Discover how Damon Taylor’s nonprofit team in Mexico centers its community in everything it does.
Community-led development (or CLD for short) is a way of life at Psicología y Derechos Humanos (PSYDEH). Our bottom-up development model is process oriented, based on community feedback, and built to be scaled in any society where citizens are the theoretical source of public power.
To guide our work, our team has developed an eight-part model of interrelated elements to achieve community-led development, explained in this video.
If your organization wants to become more community led, take a look at our eight-part process and our recommended resources:
Appreciative inquiry encourages balanced, generative relationships. Doing so at the outset with local beneficiary-partners produces three benefits. First, you understand the context in which you work, from the bottom-up. Second, you are directed by beneficiaries who are treated as partners encouraged to accept responsibility and to make demands. Lastly, these partners are now more likely to invest further because collective work is done in a two-sided, active give-and-take. Repeating this step throughout your initiative reinforces and deepens its impact. We suggest Dr. Marilee Adams’ book, “Change Your Questions, Change Your Life,” as a good resource for understanding question-based thinking and active listening.
Developing understanding in community is fundamental to information exchange with vulnerable populations. A central theme of Paolo Freire’s thinking on Educación Popular is “whoever teaches learns, and whoever learns teaches.” In practice, we suggest incorporating three elements into your constant education-oriented work. First, embrace that local partners possess needed knowledge, as well as innate and learned capacities. Second, ensure that all are both seen as teachers and students and speak the same language, literally and figuratively. Third, educate with action and skills in mind: Understand and use economic and political rights embedded in laws, promote free electoral processes, produce micro-projects, learn and live civic-leader disciplines and autonomy. We also suggest Parker Palmer’s “To Know as We Are Known” for more on the teacher-as-student concept and Daniel Siegel’s “The Developing Mind” for the science behind relationships and consciousness-growing.
Listening and education are not academic exercises; they are foundational for mobilizing people. Here, we suggest developing two tools that engaged and informed citizens need to negotiate power dynamics. First, work with local partners to create their own citizen agenda. This document captures collective understanding of problems and citizens’ own solutions to these problems. Second, incubate a network of citizen-led groups to pursue their agenda. A citizen agenda, built and then leveraged, facilitates dialogue and agreement between and among citizens, government and the private sector. PSYDEH’s partners produced this regional development agenda that informed their recent discussion with Mexico’s President. See the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals as a good starting point for agenda forming.
Groups should consider a definitive structure to sustain progress. When organizing citizens into groups, two suggestions. First, support local partners in building organizational clarity, e.g., mission, vision, values, strategic directions, logo. This helps citizens to own their power “to do.” Moreover, structured groups can more easily pursue legal status, which gives them access to national and international income streams. Second, invite partners to consider various models. For example, a citizen group with a social-impact charter pursues progressive policy changes or micro-projects in any SDG area, while an artisan cooperative creates economic and/or gender equity gains. See this International Labour Organization brief on the cooperative advantage.
Groups forging social capital is equally important to sustaining CLD progress. University of Michigan Philosophy chair Elizabeth Anderson’s research reveals the importance of real-time collaboration between diverse citizens, government and the private sector. As she says in this New Yorker article, “We must solve [inequality] problems collaboratively, in the moment, using society’s ears and eyes and the best tools we can find.” To encourage collaborative dialogue, we suggest that you regularly pursue bonding, bridging, and linking social capital. Doing so helps disparately-located citizens to unite across geographic, language, and cultural barriers around truths like (a) the state must guarantee them specific rights, (b) smart use of these rights changes communities, and (c) rights are only as impactful as we citizens make them. See this primer for more on the nature of social capital.
Incorporating short-term, micro-projects bolsters citizens to sustain forward-thinking CLD work. Through successful CLD work, vulnerable people can demonstrate their citizen power by linking to high-impact, micro projects led by or benefiting their communities. Production of these projects evidences three important gains. First, local partners solving their own problems is the purpose of CLD work. Second, their existence is a key indicator of impact in long-term oriented work. Lastly, short-term project gains encourage local partners’ further commitment to the essential-to-sustain-progress, rights-oriented work. See William Easterly’s research on how local, spontaneous problem solving sustainably decreases poverty.
Process-oriented, human support is the only silver bullet. Conducting CLD work in partnership with vulnerable populations is complicated, slow, often chaotic, and just plain hard. Sustaining community-driven progress requires a commitment to process and hard work, while encouraging equitable human interaction. Community-led development takes time, and we need to give it. Processes involving humans are organic; they require organizational partners to be humble when offering consistent personal contact and professional support that reflects citizens’ demands.
Work to be out of a job in a particular area with particular citizens within some reasonable time frame. As Professor Tom Nichols suggests “experts need to remember, always, that they are the servants of a democratic society and a republican government.” We agree. A CLD-project goal should be establishing a measurable point when you will transition to working with others equally capable of assuming their power to solve their own problems. Over time, these citizen groups can collectively leverage their power to remind public-and private-sector experts that they are their servants, with you as an on-call consultant but not a direct-service provider.
Fulbright Grantee Mahathi Kumar contributed to this article as an editor.
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