Thursday, September 10, 2009

Historical Roots of Community Engagement and Mobilization

Programs for disadvantaged populations risk encouraging passivity and creating dependency, which are adverse to recovery and sustainability. Social settlements, one of the cornerstones of modern social work, were founded on the tenet of collective action built on a basis of trust and cooperation with community members and local institutions to improve community life. The first settlement house was developed in late 19th-century London as a response to growing numbers of people living in poverty, especially immigrants. Soon thereafter, Jane Adams developed a settlement house in the United States, Chicago’s Hull House, which quickly took on several vital roles within the community – a center for social activity and learning, with youth clubs, women’s clubs, athletic classes, and college extension classes, as well as community advocacy. Though Adams’ settlement house movement did not only target vulnerable populations but rather “all sides of neighborhood life”, it is regarded as the starting point of social services to address the needs of the vulnerable within the community. Adams (1892) essay “The Objective Value of a Social Settlement” focuses on the tenets behind the settlement model, most importantly providing people with opportunities so they can help themselves, rather than relying on charity. Likewise, Agnew’s (2004) chapter on Mary Richmond, tells of her discouraging begging and handouts and focusing on educational and employment opportunities for the needy. Both emphasize that drawing upon all the resources that social programs offer as well as the resources of the community allows for collective strength and cooperation.

In the field of international child protection, community engagement and mobilization around the needs of children has always been key to creating a protective environment for children. For example, Richmond engaged with the community to safeguard children’s interests around regulating child labor. When a community is engaged to identify the needs of children in their community, children are prioritized. Collective planning facilitates the empowerment of adults and creates a sense of autonomy in uncertain and disempowering circumstances. Even in emergencies, communities still maintain structures and capacities for coping, aligned with their ideals, values, and relationships. Although pre-crisis coping mechanisms may be undermined during times of crisis, the community does not lose its capacity for developing solutions and rebuilding community life. Wessells and Monteiro (2008) suggest using an empowerment model rather than a service model to connect with the community in a front-line response to create a protective environment for young children and aid in their own recovery. Psychologically, part of community recovery is a reinstatement of collective efficacy and action to help monitor and reduce risks and prevent abuse and exploitation. In this way, caregiving structures for children in the community are strengthened. When the capacity of communities to recovery from crisis is recognized, feelings of hope and autonomy are increased. As Adams (1893) says, “They require only that their aspirations be recognized and stimulated, and the means of attaining them put at their disposal” (p. 61).

Adams, J. (1893). The objective value of social settlement. In C. Lasch (1982), The Social Thought of Jane Adams. New York, NY: Irvington Publishers, p.44-61.
Adams, J. (1915). Subjective necessity for social settlements. In Twenty Years at Hull House. New York, NY: The Macmillan Company, p. 113-127.
Agnew, E. (2004). Families and the circle of reform. In From Charity to Social Work: Mary E.
and the Creation of an American Profession. Ubana, IL: University of Illinois Press,
p. 95-131.

Wessells, M. and Monterio, C. (2008). Supporting young children in conflict and postconflict
Child protection and psychosocial well-being in Angola. In M. Garcia, A. Pence, and
J. Evans (Eds.), Africa’s future, Africa’s challenge: Early childhood care and development in
sub-Saharan Africa (pp.317-329). Washington, DC: World Bank.

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