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The Learning Centre, established in 2003, is designed to create a fluid, creative system of documenting community building activity and delivering this learning to organizations. The centre has a threefold purpose: to broadly disseminate knowledge gathered through research and practical experience; to help communities increase their power through learning; and to generate knowledge about community engagement so as to advance the field. Learn more about the Learning Centre here.

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Beautiful thinking for October from Tamarack Institute



In this Issue

eyeAdopting a Lens of Complexity in Community Change
[By: Sylvia Cheuy]

Communities, both rural and urban, are facing an array of inter-related challenges as they strive to create positive futures: under-employment, under-resource schools, insufficient affordable housing, poor health, and more. Those of us committed to affecting positive community change in these situations know that the complexity of our work makes it particularly challenging.

The just-released resource Complexity and Community Change: Managing Adaptively to Improve Effectiveness, authored by Patricia Auspos and Mark Cabaj, is a resource to support those working on community change efforts to enhance their effectiveness by viewing their work through the lens of complexity and adopting an adaptive approach in response to it.

Much of the work of community change is based upon three primary functions: strategy and planning; adaptive management; and, learning and evaluation. In the face of complexity, each of these functions require different mind-sets and practices.

Planning and Strategy in Complexity

When traditional approaches to strategy and planning are applied to complex situations, three typical flaws often result:

  1. Excessive Up-front Planning Before Doing - which can result in a paralysis in the face of the complexity, a plan not grounded in context, or a lengthy planning process that tests patience of all involved and preparation;

  2. Weak Learning - This is the result of the emphasis on learning being too heavily placed at the front-end of a project's planning phase, and some emphasis on learning at the end of the project in its evaluation. Not only is there typically very little learning being captured during implementation, but the learning that does occur in this phase is usually focused on overcoming problems and rarely focuses on reconsidering the nature of the problem and/or reconsidering the strategy; and

  3. Rigid, Inflexible Implementation - Often because of the lengthy up-front planning, traditional approaches rarely encourage adapting the strategy and plan in response to shifts in context or new knowledge, thereby limiting the plan's ultimate effectiveness.

In developing strategies and plans for complex situations there is a tension between being focused and intentional and being flexible and adaptive. Practitioners have developed a continuum of strategies which include:

  • Emergent Strategies - The group develops a strategy through a process of learning by doing;
  • Planned Strategies - The group operates with relatively well-defined goals, clear priority areas and boundaries of action, and a well-articulated plan of activities; and,
  • Umbrella Strategies - The group operates with relatively well-defined goals, and clear priority areas and boundaries of action, but leaves the details of the strategy to be sorted out by other actors or levels of the organization.

Typically groups facing a complex issue progress from an initial emergent strategy and, after a process of experimentation, develop an umbrella strategy and then ultimately a planned strategy. However, there are many examples of groups that replace their planned strategy with an emergent or umbrella strategy in the face of a shifting environment or new learnings that make their planned strategy obsolete. The work of crafting, testing, and upgrading strategy, is an adaptive process in itself.

Complexity Requires Adaptive Management

Adaptive Management is a complexity-based approach to management which accepts that plans must be held "lightly" and adjusted frequently to reflect new learnings and shifts in context. It assumes that the process of adapting plans is continuous. As an approach it is best described as, "a structured, iterative process of decision-making in the face of uncertainty that places a high value on both monitoring and learning about the effectiveness of different interventions." While managers do develop pathways for moving forward and practical measures for implementation, the difference from more traditional management situations is that it is expected that these plans will be adjusted, often quickly.

Managers who are effective at adaptive management are guided by three simple rules:

  • Plan to Re-plan - Understand and expect from the start that plans will need to be reviewed and upgraded frequently;
  • Plan for Many Scales and Horizons - Plans are usually required for different levels of the organization as well as different time horizons (weekly, monthly, annually etc.)
  • Plan for Surprise - Strategies may provide a general sense of direction but implementers should watch for and pursue additional opportunities that emerge if they align with the overall mission and strategy.

Adaptive management requires monitoring mechanisms that provide robust, real-time feedback on activities, their effects and their context. This data may be used to adjust plans and it may also generate insights that lead to questioning the strategy itself or the initial understanding of the problem.

The Implications of Complexity on Learning and Evaluation

In the work of community change, evaluations tend to assess programmatic outcomes and population-level changes. However, many such initiatives also monitor the extent to which their work has led to shifts in the complex systems that contribute to community well-being which include changes in policies, culture and or power relationships.

When working on complex issues it is important that the work of learning and evaluation is designed in ways that practitioners can use to inform their emergent and adaptive work. Evaluations must match their purpose and context and participatory assessment is an important component of learning. Most importantly, approaches to evaluation in complex situations need to be designed in a way that informs rather than short-circuits emergent and adaptive strategy and action.

Developmental evaluation - an approach to evaluation that is designed for emergent and adaptive change efforts, and strategic learning - an approach that encourages practitioners to draw on multiple sources of data to inform their constantly evolving strategy, are two methodologies for learning and evaluation that encompass the following complexity-aware practices:

  • Use Evaluative Processes to Inform Strategy Development and Theory of Change - Evaluators can help practitioners track the learnings and results of their multiple actions and use them to craft a more robust theory of change and outcome expectations, a point at which more traditional evaluation practices may be appropriate.
  • Focus on Providing Real-time Feedback for Practitioners - The pace at which practitioners operate varies and shifts all the time. To be useful, evaluation should be designed to provide feedback that fits practitioners' window of usefulness rather than an artificially scheduled midterm and end-of-project reporting period.
  • Facilitate Processes to Help Practitioners Make Sense Of and Use Data - The volume and diversity of data in emergent and adaptive work can be overwhelming. Evaluators can help facilitate the translation of data into useful messages and link them to decision-making processes.
  • Adapt the Evaluation Design to Co-evolve with the Emerging Strategy - As practitioners' strategy and interventions emerge, so too will their evaluation questions and requirements. Evaluators should continually adapt their evaluations to match the evolution of practitioners' information needs.
  • Embed Evaluators into the Change Process - The complex nature of place-based community change makes it easier for evaluators to help practitioners learn and adapt in real time if they are working alongside the practitioners and have frequent opportunities to communicate, rather than drop into the process periodically at predetermined dates.

Over the years, a range of practices have been developed that are better suited to the strategy, management and evaluation of complex contexts. These include: employing a continuum of strategies, from loose to tight, that reflect the uncertainty of their context; adopting different models of flexible planning and implementation; and, using an evaluation approach that encourages experimentation and learning. Our shared challenge is to build the capacity of the field to integrate these practices, and the lens of complexity, into our work. This capacity-building effort must span beyond community change workers and ultimately encompass the broader network of funders, researchers, and community and organizational leaders who create an enabling environment for community change to occur.

By making the ideas and practices for working with complexity more explicit and robust for the field of community change, we will see them become more readily recognized, accepted, and supported as legitimate and enlarge the repertoire of adaptive practice in community change efforts. Complexity and Community Change has contributed to the development of a common framework and vocabulary that will make it easier to understand and communicate about complexity and adaptive practice to others.

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Child meditationBuilding Resilient Children: "Tooth-brushing for the Mind"
[By: Mia Eisenstadt]

If you had half a million pounds to experiment with creating projects to improve the mental health and personal resilience of children and young people aged 10-14 what would you do? Where would you begin? What daily or weekly activities would you propose children and young people undertake to avoid acquiring serious mental conditions and keep their minds healthy and strong?

We all know that to brush our teeth daily to prevent tooth decay. Parents, schools (and dentists) pass this on to children, it is common knowledge. However, when it comes to our mental health, how to stay healthy and well in an increasingly complex world is more ambiguous. We are left to fend for ourselves. In general, our education systems do not teach children what they must do daily or weekly to look after their long-term mental health and become more resilient to any adverse events they may face. Children may learn techniques or experience tools and ideas to support them with their own mental well-being and resilience at home, but this is ad-hoc manner and varies widely amongst families and communities.

Today young people in the UK are suffering from serious mental health conditions more than ever before. There is a lack of evidence on the causes of this trend or the right solutions for how to prevent it. The UK's Big Lottery Fund has developed an investment fund called HeadStart to give 12 regions precisely this opportunity: to support multi-stakeholder partnerships to develop new approaches to improve children's and young people's mental health and personal resilience. This initiative is seeking to develop an evidence base to show how preventive measures taken by people in this age group can help them avoid serious mental health conditions, and reduce subsequent costs to public services, in later years.

The Headstart investment represents the single largest investment made in England to support the resilience of young people aged 10-14. It is an opportunity to experiment, make mistakes, and learn what works to improve young people's lives. This may involve working with a year group of children and extending to a whole school, or starting with a school and extending to a county.

Why Is This Needed?

The Big Lottery created the HeadStart Fund in response to both trends that show the mental health of British children and young people is getting worse rather than better. Research from the UK Charity Young Minds shows that:

  • Three children in every British classroom have a diagnosable mental health disorder;
  • 1 in 5 young adults show signs of an eating disorder; and,
  • 1 in 12 deliberately self-harm; and,
  • The rate of self-harm is going up in the UK: the number of children aged between 10 and 14 requiring hospital treatment in England after deliberately hurting themselves has risen 70% in the past two years according to recent data from the NHS.

The exact causes of the rise in mental health issues are unknown but factors known to contribute are exam and school and exam pressure, body image issues, online culture, and cyberbullying. While not a mental health condition, but a symptom of underlying emotional distress, the rise in self-harm has been suggested by experts as a coping mechanism for other issues that include: sexual abuse; social isolation; bullying; or, troubles at home or at school. Whatever the cause in the rise of self-harm in children, research on both the causes and how to prevent it or protect children from adopting such behaviours is desperately needed.

Resilience Can Be Taught

Research shows that to bounce back from the pressures, stresses, and traumas, children and young people need to be resilient and that resilience can be taught. Though each of us responds differently to events, we all have the capacity to learn how to deal with adversity in ways that lead to better outcomes.

However, the best way to build resilience in children and young adults at scale, particularly for 10-14 year-olds, is not yet well-evidenced.

The urgent need to develop an evidence base for approaches to preventative care in young people's mental health was the impetus behind the Big Lottery inviting 12 areas of the UK to pilot experiments that explore how you build the resilience of individuals at risk, of whole schools, and of children from specific backgrounds or with a particular profile. The Big Lottery asked the 12 areas to also design into their projects an awareness of the major influences on young people's lives and mental health: school, family, capacity to access services, and digital lives.

The areas selected by Big Lottery all have high levels of deprivation. The Big Lottery also sought to pick areas for variability; for example, rural Cumbria is one of the most sparsely populated counties in England, and Birmingham is the second-biggest city in the UK, with high levels of poverty and cultural and religious diversity. For each area, local government (the local authority) convened a range of partners from across CAMHS (Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services), commissioners, mental health experts, psychiatrists and counsellors, public health professionals, the voluntary sector, youth services, schools, the police force, universities, and community-based organizations.

For each location, various organisations were brought together to explore what young people say they want and need, what parents say they want and need, and how the local health systems might be redesigned to service young people in a way that enables them to thrive in the face of adversity.

The intention of the Big Lottery is to catalyse a systemic change in children and young people's mental health and personal resilience. To prevent young people developing more serious mental health conditions they recognised a systemic approach was needed that engaged a range of stakeholders and formed connections between service providers, schools, community groups and families.

Reos Partners was invited to facilitate the formation of the multi-stakeholder partnerships, explore the issues and the opportunity, and support the groups in discussing and innovating new approaches to addressing children's personal resilience and mental health. Reos Partners provided support and development services to the partnerships, including workshops on systemic thinking, evaluation, facilitation, digital strategies, and parental engagement. Each partnership proposal was reviewed to identify the weak spots that needed additional work;

Young people were also involved in co-designing the process and meetings. The young people's participation in the meeting was important and enabled conversations and planning to get real. In some instances, they talked openly in front of a group of 40 professionals about their own experiences with mental health issues including acts of self-harm and periods of bullying, social isolation and depression. They also talked about their experiences as peer mentors, where they supported other students and looked for any student who might be facing an issue. They shared their hopes and dreams and their worries for the future. Most importantly, they held the adult professionals accountable for their contributions, made queries when the language was unclear or jargony, and insisted that any ideas considered offered a clear benefit to young people, from a young person's perspective.

All 12 areas were awarded their first phase of funding of 500,000 pounds. When the pilots are completed, each area will then have the opportunity to apply for 5-10 million pounds for a further five years of funding for their region. This is a competitive process, so it is expected that roughly half of the regions will win the funding for the full five years.

"Tooth-Brushing for the Mind"

Recently, I took my son to a 4-year-old's birthday party. Instead of the standard clown or magician, the boy's parents had invited a yoga teacher who specialized in movement, play, and meditation for 4-year-olds. What the yoga teacher did was simple, it was effective. The children were having fun as well as learning how to manage their bodies and their breathing and spending time with each other in calm ways.

Learning meditation may seem like a simple action and perhaps a grown-up activity, but it has great promise in helping children and young people in managing their emotions. Some of the worrying trends, such as the rise in self-harm amongst children, is partly a coping mechanism for children who have strong emotions and try to escape an emotional pain through physical pain. Neuroscientists have found the parts of the brain concerned with flight or fight responses to trauma and anxiety are very active in children who are self-harming, in contrast.

Brain scientists, like Richard Davidson at the Waisman Lab for Brain Imaging and Behaviour, found that the neural pathways in monks in the prefrontal cortex in contrast are extremely active, the part of the brain concerned with positive emotions. Scientists hypothesize that the thousands of hours of meditation, undertaken by the monks, they have strengthened their neural pathways for happiness. The monks' daily meditation is like a "daily teeth brushing for the mind" that strengthens mental health. Therefore if children, or adults, can be taught to meditate, they can learn to manage strong emotions and emotional stress in ways that will become stronger over time. The crucial point is that the brain can change through training and this has a host of implications, particularly learning how to be happier and to manage emotions more effectively.

Life throws us ups and downs whoever we are, whatever background, religion, or socio-economic standing we are. What if we could find simple ways to equip young people with the skills, resources, and words to be resilient, emotionally intelligent and to support themselves and each other through whatever life sends their way? What if the stigma of mental health conditions and the reluctance to talk about feelings and emotions became a thing of the past? What if small daily actions undertaken by children at home or school could prevent depression, eating disorders, self-harm, and suicide? The HeadStart Fund moves beyond the "what if" questions, to actually piloting ideas in real life with real children and will generate lessons that we hope will not just improve lives in 12 regions of England, but if piloted successfully, may also benefit generations of children and young people.

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Policies that Build Community
[By: Sherri Torjman]

Governments can't do policy without communities and communities can't do policy without governments. Policy helps shape the context of the community as well as the content of what it offers.  

The first aspect of building community involves designing the context and spaces that enable community members to spend time together and participate as active members. It is guided by principles related to clean and green places, mixed use, accessibility and engagement.

Governments can introduce public policies that:

  • Challenge themselves to become the greenest communities in the world in both their direct actions and purchasing policies;
  • Introduce zoning that requires mixed use of neighbourhood/community space;
  • Require accessible design in all new construction and make available funds for retrofit of existing facilities; and,
  • Engage community members in co-constructing local policies that design for well-being.

The second component of building community involves caring about each other. Governments currently support wide-ranging services focused on formal supports. This paper focuses on building community through crucially important informal supports. These include personal communities, circles of support, long dinner tables and community celebration.

Governments can introduce public policies that:

  • Make available public space, such as libraries, community centres and schools, for the creation of personal communities
  • Reconfigure the delivery of formal services toward the co-production and co-design of supports that actively engage community members in caring for each other
  • Create long table initiatives that both build personal networks and provide affordable nutritious food; and,
  • Eliminate user fees for all community celebrations.
  • Through public policy, governments enable us to design for well-being and care about each other.

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Linking Collective Impact and Community Development
[By: Norman Walzer]

The Great Recession brought many changes as state and local leaders work with elected officials to find effective ways to revitalize their communities. The slow recovery, as measured by employment, has meant that new approaches and strategies are needed to capture future opportunities. New participants will engage in decision-making processes with a focus on long-term rebuilding efforts. A broad range of approaches must be evaluated and tried.

This scenario is ripe for applying the basic tenants of Collective Impact (CI) to address community development issues and many organizations are already working with this framework. The Community Development Society international (CDS) embraces a core set of principles that align closely with those used in CI. Specifically, active and representative participation by the community, focusing on community assets and alternative courses of action, incorporating diverse interests and cultures in decision-making, actively building leadership capacity, and being open to a full range of action strategies to work on long-term sustainability and community well-being all fit well with CI.

Community Development, the journal of the CDS, will be publishing a special issue on Using Collective Impact on Community Development Issues and has issued a call for abstracts. This issue will be edited by Norman Walzer, Center for Governmental Studies, NIU, Liz Weaver, Tamarack, and Catherine McGuire, Bush Foundation. The purpose of the special issue is to identify and highlight innovative uses of CI to address local community development issues and concerns. The stress will be on uses and applications that can be generalized to other areas rather than case studies. Applications from around the world are encouraged.

While a broad range of topics for papers will be considered, the intersection between community development and CI; effective ways to gain local support for CI activities and results; innovative ways to organize and engage non-traditional partners; successful application of key components of CI; learning as you go - developmental evaluation and CI; moving the collective to the impact with successful outcomes from early experiences; innovative uses of shared measurement systems; and applications of CI internationally are examples of topics with specific interest.

Community Development is a scholarly/professional refereed journal so abstracts should describe methodology used to document results or outcomes, use professional writing style with documentation, and describe how the findings can improve the practice of CI on community development issues and concerns in other areas. The abstracts should not exceed 500 words and should be submitted to: Norman Walzer, Senior Research Scholar, Center for Governmental Studies, Northern Illinois University by November 10, 2014. Submissions should include COLLECTIVE IMPACT ABSTRACT in the memo line.

Collective Impact has much to offer in contributing to community change and this special issue can add to the growing literature documenting successful approaches and outcomes. We encourage you to consider submitting an abstract.

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I Love Bollywood: A Recipe for Sag Paneer
[By: Paul Born]

This month, Tamarack and 300 members of our Learning Community will be joining together for our Collective Impact Summit in Toronto. Every Thursday evening of any week-long Learning Event we host, we have a huge celebration. This year our theme is Bollywood and it will include: food cooked by one of Toronto's great Indian restaurants; a dance instructor; and, a great Bollywood DJ to help us celebrate our learning community.

In honor of this theme, I searched our online resource library for an Indian recipe I wrote in honor of my son's 9th birthday (he is now 17). This recipe is for the classic dish, Sag Paneer (spinach and cheese) is still today one of my son's favorite Indian dishes. I hope you enjoy it too!

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Engage! e-magazine is published by Tamarack - An Institute for Community Engagement, to bring you inspiration, ideas, and resources to envision and create vibrant communities. We would love your ideas to help us improve our format. Please email us with your comments.

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