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Community Organizing: for Resource Provision or Transformation? A Review of the Literature

Community Organizing: for Resource Provision or Transformation? A Review of the Literature by  Marcia Rosalie Hale

Author(s): Marcia Rosalie Hale


Community organizing was originally intended to be the most democratic form of activism, a tool to be used to empower the marginalized and voiceless, bringing people together to work toward a common goal. While the goals of organizing activities are diverse, they can be classified within two general objectives, the first of which is resource provision and the second, transformation. Resource provision seeks to ensure that a community is provided with a resource it is lacking. Transformative organizing includes but goes beyond the goal of resource provision, endeavoring to fundamentally change the community as well as larger structures to ensure the rights and liberties of groups and individuals, and to realize a more equitable distribution of resources and power. This paper explores those aspects that differentiate transformative organizing from resource provision and makes the case that individuals involved in organizing must experience personal transformation before we are able to fundamentally change external structures and systems, as the structures organizers seek to change dwell within the emotional and psychological lives of us all.

Key Words: Community organizing, empowerment, transformation, community psychology


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In less than a century, community organizing has become a widely used tool that brings people together to work towards common goals. While the goals of organizing activities are diverse, they can be classified within two general objectives, the first of which is resource provision and the second, transformation. Resource provision seeks to ensure that a community is provided with a resource it is lacking, such as jobs, education, or housing. Transformative organizing, on the other hand, includes but goes beyond the goal of providing a specific resource, endeavoring to fundamentally change the community as well as larger structures to ensure the rights and liberties of groups and individuals, as well as to realize a more equitable distribution of resources and power.

This review of the literature poses the questions: What are the similarities and differences between organizing for resource provision and for transformation? What are the factors that lead to organizing having transformative effects versus only providing a specific resource? And finally, what is needed for transformative community organizing to extend its impact? This paper begins with an introduction to community organizing, followed by an overview of its purpose. After a brief summary of the history of organizing, the two objectives of resource provision and transformation are analyzed through the works of multiple authors.

Transformation is then defined through the literature, namely works on empowerment. Several critiques of organizing are examined, followed by an analysis of how transformative organizing can deepen its impact.

While its origins are found in efforts to deepen social justice, today politicians and activists, conservatives and liberals alike, use community organizing towards a wide range of goals. Organizing efforts have been similarly used to both dismantle and to bolster social justice goals, which aim to ensure an equitable distribution of resources and power. Given the broad array of today’s community organizing activities, this literature review is focused on the history and analysis of organizing as it has been used towards the end of furthering social justice, rather than organizing that has been used for other purposes, such as political interests or by the labor movement. Further, there is a close relationship between organizing and social movements, with movements often supported by organizing efforts. However, as the movement literature is also expansive, it is not treated in this review.

What is Organizing?
At its most elemental, community organizing is the action of bringing people together, mobilizing communities to meet common goals. “Community” here refers to a group of people with a shared interest, including spatial, political, social and economic interests. The literature provides definitions that clearly frame the goals and actions of organizing. Orr (2007) defines community organizing as “the process that engages people, organizations, and communities toward the goals of increased individual and community control, political efficacy, improved quality of life, and social justice . . . The central feature of community organizing is that it is a process and strategy designed to build political power” (p. 2).

In building political power, organizing by definition restores rather than diminishes democracy and is collaborative and participatory; it is a bottom-up versus top-down approach (Orr, 2007, p. 10). Many authors distinguish between efforts labeled “community organizing” that originate from outside of the community, and “true” organizing that emanates from within. Staples (2004) finds this distinction central to any definition of organizing and asserts that community organizing is as much if not more a philosophy than a method: “organizing is a bottom-up philosophical approach to social change, not simply a method to achieve it” (p. 2). In this philosophy, social change is achieved through organizing by harnessing and building on indigenous leadership and participation.

Seminal organizer, Marshall Ganz elaborates the role of organizers in his 2002 piece, “What is Organizing?” Leadership development is among the many tasks of an organizer; identifying, recruiting and developing leadership around which to build community is a primary goal of community organizing. Organizers are leaders who facilitate the development of relationships, understanding and action so that they work in concert to support and mobilize collective action. They do this through motivating “action by deepening people’s understanding of who they are, what they want, and why” (p.16). Organizers are leaders who take on the responsibility to act, as well as creating opportunities for strategic action.

Sen (2003) refers to community organizing as a “distinct form of organization building and social activism that grew in the United States mostly after World War II” (p. xliv).  Traditionally, community organizing involves building membership organizations and often bringing together the membership of existing organizations.  Orr (2007) estimates more than 6,000 such organizations and lists the five leading national organizing networks as the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), Pacific Institute for Community Organization (PICO), the Gamaliel Foundation, and Direct Action and Research Training (DART), Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), and the Center for Third World Organizing (CTWO) (p. 2). However, since the book’s publication in 2007, ACORN was officially disbanded in 2010, following nationwide controversy generated by conservative activists.

Why Organize?
Scholars such as Orr (2007) situate community organizing within the contexts of equitable access and use of power, i.e. “engaging disadvantaged communities in order to achieve power” (p. 16). Specific resources such as jobs, education and housing are also provided to communities as a result of organizing efforts. Staples (2004) refers to the term “single-issue mobilizations,” coined by influential activist and researcher, Gary Delgado, to describe organizing that is done around a specific issue in a community, such as improving a road or resisting a factory that wants to locate in their area (p. 3).

During his days as a community organizer, current United States president Barack Obama (1988) wrote about the relational and community-building aspects of organizing, as “it enables people to break their crippling isolation from each other, to reshape their mutual values and expectations and rediscover the possibility of acting collaboratively – the prerequisites of any successful self-help initiative” (p. 2). Organizing in Chicago’s inner city has resulted in more accountable schools; the establishment of job training programs; revitalization of parks; and reduction in crime and drug problems. Additionally, Obama (1988) notes, organizing efforts have allowed “plain folks . . . to access the levers of power, and a sophisticated pool of local civic leadership has been developed” (p. 2). Power resulting from this pool of civic leadership has influenced policy at multiple levels, including local, state, and federal policies. Sen (2003) recognizes significant federal policy gains to include the programs of the Great Society, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the War on Poverty (p. xliv).

Arguably the father of community organizing, Saul Alinsky envisioned the organizer’s role in the 1969 introduction to the Vintage Edition of his 1946 manifesto, Reveille for Radicals. Alinsky (1989) defined the role of organizers as having “the job of organizing people so that they will have the power and opportunity to best meet each unforeseeable future crisis as they move ahead to realize those values of equality, justice, freedom, the preciousness of human life, and all those rights and values propounded by Judeo-Christianity and democratic tradition” (p. xiv).

Organizing has traditionally been used to build a power base to be activated toward the end goal of social justice.  Community organizing says Delgado (1986), links the “provision of collective goods and services to geographically defined class interest; by so doing, they create new avenues for understanding power and inequality” (p. 40). Organizing creates these new avenues by building consciousness through the demystification of “production and allocation of collective goods” and creating “replicable local organizations that encourage and validate a contradictory system of oppositional behavior” (Delgado, 1986, p. 41).  As will be discussed later, organizing for the allocation of a specific good is resource provision, while harnessing the process of reallocation to deepen the community’s understanding of the system, of power and inequality, and to build a “contradictory system of oppositional behavior,” is transformative organizing.

In her introduction to Stir It Up: Lessons in Community Organizing and Advocacy, Sen (2003) dates community organizing back to the close of World War II, however Orr recognizes the roots of organizing originating in the settlement house movement of the late nineteenth century (Orr, 2007, p. 4). Whichever era you trace its roots to, organizing as a profession is correlated to the creation of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), founded in the 1940s by Saul Alinsky; the IAF is widely acknowledged as the first organizing network. In addition to creating this first network, Alinsky is credited as the father of contemporary organizing due to having created and recorded models of organizing that were foundational to the literature, as well as standards and training programs which have established community organizing as a professional field.

Sen (2003) outlines the trajectory of organizing, beginning with Alinsky’s work in the meatpacking and stockyards section of Chicago. At the time, neighborhood divisions were often marked by European ancestry as well as religion, with Polish, Irish and other southern and eastern European immigrants facing job, education, and housing discrimination, alongside Latino and African American communities. Alinsky conceived of and built Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, an organization that would bring together churches, labor unions, and service organizations as a united front used to pressure city hall into expanding social services and education. Their efforts proved so successful that Alinsky created the IAF in order to adapt and test the model in various other cities. The IAF was soon working with organizational leaders across the country. Alinsky’s approach of unifying communities gained further popularity during the late 1960s when the IAF was called on to build organizations that would organize communities as an alternative response to racial riots and unrest.

Since its inception, organizing has evolved into varied models and approaches that have been adapted to a plethora of communities and needs. The varied approaches build on the work of Alinsky who recorded his models and laid the ground for others to critique and adapt his methods to fit current dynamics and problems. The evolution of organizing will be summarized in the “Critiques” section.

Provision versus Transformation
In their 1990 chapter “Transformative Populism and the Development of a Community of Color,” Kennedy, Tilly and Gaston explore the differences between redistributive and transformative populism. Working in Roxbury, then one of Boston’s ghettos, the authors captured the tension between the two strategies for community development. Redistributive populism they classify as having an end goal of resource redistribution. To meet this goal, non-class differences including race are suppressed in order to unite the people around “a least-common denominator program based on traditional ideology” (Kennedy, Tilly, & Gaston, p. 302). Transformative populism on the other hand has as its “central goal the transformation of consciousness through empowerment” (p. 302). Transformative strategies are recognized as emphasizing diversity as well as supporting unity, and co-creating a derived ideology in the process of educating and mobilizing members. While wealth is the focus of redistribution in the first case, transformative populism seeks to redistribute power (p. 315).

This classification provides the frame through which to analyze community organizing, namely the dual roles organizations can play of organizing for the provision of resources and also for transformation. Resource provision includes both funds and services, while transformation can take place at the individual, community, socio-economic, and political levels; consciousness of the collective community and its individual members can be transformed, as can policy transform the political, economic or social structure of the country. The end result of transformative organizing is the redistribution of power, while organizing for resource provision seeks to secure a specific resource, often for economic or social improvement.

Delgado (1986) characterizes this division between goals as the struggle community organizations are facing in two arenas: “they pose demands for immediate economic improvements, in terms of the distribution of the social wage, and they demand democratic rights and liberties” (p. 40). Here, Delgado is pointing to the provision of resources to make immediate economic improvements, and structural transformation that would ensure that equal rights and liberties are extended to all.

Alinsky considered community organizing to be a radical and transformative activity, evidenced in his two famous works, Reveille for Radicals and Rules for Radicals. However, as early as 1941 Alinsky wrote about the necessity of improving the economic life of communities in order to create the foundation for significant change. In his signature prose, Alinsky wrote:
“The Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council concedes that constructive work within limits can be done without reference to the economy of the community. But until the economy of that community is significantly changed, until the problem of economic security is dealt with, one actually has the paper decoration one finds on the end of lamb chops – but no lamb chops.” (p. 806)

Resource provision towards the improvement of economic life is of obvious importance to communities. However, providing resources does not necessarily support either the growth or transformation of communities. Smyth (2009) critiques the resources provision approach, as disadvantage is a socially, politically, and economically constructed phenomenon. Simply providing more resources through the structures that create disadvantage will therefore only perpetuate disparity. Further, resources can be provided that are barely related to the needs of the community (p. 11).

Smyth (2009) goes on to caution against community action that results in the cooption of member’s efforts by acting as a “progressive discourse to veil a cost-cutting agenda by the state,” which places the most burden and onus on the most disadvantaged (p. 12). In this, Smyth foretells of the tendency government has to place responsibility on any party that steps forward. He further warns against shifting focus too far away from material inequities to goals of inclusion and engagement as we can lose sight of the contradictions that generate conditions of poverty and inequity (p. 17). Organizing should therefore be aware of the need for resources, as well as for transformation of communities and larger structures. Building community capacity should focus on leadership development toward political savvy; community power that brings residents and resources strategically together to analyze inequities and solutions; and social capital that bridges relationships in order to bring broad networks together for collaboration toward mutual goals (p. 19).

Organizing is transformative when it provides analysis and leadership skills to address the “underlying conditions producing debilitating inequities” (Smyth, 2009, p. 9). Of course, these “underlying conditions” are found in the systems and institutions that make up our economic, social and political systems and can be addressed to some degree through policy levers. However, the conditions also exist within the values and belief structures of individuals.  Transformative organizing then works to change “the nature of the relationships communities of disadvantage have over aspects of power in their lives” (Smyth, 2009, p. 10).

Fisher and Kling (1989) envision the task of organizers to be tying “people’s understanding of their grievances to an analysis that builds upon, and takes them beyond, the constituencies and communities with which they immediately identify” (p. 209).  Expanding the notion of community that one identifies with can thus change the relationship communities of disadvantage have to power. Members begin to identify themselves not as being a part of a lower class or disadvantaged neighborhood, but of a broad community of people being affected by similar systems and policies. Community consciousness can then replace class as the initiator of action and the flashpoint of social conflict (Fisher & Kling, 1989, p. 206).

Smock (2004) uses the term “transformative frames,” to describe this type of community transformation. Citing Snow et al., “transformative frames are collective action frames that redefine ‘activities, events, and biographies that are already meaningful from the standpoint of some primary framework, in terms of another framework’” so that participants can see circumstances from another view entirely (p. 231).  This is important, as “in order to build a collective vision for long-term structural change, community organizations must help residents to develop the critical perspective necessary for understanding the connection between their everyday experiences and these broader structural dynamics” (Smock, 2004, p. 231).

Connecting one’s individual reality with broader dynamics and encompassing systems provides motivation and tools for transformation:

“Transformative frames provide residents with new lenses through which to make sense of their experiences – lenses that enable residents to perceive the connection between their own problems and broader economic and political arrangements and to conceptualize long-term structural solutions to these unjust arrangements.” (pp. 231-232)

Obama (1988) notes that both economic improvements and electoral politics can help to improve the lives of marginalized people (p. 1). However, Alinsky (1941) asserts that while the economic life of a community must be improved if the community is to step into its own power and create significant and sustainable change, the only way to ensure that members’ rights are being met is through a community organization that is “built, owned, and operated by themselves rather than by outside interests” (p. 807).

A key concept in analyzing organizing’s impact on communities as transformative is whether or not the community and its members experience increased empowerment as a result of organizing efforts. Like the term “organizing,” “empowerment” has wide and varied uses. However, social justice literature broadly and organizing literature more specifically harbors exacting authors who have explored the concept as it relates to the field.

As the scribe and arguable creator of radical organizing, Alinsky in the early 1940s distinguished between organizing for rights and favors, defining work done to further rights as empowering while organizing for favors risks the opposite effect. He asserted that communities should be empowered to fight for their rights rather than asking for favors.  He describes the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council as being formulated around “the concept of ‘rights’ as over and against the prevailing antiquated welfare motif of ‘benevolence’” (Alinksy, 1941, p.807).

Through this lens, community organizing for resource provision can be seen as requesting favors of the “welfare motif,” rather than ensuring that equal rights and liberties are being extended to the community. This position critiques the systems, political, economic and social, as having failed to extend similar if not equal rights to all citizens and acknowledges that equal rights and liberties are a part of our constitutional contract. It would therefore be a transformative act of organizing to shift the consciousness of the community from asking for favors to knowing and fighting for their rights; being empowered to do so, the community then transforms the system to ensure the provision of rights and their associated resources, rather than asking for resources without the structural changes that would ensure sustainability of access and provision.

In 1997, Elizabeth Rocha took on the task of attempting to define and map out empowerment. Drawing from the conceptual framework of Sherry Arnstein’s “ladder of citizen participation,” Rocha’s article, “A Ladder of Empowerment” provides a typology, “constructed with the intent of disentangling the web of conflicting empowerment theory” (p. 31). The article therefore serves to address concerns as to what exactly empowerment is and how an individual or community comes about it.

Rocha describes empowerment as one of many forms of the broader notion of power, and goes on to typologize the various experiences of power one goes through in becoming personally empowered, and then being a part of community empowerment. Rocha characterizes five rungs or types of empowerment, beginning with the individual and ending with the community as the locus of power that has political influence. Both Rocha and Alinsky mark the movement of consciousness, from the individual to the collective level, as the growth of empowerment. Individuals are able to address those issues which affect themselves, and then those issues which affect their community, and lastly there is a linking of personal and communal issues to the broader community affected, nationally and internationally. The table 1 is a recreation of Rocha’s ladder that describes the five rungs of empowerment.

Smyth also distinguishes between different types of power, discriminating between relational and conservative power. Relational power Smyth characterizes as the ability to collaborate in order to accomplish a goal, versus conservative power, or power asserted over another. While conservative power seeks influence or domination over members or groups, relational power is the coherence of inclusion and participation that influences and motivates social justice.
There is yet another primary marker for distinguishing empowerment. Staples notes the importance of the participatory process and further asserts that for a community to be truly empowered, it must provide its own leadership. Staples (2004) in fact places the source of advocacy as a definitional factor of describing organizing: “To the extent that non-members advocate on behalf of the community (e.g., advocates for youth), the process is not organizing, and to the degree that self-advocacy takes place (e.g., youth act on their own interests), organizing is taking place” (p. 2).

Similarly, the existence of a community-based, member organization that handles multiple issues and is recognized as representative of the community is another hallmark of participation and empowerment. However, it is important to note that external leadership and skills can be crucial at various points in the life of an organizing campaign, or a community-based organization. For instance, at the beginning of a campaign, especially if there is no existing organization, external leadership might be necessary to mobilize members and resources, as well as to create a campaign or organizational structure. The key to empowerment is the cultivation of indigenous leadership that will take over. Community empowerment is then evidenced in the presence of sustainable, community-based organizations, member participation, self-advocacy, and indigenous leadership.

A range of authors from Delgado to Fisher and Kling mark coalition building as a key factor for success in community organizing. Yet because resources are scarce, there is much competition between organizations and organizing networks. Competition pits organizing networks against each other as they vie for membership and resources; networks therefore seek out other progressive organizations to partner with but rarely work with each other (Delgado, 1986, p. 42).

While there are many organizational factors at the micro level that explain a lack of resources, the lack of resources available to both communities and organizations can be attributed at the macro level to the two systemic tensions of scarcity and exclusion.  Our current neo liberal agenda that prioritizes individualism and competition generates, for example, an education system in which those who cannot afford to pay are excluded from private education (Smyth, 2009, p. 9). Scarce resources are then shared within the public education system, limiting students’ access to mentoring, one-on-one attention, materials, and programs that would increase their lifetime opportunities.

Organizing efforts have seen some success at providing resources such as funding for education, housing and health care, as well as supporting the transformation of communities. However, most of us still live in a society where we face these core issues of exclusion and scarcity. Stall and Stoecker (1997) note that race, gender and class remain as barriers to inclusion, yet resources are scarce in most if not all communities (p. 742). Even wealthy communities face the threat if not a current reality of water and clean air shortages, though for many communities the risk is markedly more severe than for others. Much community organizing still exists within a competitive and individualistic paradigm; as noted by Delgado, organizing networks seek collaboration with other progressive organizations but not with each other. Competition between networks hinders larger collective mobilization toward systemic change.

How then can we proceed to the next level of systemic or institutional transformation, which would transcend tendencies toward exclusion, competition and scarcity? I believe we must go deeper than community awareness, empowerment and action to the structural consciousness that still holds organizing within a paradigm marked by competition and individualism, scarcity and exclusion. To reach this depth, we must penetrate ourselves and identify where structural realities are held in our past experiences and current perspectives, and are therefore generating our future realities.

As Saul Alinsky wrote in 1946, “the structure will always be no more than a reflection of its substance” (Alinsky, 1989, p. 40). The substance Alinsky refers to is the people and the structure that of society. How then through organizing can we transform the substance, the people, ourselves? While organizing has held since its inception radical views of structural change, perhaps the vision of substantive change can reach further into the potential of the substance itself, the potential each of us as individuals hold to transform systemic patterns that live inside of us.

Organizers, both on the ground and those administrating organizations, hold inside of ourselves the systems and agendas of the structures that we have spent our lives within. Values and belief systems marked by competition and individualism lead us to act unconsciously in ways that perpetuate exclusion and scarcity.  Organizations reflect the people who participate in and run them, and people are partial reflections of the systems that they were raised within. Further efforts at transformative organizing would do well to predicate themselves on the continuing personal transformation of organizers and members. By becoming aware of the tendencies we have towards thinking in terms of scarcity and exclusion, we can create organizations and support community growth that reflects the values of social justice organizing, namely collaboration, participation, and a more equitable distribution of both wealth and power.

Organizers and their organization’s members can thus be seen as fulfilling the “great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well” (Freire, 2000, p. 44).  Yet Paulo Freire (2000) warns that “almost always, during the initial stage of the struggle, the oppressed . . . tend to become oppressors. The very structure of their thought has been conditioned by the contradictions of the concrete, existential situation by which they were shaped” (p. 45). Freire describes this phenomenon wherein the oppressed becomes the oppressor as a stage within the evolutionary process of an individual who conceives of and struggles for freedom; identification with the oppressor is a stage in the evolution of consciousness, from oppression to freedom.

Here I argue that existential and concrete systems that have ordered and informed our thought structures rarely if ever by their own volition disappear or transform beyond recognition. Our thought structures and patterned views of social, economic and political reality will remain at various levels identified with those of the “oppressor” unless and until we make a conscious and concerted effort to bring our awareness to the places in which the “oppressor” exists inside of our psychological and emotional structures. In the words of Freire, it is in discovering ourselves to be “hosts of the oppressor” that we can contribute to the “midwifery of . . . liberating pedagogy” (Freire, p. 48). In this case, liberating pedagogy is any process, method or practice that allows us to identify where the “oppressor” resides, so that we can conceive of visions of social justice, as well as strategies to reach it, that are more in line with freedom than with the old dynamics of oppression. By identifying where and how the systemic tensions that we hope to relieve through organizing efforts live inside of us, we can hope to engage in organizing that is more systemically transformative.

Resources are a necessary but not sufficient aspect of transformative organizing. Communities must have resources and economic growth supports stable, healthy communities. However, resources provided through systems of oppression are likely positioned to perpetuate inequality. Further, resources can be provided that are barely related to community needs. To be transformative, organizing requires participation from community members as well as indigenous leadership. Organizing can then utilize the demystification of “production and allocation of collective goods” to build consciousness towards the end of generating contradictory systems that will oppose and transform those currently in place (Delgado, 1986, p. 41).

Transformative community organizing differs from organizing for resource provision in that the goal is the redistribution of both resources and power rather than the redistribution of resources alone. Transformative organizing empowers individuals and communities by fostering indigenous leadership and advocacy, as well as sustainable community organizations, which represent community diversity and needs, and are able to respond with analysis, action and leadership to meet those needs. Individuals and communities thus empowered to acknowledge their position within broader systems, political, economic and social, can then act to transform those systems to ensure that equal rights and liberties are being extended to all. 
Transformative organizing seeks to transform both the consciousness of the people and the structure of the systems we live within. Many of the problems organizing in the U.S. seeks to solve are marked by the systemic tensions of individualism and competition. These tensions breed belief structures organized around notions of exclusivity and scarcity, structures that are contained within individual as well as the collective consciousness. As organizers, whether on the ground or in the office, holding formal or informal positions, we unconsciously bring these dynamics into our organizing efforts, evidenced by persisting competition and the absence of collaboration between large organizing networks.

To fulfill the radical vision of structural change that organizing has held since its birth as a profession, perhaps what is required at the most fundamental level is personal transformation of individuals engaged at all levels of community organizing.  For this, we must reach inside of ourselves and identify how structural realities are held in our values, belief systems, worldviews, actions and reactions. This call to action or next step in transformative community organizing requests that time and resources be allocated to the personal transformation of organizers and members; we need time and often guidance to identify where and how the systems we have lived within live inside of us. We can then as individuals, organizations, and communities see how systemic tensions are perpetuated, and engage in actions that will be deeply transformative. 

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Marcia Rosalie Hale Marcia Rosalie Hale

Marcia Rosalie Hale, MA Urban Planning,, is a doctoral candidate studying conflict and community development at University of California – Los Angeles

3250 Public Affairs Building, Box 951656 Los Angeles, CA 90095-1656

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Keywords: Key Words: Community organizing, empowerment, transformation, community psychology, gjcpp