New Community Networks
Wired for Change
It is not enough for a handful of experts to attempt the solution of a problem, to solve it and then to apply it. The restriction of knowledge to an elite group destroys the spirit of society and leads to its intellectual impoverishment.
- Albert Einstein
Community networks provide important areas of research for traditional academic research (see Chapter 11), but research need not be confined to universities. Community members themselves can propose and conduct meaningful research that community networks can help support in many ways.
Some social scientists apparently feel compelled to squeeze the relevance out of their discipline by attempting to emulate their colleagues in the "hard sciences" like physics and chemistry who generally enjoy greater funding levels. Although social scientists do not brand their enterprise as irrelevant, there is often very little relationship between social science and social action and many social scientists feel that this relationship must be explored and strengthened. William Foote Whyte, an eminent sociologist who wrote the influential Street Corner Society (1993), notes that, "It is important, both for the advancement of science and for the improvement of human welfare, to devise strategies in which research and action are closely linked."
Participatory Action Research (PAR) is an approach to scientific inquiry in which the scientific method is employed to conduct research while simultaneously bringing about desired social change, thus linking research and activism (Whyte, 1991). Each word in PAR's title carries an important meaning. "Participatory" implies that the people affected have a critical role in each phase of the process; "action" implies that action (as opposed to passive inquiry alone) is both desired and necessary; while "research" implies that research is conducted, hypotheses posed, experiments planned and conducted, and - most importantly - learning occurs. PAR differs from "normal science" in several important ways. For one thing, PAR advocates stress that the dictates of "standard science" such as repeatability, control variables, and closed-world assumptions are largely irrelevant in real-world situations involving people. Whereas a lump of clay may act like a lump of clay year-in and year-out, knowledge about the beliefs and actions of people and communities is far less static. Findings, for example, that are related to current community networks may not be applicable to future community networks. Findings relevant in Seattle might not apply to situations in San Diego, Tokyo, Little Rock, or Johannesburg. Furthermore, PAR - as distinct from "normal science" - imposes less orthodoxy on its practitioners. According to Whyte, Greenwood, and Lazes (1991), "The complexity of the world around us demands the deployment of a variety of techniques and strong intellectual and methodological discipline, not a commitment to the hegemony of a single research modality." Thus PAR techniques are adaptable to new developments and new contexts, making it at once liberating and challenging.
PAR is a hybrid methodology in which "research" (basically, a systematic approach to learning) is coupled with the objective of improving a social situation or problem. The nursing community maintains, for example, both perspectives. Society needs nursing to attain and maintain health. At the same time, the nursing community needs to continually improve its perspective, approach, techniques, and store of knowledge. If nurses only ministered - and neglected research - their expertise and usefulness would stagnate over time. On the other hand, if nurses only conducted research and ignored their everyday business, people who depend on nursing would suffer. Similar arguments can be made in the context of community networks. For example, it is important to host on-line political discussions between community members using community networks. At the same time, however, it is worthwhile to explore ways in which the quality and effectiveness of the discourse can be improved over time.
It is important that community members actively participate in the research process. Besides having a stake in the results of the research, participants offer critical insight not available elsewhere. In Whyte's words, "We always encounter one or more individuals who are especially knowledgeable, insightful, and perceptive regarding the dynamics of their organization or community" (1991). Since users are full partners in PAR, this approach fosters community involvement in community-network development.
Richard Baskerville and Trevor Wood-Harper (1993) describe PAR as a circular process. The process consists of several steps in which both consultant and client work together to diagnose, plan and take action, evaluate results, determine what was learned, and then start again with new or revised diagnoses. The efforts of Sustainable Seattle (described in the next section) illustrate how a community group can use these concepts.
We view the process and product as interwoven and equally valuable. Part of our task is to practice and develop the skills of civic democracy and volunteer participation.
- Richard Conlin, Sustainable Seattle co-founder
In 1991, following a conference hosted by the Global Tomorrow Coalition, a group of social activists in Seattle launched an ambitious multiyear project to develop a community network and civic forum centering around the idea of sustainability. Though many people today view sustainability as largely an environmental paradigm, it is one that can capture the long-term cultural, economic, civic, and educational health and vitality of a region as well. Because sustainability is a complex term and difficult to define and comprehend, the first goal was the development of a set of "critical indicators of sustainability" that would assist in defining the term and defining SeattleÕs current status. Since that time the project has matured into a community-wide program divided evenly into research and community action. One commendable aspect of their effort has been the patient, evolving, consensus-driven manner in which the project has taken shape and unfolded over time without being driven by set agendas.
When the project was launched, the "indicators of sustainability" were designed to form its intellectual as well as motivational foundation. Indicators are measurable values that accurately reflect and coalesce several factors that are deemed to be important. The selection of indicators as core constructs of the endeavor demonstrates the founders' commitment to a long-term rather than a quick-fix effort, for it is only by examining how the values of the indicators change over time that an understanding of trends can arise. Examining changes over time may also bring to light relationships between indicators. Two indicators, for example, may actually bear inverse relationships to each other. If this were the case, it would be more difficult to use those particular variables to undergird the notion of sustainability.
When people in the community identify indicators that are important to them, the indicators are more liable to carry personal and operational meaning than when social scientists in an ivory tower identify theoretical constructs that are significant only to an academic community. The indicators arenÕt meant to be abstract values whose chief virtue is their measurability or their relationship to other abstract measurable values. The indicators are carefully chosen to reflect activity within a community that is desired or not desired by that community. Furthermore, because the community identified the indicators, there is a feeling of ownership and confidence in them.
Forty indicators from four areas - environment, population and resources, economy, and culture and society - were initially selected. In order for these indicators to be useful, they must pass several tests. The first test is whether they represent the general trend that they are intended to. For example, Sustainable Seattle wanted to assess overall environmental quality and wanted to capture that assessment with a small number of indicators. The population of wild salmon was eventually chosen as a useful indicator. The number of returning salmon is directly influenced by such factors as forestry practices, development patterns, and water quality. The second test is whether the indicator can be measured accurately at all, and if so, whether the data can be easily obtained. Since the number of volunteers was relatively small, Sustainable Seattle determined that indicators whose values could be derived from existing reliable data were to be given priority over indicators whose values could not be attained readily. Additionally, indicators for which historical as well as current data exist are more useful in terms of identifying trends. Although sending teams of activists out into the community, like China's "barefoot doctors," to gather data may be undertaken in the future (and would make a very good focus for a television or newspaper story), Sustainable Seattle is not currently doing that.
Activists must think carefully about how to gather the data, how big the sample should be, how to avoid biased samples, and other aspects of scientific research. The pursuit is also inherently educational, and community goals and values motivate the learning. In other words, the educational community program is developed based on an actual community need, not from love of learning per se.
The description of Sustainable Seattle's indicators was published in a simple form and made available for a nominal charge. Each indicator along with its data was shown graphically on a separate page. Realizing that the indicators are not independent, the group also illustrated how the indicators related to each other. The document depicting the indicators, their values and relationships, has been quite popular and over 1000 copies of the document were distributed within just a few months of its release. A second printing was required and the Local Agenda 21 organization in the UK reprinted the document for distribution there.
While Sustainable Seattle's report on Seattle's critical indicators presents a useful snapshot of several important aspects on the community's agenda, it does not by itself create a sustainable society. According to their newsletter (Sustainable Seattle, 1994), ". . . understanding trends in our community is only the first step in the journey towards sustainability. The next step is to change the community." To that end, Sustainable Seattle initiated a Communities Outreach Project "to create measurable improvements in the behaviors and practices that drive the indicators, both on large and small scales, as a result of homes and organizations changing their behavior in response to this project." Their ambitious goal "is to enable and inspire people in the many different communities in greater Seattle to transform the values of sustainability into actions that will move Seattle, the region, and the planet towards long-term cultural, economic, and environmental health and vitality."
People from Sustainable Seattle and from the Seattle Community Network have been exploring ways to use SCN in their indicators project. In early 1994, Sustainable Seattle put its "Sustainability Data Base" and the indicators document on-line using the Seattle Community Network. In mid-1994, a moderated forum was initiated in which sustainability issues were discussed. Sustainable Seattle also has made their information available on the World Wide Web and uses e-mail to communicate with people in other sustainability projects around the world in planning a conference on sustainability and computer networks. A critical indicators project provides substantial leverage of community resources. A project at a university which identified, measured, and analyzed 20 indicators and used a staff of, say, 20 people would be a large and expensive project. A critical indicators project is, by comparison, quite modest and decentralized, and one that a community network could help hold together.
We the people...
Opening words of the Constitution of the United States
Jean-Jacques Rousseau's book, "Of the Social Contract" (1984), first published in 1762, was intended to develop the basic principles of a free society. In the book Rousseau championed many now-accepted views, such as universal education. The basic notion of his book, of course, is the idea of the "social contract," the implicit and explicit agreements that people make among themselves that bind society into a cohesive whole. Ed Schwartz, a long-time community activist from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has developed a fascinating program for revitalizing communities using Rousseau's insight as the foundation. Schwartz heads up the Institute for the Study of Civic Values which initiated the Social Contract Project in 1993. The project arose from Schwartz's observations that there were three necessary "ingredients" that communities need to help reverse the decline in community and civic values.
We need a renewed understanding that our civic values - the principles articulated in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights - define the values that we share and provide a powerful framework for promoting cooperation among our people. We need a procedure for relating civic values to contemporary problems that can be used by community organizations throughout the country in establishing their own goals. We need a process that defines the mutual responsibility of individuals, business, and government to achieve the goals that we hope to achieve for ourselves and the country.
The wisdom of Schwartz's approach is the use of the "social contract" idea as an explicit method by which to negotiate goals among a truly diverse group of people and use those goals to bring about social change in the community. The idea of a "contract" or pact between groups of people is simple but compelling. And the contract captures the spirit of cooperation and dedication for the greater good in a form that can be shared by the whole community. The Queen Village neighborhood in South Philadelphia was the first community to work with the Institute using this model. Initially, representatives from a wide range of groups - leaders of civic groups, business representatives, homeowners, tenants, and residents of a large public housing development - were selected. These representatives then participated in a social contract leadership seminar (the "procedure" alluded to in the quotation above) facilitated by the Institute. The length of the seminars varies based upon several factors including the number of participants and the complexity of the neighborhood's concerns. The result of this phase is a draft "social contract," a written document (the "process" from the above quotation) which the key groups of people have agreed to support. The contract (reprinted in full below) is consciously modeled after the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States. Since the Preamble describes who constitutes "the people," how they can "promote the general welfare,Ó and what is "a more perfect union," it guides participants in a natural way into considering these key questions in their own communities.
Although the Queen City effort does not currently use a community network, there are many ways in which a community network could help the project. The social contract itself, for example, could be put on-line, where community members could refer to it. Electronic forums could be started on all relevant aspects of the contract. Additionally, any aspect of the contract that had an action component could use electronic support. Notices of the "job readiness workshops" (in point three, the economic opportunity section) could go out electronically in addition to more traditional means, for example. A project coordinator working on point four could use the community network to communicate with area businesses, the Private Industry Council, and the County Board of Assistance. Both Sustainable Seattle and the Queen City Social Contract offer a coherent and compelling framework for community wide projects. Either approach, especially coupled with a PAR orientation, could work synergistically with a local community network effort. The simplicity of both programs, moreover, increases the likelihood of widespread community adoption and activism.
We the people of Queen Village - homeowners, tenants, residents of Southwark Plaza, and others who serve the Queen Village neighborhood between the River and 6th Street from Lombard Street to Washington Avenue - endorse and pledge to implement the following social contract among all those with responsibility "to promote the general welfare" of the neighborhood:
To Preserve Neighborhood Security:
We will work to establish an ongoing partnership with law enforcement authorities to eliminate drug dealing, public drinking, and other behavior destructive to the neighborhood from all parts of Queen Village. As part of this effort, we will work to preserve the South Street mini-station and to determine the best strategy for full staffing of the Southwark mini-station. Citizen groups and the police will work together to achieve effective community participation in neighborhood anti-crime efforts. To Promote the Physical Revitalization of Queen Village:
To Improve the Appearance of Queen Village:
To "Secure the Blessings of Liberty" to Young People in the Neighborhood:
To Promote Economic Opportunity for All Queen Village residents:
We pledge to cooperate in achieving these goals as an expression of our continuing commitment to build a "more perfect union" in Queen Village among all those who live and work in our community.
I hope that this information is useful to you. Please feel free to send me (Doug Schuler) your questions, comments, and corrections. I will try to keep the information in these pages current.