To help guide our work, we have a set of values that are at the core of everything we do. With our values at the center, our daily work is informed by a theoretical framework consisting of popular education, community organizing, participatory rural development, and community wealth creation. Pulling tools and practices from these theories have led us to develop our own brand of community practice in Central Appalachia that we call Systems-Based Organizing. Below, we offer deeper insight into the theories that ground our daily work.
Popular education—the mindset and underlying way of working—is a participatory approach to adult education that is based on helping groups of people learn from their experiences. Sometimes when outside consultants come into a community, they come in as experts, as the people who have the answers. This is the opposite of popular education, and the opposite of how we work. We always begin our work with the assumption that the people living in local communities know best what their community needs and how to provide it. As facilitators or network coordinators, we are not passive or empty. We have knowledge, expertise, experiences, and concrete ideas to offer. But we always start with the people we are working with. We always assume that the folks sitting in the room with us know more about how to make their communities livable than we do. Collectively, they have the wisdom to bring about significant change. They might not have tapped into that wisdom yet, but it’s there. It is our job to help them surface their collective wisdom and build concrete plans for taking their work to the next level.
In our daily work, we use an approach called the spiral model for popular education, detailed in a post, here. We have adapted the spiral model from a book called Educating for a Change (by Rick Arnold and colleagues, 1999).
Participatory development is an approach we use, along with the spiral model for popular education, when we are facilitating a meeting with a group of people.
Participatory development centers upon the planning and implementation of discrete projects that improve a community’s well-being. Unlike some US approaches to community development, however, participatory development starts from the basic belief that everyday people in low-wealth communities are not the target for community development projects; rather, they are the people who determine, drive, and control the entire development process. Participatory development starts from the assumption that marginalized and low-income people best understand the problems they face and how to fix them. Participatory development is notable for three innovations:
- Its emphasis on participatory group methods, especially Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) methods such as community mapping, wealth and well-being ranking, and preference ranking;
- Its equal emphasis on the attitudes and behaviors necessary for implementing these methods in a way that is fundamentally participatory; and
- Its emphasis on building the capacity of groups and organizations to thrive on their own over the long haul.