To create effective and long-lasting social change, organizations and the programs they create must in one way or another become embedded in the local community.
In this issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review we have two articles that make it clear just how important grassroots engagement is. One of these is the feature article “Community Engagement Matters (Now More Than Ever).” As the authors, Melody Barnes and Paul Schmitz, write, “How policymakers and other social change leaders pursue initiatives will determine whether those efforts succeed. If they approach such efforts in a top-down manner, they are likely to meet with failure.”
All types of programs need to be connected to the grassroots, not just ones that are traditionally thought of as communitybased. This dictum applies even to programs that are evidence-based and have undergone trials elsewhere. “Data-driven practices and programs hold great promise as a means for making progress against seemingly intractable social problems. But ultimately they will work only when community members are able to engage in them as leaders and partners. Community engagement has two signifi cant benfi ts: It can achieve real change in people’s lives—especially in the lives of the most vulnerable members of a community—and it can instill a can-do spirit that extends across an entire community,” write Barnes and Schmitz.
A second article—a review of the new book Housing First: Ending Homelessness, Transforming Systems, and Changing Lives—makes a similar point. The book examines the Housing First approach to homelessness. Rather than having “experts” create yet another program to help the homeless, the creators of Housing First went out on the street and asked the homeless themselves what they needed.
Armed with that knowledge, Housing First has created a relatively simple program focused on providing housing that works much better than most other more complicated programs: 85 percent to 90 percent of homeless people placed in Housing First housing remained housed two years later. “The US government has now established Housing First as official policy. At the US Department of Veterans Affairs, for example, the policy has led to a remarkable decline in homeless veterans,” writes Culhane.
Is community engagement a magic bullet? No. But it’s clearly an important component of creating programs that work. And the engagement that is created by one program can have spillover eff ects into the entire community, strengthening other social programs and creating greater social cohesion within the community itself, an essential component of creating a healthy and resilient society.
Read more stories by Eric Nee.