The Critical Difference Engagement Model:


Jan 12

Using Community Engaged Model Development to Forge Alliances Across Difference in Community Organizing

“when you get deeper, building alliances is also about dealing with the history of pain, rejection, disappointment, abuse, and oftentimes individuals that are in that room represent that to the other.  And you don’t always know who represents what…”



The issue of difference is pervasive in community organizing efforts and could not be more relevant in our current historic and social context.  Organizers and those engaged in these efforts are often left searching for tools or developing their own.  This community practice model derived from a local effort alongside local community members, offers tools for organizers, community members, and professionals to integrate into their own work.

As an organizer and scholar I got to take part in a process to develop a community practice model alongside community members as a part of a larger community initiative based on forging alliances across difference.  As a white organizer in a historic and predominantly African American community that wrestled with the history of various oppressions including racism, classism, marginalization, and systematic community disinvestment, I realized early in the process of working alongside community leaders that we all needed tools.  In a community critical to the birth of our nation, to the civil war, to segregation and massive resistance, and urban renewal, it is the hope of all of the community members that took part in the development of this community practice model, that it be useful to those in other communities taking part in similar efforts, and that it aid in the development of new practical knowledge development, quality communication, and relationship care.  In looking back on my experience as an organizer, I wish we would have had practical tools such as this one to guide us.  Maybe it can be a blueprint for other lovers of justice working against racism, economic exploitation, and oppression.

Community Context

Of particular importance to understanding the context of the organizing effort, because this research took place concurrently with an organizing initiative, was the image of the hill and the bottom.  Not only was this the community that gave birth to a city, but was pivotal in the development of our nation.  It is known locally and among community members as being the point where John Smith met Chief Powhatan.  It is also a site of major points in the civil war in a city and state that fought against integration and civil rights through massive resistance.  40 years ago the all white city council while in litigation with the Federal Government could not hold elections, because of their segregationist housing policies.  During this time, they partnered with local housing authority to raise an entire African American neighborhood. The reverberations continue to resonate within the community today.

I soon realized as we began the community initiative that community leadership, residents, staff, volunteers, and other stakeholders needed more adequate tools for working across difference.  I began by looking at what prevalent models were being used in practice.  I became astonished to find out that the prevalent community practice models and approaches being used in the field were based primarily on a combination of case studies, historic precedent, adult education, and practice wisdom.  After learning this I set out to work with a diverse group of key community members, neighborhood leaders, and community development professionals to build a practice model that was methodologically driven and that could be applied to forge alliances across difference in diverse practice settings, keeping in mind that currently cultural competence is not conceptualized in a way that can effectively drive practice, and is a complex concept often defined differentially by various individuals and groups. Broad questions that arose from this analysis of literature were essentially, (1) What are the gaps in existing models and approaches, and what insight do they offer? (2) What are the key components of practice across difference? (3) How can difference be addressed effectively? (4) What adaptations are needed in order for the model to be effective in various contexts?

The project goals include: (1) the development of practical knowledge utility.  How can we develop more practical knowledge in the field?  This involves, (2) systematically studying the process of organizing across difference.  When we do that, we will have more methodologically driven models to apply to practice.  Also important, (3) is demonstrating that co-creative knowledge building.  It is essential, can happen, and community members can both benefit and have a voice in constructing these practice models.

Community Practice Models and Approaches

The community practice models and approaches that guided the inquiry were various, and will be discussed in greater detail in a future post.  The approaches and models will be highlighted and discussed broadly.  Drawing heavily from the work of Miles Horton’s Highlander Model, the work of Alinsky and the Industrial Area’s Foundation, Asset Based Community Development, Paulo Freire’s Transformative Model, the Midwest Academy, Fisher’s Neighborhood Organizing Models, Feminist Organizing, Black Feminist Organizing, and African American Culture Based Organizing.  Dominant concepts were used to formulate the participant interview questions.

Research Design

The research design used grounded theory informed by Rothman and Thomas’ intervention research model development.  They utilize a six step systematic process grounded in rigor to assemble an intervention model.  These steps include (1) problem analysis and project planning, (2) information gathering and synthesis, (3) design, (4) early pilot testing, (5) advanced evaluation and development, and (6) dissemination.  This project in order to be right sized only went through the first four stages to early pilot testing, and is expected to be further developed and tested in various community contexts as time passes.  The practitioner focus group served as a critical aspect of early pilot testing and development of the initial model.

Data Collection

We used purposive sampling informed by intersectionality. We utilized maximum variation in our sample across various boundaries of difference.  We began by talking to organizers at the community level along with professionals within the context of the community along various identities that included, race, ethnicity, age, gender, ability, and sexual orientation.

We conducted in digitally recorded depth semi-structured interviews.  The interview questions were constructed using the dominant themes within that emerged from the multitude of models and approaches mentioned above.

Core Phenomenon

The practice model is made up of a core phenomenon also called the integrative roots of forging alliances, and critical stage based categories.  The core phenomenon represents the process that has to take place before essential organizing begins and subsequently practiced throughout the organizing process.  Each of these has subcategories, barriers, and practice behaviors associated with each of them.  These are outlined in greater detail in the hyperlinked resources section below.

The integrative roots of forging alliances are made up of three practical categories:  (1) Knowledge Building, (2) Quality Communication, and (3) Relationship Care.

Knowledge Building

Knowledge building comprises comprehensive applied elements of the co-creative teaching and learning process of forging alliances in community practice.  First, it takes into account curiosity, humility and willingness to learn.  We must have a willingness to learn.  Also critical is learning backgrounds and stories, community context, practical skills, multiple ways of learning, and facilitative barriers to knowledge building.  These are the key components within knowledge building.

Quality Communication

Quality communication guides interactions among stakeholders, partners, community members, and participants in the process of crossing boundaries of difference.  This core process theme mediates interactions among all players.  As these mediated interactions take place both at the relationship level and levels of knowledge change.  In quality communication, connections initiated become maintained through consistently implemented practical categories of communicative actions, speaking truth to power, effective use of language, conflict resolution, and critical knowledge of barriers and challenges to communication within each stage of the engagement and organizing process.  These are defined and outlined in your packet.

Relationship Care

Valuing everyone at the table, treating people as people first, treating people as equals, meeting people where they are, appreciating everyone, the uniqueness of difference, honoring the values that foster togetherness, and bringing people together at the table of collective decision making; combined these generate a sense of belonging and shared humanity.  Relationship care incorporates these person centered values and actions to serve as a guide for building and maintaining quality relationships across boundaries of difference.   Consequently, relationship care enactment occurs through the key components of trust building, establishing a people centered focus, acknowledging community memory/history, time, relationship building, leveraging relationships, and social/self-awareness.

Core Phenomenon: Summarized

The concentric circles make up the dominant categories, and the concepts at their intersections refer to subcategories that are related to both.  For example, people centered focus within relationship care cannot be fully actualized or enacted without knowledge building informing that focus.  Its where learning about how to care for the individual needs of relationship.

The same is true for communicative actions within quality communication.  These communicative actions need to be learned.

Practical skills arise from the integration of all of these, and are enacted within all of the subsequent critical stage based categories, and are hyperlinked in the resource packet below.

Critical Stage Base Categories

Practice across difference begins with the core process themes of knowledge building, quality communication, and relationship care.  As these integrative roots of forging alliances they combine through enacted practical skills throughout the critical stage based categories of coming together, common ground, common cause, and moving forward, thus establishing a parallel focus within the model- Difference alliance along with organizing goals.

Coming together– Stage one, essentially represents how people gather in community, and how to make that as intentional a process as possible.  The essential details, practice behaviors, and barriers are outlined in the resources hyperlinked below.

Common Ground– As the second applied stage, the primary function of common ground is in creating connection among community members across difference.  Differences are not minimized, avoided, or condemned.  On the contrary, they are celebrated, deliberately incorporated, and used as tools for building connection.  Common ground begins with intentionally creating connection and toward common cause through collective common goal setting.

Common Cause– The third stage concerns building the common cause.  The main focus of common cause surrounds cultivating individuals’ passions for the community mission and goal, appealing to leaders’ sense of the greater purpose, and stoking the motivations of the group.  As a part of this stage, bonds are further solidified, capacity built and actualized, and motivations intentionally harnessed.  The main crux of this stage involves the practitioner’s ability to facilitate the greater purpose, and cultivating passion and motivation to achieve the community’s collective goals and vision.  Common cause aligns common goals with participant motivations.

Moving forward– represents structured facilitated nurturing of capacity and trust among community members, particularly those with struggling to maintain connection in the face of pervasive difference.  Forgiveness, if needed, and amends are made, and relationship care and quality communication thoroughly integrated into the culture of the community.  This stage allows cultivation of solidarity and the nurturing of healthy relationships.  This does not mean there is no conflict or disagreements.

Focus Group Recommendations

The focus group recommendations were fourfold.  As community organizers from various settings outside the neighborhood community context, their role was to evaluate its relevance and effectiveness within their given context of organizing.  Their recommendations included the following.

  • Change the model to make it more iterative (i.e. both linear and circular)
  • Question conceptualization of “healthy” boundaries between practitioners and community members.  Are healthy boundaries even possible?
  • Brought up the questions of how to measure/evaluate the model
  • Reinforced the dual focus (Goal and Difference)

So what?  Implications and Lessons Learned

This model serves as a tool for organizers working in diverse contexts, particularly practitioners from privileged settings with privileged identities.  It serves as a flexible roadmap and guide to working across identity, ethnicity, culture, and difference.  The areas below demonstrate various dimensions of relevance that can also move the research forward in new directions.


  • It’s time to begin developing research informed community practice tools unique to the challenges of the field of community practice utilize data gathered from the field in partnership with communities.
  • Existing models can move beyond description to providing more practical guides if data research is designed collaboratively among community members and analyzed with the goal of practical knowledge utility.
  • Conceptualizing the community practice professional as an expert puts unnecessary distance between practitioners and community leaders. Equalized power needs to be a goal.
  • Academic systems need to place increased relevance on intervention research conducted alongside communities. – Time
  • Offers formally methodologically driven model for guiding practice.
  • Demonstrates the added value of community engaged research.
  • Allows logical extensions of the research the next stages of the intervention model development.

For Educators

  • Offers practical tools for practitioners and educators in teaching effective practice across difference.
  • Allows opportunity for practical field education within community based contexts.
  • Teaching tool for community organizing and working across difference

Detailed Resource/Research Links

Linking Guide and Interview Guide

Critical Difference Engagement Model

Core Process Themes, Practice Behaviors, and Barriers

Critical Stage Based Categories, Practice Behaviors, and Barriers

Sampling Frame


Alinsky, S. D. (1971). Rules for radicals: A pragmatic primer for realistic radicals. New York: Random House.

Bobo, K., Kendall, J., & Max, S. (2001). Organizing for social change: Midwest Academy  manual for activists. Washington D.C.: Seven Locks Press.

Chambers, E.T. (2010). Roots for radicals: Organizing for power, action, and social justice. NY:Continuum.

Fisher, R. (1994). Let the people decide: Neighborhood organizing in America. NY: Twayne Publishers.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. NewYork: Continuum International.

Gutierrez, L., & Lewis, E. A. (1994). Community organizing with women of color: A feminist perspective. Journal of Community Practice , 1 (2), 23-36. doi: 10.1300/J125v01n02_03/

Hardina, D. (2002). Analytical skills for community organization practice. New York: Columbia University Press.

Horton, M. (1998). The long haul: An autobiography. Judith Kohl & Herbert Kohl (Eds). NY: Teachers College Press.

Hyde, C. (1996). A feminist response to Rothman’s “Interweaving of community intervention approaches”. Journal of Community Practice. 3 (3), 125-145. doi: 10.1300/J125v03n03_05.

Jeffries, A. (1996). Modeling community work: An analytic framework for practice. Journal of Community Practice. 3 (3), 101-125. doi: 10.1300/J125v03n03_04.

Kretzman, J., & McKnight, J. (1993). Building communities from the inside out: A path toward finding and mobilizing a community’s assets. Chicago, IL: ACTA Publications.

Lee, J. A. (2001). The empowerment approach to social work practice: Building the beloved community (2nd ed.). New York: Columbia University Press.

McKnight, J., & Block P. (2012). Abundant community: Awakening the power of families and neighborhoods. San Francisco, CA: Barrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.  

Minkler, M. & Wallerstein, N. (2008). Community based participatory research for health: From process to outcomes. (2nd Ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.  

Mondros, J.B., & Wilson, S.M. (1994). Organizing for power and empowerment. NY: Columbia University Press.

Pyles, L. (2009). Progressive community organizing: A critical approach for a globalizing world. NY: Routledge.

Rothman, J. (1968). The models of community organization practice. Social Work Practice, pp.16-47.

Rothman, J., & Thomas, E. J. (1994). Intervention research: Design and development for human service. New York: Haworth.

Rothman, J. (2008). Multi modes of intervention at the macro level. Journal of Community Practice , 15 (4), 11-40. doi: 10.1300/J125v15n04_02.

Saleeby, D. (2009). The strengths perspective in social work practice. (5th Ed.) NY: Pearson  Education.

Solomon, B. (1976). Black empowerment: Social work in oppressed communities. New York: Columbia University Press.

Strauss, A., & Corbin, J. (1990). Basics of qualitative research: Grounded theory procedures and techniques. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Young-Laing, B. (2009). The universal negro improvement association, southern christian leadership conference, and black panther party: Lessons for understanding African-American culture based organizing. Journal of Black Studies, 39 (4), 635-656. doi: 10.1177/0021934707299645.\

Zeri, A., & Campbell, H. (2005). Black radical congress and black feminist organizing. Socialism and Democracy, 19 (2), 147-156. doi: 10.1080/08854300500122340.

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