Join us on Facebook
Add Comment


Community Coalition Simulation: Experiential Learning of Community Psychology Practice Competencies

 by  Tom Wolff & Gregor V. Sarkisian

Community Coalition Simulation: Experiential Learning of Community Psychology Practice Competencies

Download the PDF version to access the complete tool and appendix.

Community psychology (CP) practice competencies have recently emerged as a contemporary issue in community psychology (Society for Community Research and Action, 2012). One of the more challenging CP practice competencies to learn, in the experience of the authors of this paper, is collaboration and coalition development, listed under Community and Social Change as CP practice competency number twelve – “The ability to help groups with common interests and goals to do together what they cannot do apart” (SCRA, 2012, p. 12). This paper describes a community coalition simulation exercise as a teaching tool for CP practice competencies in both community and academic settings. Whether one is engaging in working as a member of a coalition for the first time, or, engaging in learning collaboration and coalition building as a student of CP, teaching and learning about coalition development is challenging.

Keywords: coalition building, coalition simulation, competencies

A simple coalition meeting often includes many individuals representing many different community sectors, often with different agendas. In such a complex setting, success requires good listening and responding skills, an excellent sense of group process abilities (i.e., hearing and identifying themes), organizational change capacities, and the ability to manage conflict. When all the skills, principles, theories are applied well and coalition members become genuinely engaged in the process, it can lead to successful outcomes.

Using simulations as a teaching device in community and academic settings is based on the belief that experiential learning is one of the most powerful techniques for examining and learning about complex community interventions. They can expose participants to the complicated group dynamics that occur in communities and have them play an actual role in such a situation. Coupled with guided reflection after engaging in the simulation experience, participants not only gain practice in acting to overcome differences in understanding community problems and solutions, but also gain experience in reflecting critically upon the individual and group dynamics which facilitated or inhibited collaboration. At best, the process will allow the group to work more holistically to address community issues.

This is a tool that the lead author has used over the last twenty years to train numerous groups in communities who are learning coalition building skills. In those situations it is an especially useful tool for teaching people who have had virtually no experience in coalitions. When the lead author first got involved in consulting to substance abuse coalitions twenty years ago, coalitions were a new phenomenon. Many participants and leaders of coalitions had never been in one, so simulations were needed to give them a feel for the experience. Since that time he has used simulations to address specific training issues: sustainability, including grassroots community members in coalitions, substance abuse, violence prevention, youth engagement, impact of receiving money on a coalition’s behavior, teenagers hanging out downtown, hospital/community interaction and parent involvement in schools.

The coalition simulation experience shared in this article was developed for newly forming coalitions around youth issues in a community context. The request in the simulation was taken from an actual letter from a superintendent that had been sent to a community coalition that the first author was involved in.

Other simulations have been developed to address other specific community dilemmas.

  1. When trying to address the issues involved in engaging real grassroots residents in coalitions we created a community coalition meeting to solve the problem that they could not get any parents involved in their youth coalition. We then held back two members of each table and coached them as parents by asking them ‘what it would feel like to be a parent joining this group of professionals?’ We then sent them into the coalition group meeting 15 minutes late without the coalition knowing who they were. In the post-simulation processing time we would then have both those playing professionals and those playing parents talk about the difficulties they encountered in the interface of residents and professionals.
  2. To demonstrate the impact of money on coalitions. We set up coalitions similar to the one you will see in the attached simulation but more focused on the problem of youth substance abuse. After 30 minutes we came to each table with a fax from their Congressman indicating that s/he thinks s/he can access a grant of $300,000 for their community. What did they want to do? In the post simulation discussion they could discuss the clear impact of money on the behavior of all the players in the room.

The second author has more limited experience in working with community coalitions and has worked with three over a five year period that were all focused on the issue of children exposed to violence. While one coalition was informal and longstanding, the other two coalitions were initiated by state and federal governments and were more short-term. Recently, the second author began using the coalition simulation described in this paper in graduate school settings at both the Master’s and Doctoral levels to bridge the often times difficult gap between knowing and doing. Pedagogically, the coalition simulation provides an intermediary praxis experience to raise students’ awareness of the complexity of coalition building – i.e., to practice skills related to the competency coalition building, reflect on the experience immediately after it occurred, receive feedback within a safe and supportive environment, and explore how future efforts might be better informed through the experience.

Students have found the simulation exercise useful in learning not only Collaboration and Coalition Building but also in reinforcing competencies they had learned in previous coursework and experience - Ecological Perspectives and Community Inclusion and Partnership (CP Practice Competencies 1, 4, & 12) (SCRA, 2012; Sarkisian, et al., 2013). Through engaging in the role-play exercise, students were able to simultaneously act as a representative from a group with unique viewpoints of how problems occurred and act in a partnership toward a common goal, reinforcing reflection on how the coalition’s actions could impact the larger ecosystem. As conflicts naturally arose, students were challenged to enact their value on inclusion through accomplishing a common goal. Divisions are built into the roles so conflict and historical differences set the stage for students to develop their understanding of how to work together even with little agreement on the root causes of problems. Inclusive actions, such as plans to include youth in further meetings of the coalition, or, the generation of innovative ideas, such as brainstorming the possibility of bringing in wind and solar companies to stimulate economic development, were some of the positive outcomes these simulated coalitions were able to achieve.

Community Coalition Simulation
Simulations are large group exercises in which the participants role-play various situations that can happen in the community.  They are especially effective tools to illustrate key points in coalition building, community development, collaboration, and inclusion.  Although they can be fun they're not designed as a game, but rather as a learning exercise.  They need to be facilitated by an experienced group leader, and there MUST be adequate time for processing of the simulation, after it has been finished.

Instructions to Begin the Simulation
Divide the participants into sets consisting of one person for each assigned role.  For the attached simulations there are 10 roles.  If there is any one set with less than 10 people, very carefully remove roles that will not affect the outcome of the discussion. For example, do not remove the role of the meeting chair, but the role of the human service agency representatives can be omitted if another role represents that point of view (See Appendix 1 for the general script and all participant roles). We have done this simulation with as many as 20 tables of ten each or as little as two groups of 8 each.

Read the following passage aloud to the entire group.

This simulation is a chance for all of us to take on given roles in a community interaction and act them out.  Each of you will receive the exact same description of the community and the same community situation that you will be a part of.  This situation will be the same for each player.  You will, however, be assigned a unique role to play.  Read this situation and your role.  Then imagine what the person in your role is like; how they would sit, talk, act and behave at the meeting.  Once the simulation starts, stay in the role until the simulation is over.

Giving the group 45-60 minutes is usually adequate. During the simulation, the facilitator(s) of the simulation will wander around and make sure that all the participants are staying within the parameter of the a roles, and will make sure that no one has gotten too carried away in the role and will offer assistance if groups get stuck. When the time allotted for the simulation is up, asked the large group to reconvene. Then take at least 30-45 minutes to process the experience using the questions below.

After the Simulation Process the Discussions that Took Place
Suggested questions for the process portion are related to the process of the exercise and what lessons can be learned from the experience. In academic settings, the questions can be related to community coalition building and foundational principles of community psychology practice (i.e., Ecological Perspectives, Empowerment, Sociocultural & Cross-Cultural Competence, Community Inclusion and Partnership, and Ethical, Reflective Practice).

Questions related to the simulation exercise process.

  • Did this experience feel real?
  • How did it feel to you?
  • What was it like for you?

Questions related to community coalition building.

  • Was it easy for the person in your role to participate in the meeting?
  • What were barriers to participation for the person in your role?
  • What helped move the discussion?
  • What dynamics of the group did you observe?
  • What did you learn about coalition processes as a result of the simulation?

Questions related to foundational principles of community psychology practice.

  • What ecological levels were addressed?

Follow Up: Brainstorm how levels, not addressed in the exercise, could be addressed

  • What is the extent to which an empowering process occurred? What promoted or inhibited this process?
  • What are the ways in which an inclusive partnership was realized and/or inhibited?
  • How did culture or race play a role in the dynamics of the coalition simulation?
  • What is the extent to which the meeting chair enacted ethical, reflective practice?

Many community psychology practice competencies require more than just reading and discussion to help create skills. Experiential opportunities like simulations provide faculty and trainers with such a tool to help create learning experience around especially hard to learn competencies such as collaboration and coalition development skills. This article describes in detail one such tool that can be used as is or tailored to specific situations to help teach coalition building skills. This tool has been used with some success both in academic (Sarkisian, et al., 2013) and in community settings.

Sarkisian, G. V., Saleem, M. A., Simpkin, J., Weidenbacher, A., Bartko, N., & Taylor, S. (2013). A learning journey II: Learned course maps as a basis to explore how students learned community psychology competencies in a community coalition building course. Global Journal of Community Psychology Practice, 4(4), xx-xx. Retrieved from (

Society for Community Research and Action (2012). Competencies for community psychology practice: Draft August 15, 2012. The Community Psychologist, 45(4), 7-14.


Tom Wolff & Gregor V. Sarkisian Tom Wolff & Gregor V. Sarkisian

Tom Wolff, Ph.D., is a community psychologist practicing in Amherst, MA, USA.

Gregor V. Sarkisian, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Master of Arts in Psychology Progam and teaches in the Applied Community Psychology Specialization at Anitioch University Los Angeles, CA, USA.


Comments (1)

Add Comment

About this Article

Add Comment

Recent Comments

Dawn Henderson (North Carolina) December 18, 2013

This is truly wonderful and I plan to modify this activity and use this in an introduction to CP course I am teaching in the spring. Excellent resource!!

PdfDownload the PDF version to access the complete article.

Printer FriendlyPrinter friendly version

Keywords: coalition building, coalition simulation, competencies