What follows are thoughts on introducing social and economic innovations in a community -- not intended as a “how to” manual, but as personal suggestions about what may, or may not work. It is based on 30 years as a community developer but especially the last 2-3 years in Victoria BC.
Timing in the introduction of innovations is perhaps much more of an art than a science. As I have found, there are as many ways, perhaps many more, of missing the mark than hitting it. No matter how important an issue or concern may appear to the change agent, or to an organization that wishes to introduce change into a region, if the community that you are dealing with is not interested in taking part in it, it will probably be a failure, or at best, a mixed success. 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?), go ahead and try to do it. This is understandable from an accountability context—agency X sets targets and then seeks to meet them. If they are not met, they risk losing their funding.
How then to satisfy our economic or organizational masters while meeting the needs and concerns of the community today? The wise community development practitioner will first of all, ask a few questions such as:
- Is this an “idea whose time has come” or just an idea that I/we think should be accepted? Are there any public concerns being expressed about this concern in the media, in conversations with local people, etc?
- Is this just another of many local issues and concerns? If so, how can we best present it? - Do people feel powerless to act on this concern or are they prepared to do something about it, either in their private lives or publicly?
- Which people express an interest in doing something and which either deny, ignore or complain about it but are not prepared to act on it?
- Who are seen as the local “movers and shakers” and opinion setters? How might they be involved with the process?
- Is there a need to raise public awareness and concern before people prepared to act?
In this context, I cannot overemphasize the importance of having a good understanding, appreciation and respect for the community they are working in. Get to know it—join local groups, attend meetings or gatherings of people you may be working with or whose opinions are important to the process. If you are from the community but know only part of it, 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. Your job should be to introduce or support the issue in a way that people can understand and relate to. I have found, for instance that initiatives I was involved with were able to raise the public profile, and with it community credibility and interest on two different concerns –- housing and food -- by holding an affordable housing fair at a shopping mall in 1997 and then by having a Homegrown Food Festival with displays, information and a pilot farmers market at a fall fair in 2006.
You should also support the community's choice of tactics as long as they are legal and stand a reasonable chance of being successful. Your job is not to play the expert or authority but to help where needed. Do not fall prey to your own expectations or targets.
One of the most common techniques used, and I have done it myself, is to do a survey to determine public interest on the topic/issue. Another is the focus group. Both can be useful and have their place, in my opinion, but can 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 interest, but also asking them to take part in doing it -- both as contributors to and beneficiaries of the initiative, including decision-making. Thus, for instance, with a survey we did with people at our food bank in 2006, we not only asked their opinion of what their food issues, concerns and needs were, we then invited them to contribute their own suggestions on good food sources and recipes for others.
Also, the survey should only ask for relevant information in a manner that is short, to the point, with appropriate language for the target audience, and above all, is respectful of them as informants. Finally, a survey can give you an indication of the potential “timeliness” of a proposed initiative in terms of the opinions of potential participants. It is more difficult, however, 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—wanting to say the “right thing”, not having the time or interest to actively support it, or feeling disempowered to do anything about it. It may, however, be easier to determine this through so-called focus or sectoral groups.
Unfortunately most “focus groups” ask people only for information, not involvement. then not involved with the process later. This is a waste of resources and community potential. Thus our present food sustainability initiative for the Western Communities will be inviting different sectoral groups of the food chain—farmers, gardeners, marketers, consumers, municipal officials-- to meet sectorally to consider what each sector can do to increase local food production/ sales/consumption. Each will be asked to consider what it's sector needs to do to make this happen, and what support it will need from other sectors to do so. Then, together, these sectoral 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 get involved, you know that you have a real issue. The wise community development practitioner will ask who these people are, what segments of the population they represent, and how best to involve them in the process. In a community-wide initiative you canl then work to 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 you can serve as a conduit of information between them. In an initiative with a community-wide focus, however, 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 if you can in ways that complement each other.
Do not attempt to “bring the whole community together” on an concern/issue, at least not at this point in time—you will find that either the response will involve only “the converted” or, if it is a hot issue, that the range of ideas, concerns and opinions will be too broad to give birth to a doable program -- subsequents meeting will draw fewer and fewer participants.
Finally, to get back to one of the concerns raised at the beginning: how to reconcile the initial ambiguity of “responding to community interests” with the need for “accountability” or meeting deliverables set out by funders or your sponsoring organization. I have found that, while you may need to set targets—e.g. X number of people taking part in this activity, or initiative Y achieving X amount of support or response by date Z. Nevertheless, this can be done with the proviso that the community will be invited to take part in this and should they choose not to do so, that target will not be included. With one proposal recently I got funding for up to 6 proposed initiatives that our surveys indicated people were interested in. It turned out that we were able to set and complete three targets successfully. The funders were very pleased with the results -- and later funded our proposal for further targets.
That's it in a nutshell. I hope this has been useful and I welcome anyone's comments or additions to it. I am thankful to the many people who have helped me in either developing or implementing what is described here, particularly Dr. Phil Bartle, InnovativeCommunities.org´s John Mitchell and Bernice Levitz Packford, but also, most especially the truly wonderful people I have had the pleasure to work with in the Western Communities over the past two years.