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Agencies Community-Based Organizations and Groups

Community Organization versus Community Organizing, The History of Community Organization, Types of Community Organization

By Paul W. Speer & Douglas D. Perkins, Vanderbilt University
In J. Guthrie (Ed.) Encyclopedia of Education, 2nd edition. (pp. 431–441).
New York: Macmillian Reference USA. 2002.

Child and youth development are influenced not only by families and schools, but by a wide variety of formal and informal community organizations; some of which involve youth directly, while others effect neighborhood changes that affect youth and families.

Community Organization versus Community Organizing

It is important to distinguish community organization from community organizing. Community organization may be thought of from a broader, community perspective. Such a structural orientation considers a community's social ecology (the number and variety of organizations throughout a community, and the relationships among these organizations). Community organizations are most often nonprofit organizations–particularly service agencies–that are located in, and provide services to, neighborhoods and communities. Community organizations include parent-teacher organizations, sports clubs, church groups, block or neighborhood associations, 4-H clubs, and many others.

In contrast, community organizing is conceptualized more as a process aimed at creating change. This may be done either through developing leadership among individuals or by building power for collectives. Community organizing is best described as seeking empowerment, both as a process and an out-come. Community organizing, as a process, is practiced in community organizations, though not all community organizations practice community organizing. However, many community organizations whose main function is service provision have expanded the services they provide to include community organizing. So, while some organizations exist exclusively to practice the process of organizing, other organizations engage in some organizing, and still others practice no organizing.

The distinction between community organization and community organizing is made because the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. While the junction of these terms is sometimes appropriate and sometimes not, it is important to understand the historical relationship between these two terms, the fact that this relationship has changed dramatically over time, and that both have relevance for children and teenagers.

The History of Community Organization

Following the American Civil War, there was a rapid rise in the number of charitable agencies designed to lend assistance to those displaced, disabled, or impoverished by the war. Many of these organizations were progressive in philosophy, even by the standards of the early twenty-first century, and they provided services to, or activities for, children and teens. The late 1800s also saw an expansion of the public school system, along with the creation of hundreds of orphanages, hospitals, settlement houses, and other charity services. Due to the rapid rise of such organizations, and a lack of government oversight, the distribution and coordination of services soon became problematic. The term community organization was coined by social workers in this era to address the problem of coordinating charity-based services, thus reflecting the structural perspective of community.

The next phase in the evolution of community organization stressed cooperative planning among privately run community-service agencies. Efforts were geared toward specialization of services and centralization of decisions regarding these services. By the late 1940s, community organization became professionalized in the field of social work. Community organization theory stressed organizing as a process where a professional organizer worked with communities to help develop leadership within a community.

In the 1960s, new realizations about the context of American communities–particularly the vast social and economic underclass and the inability of the welfare bureaucracy to adequately address the needs of the poor–influenced the orientation of community organization efforts to deal more closely with community organizing. It was during this period that the concepts of community organization and community organizing became more interconnected. The emphasis on organizing, rather than organization, led to an emphasis on citizen participation and empowerment.

During the 1980s and 1990s, community organizations expanded to the point of being referred to as a movement, and the process of community organizing expanded into many community organizations. One struggle that emerged in this period was the awareness of power shifting from local communities to regions, nations, and international corporations. The process of globalization has raised new questions about the efficacy of local organizations in addressing problems caused by large-scale economic forces.

Types of Community Organization

Categorizing community organizations is difficult, because they may range from voluntary organizations to professional service agencies to informal groups. These organizations are often considered to include churches, unions, schools, health care agencies, social-service groups, fraternities, and clubs. Community organizations are predominantly conceptualized as nonprofit, but broader conceptions of community sometimes include all organizations, including for-profit enterprises. Service agencies are frequently termed community-based agencies because their service has shifted from centralized institutional settings to dispersed geographical locations providing greater access to residents. Social-service agencies have received criticism because, although their geographic placement has improved resident access, their hierarchical social practices retain social- and cultural-access barriers.

There is a further distinction to be made, between volunteer and professional organizations. Volunteer organizations often have professional or paid staff, but volunteers perform the vast majority of these organizations' efforts. These organizations are frequently advocacy-oriented, and they apply community-organizing strategies to accomplish their goals. In contrast, professional organizations are usually staffed by experts who provide services with little or no volunteer input. These service-oriented organizations usually have greater resources than volunteer organizations, and they interface with residents based on professional norms and standards, whereas volunteer organizations have a more egalitarian orientation.

Another type of community organization is the informal group. These groups are represented by informal networks of friends and neighbors that exist throughout communities. The growth or decline in the number of these groups has been debated. While some argue that informal groups, such as bowling leagues, are declining, there is also evidence that other groups, such as self-help groups or small support groups, have proliferated.

Ecological Perspectives on Community Organizations

To understand the role of community organization in the lives of children and teens, it is important to understand these organizations from the perspective of the ecology of community life. There are numerous perspectives that may be considered ecological or structural, and a number of these will be looked at here.

Sociologist Robert Park, working in the 1960s in Chicago, was among the first to study ecological aspects of community. His ecological orientation viewed community not as a collection of streets and buildings, but as a psychological and sociological orientation based on customs, traditions, and organized attitudes. Park understood that community organizations, agencies, and groups are critical in the shaping of this psychological and sociological orientation.

Extending this work to the functional patterns of community, sociologist Norton Long viewed community as the product of interactions among powerful entities. For Long, community functioning is the result of competing and complementary interactions by those with power–usually groups and organizations operating in their own self-interest. He conceptualized this dynamic pattern of interactions as an ecology of games. The community's social structure is a by-product of sets of "players" who compete to achieve their goals and "win." Each "player" (a group or organization with power), defines their own "game" (the goals and objectives of that particular entity). A community's social structure, then, is composed of multiple groups and organizations geared toward reaching their organizational objectives. As different issues arise for "players" in the community, different allies and enemies are generated among the "players." Alliances and oppositions are based on the objectives of each player regarding that particular issue. From this perspective, patterns of community functioning are the product of powerful entities interacting, not the result of functional necessity or rational decisions.

In an application of this ecological orientation to the life of children, the psychologist Roger Barker (also in the 1960s) studied the diverse settings embedded in communities, and the constraints and opportunities those settings provide for children's development. His research established that different children in the same place behaved more similarly than the same children in different places. He concluded that settings exert a great deal of control over behavior–more so than personality or intrapsychic variables.

Barker's subsequent research focused more on settings, organizations, and schools, and less on individuals in those settings. He came to scrutinize behavior settings as units of analysis. Behavior settings are small-scale social systems composed of individuals and their immediate environments, which are configured such that they shape a pattern of behaviors, or what is called a routine program of actions, including specific time and place boundaries. Barker delineated three components to a behavior setting:(1) physical properties (e.g., size of a room, arrangement of chairs); (2) human components (roles or niches within an environment that individuals can fill, such as chairperson or observer); and (3) the setting program (the patterned sequence of transactions among actors in a specific environment).

In a 1964 study of two high schools, one large and one small, Roger Barker and Paul Gump compared the number of behavioral settings and the number of students in the each school. They found that the ratio of settings to students was much higher in the small school than in the big school. The result was that students in small high schools participated in a broader range of settings. They were also more likely to be involved participants than passive spectators and they had greater competence and cooperation when working with peers.

An explicit examination of the role of a community's ecology on human development was made by developmental psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner in the 1970s. His work examined the successive ecologies that youth are embedded in, and the influence of these ecologies on development. At the most minute level, microsystems are the settings in which an individual participates (they are comparable to Barker's behavior settings). Mesosystems are the interactions and relations between microsystems. For example, the relationship between the education and law enforcement systems will impact the opportunities and constraints an individual encounters, which will have an impact on both the individual's behavior and personal safety. These two ecologies, the microsystem and mesosystem, play an important role in the development of children and teens. Bronfenbrenner articulates other ecologies, but these two are the most relevant in a discussion of community organizations.

The organizations that are part of a community have been termed mediating structures. Local community organizations provide a common ground for residents to share problems and resources. Organizations thus serve to mediate between seemingly powerless individuals or families and the large institutions of mass society. They include PTAs, school-community partnerships, churches, and voluntary associations. Mediating structures are people-sized; that is, they are small enough to reflect the values and realities of individual life, yet large enough to empower individuals to influence the broader social structures (e.g., large schools or school systems, government bureaucracies, large local corporations or chain enterprises, mass media) that may be the target of social-change efforts. Additionally, mediating structures represent contexts through which an empowerment process unfolds for individuals, organizations, and communities. Community organizations are one type of mediating structure. They function as mechanisms through which individuals can express their collective self-interests, particularly regarding the issues and problems affecting their families and communities.

As a field, community psychology has been at the forefront of research on supportive and empowering community settings for human development, and on the prevention of social and mental health problems. Much of this work has been done in religious, self-help/mutual aid, or block and neighborhood organizations. However, small-scale voluntary associations such as these are often suspicious of professionals and researchers, and therefore are difficult to study or evaluate, despite their importance.

The literature suggests that the assemblage of local organizations, agencies, and groups serve as a critical determinant of behavior and development. The implication for children and teens is that they will be assisted in their development to the extent that the organizational landscape is composed of numerous settings that involve and engage youth in healthy and appropriate developmental challenges.

Finally, social capital is a concept that has become very popular in discussions about community organization. Social capital is most commonly understood as the accumulation of trust embedded in the norms and networks that exist in a community. Some authors have emphasized informal networks, whether inside or outside organizations. Others have emphasized formally organized networks, or both formal and informal ones. Yet community organizations are, by definition, networks of civic engagement. Agencies that serve residents without developing relationships or building enduring activity and participation are not accumulating social capital. Community organizations, however, such as block groups, neighborhood associations, sports clubs, and school-based organizations, often embody the associational glue that creates social capital. When the norms and dynamics of these organizations include trust and reciprocity, the capacity for individuals within such groups to act for mutual benefit is great. Social capital may be therefore be understood as the norms of trust and reciprocity that exist both within and between the organizations, agencies, and groups that form the social ecology of a community.

Approaches to Community Organizing

It is important to examine community organizing–the process of empowering individuals and collectives. As noted previously, some community organizations exist to exclusively conduct community organizing, while some engage only partially in organizing, and some do no community organizing at all.

Bases of organizing. Community and labor organizer Si Kahn has identified four bases, or origins, of organizing: union, community, constituency, and issue organizing. Union organizing is based in the workplace; community organizing is based on location or geography; constituency organizing is based on common individual characteristics (e.g., gender, language, ethnic background); and issue organizing is based on issues rather than common individual characteristics (e.g., taxes, schools, war, health care). These bases of organization, like all typologies of organizations, are not mutually exclusive, and there is no common agreement about dividing typologies.

Types of organizing. There is a great diversity in community organizing typology. The most commonly cited approaches are social-planning, social-action, community-development, civic-agency, electoral, and pressure-group organizing. Again, this typology is not composed of mutually exclusive categories, and the differences between types are often minimal. Political scientist Janice Perlman reduces these multiple categories into three types: self-help or alternative institutions, electoral groups, and pressure groups.

Self-help community organizing includes three specific classifications of organizing: social planning, civic agency, and community development. Social planning is geared toward technical problem solving, especially with regard to the delivery of goods and services to people in need. Civic agency is a process characterized as providing services for those in need. Social change is not an issue for a civic agency–in fact, the civic agency approach sometimes must avoid social change, as change is politically difficult due to the support for this approach that exists within the existing social structure. Community development organizations most often emphasize the development of the built environment, and only secondarily stress social change. This approach uses consensus-building techniques to achieve improved community environments, and conflict is avoided. All three classifications of organizing incorporate professionals or experts in a variety of fields who work together to develop ideas and plans for specific programs. Historically, these approaches have involved very little community input, but the engagement and participation of citizens has increased throughout the 1990s.

Electoral organizing, often called political participation, involves the attainment of power through the electoral process. The activities of the electoral approach include voting, campaigning for candidates, and supporting or opposing specific issues. Involvement in the political process, while requiring the participation of many people, reflects the value of leadership in that the social problem or issue being campaigned for is ultimately placed in the hands of the elected official. From the perspective of this approach, the elected official, it is believed, can quickly and effectively deal with the issue.

Pressure groups are referred to by many names, including social-action organizations, social-influence associations, instrumental voluntary associations, power-transfer organizations, and empowerment-based organizations. The goal of social-action organizations is to develop power in an effort to pressure social systems and institutions to respond to the needs of disadvantaged communities. Any differences among pressure-group typologies are more a matter of degree than substance; all share the value of citizen participation. Inherent in the pressure-group approach is the belief that citizens are best able to know what their communities need, and that the community organization is a mechanism that enables citizens to address those needs.

The key issue in community organizing is the development of power in both individuals and organizations. Different approaches vary in the directness with which they address issues of power. For example, some organizing efforts settle for the empowerment of individual members and do not seek to build a power base capable of creating community change. Nevertheless, the power issue is usually at the base of any understanding in community organizing efforts.

Process of Community Organization

The process of building a community capable of acting to improve its circumstances is called community organizing. Organizing involves building relationships across networks of people who identify with common values and ideals, and who can participate in sustained social action on the basis of those values. Community organizing represents the entire process of organizing relationships, identifying issues, moving to action on identified issues, evaluating the efficacy of those actions, and maintaining a sustained organization capable of continuing to act on issues and concerns.

Tension can arise between the process of empowering individuals who participate in organizing and the process of building power for organizations where organizing is practiced. This tension is, in effect, between organizing as a process and as an out-come. For some organizations, efforts that develop the skills, consciousness, knowledge, and confidence of individuals are sufficient to be labeled empowerment. Others emphasize the need to address the causes of human suffering in the broader community and society through empowering communities of people capable of changing their circumstances.

Applications for Children and Teens

Community organizations that focus on youth have existed for a long time. Church-based activities for youth have existed at least since the mid-nineteenth century, and the early-twentieth century saw the creation of the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, 4-H clubs, Junior Achievement, and the Junior Red Cross. By the middle of the twentieth century, education became more dominant than work as the major activity for young people. As school operated for a shorter duration than work, this resulted in more time after school and, relatedly, more organizations to serve youth.

Of the many community organizations that provide services and activities for youth, few have worked to engage youth in active, participatory ways. Service-oriented efforts, such as traditional recreation and education efforts, rather than the participatory and empowering activities represented in the principles of community organizing, have been the norm. However, this interest in altering the standard or traditional pattern of interacting with youth is changing. Increasingly, organizations and agencies are incorporating organizing principles and strategies into youth work. Additionally, youth organizations are considering ways to alter the community ecology to be more supportive of youth.

Historically, organizations that involved youth in participatory activities consistent with organizing emerged in the 1960s. One such example is the Mobilization for Youth (MFY) Program in New York City. This program, run in a settlement house on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, was funded by the National Institute for Mental Health and has been acknowledged as a precursor to community action programs in the War on Poverty. MFY is an important effort historically because it demonstrated many of the challenges in bringing organizing processes to youth in settings that had traditionally provided only services such as education, recreation, or job training.

MFY was designed as a program to address juvenile delinquency and was based on the premise that the lack of constructive opportunities in a young person's environment can lead to delinquency. Specific delinquency prevention efforts targeted jobs for teenagers, local neighborhood service centers, employment programs for neighborhood residents, and mobilizing residents to take action on issues of com mon concern. Mobilizing residents for organizing activities became the locus of bitter controversy when groups organized by MFY attempted to alter their local ecology by protesting against the police, schools, and welfare department. Local politicians and established institutions retaliated against MFY, but because MFY had federal funding it was able to survive organizationally. However, the tremendous pressure applied by the local establishment caused MFY to abandon its organizing efforts and return to the service-oriented agency it had been prior to their organizing efforts.

This experience parallels that of many organizations throughout the United States that have at tempted to bring community-organizing processes to traditional service-oriented agencies. Despite these experiences, both organizing processes and the ecological understandings of community have been accepted by many organizations as guides in working to improve outcomes for youth.

Current Trends in Community Organizing for Youth

Since about 1980, there has been an increased interest in bringing community-organizing principles and understandings of community ecology to organizations and agencies that work with youth. Often, the links to community organizing and community ecology are implicit, but the emphasis on the active participation of youth and the attempts to reshape the community ecology to be supportive of youth are the hallmarks of many current efforts.

Many of the efforts linking children and teens to communities stems from concerns about the quality of public education. These approaches use schools as the base of community support for youth. Most popular among these approaches are collaborations between community agencies and schools that bring agency services to the schools. However, some have argued against service provision in schools, urging instead an integration of community services in multiple neighborhood locations. While school-based services make the location of service delivery centralized and easy for providers, the school as locus of service provision is often removed from the context of community problems and controlled by the professionals recognized in school settings. The placement of integrated services in diverse locations throughout a community is believed to allow for greater resident involvement in shaping service planning and tailoring service delivery to diverse population needs.

The most popular framework around which these activities take place is called youth development. Youth development programs are guided by several principles. First, the emphasis is on assets or strengths inherent in all youth, rather than a traditional approach that focuses on deficits. Second, the level of intervention is often the community rather than individuals. With this orientation, youth development is aligned with a community organization or ecological approach–it emphasizes the breadth of organizations and the connections between organizations that compose a community. Third, youth development approaches seek the active participation of youth in program design and implementation. This participatory element parallels the process of community organizing.

Organizations and agencies that apply a youth development approach are numerous. They include, for example, the National Crime Prevention Council, 4-H clubs, the United Way, and federal agencies such as the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

As noted, youth development efforts incorporate both community organization and community organizing approaches. However, other activities also fall under the rubric of youth development, including community service, mentoring, and social services.

Learning in community settings. Since the 1990s, there has been special attention paid to learning that occurs in communities and community organizations. The formal and informal networks of community, in all their social and organizational complexity, are essential, yet often overlooked, vehicles of learning. Such learning includes intergroup and intragroup learning of cultural norms and displays; civic learning and the adaptation of people and populations; information, referral, and mutual assistance within groups and organizations; and social change in individuals, families, organizations, and society. These processes are part and parcel of what may be called learning communities.

Community service-learning, which is the testing and illumination of curriculum through participatory student projects that address local needs, has become an extremely popular pedagogy. Service-learning is more than simply experiential or vocational learning. By explicitly focusing on a local community's social problems and getting involved in their solution, it links classroom learning to the development of a sense of community, civic responsibility, and greater understanding and awareness of political, economic, and other root causes of the problems observed. Service-learning takes the idea of a learning community literally in exploring concrete ways to bring students, local government officials, community-development practitioners and researchers, and community residents and leaders together to learn and benefit from each other. It adds reality and relevance to the curriculum by bringing to life dry classroom materials; by showing how social processes really work; by giving students the skills, experience, and connections that often lead to employment opportunities; and by providing tangible effects of students' efforts (whether planting trees, cleaning a park, building a playground or house, or simply seeing improvement and joy in a tutored child).

Service-learning is thought to be a "win-win-win-win" situation. The winners are: (1) the instructor, whose teaching is brought to life and made more relevant through application to the "real world"; (2) the students, who almost unanimously report getting more out of the course, not only in terms of practical skills and experience, but also in terms of theory application and testing; (3) the community residents or clients of the host community or organization, who usually get more personal attention and energetic bodies to help with their problems; and (4) the host organizations, who get unskilled, semi-skilled, and even skilled labor–and a chance to test the performance of possible future workers, both at little to no cost.

How effective is service-learning? Its salutary effect on students' social development is well established, but its impact on learning and cognitive development has been debated for years. Similar to many of the community programs in which they volunteer, service-learning tends to be very popular among the students, instructors, and agency staff who participate. What may be least known about service-learning is its actual impact on community organizations and conditions.

Strengths-based youth interventions. This attention to the role of community organizations in child and youth development is consistent with several national trends, many of which are loosely coalescing into a growing movement to promote a strengths-based approach to psychological theory, educational and social-service practice, and public policy, rather than more traditional deficit and victim-blaming models. This movement favors a variety of positive psychological and intervention concepts that are thought to operate on both the individual and community levels (and often the family and organizational levels as well). These include empowerment, development, resilience, competency-based prevention, health (and mental health) promotion, community psychology, positive psychology, ecological theory, asset-based community development, social capital, networks, diversity, and multiculturalism. The American Psychological Association (APA) has commissioned a group of scholars to explore the implications of this strengths orientation for policies affecting children, youth, families, and communities.

The APA volume compiles a range of policy recommendations, many of which aim to support particular strengths-based youth and communityd-evelopment programs. These community-based programs address such adversities as divorce, child or adult domestic violence, parents' alcoholism or mental illness, pediatric illnesses, teen pregnancy and parenthood, school transitions, school failure, negative peer influences, minority status, community violence, and other community-level economic, social, environmental, and political adversities. (Ironically, it is testament to the pull of deficit thinking that even this volume on strengths approaches was organized around problems.) Most of the recommended programs may be locally planned to be culture and context specific. Some are necessarily government run, some are nonprofit, more and more represent public-private partnerships, and all recognize the key role of both public support and community involvement.

Four strategic goals, in line with the APA group, appear fundamental to strengths-based research and social policy: (1) to recognize and build upon existing strengths in individuals, families, and communities; (2) to build new strengths at each level; (3) to strengthen the larger social environments in which individuals, families, and communities are embedded; and (4) to engage individuals, families, and communities in a strengths-based process of designing, implementing, and evaluating interventions that are collaborative, participatory, and empowering.


These examples make it clear that education and human development do not stop at the schoolhouse door or the end of the family driveway. The integration of community organizing and community organization approaches, along with community learning and more traditional service-oriented activities, appears to hold promise for children and teens. Fundamental to the movement toward community organizing and community organization has been a shift away from viewing youths as objects to be served, and toward a view of youths as participants with assets and skills. In addition to a new perspective on youths themselves, a broader analysis entailing an ecological understanding of community has altered the nature of many youth-focused organizations to develop new partnerships and innovations that seek to modify communities to become youth-enhancing environments.


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