas.

One-Year Neighborhood Plan Development Guideline:

  • Identify one to three issues that are of major concern to the neighborhood
  • Form a committee for each issue to spearhead the drive to resolve the issue
  • Identify available resources that can be utilized to assist the committee
  • Identify strategies and goals
  • Agree how often progress will be reviewed, and how it will be measured
  • Implement strategies

Finally – Go Back to Step One!

Obviously, when you have a group organized, you don’t have to create a brand-new group for each issue. However, we always need to keep listening and draw in new people. Some individuals might want to work on a new issue even if they were not interested in previous ones. Remember that, in most cases, the majority of people prefer to hang back and see if your idea is successful before committing time and energy to it. Don’t resent these latecomers: they are just as essential to the group as the founders, because without their mass support, you are far less effective and less likely to be accepted by the whole community.

Originally published at http://lissnup.posterous.com/how-to-organize-a-community. Republished with edits with permission of the author.

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