Over the past many years I’ve been involved in a wide variety of grassroots initiatives, in different parts of the world, and always I’ve been looking for a way to help communities find their power, as a community.
I haven’t found an existing path to empowerment, all in one package, but I have found something equally valuable. As I look back over all the projects I’ve worked on, or that I’ve researched, I realize that we have all the pieces of the empowerment puzzle – we simply need to put them together in the right way. Here is how I characterize the six necessary pieces, and here’s how they work together:
Waking up – the necessary first phase
1) a means of engaging the attention of the community
2) a shared project the community can engage in
3) an initial sense of empowerment based on project successes
Thinking together – an ongoing process
4) a means of bringing in the full spectrum of community concerns
5) a means of agreeing on community priorities and direction
Embracing empowerment – creating the future together
6) a framework for effectively pursuing community projects
Notice that there is no agenda in this empowerment outline, no list of lofty principles, and no pre-defined program. It’s about finding out what the community wants, as a community, and giving them tools to help them achieve their objectives. It’s about putting trust in the principle of self-governance.
Most activist initiatives are limited to 1-3. They identify a cause; the cause grabs the attention of the community; they have some successes; and then they do more of the same, or they die out. Some initiatives are focused on 4-5, but they don’t mean much without the engaged attention of the community. Some initiatives focus on 6, but without the other pieces the resulting empowerment doesn’t go deep enough.
I now feel confident that it will be possible to achieve community empowerment, in some community, within the next couple of years.
The first step will be to connect with some communities that have already ‘woken up’, by whatever means, and explore the possibility with them of introducing some ‘thinking together’ activities. Things like Open Space events, neighborhood circles, Wisdom Councils, and Conversation Cafes.
Such activities will be meaningful to the community, because the attention of the community has already been engaged. People will already be in place locally for organizing such activities – the same local group that led the waking up process.
If a community ‘thinks’ for a while, it will begin to converge on a sense of priorities, and will begin to identify a short list of things it really wants to do something about – projects that it wants to launch.
Agreeing that a project is needed is one thing, and actually pursuing the project – in terms of planning, resources, and manpower – is something else again. In a corporate or government setting, you would simply assign people to the project and fund it. With community projects, we’re talking about voluntary collaborations, using available time and resources.
Thus the second step will be to introduce a proven framework for effectively pursuing community projects. I only know of one such framework at the moment, but it is a very good one. It is based on peer-to-peer connections initiated among people who are in different volunteer groups, community organizations, or even municipal agencies. Oh, and individuals can be in the loop as well.
Instead of trying to assemble a volunteer team, devoted to a project, the idea is to arrange collaborations among existing groups who share a common interest in the project. This approach was introduced to Reno Nevada by Richard Flyer, with his Connecting the Good initiative. The approach turned out to be remarkably effective – he describes it as ‘connecting silos’.
I think this is a real breakthrough, to have a feasible scheme for manifesting an empowered community in a relatively short timeframe – and with no need for funding or resources. It’s just a matter of connecting the silos, the initiatives, that need to be working together.