Academic journal article Journal of Rural Social Sciences

Increasing Community Participation with Self-Organizing Meeting Processes*

Academic journal article Journal of Rural Social Sciences

Increasing Community Participation with Self-Organizing Meeting Processes*

Article excerpt


Involving many people in community-based research provides many benefits, such as more labor power and increased buy-in. Traditional meeting formats, however, are not well suited to attracting broad engagement. One way to address this challenge is to instead employ self-organizing meeting processes, which are designed to invite active participation from attendees, and do not predefine the agenda. This article describes three such processes, 1) Open Space Technology, 2) World Café, and 3) Dynamic Facilitation, followed by my observations on their advantages and disadvantages when employed in community-based research efforts. Their use requires giving up a great amount of control when compared with traditional, top-down meeting approaches, and may result in actions beyond, or even excluding, research. The strong possibility of failing to address organizers' own short-term goals, however, should be balanced with the higher likelihood of achieving the broader community's long-term goals.

Community-based research brings together community members and academic researchers, but it typically involves relatively small groups of people. Community members involved in these efforts may represent just a fraction of the people whose livelihoods they are trying to improve. While bringing an entire community into the research process in all but the smallest communities may be impossible, there are potential benefits to increasing rates of participation. Some of these benefits may include: 1) more labor power and a more efficient division of labor, 2) greater community awareness of the issues they face, and 3) increased buy-in for disseminating and applying the results of the research (Leung, Yen, and Minkler 2004).

Involving more people in community-based research can be a significant challenge, however. Traditional structures for bringing people together often discourage sustained participation by those who are not the organizers, as they reflect dominant institutions' "command and control" philosophies. A top-down approach is quite attractive to those at upper levels in a hierarchy for maintaining or expanding power, even if it comes at the cost of effectiveness in achieving organizational goals (Carson 2008). These traditional top-down structures may suffice in the workplace, when one is being paid to submit to them, but there is little motivation for volunteers to accept such a passive role. The result is that researchers attempting to create community-based research projects often end up "in the middle," working with community professionals, rather than working from the grassroots (Strand et al. 2003:72). That may be adequate when conditions are stable, the problems are relatively straightforward, and widespread community engagement is not necessary for success; but entirely inadequate when dealing with more "wicked" problems (i.e., those that are very difficult to solve because they are not well understood, and there is no "right" or "wrong" answer) (Conklin 2005; White 2000).

One way to address the challenge of increasing participation in communitybased research is to employ self-organizing meeting processes, which are specifically designed to invite more input from attendees. Self-organization refers to changes that happen through the intrinsic motivation of the participants, and without top-down imposition. Such bottom-up approaches do not predefine the agenda, nor do they predefine the outcomes. Thus, they are more inviting to the broader community.

This article introduces three self-organizing meeting processes that are particularly well suited to increasing participation in community-based research: 1) Open Space Technology, 2) World Café, and 3) Dynamic Facilitation. The applications of these processes to community-based research, either singly or in combination, are then described. The advantages of self-organizing processes in community-based research are discussed, including catalyzing greater enthusiasm and creativity. …

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