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Topic 2.2 Benefits of community participation

When we work with people in situations of poverty or social exclusion from a participatory approach, incorporating the community dimension can bring innumerable advantages. These advantages and potentialities have an impact both on improving the living conditions of the person in a situation of exclusion and on the community as a whole.

A key axis of all this is the development of a sense of community. Below are some of the key components that come into play in developing that sense of community:

  • Belonging: it consists of the feeling of having invested part of oneself in the community, and of belonging to it. The feeling of belonging supposes for people a personal identification with the group and the community (for example, speaking on behalf of the group or defining themselves based on belonging to a group “I am from…”). It usually implies the development of shared symbols and codes, and the adoption of these habits and norms by the person in a situation of vulnerability, as well as the generation of affective bonds and a positive experience of emotional security as well as a feeling of solidarity of the community towards itself and with the rest of the members.
  • Influence: It refers to the power that the members exercise over the collective, and reciprocally, to the power of the dynamics of the group and the community over its members. People are more attracted to groups and communities they can influence. In this line, it is common to find a centre-periphery structure in communities, in which individuals with a stronger sense of community are the most active in the dynamics of participation and become a reference for the rest of the participants.
  • Integration and satisfaction of needs: This component refers to two aspects: the existence of values ​​shared by the members of the group/community and the exchange of resources to satisfy the needs of the members.
  • Shared emotional connection: it is when the members recognize the existence of a shared bond. This bond is the result of prolonged positive contact and sharing of experiences and a common history.

To deepen into methodological tools: the Community Index (SCI) has been developed by Chavis and Pretty, 1999, and in revised and adapted versions by other authors (I. Maya. Jariego). It was designed to assess the psychological sense of community in neighbourhoods with a scale on which a score is obtained. Reading these indexes helps to visualize very well what is meant when speaking of a sense of community.

SENSE OF COMMUNITY INDEX (SCI). SUMMARY OF ITEMS

Reinforcement of needs

  1. I think my neighbourhood is a good place to live.
  2. The people in my neighbourhood do not share my same values.
  3. My neighbours and I want the same for this neighbourhood.

Belonging

  1. I recognize most of the people who live in my neighbourhood.
  2. In my neighbourhood I feel at home.
  3. Very few neighbours know me.

Influence

    1. I worry about what my neighbours think of my behaviour.
    2. I can’t influence what my neighbourhood is like.
    3. If there was a problem in my neighbourhood, the people here would solve it.

Emotional connection

  1. It is very important for me to live in this neighbourhood.
  2. People in this neighbourhood don’t usually spend time together.
  3. I hope to live in this neighbourhood for a long time.

All these aspects undoubtedly have an enormously positive impact on the lives of people in situations of exclusion, since it contributes in a holistic way to their process of psychosocial integration and personal and social development.

Community participation processes must be based on the principles of self-determination and autonomy, both of individuals and communities.

Self-determination is one of the essential components of participation since, without it, people, groups and communities, even with their basic needs covered, do not fully control their meaning and direction (development itinerary) nor do they make decisions relevant to your life and future. That is, they are neither the protagonists nor do they reach full participation in the process. We can define self-determination as: “(…) a combination of skills, knowledge and beliefs that enable a person to engage in goal directed, self-regulated, autonomous behaviour. An understanding of one’s strengths and limitations together with a belief in oneself as capable and effective are essential to self-determination. When acting on the basis of these skills and attitudes, individuals have greater ability to take control of their lives and assume the role of successful adults in our society” (Field, Martín, Miller and Wehmeyer, 1998).

 It is, therefore, through self-determination (as a prior condition to any process) and its components, that participation acquires much of its value.

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Autonomy is the right of individuals, groups and communities to freely govern and administer themselves as they agree within their own sphere and for their own purposes. Autonomy manifests itself when a group is independent in configuring its organization and management mechanisms.

With participation, new spaces for interaction and decision-making are opened on the political and social scene, allowing previously excluded actors to enter, and new and diverse interests appear, which are not nor are they expected to be generalizable, but are taken into account. Under this perspective, autonomy becomes another of the conditions prior to participation and a relevant aspect in participatory processes.

The social heterogeneity that we find when setting up participatory processes (group or community) means that a central level of organization or decision-making, by itself, is not capable of giving an effective or representative response to the different demands or needs of each person or group. The application of a single model (under the framework of a predominant development paradigm) is not effective nor does it positively resolve the inevitable conflicts or tensions. For this reason, it is necessary that participatory or development processes guarantee a high degree of autonomy that ensures two fundamental conditions for self-determination and participation from the keys that we are working on: position and authority to be part, feel part and be able to be part.

If at the time of promoting participatory processes within our organizations or in neighbourhoods and local environments, we have taken into account this universe of principles, components and levels of participation, and the development approach under which the dynamics of the society in which people and groups are immersed, we will most likely end up being part of a process that generates more competent local spaces or communities (at this level the links are stronger) and with greater political capacities because the members themselves they have defined their model of organization and government and participate in it.

Any community participatory process requires the participation of diverse and plural actors or agents.

If we work with a group of people in a situation of social exclusion and we want to promote the community participation of these people, one of our tasks is going to be to link this group with the rest of the community agents, that is, both with the network of the existing social fabric, as well as with the institutional agents and resources.

Opening a participatory process or instituting a stable space for participation also means explicitly clarifying the roles of the different agents that are going to be involved in its development.

Population/ citizenship

On a personal-individual basis

Associations and organizations

Interest groups, collectives and social movements

Institutions

Politicians and rulers

Local, regional, national administrations

Resources

The technical and professional team of services (public or private)