Neighbourhood Collective Agency

Connecting the Power of People to the Power of Place: How Community-Based Organizations Influence Neighbourhood Collective Agency, by Jessica Carrière, Rob Howarth, and Emily Paradis. NCRP Research Paper, December 2016

Funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada
through the Neighbourhood Change Research Partnership.
ISSN 0316-0068; ISBN 978-0-7727-9126-9


Neighbourhoods, and the community-based organizations that serve them, are at a crossroads. Economic changes and austerity policies are causing increased inequality, polarization, and segregation within and between neighbourhoods. Residents must juggle multiple responsibilities under intensifying pressures and with access to fewer resources and supports. With the retreat of the state from ensuring adequate income security and services, community-based organizations are left holding the bag, trying to meet the basic needs of their communities with unpredictable and insufficient funding.

We undertook this research to explore the ways in which residents and local community organizations can work together to address rising inequality and diminishing resources at the neighbourhood level.

Neighbourhood collective agency is a dynamic capacity that responds to these conditions on multiple levels. It strengthens the optimism, pride, belonging, and connection that are eroded by inequality; it brings neighbours together to improve their immediate local conditions of daily life; and it is a powerful force for demanding systemic change. We define neighbourhood collective agency as:

Residents’ desire and capacity to work together to improve daily life and promote equity and social justice in their neighbourhood.

In this report, we ask how collective agency emerges in neighbourhoods, and how community-based organizations may promote or inhibit it.

Neighbourhood collective agency connects the power of people to the power of place. The organizations whose work we examined recognize the power inherent in the communities they serve, and aim to foster this potential at all levels of their work. The information they have shared through this research can be of use to other community-based organizations that wish to promote collective agency in their neighbourhoods.

Neighbourhood collective agency is an important response to the broader trends of growing inequality in our society. While incomes and amenities in some neighbourhoods are steadily increasing, many neighbourhoods are experiencing a decline in average incomes, and deterioration in the quality of housing and services. These conditions threaten residents’ well-being and limit their access to opportunities.

Neighbourhood collective agency is what enables residents to come together to respond to these trends. Responses may range from neighbours sharing support and resources, to groups working together to demand change. This capacity is especially important in neighbourhoods where the economic system and public policies create hardship for individuals and families. Therefore, we are trying to learn more about how community-based organizations can help foster collective agency in Toronto neighbourhoods facing such hardship.

Neighbourhood collective agency connects the power of place with the power of people, and leverages local experiences to contribute to larger-scale system changes.

The power of place
People care about the places where they live and are affected by the conditions they experience there. Things like housing quality, transit connections, recreation opportunities, walkability to local services, schools and businesses, as well as a sense of safety and security, are all part of people’s experiences of where they live.

The power of people
Neighbourhoods are one important place where people can work together to make change. Residents can make important local improvements together, and attract additional resources and investment to their communities. This is good in and of itself. But as importantly, residents can build upon these collective achievements and support calls for system-wide changes that improve conditions for others as well.

Community-based organizations contribute to system change
To achieve justice, equity, and opportunity for all will require things like more affordable housing, a labour market that provides better jobs and employment security, improved income support programs, reduced discrimination, and improved access for all to health and social services. Neighbourhood collective agency has the potential source to generate widespread demand for systemic changes needed to reach these goals.

Community-based organizations are committed to improving community conditions. This is an explicit part of their mission statements, and a strong motivation for the dedicated people who work and volunteer in them. Many of these organizations have realized that, even though they deliver important services each day that improve the lives of many residents, conditions in their neighbourhoods are worsening.

Many community-based organizations continue to view leadership development and community capacity-building as an integral part of their efforts to provide day-to-day program supports for individuals and families. But over the past 30 years, these community development practices have not been effectively profiled or championed as an essential function of community-based organizations.

This report is intended to re-focus attention on this realm of community-based organizations’ impact, which remains poorly articulated and understood. We hope to present community-based organizations and interested funders with a strengthened case for augmenting service-delivery activities with strategies designed to facilitate residents’ own capacities for action.

We believe there is considerable urgency to this effort. There is growing concern within the community sector that an over-reliance on service provision may inhibit collective agency and sustain the very systems that fuel deteriorating conditions in neighbourhoods.

In the long run, efforts to address inequality and exclusion in our society will be difficult to sustain without intentional practices and dedicated resources focused on supporting residents’ desire and capacity to work together to improve daily life and promote equity and social justice.

Research findings
This report draws upon three key sources:

  1. more than two years of discussion and analysis by a working group of community practitioners and scholars;
  2. a broad review of the literature;
  3. interviews and focus groups with staff and community leaders in three community-based organizations in Toronto.

Through this research, we learned how local agencies have set a goal to enhance agency in their communities; the barriers they encounter and the enablers that assist them in this work; the agency-promoting objectives they pursue; the specific everyday practices that put these objectives into action; and the indicators that help them to recognize when these efforts are successful within their organizations and in the neighbourhood as a whole. Examples of agency-enhancing organizational practices identified in the report include:

Stories, values, and assumptions
· Promoting a workplace culture centered on learning and community capacity-building.
· Promoting non-hierarchical language to encourage power-sharing, such as the use of the term ‘residents’ versus ‘clients.’
· Sharing stories of achievements and spreading the word when an initiative is successful.
· Creating opportunities to identify, popularize, and celebrate narratives of community members as active participants in making change in their community (e.g., leadership awards and profiles).

Individual-level practices
· Acknowledging the structural determinants of individual struggles and developing solutions that account for systemic barriers to individual and group advancement.
· Providing an inclusive environment in which diverse cultures and traditions are honoured and discrimination is recognized and challenged.
· Providing information about opportunities, networks, activities, and campaigns to program participants and removing barriers to participation.
· Expecting reciprocity and providing opportunities and expectation that participants will contribute their skills and insight.
· Providing concrete leadership opportunities, whereby active community leaders and partners are able to lead and make decisions within the organization and in their communities.

Group-level practices
· Initiating group activities in response to emergent crises, events, and opportunities in the neighbourhood.
· Devoting space, resources, and staff time to social and cultural events and community markets to inspire increased resident engagement and connect resident leaders.
· Intentionally fostering connections and understanding across differences.

Intra-organizational practices
· Providing agency support for advocacy and social action committees.
· Establishing and maintaining programmatic flexibility and power-sharing practices in order to support community ownership.
· Hiring members of the communities served and ensuring that the staff team reflects the diversity of the community.

Inter-organizational and neighbourhood-level practices
· Ensuring organizational commitment to inter-agency planning, collaboration, capacity-building, and action.
· Promoting staff participation in and support for neighbourhood networks, including service providers, businesses, community groups, and resident leaders.
· Providing outside groups with access to meeting space and administrative supports.
· Positioning the organization within a broader ecology of community resources and networks, as one point of connection, not the only centre of activity.
· Conducting frequent and diverse outreach activities—such as door-to-door canvassing, community walk-arounds, community meetings, community asset mapping, participatory research, and information tables in community gathering places—that enable staff to connect with residents to understand their issues and interests and connect them to other people and opportunities.

Local improvements and systemic-change practices
· Raising awareness about how program participants, local residents, and community conditions are affected by public policy choices and by systemic barriers to improvement.
· Supporting and strengthening resident-led actions to identify and advocate for policy reforms needed to improve community conditions.
· Providing space for community organizing and hosting community meetings on critical local and systemic policy issues, to establish the organization as a conduit for collective action in the community.

Implications for neighbourhoods and organizations

This research has shown that neighbourhood collective agency operates at many levels: individual, group, organizational, neighbourhood-wide. The work of community-based organizations also takes place at these levels. This means that organizations can influence collective agency not only directly—through activities that promote group action and policy advocacy—but also indirectly, through programs and services, organizational structures and policies, and inter-organizational and neighbourhood networks. This opens up opportunities for community-based organizations to shape their work at all levels to foster collective agency.

Collective agency appears to be enhanced when community-based organizations and their funders commit to achieving impacts across multiple levels. While stand-alone efforts to empower individuals, support group cohesion, and advocate for system changes are all worthy activities in and of themselves, connecting these efforts more intentionally within a neighbourhood can create and sustain collective agency over time.

However, when an organization’s work is shaped by short-term activities, limited scope of analysis, a focus on individual change, and a reluctance to take action for social change, its activities may impede the development of neighbourhood collective agency. Without an overarching commitment to neighbourhood collective agency as an organizational goal, the everyday activities and practices of organizations are less likely to promote it.

The scale of the obstacles facing neighbourhoods can be overwhelming. But our research suggests that simple, concrete practices and everyday interventions can cumulatively help to shift the dynamic.
A good first step for organizations intent on promoting collective agency is to take stock of where agency-enhancing practices are already happening in their work. Also helpful is to look for examples of collective agency in the neighbourhood, and consider how the organization can support, align with, and learn from these. We hope that this report, and the practical mapping tools found in the Appendix, can assist in these explorations.