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Grassroots Movements and Public Health, Part II

A note for our readers: the views reflected by the authors do not reflect the views of ASPA.

*This article is part two of a two-part series on grassroots movements and public health.*

By Laree Kiely

kiely mayIn last month’s column, I shared examples of how a small group of citizens decided to take on their community’s health issues. This month, I revisit the theme of grassroots movements and focus on the tools and skills necessary to organize citizens in addressing public health issues.

While the common ground is necessary, it is also not sufficient; it’s a start, but it’s not enoughWhen social impact projects fail, it is usually at the level of execution, caused in turn by a lack of tools for moving forward. If I had a nickel for every time I have heard “We want to make a difference, but we don’t know how,” Well you know the rest…. Sometimes it starts well when people come together and share their passion for improving things, but then it falls apart when it comes to how they work together, how they think together, and how they actually get things done. No surprises here. The skills and tools necessary for organic movements are not innate and they are not taught much in our schools. These have to go further than just co-operating and collaborating. These grass-roots folks often come together without much in common and they are taking on projects/programs that may not have been done before.

The skills needed here are those I have come to call, “co-creation,” meaning we will actually create it together, on a clean piece of paper; think and talk it into existence in a way that we are all satisfied, our relationships are intact,  and the outcomes are mutually agreed on. Co-operation implies that someone else decides and we will go along with this and help achieve the outcome. Collaboration implies that we know what the outcome is and we will work side-by -side to get to the outcome. Co-creation means we are making it up as we go along because it is an emergent process, it hasn’t been pre-decided and it hasn’t been done before. At least not by us!

As we have seen, it all begins with a group of people with the same passion for fixing something. Then the important second step is accepting and moving beyond the differing reasons and motives of the participants to discover the common ground of a shared goal.

A third step is “frontloading” the process by providing participants the skills they will need in their planning and deliberation. This is an educational step, providing participants with co-creation tools and skills such as:

  • Mental discipline (to keep the group from being lead by emotion alone).
  • Creativity (to ensure actual progress, not just same old, same old).
  • Critical thinking (to ensure rational, do-able choices).
  • Communication (mostly questioning and listening as well as a commonly chosen and created language).
  • Social network mapping (to determine how to get the idea to spread).

The fourth step involves finding a co-selected coordinator–a facilitative (not a directive) leader who has credibility with all people involved. Without this facilitative leader, the group will unravel. It is critical that the person is as stable as possible. We have found that groups who are lead by groups or rotating leaders do not have staying power.

The fifth step focuses on the group agreeing on the “rules of engagement,” the guidelines for how they will interact with each other. These rules must be agreed to by consensus, with everyone fully on board. This has to be done before any decisions are made. Determining as many rules of the game as possible before the game begins keeps us from creating self-serving rules in the middle of the process; thus reducing possible conflict.

The sixth step in the process is the question of execution. The matter of “What we are going to do?” needs to be answered with a specified set of actions, clear responsible parties and a project management model.

Finally, at the final level of execution, the group will have to agree on a set of desired outcomes and how those results and outcomes are to be measured.

We are seeing more involvement from citizens recently than we have seen for a very long time. This is hopeful and encouraging, but there is a danger to avoid lest we once again get taken over by apathy and cynicism.  The danger is that the desire for positive change can be undermined by the lack of effective tools and skills.

Getting a group of passionate citizens together, choosing an impact project to enhance public health and developing people in the tools and skills of co-creation may be the answer to many problems. Public Health officials everywhere are seeing the difference this can make and we know we are growing more valuable citizens not just leaders, thus seeding the future not just fixing the present.


Laree Kiely, Ph.D., President, the Kiely Group.  Dr Kiely served on the faculty at USC for over 15 years.  In addition to currently leading the Kiely Group, she serves as faculty for leadership programs at Duke CE, UCLA, USC, Thunderbird, and Ivey (Toronto).  The Kiely Group specializes in Leadership and Organizational Impact.  Please send your comments, questions, and stories to us at:  [email protected]



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