by Richard Chase

Editor's note: This Insights article is a departure from the quantitative trends-based approach on Minnesota Compass. Instead we present an approach that can be used in situations where quantitative data either isn't available or may not be the best way to analyze the situation. One area where this situation arises frequently is community-led efforts to enhance equity and improve outcomes for families and children. The article concludes with several examples where the approach was applied.

Community-led solutions are community-initiated or owned, with or without outside funding or resources. Broad networks of groups such as block clubs, neighborhood associations, faith communities, community-based social service agencies, schools, libraries, parks, and local businesses may be involved in the community endeavor. From the outset, these local groups come together through grassroots or community-based organizing, with the flexibility and freedom to design their own processes and determine their own indicators of success.

Local groups come together through grassroots or community-based organizing, with the flexibility and freedom to design their processes and determine their own indicators of success.

Organizations that are rooted in and serve marginalized communities have been underfunded, have lacked resources, and have been excluded from documenting and determining their own needs, strengths, and paths to well-being. This feeds a deficit narrative of communities receiving aid from an outside entity attempting to fix their problems, while treating communities as broken and community members as dependent service recipients.

Community-led solutions elevate the belief that communities have the wisdom, knowledge, strengths, and determination to take charge of their own development. The stories of community-led endeavors offer an asset-based narrative.

Building evidence that counts

Government and philanthropic funders predominately require evidence-based services and programs. With regard to evidence of impacts, their preferred methods are rigorous experimental or quasi-experimental comparison studies that produce quantitative, objective, and observable findings of effectiveness, with stories used to illustrate or supplement statistical data.

In contrast, evidence of successful community-led initiatives tends to be mostly qualitative. Research professor and storyteller Brene Brown says, "Stories are data with a soul." In part, this focus on feelings and stories stems from the conviction that qualitative approaches provide the depth and nuance of knowledge, experiences, and culturally defined success often overlooked by quantitative measures (Article 12). This qualitative focus also derives from community-based participatory evaluation methods, which define success on a community's own terms rather than by prescribed or inflexible methods.

Qualitative approaches provide the depth and nuance of knowledge, experiences, and culturally defined success often overlooked by quantitative measures.

In sum, building an evidence base of community-led solutions involves acknowledging community members' knowledge, experience, and expertise; valuing and determining evidence from the community perspective; and using culturally appropriate ways to gather, analyze, and report data.

Common attributes of community-led solutions

While each community-led solution is unique to its context, they do have some other attributes in common.

The fundamental human need to belong precedes community change. In turn, the sense of belonging grows through participation in community-led solutions. Similarly, positive community change has a ripple effect within communities that mobilizes other community members to work together.

Community-led projects are often as much about the sustained process of community mobilization as about the outcome of those efforts.

Successful community-led initiatives have no linear series of steps to complete in any particular order. Each one likely has a different series of steps. The most effective community-led initiatives do share a key attribute. They adapt to their particular context.

Key ingredients for success

The greatest impacts from community-led initiatives include these key ingredients:

  • A shared positive vision. The most effective shared visions are positive, reflective of community values/aspirations, based in the community's strengths, and center around a significant local issue.
  • Harnessing the community's existing assets. This "assets-based approach" relies on a commitment to harnessing locally owned assets like time, money, labor, and local physical resources. It relies heavily on voluntary action and raising awareness of participation opportunities by various means. This approach develops a mentality of nurturing local resources and ultimately self-sustainability.
  • Effective use of outside resources. What proves particularly effective are the skills that can be adopted and implemented for self-sustainability. External support through start-up funding can give momentum and hope to the community. Opportunity sharing is continually identified as a key to accomplishing change.
  • Ownership and agency. Skilled leaders take intentional steps to redistribute power. They know when to step up and when to withdraw so that the followers may understand how to lead themselves. This also provides space for participating community members to deeply invest in the experience and receive personal rewards.
  • Intentionality. From initial conceptualization to the celebration of success, communities that are intentional with relationships and pursuit of change tend to reap the most reward from their efforts. No specific route is superior to another but each step requires careful forethought for effective implementation.

Examples of Community-led solutions

Here are four examples of community-led efforts, including the processes implemented and the evidence used to document success.

Preventing a public health disparity

In Hawaii, youth suicide is a public health problem disproportionately affecting rural and ethnic or cultural communities. A community initiative, the Hawaii's Caring Communities Initiative (HCCI), provided leadership opportunities for youth in six ethnic and rural communities to serve as role models and advocates. HCCI supported the youth to work with their peers to develop and implement suicide prevention strategies. The prevention activities, designed to increase awareness about suicide and to connect with youth at risk of suicide, were grounded in the particular needs and strengths of each community.

Evaluation of HCCI relied on a mixed-methods approach. Youth used tracking sheets to record the number of attendees at community activities and the number of youth at risk of suicide. Pre-post evaluations confirmed improved knowledge and attitudes about suicide. Through their collective efforts, HCCI estimates that over 643,000 people in Hawaii were reached, and 18 youth at risk of suicide received necessary mental health services.

Developing sustainable employment opportunities

In 2011, 12 unemployed men in Lamontagne, Haiti, sought to overcome feelings of dependency that they attributed to a lack of sustainable employment opportunities. Together, they formed the Organization of Active Peasants for the Development of Lamontagne (OPADEL) to send five members for training to learn cultivation of non-traditional crops. Using their new agricultural skills, the men intentionally chose a plot of land to plant high-value cash crops visible to the whole community, with the hope of instilling community belief in the possibility of change. Within a year, they had succeeded as role models to local farmers, who were able to produce enough crops to double their income.

OPADEL has grown to more than 1,000 members and has turned to improve skills in other areas, such as computer literacy, and to improve economic opportunities for women and children. Multiple stories of individual success serve as the OPADEL's primary evidence. The people in Lamontagne attribute the upswing in opportunities throughout the region directly to the efforts of OPADEL.

Achieving educational equity

In response to a 1992 report showing that Latina babies born in Texas averaged less than a 1 percent chance of attaining college education, Con Mi MADRE (Mothers and Daughters Raising Expectations) developed as a nonprofit to change that trajectory. Both the program model and evaluation are community-informed, asset-based, and grounded in Latina culture. The program, building on close family bonds, works with mother-daughter pairs to instill a vision of educational achievement and higher education attendance. The program rejected evidence-based cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for what the community considered more culturally responsive interpersonal psychotherapy.

The evaluation included both quantitative and qualitative measures. Results were informed by staff experiences using participatory methods as well as an external evaluator employing standardized surveys with repeated measures designed for 6th, 9th, and 12th graders. Con Mi MADRE continues to engage 750 mother-daughter pairs every year and boasts 100 percent high school graduation among program participants, with 77 percent of daughters pursuing higher education.

Stabilizing a low-income neighborhood

St. Michel, Canada was often portrayed negatively through stories of poverty, unemployment, street gangs, and high crime rates. The negative stories made conditions even worse as the neighborhood population became more transient in response to the degrading social environment.

Taking charge of their circumstances, residents came together to make intentional changes. They shared a common vision focused on citizen participation, opportunity, and an "us/we" mindset. They cultivated relationships with governmental authorities and donors. They developed community-based organizations and an umbrella organization, Vivre St. Michel en Sante (VSMS), made up of multiple community-based organizations. By working together they further bolstered their sense of togetherness.

Today, the population in St. Michel is less transient. Residents are choosing to stay and are working with neighborhood associations devoted to uprooting poverty and improving housing and educational quality for all. While VSMS does not report any statistical data to verify its success, it does have a collection of stories portraying residents' perception of positive changes and visible improvements based on their experiences.

Additional Reading

Changing lives: The impact of community-based activities on health improvement

Coady International Institute: ABCD case studies

Community development & community-led development: What's the difference?

Community-driven development: Results profile

Community-led approaches to reducing poverty in neighborhoods: A review of evidence and practice

Communities in action: Pathways to health equity

Community and the crime decline: The causal effect of local nonprofits on violent crime

Community-defined evidence: A bottom-up behavioral health approach to measure what works in communities of color

Cultures of engagement: The organizational foundations of advancing health in immigrant and low-income communities of color

Effective community-level change: What makes community-level initiatives effective and how can central government best support them?

The impact and process of a community-led intervention on reducing environmental inequalities related to physical activity and healthy eating – a pilot study

Inspiring communities: Case studies

The PILI 'Ohana project: A community-academic partnership to achieve metabolic health equity in Hawai'i