Concept Mapping as a Tool for Assessing Community Readiness & Mobilization

Several years ago Village Earth was invited to facilitate a participatory strategic planning with a community in South America. The organization that invited us, while not community-based, had developed a partnership with the community but needed some assistance to develop a comprehensive community plan. It was agreed that they would mobilize the community for the planning event and make all preparations so when we arrived we could jump right into the planning process. When facilitating a planning like this we generally like to start with a participatory community-mapping exercise so we can learn about how they define community, geographical layout, resources and social groupings. During this process, it became apparent that the attendees of this event only represented one major family within the community and we all (attendees included) recognized that developing a strategic plan for the community would not be possible unless we had representatives from all the various families within that community. Unfortunately, we had to put-off our goal to create a community plan and instead we decided to focus our time on building relationships within the community that could be leveraged when we returned a few months later to facilitate a planning where representatives from the entire community attended.

The example above illustrates a rather common problem for community workers, in our case, it was trusting that the community had already been sufficiently mobilized prior to our planning event and we failed by not sufficiently assessing the community’s readiness prior to facilitating the event. This is not only wasteful in terms of people’s time and money, it can also exacerbate pre-existing tensions within a community by reinforcing existing power dynamics (if say we continued with the planning process with just one powerful sector of the community) and make it harder to forge relationships with other sectors of the community. By even proceeding with one day of planning we had heightened suspicions and skepticism about our motives within the community – something we had to spend the rest of our time working to repair.

As a result of this experience (and others) I have become much more cautious when partnering with third-party organizations and with communities and have developed some very unobtrusive methods to assess community readiness. When I say readiness I’m generally referring to the willingness and ability of people and groups within a community to engage in practices of collective action. For example, for the various social/family groups within a community or neighborhood to come together, talk about issues and develop a plan, for farmers to come together and address a water shortage problem, or for artisans to come together and assess the viability of forming a cooperative.

There are numerous issues that can compromise the readiness of a communities. These include but are not limited to:

  • The level of factionalization. Are people generally willing to work together or is the community divided into factions that keep to themselves or worse yet – are constantly battling over power and resources?
  • The distribution of power. Are resources, power and decision-making within a community generally shared or is it monopolized by a few individuals, groups or families?
  • The level of inclusiveness. Do the different sectors of the community (genders, age groups, ethnic groups, castes, income levels, etc) communicate and share power and resources or is it dominated by one or a few sectors?
  • Openness of macro-level structures. Are the macro-level structures like local, regional, national governments threatened by community-level mobilization efforts? Do people feel safe organizing for collective action?
  • People’s sense of individual and collective efficacy. Do people generally feel that they can contribute to an effort and that they can accomplish anything by working together?
  • The level of concern people share around an issue or cluster of issues. Are people within a community concerned about an issue or issues enough to contribute their time, money and resources towards address it?

Readiness and community mobilization

Unfortunately, there’s no rubric to follow that will tell you when a community is ready and when it’s not. Determining this should really be part of a discussion that takes place among the various stakeholders you’re working with (e.g. community members, other NGOs, funders, etc). The goal of assessing readiness is to get an idea of what it will take to mobilize that community for collective action and whether you have the time and resources to take-on that effort. Community mobilization is the process and approach you take to manage the various tensions described above in order to move forward to address community identified issues. For example, you may find that women in a particular culture are more likely to participate if they have their own planning event rather than in one combined with men. Or possibly, you need to host separate planning events for each neighborhood and nominate representatives from each neighborhood to work together.

Another goal of assessing readiness is to understand how how best to frame your entrée into the community. For example, are you there as a neutral organization or on behalf of another organization, government agency, an individual, family etc.? Even though your relationship to a third-party may not obstruct your willingness or ability to work with all sectors of the community, you may find people in the community have a false impression that you are working on behalf of or strictly for their interests. And by all means, if you do have allegiances to particular entities or limits on your autonomy, you should be open and clear about that. On the other hand, your affiliation with a well-respected third-party might in fact enhance our ability to build trust and form relationships.

Assessing community readiness with concepts maps 

Concept mapping (also known as mind-mapping) is nonlinear and dynamic process for organizing and linking a vast array ideas, concepts and things. They’re ideal for recording and revealing relationships between things in a constructivist manner – where meaning emerges from real life experiences, observations, dialogue and reflection. Computer-based concept mapping software such as the free cloud-based “Mindmup” and the free open source “Freemind” are extremely powerful because they make it possible to easily move things around, build and rearrange connections between things as they emerge.


Very basic concept map created using Mindmup


Assessing community readiness through concept mapping can be something done by an individual or a team, relatively unobtrusively and without raising expectations or controversy within a community. It’s ideally done through participant observation along with informal semi-structured interviews with people from as many different sectors of the community as possible. The goal is to engage in natural conversations with people about the community, how people relate to one another, how the community is organized, its borders relative to neighboring communities, its resources, issues that people are facing, their dreams for the future, etc. This process is different from a survey because it’s open and can take on any form or direction that people want it to. It does however require that the person asking questions can free himself or herself from preconceived notions about the community and avoid asking leading questions. Interviews can take place in a snowball manner where, for example, someone mentions that she heard the farmers were worried about the availability of water. You would then ask that person “do you know someone who would know more about that who I could talk to” and then talk to them to learn more about that issue. During interviews it may be helpful to keep notes but sometimes this can destroy the natural flow of the conversation and make people nervous. This is why it may be a good idea to take notes in private immediately after you had a conversation or observed something of interest in the community – just to make it easier to recall later. Concept mapping enters into this process at the end of each day or after each encounter where you can sit-down, record and organize ideas. A team can work together on concept mapping by sharing and adding their notes to a shared concept map and then building consensus around how different aspects of the map are related. It’s important to keep in mind that a concept map is a tool to help you and your team to organize its thoughts and not something that is meant to be published or shared. You should always keep people’s confidentiality and safety in mind whenever taking notes or recording information in a concept map lest if fall into the wrong hands.

Features of a community readiness concept map

Some items that you might include in your concept map used to assess community readiness might include a list of important community leaders, a list of formal and informal community organizations, a list of issues brought up by people. You can then connect leaders and organizations to issues. You could different social groups and what issues each group struggles with. You can even tease apart the issues and link them to other issues that people mention like lack of water availability experienced by farmers linked to over-exploitation of watershed vegetation for fuel-wood. The concept map should link people, issues, organizations, concepts etc. in a way that makes sense to local people. You’ll know you’re map is complete when start to hear the same things over over again and you no longer feel the need to add/remove or rearrange things on the map. Even better, you’ll know you’re map is complete when you can confidently talk about the issues, people and organizations with a local without them constantly correcting you. More importantly, by the end of the concept mapping process, you should have a clearer idea of how to proceed with the community or possibly, if you should proceed at all. This sort of pragmatic thinking can be used to guide who you talk to and what questions you ask.

To learn more about topics discussed in this article check out the following courses in Village Earth’s online certificate program in Sustainable Community Development: Community Mobilization & Participatory Monitoring and Evaluation.

Developing a Shared Community Narrative (Past, Present, Future) Through Community-Based Film

Community-based film

Community-based film workshop facilitated by Village Earth with communities along the Rio Tigre in Peru and Ecuador.

Participatory video can be powerful tool for creating a dialogue and building consensus around a shared community narrative for “where we came from”, “who we are now”, and “what do we want to be in the future.” This post synthesizes the community film approach developed by Village Earth over the course of about 10 years working on such projects on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and with indigenous communities in Peru and Ecuador.

The community-based film workshops, developed by Village Earth, allow entire communities to work together dialogue and link past, present, and possible futures into a shared narrative with the express purpose of communicating with outsiders to raise awareness and support for their situation while attempting to mitigate the distortion or framing of issues by outsiders.


The roots of this approach stem from the cinéma-vérité approach Village Earth utilized in earlier films such as Pine Ridge Session One (2004) and REZONOMICS (2005). In these films we attempted to limit our influence on the subject and topic by avoiding elaborate staging, lighting, large-intimidating cameras, and even narration. However, even with these precautions it was difficult to avoid framing the issues from the outside through the selection of subjects and especially while in the editing room. Yet, despite these limitations the power that these films had to giving form to an emerging narrative for issues on the Reservation, especially the growing movement to recover and utilize lands, was readily apparent. It became clear that film would be a powerful tool, not only to educate outsiders about complex issues but also to mobilize communities for collective action.


Theoretical Perspectives

Village Earth believes that western values are not determinative and that all communities have the right to self-determination. This core belief has guided our work with indigenous communities around the world and has allowed us to be allies despite our position as ‘outsiders’ and with our less than complete understanding of their world-view. Furthermore, we recognize that leading up the end of the 20th century there emerged a growing crisis for the Western world-view. The crisis of scientific positivism brought about scholars such as Kuhn and Feyerabend, the delegitimazation of cultural imperialism, the rise of cultural relativism, and the acceptance of the environmental crisis caused by capitalist globalization created a paradigm shift for the totalizing meta-narratives of the Western worldview. According to the French Philosopher Jean François Lyotard, these meta-narratives were the basis of the social bond for western society, in their absence society is faced with a crisis of legitimacy especially in how it defines “development”. According to the Arturo Escobar:

“First, modernity’s ability to provide solutions to modern problems has been increasingly compromised. In fact, it can be argued that there are no modern solutions to many of today’s problems. This is clearly the case, for instance, with massive displacement and ecological destruction, but also with development’s inability to fulfill its promise of a minimum of well-being for the world’s people… Second, if we accept that what is at stake is the recognition that there are no modern solutions to many of today’s modern problems where are we to look for new insights?”

In the absence of the meta-narratives of the West (summarized by Escobar by the concept of modernity) we must create new narratives that become the raw material of a new society and a renewed social bond. But for this new society is to be based on equality, reciprocity, and compassion we must exchange the totalizing meta-narratives of the modern era, based on the on a notion of “Truth” and exchanged and monopolized for past several centuries by the Western States for a more relativistic notion of “truths” and the acceptance of differing world-views. Thus, this is a two part processes for individuals and communities. The first is rejecting the legitimacy of western knowledge as being implicit because of its reference to the Western meta-narrative of logical positivism. The second is creating new, more localized narratives where legitimacy comes from self-reflexive dialogue and community consensus.

According to Lyotard “A collectivity that takes narrative as its key form of competence has no need to remember its past. It finds the raw material for its social bond not only in the meaning of the narratives it recounts, but also in the act of reciting them.”

While this may be a paradigm shift in western world-view its the basis of the social bond for many indigenous communities who have been able to avoid, for whatever reason, the assimilation and acceptance of western meta-narratives.

Another principle that guides our work is the right that communities have to opacity. “For Glissant, “opacity boils down to the “irreducible density of the Other,” suggesting that it is not possible to ever fully know, understand, or be the Other. More importantly, Glissant recognizes the inherent violence in appropriations of the Other and warns against the types of appropriations that are evident in the social sciences and that tend to dominate the Western way of thinking. Western understanding, in this context, is based on transparency, measurement, and reduction. Glissant argues that in the West, “In order to understand you and thus accept you, I have to measure your solidity with the ideal scale of providing me with the grounds to make comparisons and, perhaps, judgments. I have to reduce” (Glissant 1997, 190). Moreover, the seemingly benign act of understanding, from an etymological perspective, constitutes an aggressive act.”(Stetson, 2007)

[A] “right to opacity,” which is a right not to appropriated, not to be objectified, not to be essentialized, and not to be understood (too deeply), arguing that is time to give up the “old obsession with discovering what lies at the bottom of natures”. [Glissant] develops a theory of difference that rejects pure… In this sense, opacity acts as an ethic that encourages a shifting of the gaze away from objectifying the other. However, while it leads us away from essentialization or objectification, (Stetson, 2007)

In 2006 Village Earth was invited to facilitate a community-strategic planning session with the Shipibo-Konibo of Peru’s Amazon Basin. After a discussion with community members it was agreed to structure the planning around the creation of a shared narrative of drawing from the past, present, and possible futures. The reasons for this decision were multiple: For one, it was thought that this approach would be more practical since at the end of the workshop they would not only have a plan but a compelling way to share that plan with other’s in the community who were not present at the workshop but also to outsiders and potential funding agencies. The other reason was that it was thought this would engage the participants more as they saw their story take shape. We also decided to venture further away from creating films of people to facilitating communities to create their own films and thus have greater control over the framing of the issues, the level of opacity, and the creation of their own narrative.

The central idea was to create a cohesive narrative of the community, what it was, what it is, and what it could be. By participating in the creation of the community’s story, workshop participants take an active role in framing and re-framing a shared narrative of the community and archetypal images. While also framing their own representation(s) for people outside of their community. Simultaneously creating a narrative that is empowering internally to your own community – addressing the role of individual/community agency but also analyzing the structural changes that has limited personal/community agency and self determination.

The process of the film workshop has four steps:

  1. Identify important defining images/stories from the past, answering the question “who were we and how did we live?” this is accomplished by writing or drawing pictures on pieces of paper.
    Aspects of their past they want to discuss and share with others.

    Aspects of their past they want to discuss and share with others.

  2. Identifying important defining images/stories form the present answering the question “who are we and how do we live today?,”

    Aspects of their current reality that they would like to discuss and share.


  3. Identifying important defining images/stories for the future “how would we like to live and who do we want to become?” The final stage of the workshop is tying together past, present, and future by identifying narrative “threads.” An example might look/sound like this: “In the past our rivers were clean and full of fish (past). Today, because of the oil companies drilling upstream, our rivers our contaminated and there are no more fish (present). However, we plan to organize with other communities along the river to make our voices be heard and let the world know about what these companies are doing (future).”
    Aspects of their future vision that they would like to share.

    Aspects of their future vision that they would like to share.


  4. Once the group has come to consensus on the most important threads, the next step is creating a storyboard. We accomplish this by having the workshop participants break into groups, one for each thread. We then give a brief explanation of “shots” and “scenes.” Scenes are collections of individual shots that tell a story. A particular thread might contain several scenes.
Narrative Threads that tie-together past, present and future.

“Narrative threads” that tie-together past, present and future.

For example, to tell the story of river contamination you might want to have a scene explaining how children get sick from swimming in the river. This scene might have several shots – children swimming, a sick child, an interview with a doctor, or whatever the participants believe will tell the story best. Once they are satisfied with their scenes they create a “shot list,” basically a list of of their shots, where they will do them, and who will be responsible to get it done. Finally we give a brief explanation of how to use the cameras and then let them go out with their teams to start working on their lists. Each night we would collect the footage, digitize it and work with each team to edit together their scenes (below).

Editing footage captured by the community during the day.

Editing footage captured by the community during the day. (Photo: Ralf Kracke-Berndorff)

The final evening of the workshop was the film premiere of the community’s new, completely participatory, documentary which they decided to title Paromea Ronin Bakebo, which is Shipibo for The Children of the Anaconda. Many people from the community showed up and there was quite a buzz throughout the community about the film. This was very exciting for everybody involved. The film premiere was amazing. As one American observer remarked, “It was like the Shipibo Academy Awards.” After many long speeches, songs, and special recognitions, the film was projected onto a make-shift screen in the community hall for all the people to see. Everyone was very happy with the film and the children were so excited to see themselves on the big screen.

The impact of the film was readily apparent. According to one participant, “Working on our Cosmovision has brought us together and gave us an opportunity to keep the dreams of all the particpants’ families with us.”

Stetson writes, “in the video the Shipibo express themselves in terms of the possibility of re-living or re-making Shipibo culture (via language, traditional medicine, pottery, dress, reciprocity, sharing, and community integration). The film also reveals practical and material needs such that the interests in getting micro-projects funded reflects the reality of being indigenous in a modern world. As mentioned, the video deals with the real structural constraints that both individuals and communities face. However, to look at the Shipibo only in these terms would be a mistake. The workshop participants, in Children of the Anaconda, framed Shipibo culture in terms of the past, present, and future. The past is dignified, beautiful, and even romantic; the present is a crisis, economically, environmentally, and culturally; but the future is potentially bright, given the potential to re-live and re-new Shipibo culture, of course, with the help from, and relation, to the world.”

The community film we developed with Communities along the Rio Tigre in Ecuador in partnership with the Zapara Nation followed a similar process and highlights similar concerns about loss of habitat and contamination by nearby oil and gas.

Click here to learn about Village Earth’s support for Narrative Evaluations.

Ideas and concepts discussed in this post are also discussed in the following courses: Community MobilizationParticipatory Monitoring and Evaluation & Development and the Politics of Empowerment

5 Principles for Maintaining Downward Accountability When Supporting Community-Based Development

Maintaining accountability to the grassroots in community development projects

Community dialogue session facilitated by Village Earth with communities along the Amazon River, Peru

The success and ongoing relevancy of community-based development initiatives is largely dependent on the ability of community workers and NGO’s to maintain their accountability to stakeholders at the grassroots. However, downward accountability can become compromised by various top-down pressures from donors (the so-called alien hand syndrome) but other structural issues faced by NGOs can also compromise accountability including professionalization and turn-over of staff, trends in development assistance, defined project timelines, etc. Below are 5 ways to help ensure you remain accountable to the grassroots.

  1. Make a long-term personal commitment to communities.
    We believe the only way to build sufficient trust and a genuine sense of solidarity and mutual accountability with communities is when they can count you being there for the long-term. Genuine empowerment requires diligence in several areas in order to be successful. It demands a commitment to creating an enabling environment where the tools for self reliance are fostered (Korten 1984; Mansuri and Rao 2003). A people based development agency must be prepared for longer time commitments on projects in order to facilitate the bottom up, organic growth of community driven projects (Mansuri and Rao 2003). The importance of commitment to the project outside of timelines is echoed by Korten (1991) due to the need for place and context specific responses to individual communities. Furthermore, transforming deeply entrenched structures of power is a slow and gradual process (Trawick 2001). According to Mosse (1997b), “[i]f external agencies try to change the political and social dynamic without fully understanding it, the social equilibrium can be severely disrupted, with nothing to take its place.”
  2. Be an ally not a project manager
    This starts with a genuine willingness to listen and learn from the people within the communities they are allied with. Take the time necessary to develop relationships based on trust, solidarity and mutual accountability and try to suspend any preconceived notions you may have about what is needed. Instead create a space for the community to develop and/or share their vision for the future and the strategies that might move them towards it. In the spirit of  Paulo Freire, we believe that by working together as allies in praxis (an intentional cycle of planning, action, and reflection) communities can identify and eliminate the objective sources of their oppression. But also, as outsiders can learn how our own relative privilege is intertwined in that oppression. In this way, empowerment is a mutual process. The genuineness and reciprocal nature of this relationship is the basis for developing genuine trust and solidarity at the grassroots. 
  3. Focus on the community’s long-term vision not band-aid approaches that just address symptoms.
    Instead of focusing on “problems”, try to facilitate communities in developing a long-term holistic vision for their region. Unlike focusing on problems, a holistic vision allows communities to imagine the world they would like to live in. You can deal with problems forever, yet never deal with the underlying contradictions behind poverty and powerlessness. Identifying a vision first makes it possible to identify and prioritize exactly what it is that is preventing you and your community from creating a better situation. The visioning process becomes the starting point for the ongoing praxis process described in the previous point and also forms the baseline for future assessment, monitoring and evaluation where individuals and communities come together to reflect on the progress of their various strategies and whether they are moving them towards their vision. But we have also found that through praxis, the vision becomes clearer and more broadly shared. Starting with a community’s vision also empowers communities to define progress on their own terms rather than having to adopt Western models and practices. 
  4. Work with community towards the mobilization and empowerment of entire regions or social groups.
    In the spirit of Ghandi’s concept of Swaraj, the recognition that true power comes from self-reliance and self-governance. And this being possible only with the mobilization of sufficient human and natural resources. In other words it takes more than just one or two communities to mobilize the critical mass and resources necessary to break the cycle of dependence behind much of the world’s poverty. We do not argue that all communities and regions should become self-sufficient, but rather self-reliant in that they have the ability and freedom to choose their own strategies. By gradually linking communities, community leaders, grassroots organizations, foundations, government agencies, and businesses together you can break the cycle of dependence that compromises their self-determination. 
  5. Create organizational structures built on trust, solidarity, & mutual accountability.
    We believe the only way to ensure genuine accountability to the communities we are working with is by creating and maintaining organizational structures built around trust, solidarity and mutual accountability. Within this framework the concern is not just with the final outcome, but with how the outcome is reached, and how the people within the framework contribute meaningfully to the organization (Davies 2000). The people become actors working to build the system, instead of being subjected to it. Key features of people based organizations are empowerment of members of the community (Davies 2000), decentralized decision making (Rothschild- Whitt 1979), context specific practices and policies, and an emphasis on the importance of trust between the employees of the development agency and the people with whom they are partnering (Korten 1984). While people based organizations are certainly still concerned about desired outcomes, the process by which the outcome is reached is organic and can be changed as needed. Such organizations are more responsive to the places in which they work and location specific needs, as opposed to being bound by the ways in which they work and trying to replicate generic processes. A central feature of such organizations is a bottom-up flow of decision making (Mansuri and Rao 2003) which enables the organizations to foster participatory development within communities (Chambers 1983). Projects and needs are met on an individual basis, evaluated with the input of the community, and a unique process grows out of that input (Korten 1991).

This article discusses topics that are also discussed in the following Village Earth online courses: Approaches to Community DevelopmentCommunity-Based OrganizingCommunity MobilizationCommunity Participation and Dispute ResolutionDevelopment and the Politics of EmpowermentParticipatory Monitoring and Evaluation

Building Trust in “Root-bound” Communities

Trust Building Community Development

Whether it’s your first time in a new community or a community you’ve lived in your entire life, working as a community organizer (animator, researcher, aid/relief worker, developer, facilitator- whatever the case may be) requires a unique set of skills and attitudes that differ from the skills we are taught in the course of our normal daily and professional lives. One of the central skills needed to be a successful community worker is the ability to build and maintain trust.

While trust is a critical factor for success in virtually all aspects of life, I would argue, the type trust one seeks to gain in the course of our everyday personal and professional lives is different from the type of trust one seeks to gain as a community worker. To help in this discussion, I would like to distinguish between two types of trust; embedded vs. generalized. Embedded trust is developed organically throughout the course of our lives with people with whom share a common identity (e.g. family members, schoolmates, neighborhood friends, religious affiliation, sports team members, colleagues, etc). Embedded trust is one of the strongest forms of trust. The other form of trust is “generalized trust” which has less to do with specific relationships than it does with the general willingness of people in a community to trust one another.

Generalized trust, to a large extent, is developed or eroded by the macro-social and political structures affecting a particular community. For example, without a functioning system of justice and due process (western or traditional) the risk of everyday social and economic interactions is increased. In such an environment, people avoid social and economic transactions with people they don’t know well because when something does go wrong people there aren’t institutions to deal with the conflict and so people are forced to seek their own justice – which can and often does tear families and communities apart, sometimes for generations. To the contrary, when there is a functioning system of justice and due-process the risk of a bad transaction is much lower and so people are more willing to engage with people they don’t already know.

How does generalized trust and embedded trust interact? The two types of trust are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I would argue that a healthy community has a balance of the two. Too much embedded trust and not enough generalized trust creates a situation where you have cliques that don’t interact with one another – I often refer to the problem as being a community being “root-bound.”  The term “root-bound” is a term used to describe what happens when the a plant outgrows its container which forced the roots to get tangled among themselves where they aren’t able to get sufficient nutrients and water. The solution is to break-up the roots before replanting it in the ground or a bigger container. For a community, an over-reliance on embedded trust also limits the resources and opportunities available to that community and/or the various cliques within it. It can also be seriously limiting for minorities who aren’t able to access the resources and information available to members of the dominant groups.

Too much generalized trust (and not enough embedded trust) is also not healthy. This is a scenario often described for many Western communities where over time, people have become disconnected from family, religion and civic institutions. This can be problematic in times when collective action may be required such as during times of crisis, in the course of healthy democratic functioning but also, family/religious/civic participation has been positively correlated with psychological well-being.

Now that we have a better idea of the concepts of embedded and generalized trust, what does this tell us about our role as community workers? It should be relatively clear at this point that as community workers, one of our principal roles should be to foster a healthy balance between generalized and embedded trust. Below are some specific points for building both types of trust within communities.

Rebuilding Healthy Community Roots

  • First of all, it is important to remember that cliques in communities often form in response to unreliable or oppressive macro social and political structures and thus may have social, political or economic utility. And that truly healthy relationships aren’t likely to occur until the broader macro social and political context is transformed into something that fosters more generalized trust. The key is not to break-down or break-apart the trust within cliques but to create low-risk opportunities for cliques to interact with one another and with outside networks.
  • While many cliques may have their basis in cultural institutions. Most cultures also have institutions that function to build connections between groups (ceremonies, festivals, rites, kinship rules, etc.). It’s important to learn about these cultural mechanisms and build upon them.
  • As community workers, we can facilitate the development of trust between groups by serving as a bridge, developing trust with and between different social groups.
  • If you are working in your own community it’s important that you avoid or (more realistically) are transparent about your standpoint on particular issues, allegiances and obligations to any specific group or clique.
  • If you are from outside the community, you can leverage your lack of embeddedness to develop a reputation as a neutral “bridge” between relatively closed groups (it’s also advised to be transparent about your standpoint on particular issues, allegiances and obligations to any specific group or clique).
  • Whether you’re an outsider or from that community, you should seek to be a model of transparency, openness, and trustworthiness. A situation where you’re open and transparent about yourself but people don’t feel like you’re going to spread information they shared with you in confidence. Doing so will position you as a valuable intermediary that can help bridge groups and access information and resources from the outside.

Building Embedded Trust When it Lacks

For organizers working in more urbanized or westernized community settings where you have relatively high levels of generalized trust but low levels of embedded trust, building embedded trust among individuals (solidarity work) may be your biggest challenge. Below are a few recommendations for building it.

  • It’s important to recognize that in such contexts, because people are disconnected and have been for so long, they may not fully realize what can be gained through organizing. Just the same, they may not realize that anything can be gained. In Western (cash-based) society, the options available to us for improving our life have been limited to what’s available through the market and very limited democratic processes (e.g. that a better life can only be obtained by increasing my income). To overcome this tendency, it’s important to open up people’s thinking to the spectrum of ways things can be accomplished outside of traditional market forces and political processes.  
  • Solidarity is difficult to build when some people stand to gain more than others and when some people take-on a disproportionate amount of risk. Building relatively flat organizations that emphasize member’s roles and responsibility vs. top-down authority will create an environment where the risk and rewards and more equitably shared by all, thus increasing a sense that “we’re all in this together”.
  • Western culture places emphasis on the individual (white males to be specific) and so we’re often not taught the normative cultural understandings and behaviors that promote effective voluntary collective action and solidarity. Unpacking the taken-for-granted assumptions in Western culture (individualism, patriarchy, survival of the fittest) can go a long way towards building more effective organizations – this is often referred to as “anti-oppression” training.

This is just a short list of ideas for building trust in communities. Please share your ideas and thoughts in the comments. Topics discussed in this post are also discussed in our online courses Community MobilizationDevelopment and the Politics of EmpowermentCommunity-Based OrganizingCommunity Participation and Dispute ResolutionParticipatory Monitoring and Evaluation.