Community Outreach vs Community Engagement

“The organizer dedicated to changing the life of a particular community must first rub raw the resentments of the people of the community.”
– Saul Alinsky

community outreach vs community engagement

Here are a few quick thoughts on these differences as they relate to leading social change.

  • There is a role for both outreach, and for engagement when organizing for change.
  • Community engagement should happen early, and often. Its goal is organizing to act in support of achieving your desired change.
  • Community outreach is a function of communicating to engaged partners, or gathering information or data from them.
  • Outreach defines the community (audience) it is intended to reach.
  • Engagement can create self-defined communities (affinity groups).
  • Community engagement is formative. It thrives on both diversity, and inclusion.
Read more about this distinction at buildthefield.org.

You Can Deliver Messages that Inspire People to Act

“I’m not the best person at putting words together. I can’t give you the melody. But I might inspire somebody.”
– Meek Mill

(This article is a companion piece to my post “The Role of Storytelling in Leading for Change.” Check it out for more tips on effective storytelling.)

You can inspire people to act by your own actions, by your art, by your numbers, or by your words. Even if you are not the world’s greatest orator, or even an experienced public speaker, your message can be dramatic. Your goals conflict with the status quo; and where there is conflict, there is drama.

Tie your message to a vision of a preferred future. Give an example of the way things are. Then describe the way they could be. Repeat this pattern with one or two more examples. Then talk about how the desired future is achievable, but only with the commitment of people in the room.

Give people real examples, preferably about people you know, or have met. Personal stories about your own experiences can have the greatest impact.

We are inspired by stories of successful collective action. We are reminded that our experiences are not isolated. We are reminded that people have each other’s backs.

We are also inspired by stories of people with empathy for others. Stories about courage inspire us, particularly those about people who have fought, or are fighting oppression.

Inspiring stories do not need to be polished, or well-rehearsed. If they are honest, passionate, and if they move you; they will move another person — or even a thousand other people.

You don’t try to fight the man by becoming the man

“The trouble with organizing a thing is that pretty soon folks get to paying more attention to the organization than to what they’re organized for.”

– Laura Ingalls Wilder

org chart

Organizing to create change doesn’t require creating your own little officialdom. It is too easy to lose your sense of purpose when you’re concentrating a great deal of energy on organizational charts and chains of command.

Big picture, strategy meetings don’t require pure democracy. Having every allied person vote on every little question that emerges, creates a hole that you may never climb out of. The average person committed to your cause is not a professional meeting-goer. When they do meet, they have an expectation that the next step is going to be actions that move you closer to your goal, not just closer to the next meeting.

If you are so rigidly organized that your main concern becomes creating a single group with an identical message, and speaking in one voice, then you’ll lose the creativity and the unique approaches that come from diversity. Your one voice can not tell the stories that will resonate with all people. Embrace the value of others’ experiences and wisdom.

People feel less free to discover and use their own power if they always feel like they need permission. One of the most powerful things you can do is to help people understand that they don’t need permission to do the right thing.

You don’t try to fight ‘the man’ by becoming ‘the man.’ Give up ideas of authority, and you’ll actually find more power.

One-to-One Relational Meetings

“The art of conversation is the art of hearing as well as of being heard.”
– William Hazlitt

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If you want to organize people to create change, few things are more important as one-to-one relational meetings. One-to-ones are at the heart of community organizing. They are also at the heart of leadership.

These conversations are not about converting the person, or running through a list of intrusive, personal questions. One-to-ones are about establishing a professional relationship with someone, and sharing stories as a way to understand their personal interests, motivations, and how your common interests and values might engage them to act in support of the change you are both interested in trying to create. This mix of personal, sometimes intimate knowledge leading to public, professional action holds unique value.

If I ask you to tell me a piece of your life story as part of one of these conversations, my goal is not personal friendship (though that could always happen as a result of professional familiarity). The intended outcomes of one-to-ones are:

  • to form a basic relationships across a community (community of place, or community of interest);
  • to understand common self-interests as well as a person’s passions;
  • To understand not only what they believe, or want, but why they hold those beliefs and desires;
  • and to gain insight on how that person’s unique talents and insights might be leveraged to support your common goals.

Conversation logistics and strategies

Email, or ideally phone the person you want to talk to. Introduce yourself. Explain what you are doing and how their name came up as someone you would want to speak with. Ask them for 30-45 minutes of their time. Make it clear that you are not selling anything, and that you are interested in their thoughts and ideas. Do as much homework as you can to understand what you think their interests may be — like you might if you were going to a job interview.

Arrive on time. Enter having thought about the questions you want to ask, but do not arrive with a pen and paper in hand. This isn’t a survey. You can make notes after you leave. There is no script. Listen closely. Keep the conversation relaxed. Let the other person’s interests guide your inquiry. They should do more talking than you.

Ask the person about their interest in your issue of concern. Listen for indicators of how the issue is personal to them. When they express concerns that they you also share, ask them to explain their views further, then try to build on those shared values.

As you near the end of your conversation ask about their interest in committing to a specific action. Don’t be too pushy. If they can’t commit to anything immediately, find a way to keep the door open for further exploration at a later time. If they can commit to some action, ask them how you can be of assistance. Follow up later and thank them for their commitment.

If the conversation is moving in the direction that you had hoped it would, here are some examples of the type of questions you might want to ask:

  • Have you been involved in this issue? If so, how?
  • Are there things related to this issue that you wish you knew more about?
  • What in your mind is an ideal outcome on this issue.
  • In what ways do you think you could best contribute to the effort?
  • Can you recommend anyone else I should talk to?

There are numerous resources online related to engaging in one-to-one conversations. Here are a few.

Building Local Coalitions

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At the community level, some change requires only a few dedicated people to be achieved. More frequently, however, the scale or complexity of a particular issue requires locking arms with additional individuals and groups to effectively make change happen.
Building a coalition does not necessarily mean creating one huge meta organization. A coalition can be a loosely knit association of groups with a common interest in addressing an issue. The coalition can be a temporary mechanism for work on a specific problem, or it can serve as a model for people who would like to work collaboratively on related issues.

The most successful coalitions contain not only the “usual suspects,” but also seek out like minded allies who fall into the “strange bedfellows” category. Adding voices representing interests outside of your narrow sphere of influence is often critical. Avoid putting people in narrowly defined boxes (all churches, all businesses, all millennials, etc.). If for example, your opponent on a certain issue says that the policy they support is ‘good for business,’ having business people who can argue why that is not necessarily true will deliver your message to an audience that might otherwise simply ignore you, because they don’t believe that you understand their reality.

Coalitions can be effective when the issue in question has a need for urgent attention. This is how public policies often changed before the idea of bipartisan support became a mythical concept at the national political level. At the local level, however, the concept can still be quite practical.

One on the greatest benefits of coalitions is that they give many people who might otherwise be marginalized, a taste of the power that can come from collective civic engagement. Multiple people can be leaders within a coalition without being expected to lead the coalition. Coalitions are always a valuable opportunity for learning, growth, and leadership development.

With all of its potential benefits, it is also important to point out that forming a coalition is not always the best option. Beware when one organization says that it is “leading a coalition.” A coalition will only work when the collaborative leadership that comes from trusted relationships are it its core. A coalition is collaborative work, not one organization using the support of other groups only as a means to gain buy-in for its own agenda (see this post for more on collaboration).

Ultimately, potential coalition members will ask themselves, “what’s in it for us, and what is it going to cost?” They may come to the conclusion that the costs of collaboration outweigh the benefits to their group. But for those who see that the benefits outweigh the costs, the commitment can result in outcomes they could never have achieved on their own.

For more details on coalition building visit the following resources:

Valuing Diversity and Fighting Oppression

op·pres·sion

o-PRESH-un

noun

prolonged cruel or unjust treatment or control

We sometimes think about social change movements as people coming together and speaking with one voice to demand action.  Consistent expressions of common values, and a shared vision, however, can and should come in many flavors. We should not let a desire for a strong, homogeneous voice to come at the cost of the knowledge and wisdom found in diverse perspectives and stories of our allies.

Having said that, it is important to recognize that historically, people with the same adversary have often seen their alliances disintegrate due to infighting over what the late writer and civil rights activist, Audre Lorde referred to as “hierarchies of oppression.” Spending time arguing over whose situation is more oppressive only serves to strengthen the position of the oppressor. Injustice is injustice. Discrimination is discrimination.

Lorde’s, “There is no Hierarchy of Oppressions,” like Sojourner Truth’s, “Ain’t I a Woman?” decades earlier, reminds us that compartmentalizing people does not necessarily shed light on their situation. We can identify with many groups simultaneously.  Injustice is injustice. Discrimination is discrimination.

It does not minimize my pain to recognize the pain of another. Both of our stories are important, and it is through sharing those stories that we will realize our common values, and goals. Injustice is injustice. Discrimination is discrimination.

 “I have learned that oppression and the intolerance of difference come in all shapes and sizes and colors and sexualities; and that among those of us who share the goals of liberation and a workable future for our children, there can be no hierarchies of oppression.” – Audre Lorde, “There is no Hierarchy of Oppressions

Revealing the Invisible

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“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”

– Ralph Ellison

When it comes to people being invisible, there are a couple of types of invisibility to consider. Both kinds represent significant challenges in the process of trying to effect social change.

First, there are people, or groups of people that are deliberately unrecognized.  They often have few financial resources, are generally of poorer health, have less social capital, and are often considered by much more privileged people, as being less important.

The second group of “invisible” people, or groups of people are deliberately hidden. These are people of wealth and influence, whose activities allow them to rig social and political systems under the radar of most people.

The deliberately unrecognized, the unheard, and the unseen, are often at the heart of changes we are trying to create. It is important to amplify their voices, and to shed light on their realities. Awareness, education, and advocacy are key strategic goals. For example, if your city doesn’t have homeless people on street corners, and in parks, officials may deny that homelessness is something they need to be concerned about. Only by hearing the stories of people who are couch hopping, sleeping under bridges, or in cars, can you reveal the true extent of your community’s lack of affordable housing.

It is important to understand that the “invisible” are not simply needy, or victims. Giving voice to the invisible serves to uncover potential strategic approaches and assets. They are the people who often know the best solutions to overcoming the challenges that they face. Any social change effort should seek to leverage people at the margins; not as sad examples, but as full partners in planning the future.

“The government, which was designed for the people, has got into the hands of the bosses and their employers, the special interests. An invisible empire has been set up above the forms of democracy.”

– Woodrow Wilson

Revealing the invisible may not only expose unfairness and inequality, but it can also uncover something on the other end of the privilege spectrum – the so-called, power behind the throne that is working in opposition to your goals. This influence is usually purchased with large amounts of money.

These influencers are usually very careful to not actually break any laws, despite the fact that their actions may be ethically abhorrent. You may never come close to matching their financial clout, but exposing their role can, however, be beneficial. This is because the money trail points to real self-interests, as opposed to those being touted in your opposition’s misleading rhetoric. In some cases, it may be possible to boycott the source of the influencer’s income, or at least send some bad publicity their way.

Ultimately, it will probably be more effective to spend more time on revealing the realities of the deliberately unrecognized, than on exposing the deliberately hidden. That is where there is more untapped power; and it is the kind of power that money can’t buy.

Leadership and the Dunning–Kruger Effect

“Useful men, who do useful things, don’t mind being treated as useless. But the useless always judge themselves as being important and hide all their incompetence behind authority.” – Paulo Coelho

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In 1999, a couple of psychologists from Cornell University, named Kruger and Dunning, published some research findings* which essentially said that there is a tendency for unskilled individuals to overestimate their own ability, and a tendency for experts to underestimate their own ability. This incorrect self-assessment of competence became known as the Dunning–Kruger Effect. When organizing to effect change, this tendency creates unique challenges.

Over-Estimators

If someone has assumed a leadership role, the failure to recognize their own lack of skill, as well as the extent of that inadequacy, is a potential recipe for disaster. This is doubly problematic as the researchers also found that over-estimators also fail to accurately gauge skill in others.

I have written previously about emotional intelligence, and how people can develop their capacity for it. Similarly, I believe that people can train themselves to more realistically assess their abilities in a variety of skills. The fact that under-performance is accompanied by tangible evidence in the end, means that there is incentive for people to seek honest, realistic self-assessment.

Under-Estimators

The real tragedy lies with the under-estimators. Undervaluing your own abilities isn’t just sad and unfortunate on a personal level. It has an impact on group morale, commitment, productivity, and ultimately, success.

One strategy to overcome this challenge would be to use appreciative inquiry, or one-to-one conversations, to map the assets of individuals. People sometimes forget about skills and talents that they have, and require others help to uncover those assets.

If you have examples of how an individual’s over-, or under-estimating their own abilities has played out in you work, please share them in the comments below.


*Kruger, Justin; Dunning, David (1999). “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The Fear of Being Called a Radical

image: public domain via pixabay
image: public domain via pixabay

“Seen from the point of view of a lie, the truth is often touted as radical.”

― Mango Wodzak, Destination Eden

One of the realities of organizing people to create social change, is the fact that there are people who would like to see change, but fear being seen as a “radical” for publicly calling for fundamentally different policies from the status quo. That fear is real, and should not be dismissed as a simple lack of commitment. The courage to act is situational.

The reluctance to be perceived as an agitator comes in part, from the branding by the media of extremism and zealotry, as ‘radical.’ It’s right-wing radicalism, and left-wing radicalism, and radical Islam . . . if somebody wants an idea to wear a black hat, they call it radical.

In reality, however, almost all change seems radical at some point. The American Revolution was instigated by radicals.  A century ago, in the U.S., the idea that woman should be able to vote was considered radical. Civil rights leaders are considered radicals for insisting that we don’t deny basic human rights to people based on arbitrary, human constructs criteria such as race. Transformative change requires certain realities to be radically different.

“RADICALISM, n. The conservatism of to-morrow injected into the affairs of to-day.”

― Ambrose Bierce, The Unabridged Devil’s Dictionary

Radicalism and zealotry do not inescapably go hand-in-hand. Some of the zealot’s actions (irrational violence for example) often defy logic, and frequently serve to actually undermine their own stated objectives. Rational radicalism is strategic. It is guided by logic and evidence. As Saul Alinsky said in his book, Rules for Radicals: “Radicals must be resilient, adaptable to shifting political circumstances, and sensitive enough to the process of action and reaction to avoid being trapped by their own tactics and forced to travel a road not of their choosing. In short, radicals must have a degree of control over the flow of events.”

When we look back at human rights leaders, suffragists, and the participants of great social movements in our history, we find “radical” people advocating for the militant notion that the humane thing, the fair thing, the moral thing, the ethical thing to do, was something for which they were proud to be labeled as “radical.”

Classism is an Obstacle in Social Change Activism

Classism is differential treatment based on social class or perceived social class. Classism is the systematic oppression of subordinated class groups to advantage and strengthen the dominant class groups. It’s the systematic assignment of characteristics of worth and ability based on social class.
classaction.org

Not long ago, I attended for the second time, a meeting that was part of an ongoing comprehensive community initiative dedicated to improving a variety of quality of life indicators in the city where I live. You may be familiar with the process. An open, public visioning event is held. Priorities are set. Planning committees develop indicators to measure success. Projects and programs are implemented. It is a well-intentioned effort.

Unfortunately, however, the vast majority of the approximately 150 people in the convention center space for this meeting, were people I like to refer as professional meeting goers. Most of those who were not in this category, were college or high school students. The professionals in the room were people whose jobs led them there. They were employed in philanthropy, social services, education, or healthcare. They were haves, whose job it was to help the have nots of the community.

Though the group was not completely homogeneous, or lacking in other types of diversity, it was clearly not an effort that sought to amplify the voices of the poor or marginalized folks in the community. Nobody was talking about real grassroots community organizing as a strategy to meet the goals expressed in their vision for a healthier, more vibrant community.

The unemployed were not in conversations about workforce development. Low income residents were not identified as assets in gaining a richer understanding of issues challenging the community. Service providers and “experts” were defining and deciding strategies. That’s a problem.

Here are a few things you can do to avoid perpetuating classism in your efforts to create change:

  • Personally invite low income people to participate from the beginning of your efforts. It isn’t enough to simply say that the public is invited.
  • Take a look at the processes that you use for things such as communication, scheduling, and direct action. Is there a privileged class bias built in? Are you including guidance from those on the margins? Are you providing opportunities for collaborative leadership?
  • As you plan, are you creating ‘safe spaces’ where everyone feels as though they can speak in confidence, and in complete honesty?

We have to be deliberate in reaching out to, and including people on the margins of the community.  They provide perspectives that people in more privileged classes cannot know. The forgotten, and seemingly invisible people among us have insights and understanding that will inform more effective change strategies. But, we will never tap into that unique knowledge and wisdom unless we extend an invitation to join us.

When Does Getting Credit Matter?

“In life you must often choose between getting a job done or getting credit for it.”
– Leo Szilard, physicist

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Under what circumstances does it matter that you (individually, or your organized group) get credit during a process of creating change? When does that recognition help? When might it become a barrier to building support?

In an earlier post on evaluation, I mentioned the idea that it is often important to focus on contribution, rather than attribution. This a similar idea. Small, often very brave acts that complement, or build upon other small acts, all lead to the ultimate success of an effort to create change. When you are trying to give a variety of stakeholders a sense of ownership of an idea, or a goal, following just one “leader” can be disastrous (especially if that leader is self-proclaimed).

Generally speaking, building the level of trust that is necessary to accomplish increasingly greater goals, requires frequent recognition of everyone’s contributions. This one of the secret’s to effective leadership – the strategic leveraging of many peoples’ strengths in a manner that creates collaborative leadership.

I have mentioned this before, but it bears repeating – it is relatively easy to organize people in opposition to something. It is much more difficult, however, to organize them to create the unfavorable thing’s replacement. Separate, independent stakeholders acting to get rid of an unjust, or unfair policy or program, should have a specific, fairly detailed replacement for the problematic policy or program in mind as they deliver their case for support of change.

Consider cases throughout history where people have taken to the streets to protest oppressive regimes, only to find that the overthrown despot has simply been replaced by another tyrant. Those demanding change have greater leverage if their outrage is not simply considered generalized opposition. If they can say that their collective indignation is united in its support for specific changes, then acknowledgement for their specific role as change agents is important, because they were not simply anti-status quo; they were advocating a very explicit change.

Getting credit is less important when people are organizing, and creating coalitions. It becomes considerably more important when the prospect of change becomes inevitable, and people are expecting the vision created from their shared values. When you can say, “here is the change we’ve been demanding,” it is far more powerful than saying, “the bad thing is gone, maybe the next thing will be better.”