Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Community organizing: letting the people take charge

Central to the concept of advocacy is empowerment – the idea that the poor, the uneducated, and the powerless can actually fi nd their voices and their strength to fi ght for their own causes. Wallerstein (1992) defi nes empowerment as “a social action process that promotes participation of people, organizations, and communities towards the goals of increase individual and community control, political efficacy, improved quality of community life and social justice.” With this definition, the task of empowering the people seems to be a daunting one.

And this is where community organizing comes in. Community organizing (CO) involves bringing together people, who, through their proximity with each other or through the same situation they are facing, are banded together by common causes and ideals.

CO is not a one-shot approach; it takes time to build and strengthen a community. Partners in advocacy In her paper, “ Revisiting community organizing and participatory action research,” Dr. Erlinda Palaganas listed knowing one’s self as the first step in CO. According to Palaganas, an organizer must answer the following

• Do you like working with and for the people?
• Do you believe in people’s capacity to change?
• Do you believe that people have the potentials to contribute to their own development?
• Do you believe that people should be empowered to make decisions on matters affecting them?
• Will you support people’s decisions?
• Are you committed to serving the people’s interest?

In the first step, two things are quite clear: fi rst, ego has no place in CO, and second, and organizer must be deeply committed to the ideals of his or her work. The relationship between an organizer and the community is not one of teacher - student or benefactor – beneficiary. Rather, it is a partnership where they both learn from each other and work together, side-by-side.

Many projects with good intentions have failed simply because the implementers failed to listen to the community. Often, they would bring in new concepts or technology, without validating with the community if these are appropriate and applicable in the local context.

Or worse, they came in with a patronizing and even smug attitude. This is a pitfall for many college-educated health professionals and advocates who may harbor the idea that their education makes them more superior to ordinary people; most of whom probably never finished elementary. Another danger with this kind of thinking is that instead of empowering the community, it will only teach them to rely on dole-outs.

By considering the community as important partners, they would also start to embrace the program as their own, thereby guaranteeing its sustainability. Rather than simply
coming in and giving the community a set of solution to their problems, a good organizer knows how to stand back and let the community decide for themselves. In this way, the community will not look at the program as a mere imposition of outsiders.

Listening skills and empathy are thus important tools in an organizer’s arsenal. An organizer must fi rst win the trust and support of the community. This can be done through constant and honest dialogues with the members and finding out what their issues are.

Integrating with the community is a vital component of CO. Integration entails knowing the community, sharing the people’s concerns, and understanding their perspectives. It allows an organizer to gain a fi rst-hand experience of the situation in the community.

Once a community has been organized, the next task is to identify leaders and train them to build their communications and leadership skills to prepare them for the task of advocating their own causes. Selecting leaders is not arbitrary; the community must also be involved. Leaders do not only come from the ranks of village chieftains or elders, they could also come from the ranks of traditional healers. Palaganas cited the following qualifications and characters that can help an organizer identify a leader:

• comes from the poor sector of the community and is directly engaged in economic production;
• must possess integrity and credibility;
• is receptive to changes;
• must have an analytical and critical mind;
• must be able to communicate effectively;
• must be interested in the upliftment of the community

Empowerment: educating the people
In a training sponsored by the Medical Transparencies Alliance, and which was attended by organizations from Peru and Asia, one of the facilitators pointed out that an organizer/advocate should be prepared to stand aside once the community has found their collective voices.

Some organizations have taken this step further: they actually train community members on health concepts and even certain medical procedures. The Council for Health and Development (CHD), the national organization of community-based health programs in the Philippines, conducts a variety of trainings for its community health workers (CHW), ranging from first aid, alternative medicine (e.g. acupuncture), production of herbal medicines, and basic microscopy, among others. The trainings are conducted by the organization’s network of health professionals, as well as experienced CHWs.

CHD’s approach belies the myth that barely educated people cannot be taught complex ideas, particularly when it comes to health and medical concepts. In many areas in the Philippines where health professionals and health facilities are sorely lacking, CHWs have been a community’s important fi rst line of defense against ill health. More importantly, CHWs are not mere healers; they are also leaders and listeners well respected in the community, to whom the people run to for help.

The politics of health
An organized community is also an active player in a nation’s political scene. Keeping in mind that health issues are also affected by socio-political and economic determinants, organized communities conduct mobilizations to speak up against certain issues. They are keenly aware that health is simply not the absence of disease; it is also a manifestation of the prevailing sociopolitical and economic conditions. They are not passive players, waiting for change to come. Rather, they actively participate in demanding for social changes and in fighting for their rights.

While organized communities do have the clout, they can only wield this if they have the numbers. And this is where networking plays a major part. Networking involves
building alliances with other groups and individuals who share the same sentiments and who advocate the same cause.

Confronting the challenges
Organizing a community entails facing challenges, ranging from opposition, lack of resources, and even harassment. Since CO has a strong political component, it is inevitable that the ruling class may feel threatened and they might act irrationaly just to protect the status quo. Community organizing is indeed challenging, but no task is too daunting for a deeply committed and passionate organizer. An organizer’s reward is the satisfaction of seeing a previously timid community become organized
and outspoken.

Wallerstein, Nina. Community Organizing and Empowerment Principles of Public Health.

Palaganas, Caster. Revisiting Community Organizing and Participatory Action Research (CO-PAR).

By Ross Mayor for Health Alert Asia Pacific, Issue 16. For copies of the newsletter, please request to

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Pass the RH Bill!

We urge our legislators to pass the the Reproductive Health Bill this year. The link below shows why we need a comprehensive RH program here in the Philippines.

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