How Neighborhoods and Local Government Can Work Together to Make Both Stronger

About every six weeks, for the last five years, John and Peter have hosted online / dial-up conversations with community-building pioneers as their guests. For their November 6, 2017 dialog they invited Pacific Community Solutions founder Ron Dwyer-Voss to talk about his work with community-based initiatives, nonprofit organizations and local governments. Ron’s work focuses on asset-based community development and organizing, community engagement and mobilization, participatory evaluation, education, and community health. Since 1982, Ron has been a community organizer, community development corporation director, leadership development coach/trainer and elected school board member.

In addition to the transcribed discussion here, you can download or listen to the audio:

For more on Ron’s thinking and work, see the list on his author page. 

Maggie Rogers: We’re pleased today to be joined by Ron Dwyer-Voss. Ron has been involved in community organizing work for more than 35 years and is on the faculty of the ABCD Institute. His work focuses on helping communities discover the power within them and mobilize their assets before looking for outside resources.

John: Welcome everybody and Ron, so pleased that you could be with us. I notice that we’ve sort of advertised you as talking about the relationship between neighborhoods and local governments and we’ll look forward to that, but I’d be interested first to know how you got to where you are in terms of the work you’re presently doing in this sphere.

Ron: Thanks it’s really great to be here. I was really fortunate in that at a fairly young age I fell into the field of community development, and in particular the community engagement and organizing side of it. Came to Chicago right out of college, having done a bunch of issue-based organizing, in part to see what Harold Washington was doing with local government. It seemed like a new, progressive way to do urban government. And then within six months two things happened. One, Harold Washington passed away and the local city government got taken back over by less progressive elements, and I was introduced to Jody Kretzmann. Both those things really set my path.

I did a lot of organizing in Chicago. Trained out of the sort of traditional Alinsky model, but with Jody in my ear the whole time, realizing that there was a whole bunch of untapped local power in that model. Came out back to the west coast because I’m from the west coast and I missed it. Did rural work for a number of years. Did some local, multi-family affordable housing developments for a few years, where we stabilized people’s homes and then by giving them a safe and affordable place to live, but then engage them and identifying their gifts and talents and what they could do to make their surrounding community stronger now that they were stable.

  And then for the last 12 years, been just mostly engaged in a number of endeavors around ABCD training and practice and some organizational stuff. And then I do a fair amount of what’s broadly categorized as evaluation work, but basically helping folks in communities and their organizational partners to find their own stories and measure their own impact and be able to lead that engagement rather than being told by foundations or vendors what they should be counting or measuring. So I really enjoy that work as well.

John: Now that’s fascinating. Can you say a bit more about how you go about that and what’s the alternative to somebody from the outside doing the evaluation? How does it work? How does it look?

Ron: Well part of it is, like most of this work, is about language and making sure folks on the ground in their communities are familiar with the language that institutions use around impacts, outcomes, and activities. That’s pretty easy. Folks get that.

  And then it’s a lot of just giving people permission, creating a space to say, “Well what do you want the impact of this work to be for you and your community?” Defining that and then backing up into, “What things do you want to do to make that happen?” How will you know if you’re on your way? What kinds of things could happen that would cause you to want to change course? And then we just write that down and go meet with their vendors and say, “This is how we’re thinking about telling the story, does that work for you?” Sometimes vendors have some additional things that they need to do, but most of the time they’re excited that folks want to define their own story.

  Some groups like to do surveys of their neighbors, some like to do focus groups, some like to do interviews at community events and block parties. A lot of groups, especially youth, like to do observation techniques where they observe how maybe a park is being used or maybe an intersection is functioning or not functioning and then make their case around making changes to that. It can be a pretty empowering process for folks.

John: And in that sense, I remember the base of my organizing, no one wanted really to be evaluated. Evaluation was a dirty word, right?

Ron: Right.

John: But, what you’ve done is redefined it so that the local actors are setting their own agendas and goals and then assessing against their own standards how they’re doing and changing where it seems to be appropriate.

Ron: Right. Then that way it brings a lot of intentionality of people’s work in their community and creates some space for learning and self-reflection. So, for me, it was sort of a circle back around to in early, early days in college being exposed to liberation theology and the whole “action reflection” model. And then I got into organizing, where everybody was mostly about the action and not a lot of reflection was happening, and it felt like that kept the power in the hands of the professionals and out of the leaders, and by putting the reflection back in, I think it helps keep the community members in charge of what’s happening and where they want to go and what they’re learning. But yeah the shift from monitoring to learning.

John: So one of the things that I know you have done is to work with neighborhoods around how they could become more powerful and then how do they relate to institutions. I think here you have some special expertise about linking to governments when you need to. Can you give us the sort of sequence? How you go about the local strengthening and then how you move to the connection?

Ron: In general I mostly get engaged in situations where a community wants to be stronger and often seems to be its relationship with local government is feeling ignored or the actions are being taken that are not what they want or the people aren’t listening. So, and a lot of time, that’s because the process has been through sort of some traditional means of advisory groups and attending council meetings and sometimes it’s just harder for a local neighborhood to compete with all the other power in those situations, or for local politicos to see that there’s value in giving their time and attention to that neighborhood for their goals.

A lot of times it starts, use the ABCD process and just start saying, “Okay, well what do we have to work with,” by doing the asset mapping, asset identification, and then, “What could we do with that?” Without the attention of any of the powerful people, either government or nearby corporations that we’re trying to get the attention of. Let’s just put them on hold for a while.

And then folks get busy getting something done that they can do, which is a relatively transformational process. Often the transformation happens as soon as we start doing the asset identification, the common response is, “I had no idea we had this much.” People who’ve lived in the neighborhood 50, 60 years will say, “We had no idea we had this much.” And so with that, which is very invigorating, people engage. We just start talking about how, “What could you do with all this together? What do you want to do? What do you want to specialize in and focus your time on?” Everybody’s volunteering at this level. And they get some things done and they realize that they’ve got some internal, inherent power and that changes their posture, but eventually it changes the posture of the local government as well, who starts to notice them. And you know, we do things occasionally to help that be noticed.

One of my favorites is after a locally-organized event to do some sort of ribbon cutting or event that looks like something that politicians would’ve liked to have attended and then getting it on social media and, ideally, picked up by local media so the politicians feel like they missed a ribbon cutting. They hate that. And so then they start to get interested and say, “Hey how come we weren’t invited to your thing?” And it just changes the conversation. One way we talk about it is instead of asking for a seat at the table, to make your own table and make it strong enough and interesting enough that the people at the table you were hoping to be at might come and sit down. And then when you ask for your seat at their table, you’re in a much better position. You’re not there on tokenism, you’re not there because you scratched your way to it, you’re there because they realized they needed you.

John: Help us understand when you say the people in the neighborhood are looking at what’s there, and there’s so much that it really is empowering for them to have that experience, but what would “much” look like? You’re in a neighborhood and you’re beginning to re-see it, to see something there that you didn’t see before. What would you see? Can you give us examples? What’s there?

Ron: I generally have them create stations. We might be in a church basement or a boys and girls club or something like that, and say around the six asset categories that you guys defined and individuals, associations, institutions, physical space, exchange in economy, and then culture and stories, and we have people go around and write what they have in that neighborhood. And then shift around until everybody in the room has had a chance. And then they look and they realize, it takes a little while for people to recognize, but they realize often that they have many institutional supports that they weren’t paying attention to because they were focused on the ones that were ignoring them. Often they recognize an abundance of local businesses that might be interested in participating with them. They certainly recognize the informal groups and associations that are present.

  I’ve rarely been in a neighborhood where people didn’t recognize there was lots of folks working with and trying to support young people, but not necessarily combining forces on that. And then individual gifts and talent, the people who’ve worked together for years or lived near each other for years, have no idea that certain skills or abilities exist in an area and that can open up ideas about what they want to do.

  It really varies by community, but it’s always full. I never have enough work chart paper, we’re always writing on the sides and on the back

Peter: Ron, Just to ground this, what you’re saying is fascinating. Where is your point of contact? Give us examples of some points of contact where you begin this process. What are they doing? What are they up to? How do they find you? Who pays for you?

Ron: Most of my points of contacts are local, nonprofit institutions, sometimes local government, who’ve been to a training or heard about me or called the Asset Based Community Development Institute and said, “We’re looking for somebody, we’re interested in this process, we’re interested in focusing on asset, we’re not sure how to go about it, can somebody come help us do that?”

  And it varies. At local Habitat For Humanity chapters, the national habitat’s done a lot to sort of push this orientation, to become the point of contact. In Lodi, California, it was the Chamber of Commerce that had created a big vision, “Vision 2020” or “Lodi 2020” and then realized that a particular neighborhood had really been left out of their process and wanted to create space for that but knew they couldn’t just go in and tell the neighborhood what they should do. A lot of times it is sort of broad thinking community development corporations, either they’ve developed affordable housing or they’ve had some other technical community development skill that they brought to the community but they know that there’s more to what the community could do and they want to learn that process.

Peter: It’s almost like systems bring you in and they’re aware of the limitations of systems.

Ron: That’s a good way to put it. And they wouldn’t always say it that way when we get there, that’s an early conversation we have.

Peter: Right. At least they know that there’s something in their efforts to engage, because everybody wants to engage.

Ron: And they also learn that just having a meeting saying, “Hey, Wednesday night everybody 7 o’clock, let’s come together to make our community stronger,” is not … nobody believes you when you do that.

Peter: Right. You also said something that just woke me up. You said when you have action without reflection, it leaves the leadership in the hands of professionals, but when you add reflection to it, it puts the leadership in the hands of citizens and neighbors. Could you say more about that? I just never thought about it that way.

Ron: When it’s all about action then a lot of times there’s some professionals who are there supporting it. They might just be the people doing the photocopying and arranging for the various things they’ve been organized to be there.

  I’ll give you an example from a neighborhood that I’m working with in Rancho Cordova, California. Those people like to have stuff done, so they organized an annual, “trunk or treat” and an annual holiday parade at Christmastime and it’s pretty busy and a lot of stuff, but the city’s supportive of it and helps make some arrangements and permits and helps connect with donors and stuff like that, but if it was just left to that, the next thing that would happen is that they would say, “Well here’s what we want to do next,” and they would turn to the city and say, “What can you do for that thing?”

  And in Rancho Cordova they’ve got a person on their staff who’s really good about mirroring that back to them and saying, “Well wait a minute. What was the goal of the trunk or treat event? It wasn’t just to have a party.  What was the goal?  How did it go?  What did you learn from it? How does that affect what you want to do next?”  Those are the four things we put in front of them, and it helps them think about, “We did that because we wanted neighbors to know each other, we want people in our community to recognize each other, we’re trying to get everybody out from just leaving work out of their garage and coming back from work in their garage and never coming outside and knowing their neighbors.”

  And so then they’d start talking about the individual pieces of the trunk or treat, did that better or worse? And they changed their next events based on that. I think that means that when that happens then the leaders in the community are in charge of what’s happening next to versus just folks who are good at making lists of, “Here’s the things you need to do to get something done.” I don’t know if that makes sense.

Peter: Ron, just one more on this. And how do you insert reflection into the process?

Ron: Forcibly. You put it on the agenda.

Peter: What does it look like?

Ron: Well, with each group I work with, after they’ve done the assets and they figure out a couple projects they’re going to do and how they’re going to come together and do those ideally without needing to rely on outside institutions, then we set up a, “What’s your work plan, how’s that going to happen?” And I always say, where in here are you going to stop and think about how it’s going, whether you need to change course, what you’re learning?” And usually they’ll do it right after an event, like at a clean-up or something. Sometimes they like to do it at a meeting later when they celebrate their accomplishments, which is also important.

Peter: That’s great. So you put learning as one of the action steps?

Ron: Yeah. Yup.

John: I was just wondering going back to how do you begin, it seems to me one of the problems we keep hearing from people who are working with or in neighborhoods, that the assumption in the minds of a whole lot of people in neighborhoods is that the reason you get together is to figure out what it is you want the government to do. Or what it is you want some other external institution to do. Schools. And it’s very difficult to get a process going in which the first question is, “What can we do?” In your experience, how do you move forward so that you don’t get lost by the first question being, “What will they do?”

Ron: Well there’s a lot in that question.

John: Or, a lot of meetings that are called, “community meetings,” are really bitch and moan sessions, so they’re sort of in the genes of how is a neighborhood related to governments. Or other institutes, our purpose is to bitch and moan, and try to get somebody else to do something for us and that’s a powerful thing and you gotta do something to head that off and get the beginning to be, “What do we got?” And I’m just wondering how you do that? How you head that off?

Ron: With a lot of the communities I work with, I think Peter alluded to earlier, a lot of time there was some sort of incident or something that generated some interest in people and connecting with each other and then yes, usually it turns right to, you know, “How do we get institutions to behave the way we want them to?”

So a lot of times we just say it up front to acknowledge it, that all of you have probably been to meetings and here’s what probably happened, and that’s not what we’re doing here. In this process, we’re going to figure out what we have to work with, what is inherent to our neighborhood as it is right now that we can build from and how we can use it to create the neighborhood we want it to be.  And that will take some time to sort of come to some agreement around some key elements of the neighborhood as we want it to be, and then what we can do to get there and then we’ll figure out, based on that, where it’s appropriate to ask institutions to be a little helpful. So a lot of times we use the three questions, and we just tell people up front, “These three questions, ‘What can we do ourselves? What can we do with a little bit of outside assistance? And what do we need somebody from the outside to do?'” Helps people know we are going to get to that if it’s really important, so it lets people relax a little bit.

What I find is a lot of the people who are hanging on to, “I’m here for that part of the process,” let go of it because they get so excited by the first point in the process. So this group I talked about that does the trunk or treat and the holiday …. They initially came together because there had been some violence in their neighborhood and they were not happy with how the city handled it and they wanted to talk about that. We said that there’s a place for that, it’s called a City Council meeting, you can go and tell them. In these meetings we’re going to work on creating a stronger neighborhood that makes it less likely that these things happen. And some folks walked away and said, “Nope, that’s not what I want to be part of,” and that was fine. I think it was actually a little helpful, because it let everyone else know that the people in the room are the people want to be here for this.

And I’m not going to say they’re not skeptical at the beginning. A lot of folks will say, “Well I’m not sure how that’s going to reduce crime, but I’m enjoying it because you’re having me identify what I like and what I want to do so I’m good with that.” And then over some time they figure out this is actually making a difference in a lot of the issues that they wanted the city to make a difference on. But I think it’s just, there’s no trickery to it, it’s just being up front and saying, “This works better in most situations and certainly if you only do the outside thing, you’re completely vulnerable to forces on the outside changing what you can get done.” And I think, after the last recession, a lot of people understood that. They saw local government collapse in a lot of areas. So if you just want to set up programs, you’re vulnerable to whoever funds those programs. If you set up stuff that you all do, the way you want to do it, it will last as long as you want it do.

Peter: You’re also waiting for someone else’s transformation. That’s risky business.

Ron: That’s true.

John: If you get the folks the place where they determined what they can do with what they have and then what they might do with a little outside assistance, that means that they’re ready at that point to turn to, let’s say, the government or the schools or the businesses or the social service agencies and that’s an adventure in and of itself. Making that kind of connection I know is something that you’re often involved in. Can you tell us about approaches to reaching out?

Ron: And that can be reaching out to local government once the community’s internally focused? That can be super powerful.

Again, the city of Rancho Cordova is on my mind. They were working and I told John, the story of a very dense area of a neighborhood full of affordable but affordable for a reason, mostly slumlorded apartments and all the crap that comes with that, all the parasites who are attracted to that environment were there.

We met with the kids and found out what they wanted and one of the most heartbreaking parts of some of these focus groups at the school with the fourth and fifth graders was when we asked them, “Who’s working to make your neighborhood better?” We were trying to find out where the associations were. And they all named somebody, “My uncle, my mom, my dad, my grandma.”  We said, “Well, what are they doing?” And to the kid, what they said that these people were doing to make the neighborhood better for them was keeping them inside, which was evident if you walked through this very dense neighborhood, you saw very few people. Everybody was inside.

So, we did the straight up ABCD … we had the parents come to a meeting at the school, showed them the vision the kids had created, which did involve candy streets and other things that were not attainable by associations or institutions, but the parents were a little bit inspired and then we did a hand type heart exercise where parents identified their gifts and got busy and over some time, they got a lot done and a big transformation was made when they pulled off a big block party.

They engaged the city who is initiating some of this work to close off a street so they could have this block party and basically a big event for the kids and there was one flyer sent home with all the kids at the local elementary school but everything else was done. We practiced going door to door and inviting your neighbors to a community picnic and they pulled it off, there was like 500 people, it was a great event. In the process, they got to meet with local police officers, and told them, “Here’s where the problems are, here’s where the drug dealers exchange, here’s where when somebody’s racing out of the neighborhood, the turn they take so if you had some cameras there and put some speed bumps here, we think it would get better.”

A few things happened. One, the police listened and they did all that. And two, the neighborhood, which was mostly made up of new immigrant, Spanish-speaking, Mexican immigrants who were fairly frustrated with and afraid of local government ended up seeing local government as a partner and came to the city council and said, “Here’s what we learned,” and kids said, “Now I play outside all the time because my friends are outside and their parents are outside.” And it was very empowering for that group of people to approach local government, once they came up with a vision they wanted, figured out what they can do, and then say, “Well, what we can’t do or don’t want to do ourselves is close off a street, so who do we ask about that?  What we can’t do or don’t want to do is figure out all the permits around the food stuff, so who do we ask about that?”

Peter: When you are working with a group and they get to the place where they’re making contact, let’s say to government in this case, there have to be people in government who are receptive to the idea that it is their programs introduced to neighborhoods that are central, it is what they can do to support neighborhoods in their growth of power, how do you talk to people in government about that? What gets them to listen? That they’re not the planner, pusher, designer, but that they really want to get some kind of change, they’re going to have to see the citizens become productive.

Ron: Well, I don’t anymore. That was part of the shift for me. When I was a community organizer, I would do those. I would go have those coffees and have those conversations to make sure they were set up right and that local government people were ready.

And part of the action reflection process is now I will say to people, “I have a lot of experience in this and I know some things about it, so here’s things local governments often do, here’s what you might be able to expect, here’s what the city of Riverside did or the city of Columbus, Ohio did, what do you want to do?” And most of the time people will say, “Well we want to talk to our local government to do X, Y, and Z,” and so then I’ll engage in a process with them of figuring out who they have to talk to and how you do that.

So a lot of times I might sit with people while they make a call to the planning director to say, “Hey, we’d like to meet with you,” we’ll rehearse that, but I don’t make those calls anymore. I think it’s really critical that people in neighborhoods learn that they can make those calls and they should make those calls and that local government, while it might feel scary or a big institution is actually supposed to just be an expression of the democratic process, and therefore, should be there to work for them.

Peter: We have a chat question about technology. What’s your feeling about the use, role, with our infatuation with SurveyMonkeys and Facebooks and so forth?

Ron: Well, in general, I’m a big fan of technology; like that question of, “Where would you go back in time?” I would not go back in time Why would you go to somewhere before they had penicillin or anything like that?” I think in general, it’s good but in any evolution, each step is problematic and we certainly have not intellectually caught up with our technological skills to connect in the digital age. But I don’t think that’s any new, I think morally we took awhile to catch up with gunpowder and the industrial revolution.

SurveyMonkeys I think are useful for a group.  I use them for when I’m doing a training of people who are coming to find out what they’re expecting, what their experiences are, what they hope to get out of it in a one time shot, but they’re really not that valuable as a neighborhood tool. It’s like calling the meeting that all of the people who were already interested in and know what they want to say come to. So I dissuade people form SurveyMonkey a lot because it does tend to lead to the loudest voices. And I think Facebook and those have similar affects.

When I tell people I’m working with, they jump quickly to the, “Well let’s make a Facebook page for the neighborhood,” and  that’s fine, a lot of people will, especially in certain communities, will want to see a Facebook site or a website or something to know that you’re real somehow, although that’s eroding quickly. But it can never, ever be a substitute for knocking on someone’s door or calling somebody or meeting people at grocery store, the community center.  That it’s a nice reinforcer of relationships to get built. In terms of local communities.

Peter: So we want to pause for a moment. Before we ask for questions, what do you call what you do today?

Ron: I don’t.

Peter: There’s a lot of desire to learn how to build community. Is there a place that people can go to learn that? And would there be any use in us creating together some kind of certificate program or some kind of ongoing program to do this thing that we don’t know how to name?

Ron: I think so and the answer is yes to both. I do a lot of training with NeighborWorks America and they have a track called, “Community Building and Organizing,” or I think it got renamed, “Community Engagement,” because of DC politics around the word, “organizing.” It’s about building community and helping people organize, and there’s a lot of skills that can be picked up in those trainings. It’s a broad swap, so depending on the trainer and the class, it may have this particular ground up, ABCD-type focus and it may not.

  I think at the ABCD Institute we’re looking at trying to think of how we can provide more skills and understanding in this stuff. I think certificate programs are useful in that, not because like an academy would have to do or a university that has the sort of variety of a certain knowledge, but just because people need them to get institutions to pay for them. So calling company training or workshop and saying you’ll get a certificate is that you actually went and showed up is important to helping the financial capitol that’s paying for social capitol facilitation to get engaged.

Peter: One question in the chat is what language and exercise do you prefer to use to help prioritize the good ideas before the decision of which one will be pursued?

Ron: That’s a great one. There’s always this process where there’s 10 or 15 ideas up.

It’s almost like an open space, we’ll by show of hands first we’ll say, “Is there anyone who wants to lead project one?” So this is how the whole trunk or treat happened, I had never heard of one, but somebody said they wanted to have some big event in the fall that brought community together and so I just said, “Who wants to work with people to make that happen?”

I think that’s how you prioritize, I think part of the problem is a lot of times things will be prioritized based on what’s the most important and it’s, “Okay yeah the most important thing is we get rid of drug dealers,” well no, a lot of folks don’t sign up for that first, either because it looks scary or most likely, if it’s sort of an attractable issue, they don’t know how to do that so they don’t want to sign up for something they don’t know. But people will sign up for what we’ll say, if you get permission to organize it based on what people want to work on, it virtually assures that then people will actually do stuff together and that’s part of the point. That’s how the relationships get built, that’s how they have some wins, that’s how they realize that their power actually is power and that they can get things done and then later they’ll come back and take on what look like the bigger or more impactful issues.

I generally organize it around, “Who wants to lead this?  Who wants to lead that?”  And quickly what happens is there’s a few projects that emerge as what people want to do and then we say, “Let’s do it,” but each one has to have its own citizen leader or it’s not going to work.

Peter: That’s a great response rather than the importance of the issue was the motivation and energy to initiate something.

  I have another question. Are you familiar with trauma informed community engagement?

Ron: Yes. Not super familiar but I’ve read about it and people have talked to me about it. It’s about working in communities that have had a lot of bad shit happen and so people are a little defeated and a little beaten down not just because government let them down once, but because violence has happened, like everything around them has been less than satisfactory and they are pretty understandably skeptical.

Peter: To make it specific, what would you do in Las Vegas right now? I am acquainted with a group of community leaders, developers, people who are trying to rebuild and they’re interested. But, how would you think about what we could do with a place like Vegas after the crisis they just had?  With citizens, not with government?

Ron: I think part of it is in those situations it’s first acknowledging, “This is terrible.”

Peter: The grief.

Ron: “This is bad,” yeah. “Why do we hate this?” And let folks do that and then I think the next piece is what do we have to work with and what can we do? I think skipping to what would solve this can be overwhelming for a local community. It’s an important discussion, but I think local community can participate in big solutions in a better way if they’ve already engaged in, “What could we do and what could we do based on what we have to work with?” And I don’t know what that is in Las Vegas, I don’t know what that is in Texas. My guess is in Texas, it’s a very local community, there’s probably a lot of strong bonds and associations and groups of people who can do a lot for each other.

I know in Aurora, I was caught off guard, I was working with a youth coalition, young people and sort of some service agencies that support them and we were going through the asset, it was kind of a training on how to do asset mapping so they could go out and do it and I asked, “What are culture and what are the stories of this community that brought you together?”  And to a person, whether they were 13 or there was an 84-year old retired pastor in the group, they all said, “The theater shooting.” So that story brought them together and I said, “Well how does that still live on for you?” And they said, “Well, we started all these resilient centers that were just intended at the time to help people support each other in their grief but had become places that people go to in all kinds of situations and are still around.”  But at the time, what they could do for each other was be supportive and create some spaces, physical spaces, where people knew, “If I go here, I can talk to people about this.”

  And kids in that community remember their parents taking them into those places to just talk about it and be around other kids talking about it.

Peter: It also is almost like an identity crisis. Like having to reconstruct who we are and the stories we tell about ourselves.

Ron: Yeah. we don’t want to believe that that’s who we are. And then communities that have that trauma all the time, shootings all the time, nobody wants to believe that’s who they are and they generally don’t. Especially communities that have this happen all the time are less surprised and often prepared to be more resilient because they’ve had to figure this out.

Ron:  see somebody in the chat here. Eliot, I don’t know if you’re still there and would be willing to jump on, but Eliot Hurwitz has been through a couple steps of the northern California fires. His own community was burned down several years ago in Lake County and then I know he’s still in the area where the fires just hit again. And I’ve been impressed with what they’ve done to respond to that sort of trauma.

Elliot: This call come up and definitely wanted to check in with you, Ron. Just to fill people in, folks may remember that even prior to this most recent wildfires out here in northern California, two years ago there was a similar event that happened, it was a series of fires that caught us up in its wake.

Magdalena: At that time it was the third largest wildfire in California history and now we’ve been out muted.

Elliot: So it really did become for us a major kind of community organizing, kind of pivot and on the basis of that, one of the things that we decided personally is because of the ties we had in the area, we decided….

Magdalena: Well, actually, the way it started was we are part of a neighborhood and we started all looking out for each other, so I just wanted to do a plug in for your article, Ron, about the, “Who are actually the first responders?” It’s not the sheriffs or the fireman, it’s going to be people that you know. And from there, partly because of my disaster background and then of course both Elliot and I had this kind of background in government and nonprofit work, we started looking for the agencies that would be coming around.

  And what was interesting was that we were keeping our antennae open specifically for nonprofits that were local and we ended up getting, because of our presence and looking around and asking questions and introducing ourselves, we were able to get in touch with the local community radio person, KPMZ had become the information resource. Not the county but the community radio station had. And from there we started to find friends of Cloud Mountain, Friends of Boggs Mountain and suddenly we were meeting all kinds of people who have been embedded in the community for so long and we came together and created our own municipal advisory council, because it turns out that California can do that.

Elliot: By simple resolution, apparently, the board of supervisors can just take a crayon, draw a shape, and say, “You are hereby empowered as a community council.” Since that time, it took us about 10 months to get that off the ground, so that’s been really the center, has become the new center of kind of community focus for us, both in terms of continuing the recovery process, which disasters of this size take a decade, really.

Magdalena: Now we can invite the police chief and the water district people and the firefighters, they come to our meetings and they know that we’ve been around for a year.

Ron: One of the things I enjoyed watching about that process was just how everybody, …. it was a death, it was a trauma for the community, people lost their homes. But people quickly just came together and started talking to each other and associating and then now have turned that into a bit of a power structure where they can guide how local government works in their area. So I just wanted to call them out

Peter: Elliot, do you have two voices or is there somebody with you?

Elliot: There’s two of us here.

Peter: Tell us who you are.

Magdalena: My name is Magdalena Valderrama Hurwitz.

Peter: I just want to get your name on record. Thank you both.

John: We’re getting toward the end of our time and one thing that I think would be very valuable if you could share your thoughts on is a lot of what we hear about is ways of calling forward people who haven’t come forward before and who has a leadership potential, but there’s something beyond that that I have a feeling you’ve had experience with that’d be of value and that is, supposing you said, “What I want to do mainly by my contribution in this neighborhood is to maximize the number of people who will participate, that that’s my goal, what they do is less important to me than that we democratize, we get as many people as possible.” Give us some techniques, rules, ideas. What do you do to maximize the participation from a local group?

Peter: Or would you take that as a goal?

Ron: Well we take it as a goal, I mean when I meet up groups I’m pretty clear that the experience of many communities is that the more people who are engaged at any level, the healthier and stronger the community will get and all the social capital stuff. And, therefore, none of their goals are going to be as well done as they could be if they haven’t maximized participation in the neighborhood and connected neighbors to each other. We know this at so many levels, that the best thing you can do to make your neighborhood safer is to make sure you know all your neighbors and they know each other.

  So if I’m in a longer engagement with a group, I will let them know, “You have to do one-to-one learning conversations or we won’t get anywhere, we have to do some sort of listening campaign so that you can connect with and know not just who your neighbors are but what they care about, what they want to do if they had an opportunity to do something.” I’m a big, big fan of learning conversation as sort of fundamental unit of social change, because I don’t think we have any authentic change unless people care, their heart is in it and we only know that by stopping to listen to them and not just counting which meetings they came to.

So we get nitty gritty with it, we say, “How many people are going to do these, five or six? Okay, how many came to a week?” And we figure out how many weeks will it take doing a couple of these a week til we’ve listened to some critical mass of the neighborhood, 50- hundred people. And that always changes things, but it does allow leaders or engaged citizens to then lead by connecting. They can say, “Oh I just talked to Delores on the other block, she does that too, did you know that?” And helping people connect with each other around what they already care about before trying to convince them to care about some idea we have.

John: And so I knock on the door, I’m going to have a listening session. Can you give us a little description of how you proceed to do that?

Ron: I usually don’t have people do door knocking, usually there’s a core group of five or six people and I say, “Who do you know here that you could go have a listening conversation and start with people you already know,” there’s no valor in being super brave about this. Just start with people you know, and then ask them, “Who else do you know here that I should talk to?” You will pretty quickly get to some people you didn’t already know, or know well, or just knew that she’s the woman who walks her dog at 4:30 every day.

  There are places for door knocking campaigns, but I think door knocking campaigns are usually the result of organizations that don’t know the community well and haven’t been invited there having to get themselves invited. Whereas, I think when you’re working with resident leaders, it’s a matter of saying, “Who can you talk to? Okay, go talk to them and ask each of them for three names and go talk to them.”

John: That’s great.

Peter: John, any final questions or Ron, anything you’d like to say about this conversation, or?

John: We really appreciate that Ron would share because he’s had such wonderful experiences and has, in a way, combined the capacity of local people to both mobilize their resources where they are with what they have, but also to have the skill and ability to reach outside when they need to and do it effectively. So, blend it inside and outside I think in a very effective way.

Ron: Thanks, thanks. This has been fun.

Ron: For final thought, I’m going to share … I was orientating a new staff person at the rural community assistance corporation. We’re going to work with communities based on a lot of principles: Saul Alinsky’s, “Rules for Radicals,” and McKnight and Kretzmann’s, “Building Communities from the Inside Out.”  In the first month here, read those and we’ll talk about it. And she came back and said, “This ‘Rules for Radical’ thing is fine for the, ‘if you give a man a fish, he eats for a day, you teach him how to fish he eats forever,’ but what if he sucks at fishing?” And she liked, “Building Communities from the Inside Out” because she said, “That says we just need to find out what they’re good at, maybe somebody’s good at tying knots, maybe somebody’s good at reading the weather, maybe somebody’s good at making food to support the fisherman, but we don’t have to teach everyone to fish, we have to find what they’re good at and then we can have a good fishing village.” And that rocked my world. But I think that pretty much sums up how we blend these approaches.

Peter: I also think that there’s a lot of conversation about churches and the faith community. And the church into community and out of the building, and it seems to me like that’s what you’re doing. You’re doing liberation theology in a very grounded and practical way. The way you talk about it is so clear I just really appreciate that and appreciate you coming on this, Ron. Thank you.

Ron: Thanks. Thanks for having these conversations.  I enjoy listening to them.

Maggie : If you’d like to learn more about Ron’s work, you can visit, And until our next conversation, please visit our website, Stay in touch with us on the web and on Facebook.

About the Lead Author

Ron Dwyer-Voss
Ron Dwyer-Voss
Ron Dwyer-Voss is the owner and founder Pacific Community Solutions, Inc., a training, consulting and technical assistance company focused on working with community-based initiatives, nonprofit organizations and local governments. His work focuses on asset-based community development and organizing, community engagement and mobilization, participatory evaluation, education, and community health. Since 1982, Ron has been a community organizer, community development corporation director, leadership development coach/trainer and elected school board member. He began working with the Asset-Based Community Development model while organizing on the south and west sides of Chicago in 1991. Since then he has worked with faith-based communities; African-American, Latino and Southeast Asian and Native American and Hawaiian communities; and a mix of urban and rural communities. He also works with youth development coalitions and education-focused organizations. Ron’s education and training has come from both institutions and mentors. He earned a master's degree in planning and policy from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a master's of theology from the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. He has been trained and mentored by John Kretzmann and John McKnight, co-founders of the ABCD Institute, for more than 20 years. For the last 10 years he has worked closely with and learned from Mike Green and Henry Moore of the ABCD Training Group. Ron is the past chairperson of the National Community Building and Organizing Initiative of NeighborWorks America, and has provided training in community building and organizing at NeighborWorks Training Institutes around the country. He has trained school board members and administrators on how to more effectively engage their communities in local schools, as well as how to mobilize their communities to advocacy. Ron’s work focuses on helping organizations understand and apply asset-based strategies to community revitalization and community organizing. This means discovering the power within a community and mobilizing the assets of a community before looking for outside resources. Community change is more authentic and more sustainable by working from the inside out rather than simply seeking outside resources to drop in or on the community. Asset-based approaches are also more fun and more sustainable for staff and volunteers as well as residents. Every community has assets from cultural to economic and environmental to individuals. Some of the most rewarding part of this work is organizing or re-organizing those assets to make a stronger community with powerful local leadership.

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