Community Community Organizations 

Top-to-Bottom, Bottom-Up or … Bottom-to-Bottom for change?

Gil Frank,
Historic Westside Gardens neighbor

“Yes we can do head counts but we have only little knowledge if people’s lives have changed. We have ‘metrics mania and impact mania’” -The head of evaluation at a major National Foundation

We are familiar with the lingo of ‘top-to-bottom’, ‘from-the-ground-up’ or ’bottom-up’ as used to define how community change is produced (or is not). It is widely accepted that community change from top-to-bottom is the least effective and many players will say that they don’t believe in it. So I will not expound on it.

Generally, we hear that the work should be done ‘bottom-up’. What does that mean? You look at an issue, listen to people’s concerns, collect information and build a program that will inform the people at the top of what the bottom wants. You might even give them a place in the decision-making process. That is certainly preferable to a top-down approach. Does that solve the challenges that community change presents? Is there a way that the distance between the top and the bottom shrinks? More importantly: is it an approach which is comprehensive of the community aspirations to improve itself and become stronger and resilient? Does it connect one issue with another? Ex: Is it addressing health disparities with its root causes: structural and institutional racism? Is it not silo work, one issue at a time isolated of another, leaving systemic change and policy off the table? Is it not too much focusing on projects, sectors?

To answer these challenges there is also an approach which seems to be more and more the golden criteria for funding organizations: “Collective Impact”. “Collective impact” (CI) sees five principles for success: common agenda, shared measurement, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication and backbone support. At first that sounds good. It seems to tackle the isolation and silo approach of both top-down and bottom-up strategies. It looks to tentatively address community needs and assets. The bottom is reflected in the number of organizations (private, government, nonprofits) sitting around the table. That gives, at least, more horizontal input. If we are going deeper into CI it looks more as a top-to-top-to-impact-bottom strategy. It is looking at impact in terms of head count, metrics, efficiency of service delivery, SROI (Social Return On Investment). It is part of a trend in philanthropy Social Impact investment: The quote above was from an evaluator dialoguing with a Social Impact investor. Remember the CI ‘strong backbone’ principle above.

The missing parts are: those most affected by the problem to be impacted, the root causes, the sense of loss, the “longing for belonging” as Peter Block writes in “Community: The Structure of Belonging.”

On the other hand, there are opportunities for bottom-to-bottom strategies: bottom-to-bottom networks are encompassing three forms of activism: street activism, technical activism and funder activism. These are networks activated by citizens around issues that are larger than one organization focused mission. Bottom-to-bottom characterizes the success of three neighborhood revitalizations: Dudley in Boston, Casc Antic in Barcelona (Spain) and Cayo Huesco in Havana (Cuba) studied by Isabelle Anguelovski in “Neighborhood as Refuge”:

Bottom-to-bottom networks are embodied by loose and flexible connections inside the neighborhood and, at times, from outside the neighborhood, through which people and groups actively participate in specific tasks meant to advance the completion of community projects focusing on multi-issues, addressing root causes. The concept of bottom-to-bottom networks contrasts with the traditional emphasis on bottom-up approaches in community studies. This concept brings out the importance of the informal relations built during activities and encounters in the neighborhood streets or public life, the intense neighborhood life in its physical setting, activities, and networks created by “marginal” urban actors in the inner-city neighborhoods.

For me, the most important thing that I learned from Historic Westside Garden’s learning mission to Denver (CO) is that “trust” is the most important currency. The Garden Angels (promotoras at Revision), by gardening with residents in their backyards, develop a model of decentralized civic agriculture. Above all, they create trust. Residents raise issues they want to tackle. The trust earned brings with it the capacity to tackle those issues that are beyond the scope of affordable local food production. For example, intervention in eviction cases. This trust opens connections to allies brought by a trusted intermediary organization for technical assistance or even funder activists. As residents in Denver told us: “It is easier when it is from the community.” Impact comes from trust. Trust comes from relationships when the connection is from a neighbor, not from a collective but from a side-by-side relationship, from belonging. Transformation has to be relational not transactional. Side-by-side, bottom-to-bottom.

In 2017, Historic Westside Gardens is looking for bottom-to-bottom opportunities with sister organizations to tackle issues that are broader than what one organization alone can handle.
Happy New Year,

Gil Frank

Historic Westside Gardens neighbor

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