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Using the Arts and New Media
in Community Organizing and
Community Building
An Overview and Case Study from
Post-Katrina New Orleans
Community organizing allows people who share a particular geographic space
or identity to find shared issues and goals, as well as the resources they can use
collectively to achieve those goals (see chapter 1). This definition is intentionally
broad, as the processes, efforts, communities, and goals that constitute organizing
techniques are diverse.
The arts, including literature, music, video, painting, photography, and other
forms of artistic expression, are powerful tools for community organizing in health
and related areas (McDonald et al. 2006–2007; Chávez et al. 2004; Catalani and
Minkler 2010). They can draw attention to an issue, offer catharsis for a community
after a crisis, pull communities together to create art, and communicate
across cultural and language barriers. As Vivian Chávez and her colleagues (2004)
note, “The cultural diversity, personal sensitivity, and passion that characterize
some of the arts resonate with some key principles and commitments of health
promotion” (396), including the fostering of high-level community participation
and building on community and individuals’ strengths.
In this chapter, the authors draw on diverse examples to illustrate how the
arts have served as vehicles for change, to highlight their legacy in social movements
nationally and globally, and to point out the theoretical basis of their use in
community organizing and community building. Brief examples describe how the
arts have been used to foster community organizing for health; this is followed
by a discussion of two increasingly popular visual methodologies—photovoice
and videovoice—which enable individuals to get behind still cameras and video
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cameras, respectively, to “research issues of concern, communicate their knowledge,
and advocate for change” (Catalani et al. 2012, 3; C. C. Wang et al. 2004;
C. C. Wang and Burris 1997). A videovoice case study in post–Hurricane Katrina
New Orleans then is used to explore how a community-academic-filmmaker
partnership used this approach for studying and engaging in policy-focused
change and to describe its ripple effects (Catalani et al. 2012).
Community Organizing for Change and the Arts as a Vehicle
Communities interested in organizing for change decide on the strategies to use
by looking critically at who their target is (e.g., who has the ability to make the
desired change?), identifying the resources available to them, and deciding
on the best way to effect the changes they seek (see chapters 9 and 11). In each of
the case studies explored in this chapter, community groups chose the arts as
the vehicle for accomplishing their goals.
The Arts as Vehicle for Social Change
Artistic expression is universal to human culture and has historically tapped into
the most deeply felt ways of understanding and interpreting the world. The act of
creating increases feelings of well-being and can help facilitate feelings of belonging.
Furthermore, the creation of some form of art is not dependent on language
or literacy level, but can be undertaken by anyone with the will and desire to do
so. The power of art for community organizing, then, lies in the power of the arts
to communicate a message and elicit an emotional response, as well as in the
creation of art itself.
The arts and literature have always played a role in the processes of community
organizing and of social change, though they are typically seen as incidental
or secondary. Poet and activist Audre Lorde (1984) challenged this view in her
classic essay on the importance of poetry in people’s lives, especially the lives
of women: “For women . . . poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our
existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes
and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea,
then into more tangible action” (37).
Lorde sees poetry, and other forms of creativity and expression, as necessary
precursors to action. Her view has been shared by many artists, educators, and
advocates throughout history and across the globe. These figures include African
American jazz singer Billie Holiday, whose insistence upon singing a song about
Southern lynchings shocked audiences; Chilean songwriter Victor Jara, who courageously
sang against the murderers of the 1973 coup d’état; and Maya Lin, the
Chinese American architect whose design of the Vietnam War Memorial helped to
create the conditions for national healing (
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Legacy of the Arts in Social Movements
in the United States and Beyond
Within the United States, the arts have played an important role in social movements.
Woody Guthrie’s melodic tributes to the working people (“This Land is
Your Land”) and his biting criticisms of injustice (“Deportees”) won him audiences
in the strife-torn 1940s and an enduring place in U.S. culture (Cray 2004;
Guthrie 1958). Legendary African American actor and singer Paul Robeson resisted
bigotry and repression with his masterful performances in the 1950s, helping set
the stage for the civil rights movement. The forceful refrain of the gospel-turnedcivil-rights
song “We Shall Overcome” became an anthem of the fight against
segregation and for civil rights and later was embraced by the labor, peace, and
women’s movements.
Although this book focuses on the United States, the nation’s increasing
diversity, combined with the lessons to be learned from organizing successes in
other countries, make it important to look beyond our borders. In countries where
democratic forces have challenged domination and foreign interference, the
battle for control over cultural expression has been key. In Nicaragua, the victory
over dictator Anastasio Somoza helped put in place new and popular forms of
expression, from a grassroots literacy campaign to a new song movement and the
flourishing of murals and poetry workshops (Cardenal 1982; Randall 1991). With
the change of government in 1990 and a determined “rollback” of Sandinista influence,
one of the first tactics of Managua’s conservative mayor Arnoldo Alemán
was to paint over some of the city’s most impressive pro-Sandinista murals. More
recently, new technology has facilitated artistic expression and citizen media in
the Middle East and North Africa, as videos and photographs recorded by protesters’
mobile phones and shared through sites like YouTube, Flickr, and Facebook
have allowed a powerful inside look at repression that is usually largely closed off
to the outside world (Preston and Stelter 2011).
The arts have historically been deeply rooted in change processes, providing
a rich tradition for those involved in health-related change. It is against this backdrop
that the use of the arts in organizing around health can be understood.
Theoretical Bases for Using the Arts
in Community Organizing for Health
To be effective, community organizing for health needs to begin with a people’s
reality. Central to that reality is culture, including people’s collective past and
hopes for the future. As Amilcar Cabral (1979), an African leader who fought for
the independence of Guinea-Bissau, noted, “Culture is the dynamic synthesis,
at the level of individual or community consciousness, of the material and spiritual
historical reality of a society or a human group, of the relations existing
between [people] and nature as well as among social classes or sectors. Cultural
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manifestations are the various forms in which this synthesis is expressed, individually,
or collectively, at each stage in the evolution of the society or group” (210).
The international women’s movement also has demonstrated, through a wide
array of literary and other art forms, the indispensable role of culture in the development
of consciousness and identity (McIntyre and Lykes 2004; Randall 1991;
hooks 1994). Specifically, the concept of the development of the voice has been
advanced as a key element of the process of transforming women’s lives (Randall
1991; McIntyre and Lykes 2004).
The creation of a voice to break the silence is a central idea in the work of
the late Brazilian scholar of adult education Paulo Freire, whose writings have
transformed the world’s views of education and popular culture (Freire 1970,
1990a, 1990b; Su 2009; see also chapter 4). Of particular concern to Freire was
“education for critical consciousness” through which people who have been alienated
from their culture are encouraged to identify, examine, and act on the root
causes of their oppression. This Freirian notion of “conscientization” always involves
group, rather than merely individual, transformation, or “consciousness-raising.”
Initially developed as a literacy method for Brazilian peasants, Freire’s approach
involved “teaching people to read, which teaching them to read the political and
social situation in which they lived” so that they could help transform it (Carroll
and Minkler 2000, 23). The use of pictures and other visual symbols to capture
the themes generated in this process is central to the methodology (see chapter 4
and appendix 9).
Freire’s (1970, 1990a, 1990b) concept of empowerment, rooted in critical
consciousness and developed through practice, has been applied in education,
public health, social welfare, and community organizing projects throughout the
Americas and around the globe (Laver et al. 2005–2006; Horton and Freire 1990;
Su 2009; Wallerstein 2006; see also chapter 4).
The theoretical and practical legacy of feminism also provides numerous
conceptual bases for using the arts in community health organizing. Feminism’s
tenets of the personal as political, the importance of relationships and process,
and the embracing of diversity all encourage creative and collective expression
(McIntyre and Lykes 2004).
More recently, participatory new-media theories have offered a framework
for understanding the impacts of an increasingly interconnected and digital world
on social inequities, with particular implications on using the arts in community
organizing. Participatory new media theorists argue that enhanced access to
digital tools (computers, mobile devices, audio/photo/video recording tools, etc.)
and the Internet result in a radical democratization in the production and
communication of arts, knowledge, and culture (Benkler 2006; Rheingold 2008;
Jenkins 2003). The digital divide—the gap between those with access to digital
and information technology and those without—presents potential for further
disparity between global haves and have-nots (Lorence and Park 2008; Fox and
Livingston 2007). Recent research indicates that this gap is shrinking. As of 2010,
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fully 82 percent of English-speaking Latinos and 71 percent of African Americans
as compared with 80 percent of whites used the Internet, more people of color than
whites accessed the Internet through their mobile phones, and laptop ownership was
about even across these groups (Smith 2010). For monolingual Spanish-speaking
Latinos, the rates lagged significantly (Fox 2010; Livingston 2010).
Whether in the virtual or physical world, the arts also promote health through
the development and expansion of social support. With the exception of more collaborative
arts such as film, music, and theater, the arts are often solitary activities
in the creation stage. However, the act of sharing the arts through community events,
online social-networking and media-sharing sites, or person-to-person exchanges
can be profoundly social and collective. By creating common reference points
through culture, communities begin to break down isolation, share their common
experiences, and build collective vision. This community building process is often
a critical precursor to community organizing (see chapters 4 and 5).
The Arts in Urban Life
The arts play a particularly important role in urban health organizing, because of
the very nature of cities. The physical environment of cities—sidewalks, buildings,
subways, and parks—provides unique public places that serve as sites where
people can express themselves. Additionally, the population density of cities
brings people into frequent contact, creating endless opportunities for common
experiences and communication. For many people living in the city, popular
culture is their only possible exposure to art forms.
A number of forms of art and literature have been used in cities to give voice
to communities. These include community murals, guerilla theater, poetry slams,
dance brigades, participatory video, hip-hop music, and graffiti (Boal 1979; Brown
2010; Chávez et al. 2004; E. L. Wang 2010). The forms used are as diverse as
communities themselves.
A reality of most major urban areas today is their diversity of culture,
language, and ethnicity. The arts can give voice to the heterogeneity of urban
populations, breaking down barriers in the process. Ethnic, racial, and linguistic
diversity exists in urban areas, alongside diversity of age, gender, economic status,
and sexual orientation and identity. When organizing for urban community
health, health professionals and activists need to address diversity directly, rather
than ignore or downplay it (Cutting and Themba-Nixon 2006). The arts can be
effectively used to express and respect diversity, in a process that can weave unity
among the community’s different threads.
The Arts in the Practice of Community Organizing for Health
Health education leader Dorothy Nyswander’s (1956) admonition to “start where
the people are” suggests that organizers need to familiarize themselves with a
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people’s cultural expressions as a part of working with the community. As Freire
asks, “How is it possible for us to work in a community without feeling the spirit
of the culture that has been there for many years, without trying to understand the
soul of the culture?” (Horton and Freire 1990, 131).
In the community, the arts can promote organizing for health in the following
ways, often simultaneously:
1. To get people involved. The use of art forms and activities involves people who
might otherwise be disinterested or intimidated by more explicitly healthoriented
or community organizing activities. Simply put, the arts make getting
involved fun. For example, rap and dance contests have increasingly been used in
the San Francisco Bay Area and elsewhere to involve both straight and LGBTQQ
(lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning) youth in building
awareness of HIV/AIDS and STIs (sexually transmitted diseases) (Brown 2010).
2. To find out about a community. The arts can be a valuable strategy for
conducting community needs assessments and mapping community assets
(Kretzman and McKnight 1993; Catalani and Minkler 2010; see also chapter 9).
Poetry and arts workshops, offered to the community at low or no cost, can provide
valuable insights into the community, its leaders, and its history. Initiated in
Greater New Orleans in 1996, the Discubriendo El Arte (Summer Arts Discovery)
program illustrates the use of the arts for community assessment, while also
building community in a low-resource, predominantly monolingual Latino housing
project (McDonald et al. 2006–2007). Discubriendo El Arte was the first stage
of a community health–organizing plan developed by the Latino Health Outreach
Project, a multicultural and bilingual collaboration of students and faculty at
Tulane’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. At the invitation of local
Latino community activists, door-to-door and other outreach was conducted,
followed by collective community assessment and asset mapping. Extensive data
were gathered and arts activities designed around the themes of community,
family, and school, to elicit the children’s perceptions of their community.
Through arts workshops, the group was able to establish rapport with both
children and their mothers and laid the basis for a series of charlas (talks) over the
following months.
The process of carrying out Discubriendo El Arte allowed the Tulane team to
make a number of useful observations concerning language preferences, family
unity, gender roles, and recurrent themes, which in turn helped in the planning
of future community health–organizing, which continued for several years and
helped this community use its voice and be heard.
3. To increase awareness and relay health education messages. The arts are powerful
messengers. Because they tap into people’s feelings, they have the potential to
shape consciousness. Furthermore, visual and oral representations are easy to
grasp, regardless of literacy level, and positive messages can be developed and
promoted in popular culture (Stuckey 2010). An example is a song that gained airtime
in Spanish-speaking communities throughout the Americas in the 1990s.
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Ponte el Sombrero (Put on your hat) encourages condom use in a playful, nonthreatening
Bringing health messages though such mediums has sometimes been referred
to as “edutainment” or “enter-education,” whereby education and entertainment
are combined (Zeedyk and Wallace 2003). In this approach, the message is relayed
through an already established medium of popular (and commercial) culture,
such as a television show, film, or song. Examples are the portrayals of community
struggles with drugs and violence on HBO’s The Wire, an HIV-positive member
of the cast on MTV’s Real World, or story lines about diabetes on the Spanishlanguage
soap opera Amarte así. While potentially very effective, this approach to
relaying a message can be challenging for community organizers for a number of
reasons. First, communities typically don’t have access to screenwriters, songwriters,
and producers and hence have little control over the messages portrayed or
solutions proposed; they also have no access to the arts industry’s distribution systems.
Although newer approaches such as media advocacy (see chapter 22) and
participatory media production (see videovoice example below) are helping communities
become far more savvy in gaining access to and using the media to help
give visibility to their concerns and issues, access remains a significant barrier.
Second, edutainment overwhelmingly relies on commercial culture, in which the
recipient of the message is by design a detached listener or observer, as opposed
to an active agent. Because these vehicles are external to community, they can
sometimes encourage a passive, consumer approach, as opposed to empowerment,
as discussed below.
4. To attract attention to an issue. A cultural manifestation of an issue will often
catch people’s attention, changing their perceptions. The Clothesline Project,
begun in 1990 by women in Massachusetts to promote awareness of violence
against women, provides a classic example. The project urges victims and
survivors of violence against women to create a T-shirt that expresses their
feelings. A white T-shirt is used in memory of a murdered woman, a blue T-shirt
for survivors of childhood sexual abuse, yellow for a battered woman, and so on.
When a series of these T-shirts are made, they are displayed in a public place on a
clothesline, a graphic and moving statement about the realities so many women
and children face, and a powerful way of “airing society’s dirty laundry” (Hippe
2000). The project, which today includes some thirty thousand to fifty thousand
shirts in many countries, took a simple, accessible medium and transformed it
into a powerful voice against the pervasive problems of child sexual abuse,
intimate partner violence, and violence against women (personal communication
from Carol Tozelotoze, March 13, 2011; see also
5. To promote community building. Through its emphasis on high-level participation
and building and strengthening relationships, the community building
framework allows for unfettered forms of community expression, to which
the arts and literature are particularly well suited. Cultural forms of expression
rooted in the community help not only to give voice to concerns but also to
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establish the collective life, whether through celebration, ritual, or mourning.
Such community expressions can be powerful tools in achieving organizing goals,
particularly in communities of color, where oppression has often entailed the
belittling or outright suppression of traditional cultural forms of expression
(Duran and Duran 1995; Tuhiwai Smith 2008). The Names Project/AIDS Memorial
Quilt (http://, highlighted below, is among
the most potent examples of community building through the arts with often
marginalized groups.
6. To promote healing. The restorative and healing powers of the arts have long
been acknowledged (Stuckey 2010). The creative process is restorative and transformative,
often helping to heal the one who undertakes it (Longman 1994). At the
same time, the fruits of the creative process offer insights to others with similar
experiences and help to promote their healing though an interactive process.
The Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., provides a powerful example.
The simple, stark wall where the names of the dead are etched has become a
mecca for millions who need to reflect on, cry about, or exorcise the war. It has
served to promote the healing, understanding, and forgiveness so elusive to the
country in the years following the war (Randall 1991;
In working with war-traumatized Guatemalan children, McIntyre and Lykes
(2004; Lykes 1997) found that drama, body movements, and play elicited opinions
from children who had been silenced and terrorized by the violence of war. The
opportunity to voice their fear, sadness, and anger through characters allowed
them to express themselves and respond openly to the researcher’s questions.
Lykes hypothesized that without the drama, the children would have been too
afraid to express their experiences and true feelings, and their need for psychological
and social support would have been harder to ascertain.
7. To promote culturally competent health organizing efforts and address health
disparities. One of the major challenges facing community organizing for health is
effectively addressing widespread health disparities based on race, ethnicity,
gender, language, age, disabilities, geography, and sexual orientation. Racial and
ethnic health disparities are widespread and require multiple urgent responses
(U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2011). Health disparities can be
addressed in part by promoting cultural and linguistic competence in health
promotion and health delivery, both arenas of importance for community health
organizing (Betancourt et al. 2003).
Cultural competence is defined broadly by the federal Office of Minority
Health as a set of skills that allows individuals or institutions to increase their
appreciation of cultural differences and to act sensitively, appropriately, and
respectfully toward different cultures (
The arts are a natural and extremely effective vehicle for promoting cultural
competence, because people create in the forms and language that are most
deeply rooted in their culture, experience, values, and history. The arts provide
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for an intimate and immediate expression of what is culturally appropriate and
meaningful for communities—and, by extension, for community organizing.
8. To empower. Perhaps the most important aspect of using the arts in community
organizing for health is the ways that the creative process can empower
individuals and communities. When a person or community becomes involved in
a creative process it can be exhilarating. When one becomes the video maker, the
poet, or the muralist, and is transformed through that process, change can take
place both in the messenger and the audience (Boal 1979; Catalani et al. 2012).
Perhaps the best-known example of this process, and indeed of all the preceding
roles of the arts in organizing, is the Names Project’s AIDS Memorial Quilt. Begun
in San Francisco in 1987 by gay activist Cleve Jones and others to commemorate
those who had died of AIDS, the Names Project attracted tens of thousands of
others and grew from a memorial into a method for activism. The quilt’s October
1996 display in Washington, D.C., constituted both the largest AIDS event and the
largest community art event in history, with panels representing contributors
from over forty nations. By November 2011, the quilt had over ninety thousand
panels. The project’s stated goals—to “provide a creative means for remembrance
and healing,” to graphically depict “the enormity of the AIDS epidemic,” to
increase public awareness and HIV/AIDS prevention, and to raise funds for
community-based AIDS service organizations—well capture the multiple roles and
contributions of this historic effort
The community-organization method employed in the Quilt project reflects
the feminist precept that the personal is political and was also a grassroots organizing
effort with people, often from marginalized groups excluded from the mainstream
of organized power, coming together to meet their needs (Miller 2009).
Photovoice and Videovoice
As illustrated above, a wide range of artistic approaches have been used in
community organizing and community building for health, often in the process
engaging groups and populations for whom more traditional health education
approaches have held little appeal. We turn now to two increasingly popular
approaches—photovoice and videovoice—and end with a powerful case study of
the latter that provides a bridge to the future as new media technologies play an
ever greater role in our professional fields and in the world.
Photovoice was described in a seminal paper (C. C. Wang and Burris 1997) as
having three goals: “(1) to enable people to record and reflect their community’s
strengths and concerns, (2) to promote critical dialogue and knowledge about
important issues through large- and small-group discussion of photographs, and
(3) to reach policymakers” (369). First used with rural women in Yunnan, China
(C. C. Wang et al. 1996), the method involves providing people with cameras and
asking them to photograph their everyday reality or an issue of shared concern,
typically including pictures of both assets and problems or challenges. They then
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engage in critical reflective dialogue about the pictures and their contexts, often
using as an aid the mnemonic SHOWED (Shaffer 1983): What do you See here?
What’s really Happening here? How does this relate to Our lives? Why does this
problem, concern, or strength Exist? What can we Do about it?
Photovoice has been widely used in to study and address a diversity of public
health and social justice concerns, ranging from infectious disease epidemics
(Mamary et al. 2007) and chronic health problems (Oliffe and Bottorff 2007) to
homelessness (C. C. Wang et al. 2000), political violence (McIntyre and Lykes
2004), and discrimination (Graziano 2004). Similarly, the method has been implemented
with age groups ranging from preadolescents (Wilson et al. 2007) to
seniors (Baker and Wang 2006) and with underserved communities in the United
States, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Europe (Allotey et al. 2003; Catalani and
Minkler 2010;
The capacity of photovoice to reach—and touch—policymakers is illustrated
in the Flint photovoice project in Michigan (C. C. Wang et al. 2004). Catalyzed by
leaders of a neighborhood violence prevention coalition, the Flint project began
by recruiting local facilitators and professional photographers, who participated
in a “train-the-trainers” session. They were introduced to the photovoice concept
and method; discussed cameras, ethics, and power; and took part in a guided
photo shoot. Four groups, totaling over forty youth, community leaders and
activists, and policymakers, took part. Project organizers recruited policymakers
at the project’s outset to help build the political will that would be needed to
later implement photovoice participants’ policy and program recommendations
(C. C. Wang et al. 2004).
The policymakers’ experiential participation as photographers offered several
advantages, as they took it upon themselves to provide venues, such as legislative
breakfasts, city hall, government agencies, and news programs, at which to present
all participants’ efforts. The local health department director’s involvement in the
project thus resulted in his introducing the photovoice method as part of an ongoing
gonorrhea control initiative whose goal was to tap the insights of consumers
and providers. Finally, the policymakers’ participation set the stage for interactions
in which participants, representing widely disparate age, socioeconomic status,
neighborhoods, and social power, were able to communicate and collaborate
across such differences. The long-term relationships established among diverse
participants was seen by project coordinators and community members as one of
the most powerful outcomes of this project (C. C. Wang et al. 2004).
A review of the photovoice literature by Catalani and Minkler (2010) found
that photovoice projects, particularly those that more equitably engage community
partners, commonly result in several outcomes associated with policy change,
including enhanced community involvement in action and advocacy, enriched
public health research, and individual empowerment.
As noted above, the videovoice method builds on and complements photovoice,
as well as participatory media and participatory video, as this has been
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developed and used by Chávez et al. (2004) and others (Benkler 2006; Chandra
and Batada 2006; Freudenthaal et al. 2006). Videovoice is defined as “a research
and advocacy approach through which people, who are usually the consumers
of mainstream media, get behind video cameras to research issues of concern,
communicate their knowledge, and advocate for change” (Catalani et al. 2012, 20).
Like photovoice, videovoice is action oriented and facilitates the use of media
as “an advocacy tool to reach policy makers, health planners, community leaders,
and other people who can be mobilized to make change” (C. C. Wang and Pies
2004, 96). Unlike photovoice, however, videovoice is able to capture movement,
audio, and sequential narrative and, during the dissemination stage, to be shared
in theaters, living rooms, classrooms, and websites such as (Catalani
et al. 2012). We turn now to a videovoice project that illustrates the utility and
potency of this powerful new method for community building and organizing.
The New Orleans Videovoice Project: Community Building,
Assessment, and Capacity Building in Post-Katrina New Orleans
When Hurricane Katrina hit and the levees broke in New Orleans in August 2005,
the historic flooding, coupled with a tragically slow and bungled government
response effort, left fifteen hundred dead and resulted in the loss of 200,000
homes, 850 schools, 18,700 businesses, and some 220,000 jobs (Louisiana Recovery
Authority 2006). These losses were disproportionately endured by low-income
African American and other marginalized communities, and millions fled to
other parts of the country and beyond its borders (Drury et al. 2008)
The New Orleans videovoice project was conceived and implemented two
years after the hurricane and its bitter aftermath by a partnership of academic
researchers, independent filmmakers, and community members from the Central
City neighborhood. The project began during the development of the city’s master
plan for rebuilding, a time when community partners sought to influence the
local agenda, discourse, and action.
Initiated by REACH NOLA, a New Orleans community-academic partnership,
the New Orleans videovoice project was guided by community-based participatory
research (CBPR) principles emphasizing collaboration and equitable participation
by all partners during all stages of the research process (Israel et al. 2005). As a
part of this process, the partnership collaboratively designed the video production
plan, timeline, and budget and developed two project goals: (1) to use film to
engage a broad array of community members, including core partners, neighborhood
residents, and local decision makers, in dialogue around community needs
and assets and (2) to mobilize and act on identified public health and related
community needs and assets. Community partners agreed that video was the
appropriate medium for capturing New Orleans’s unique culture, particularly
music, dance, and storytelling. In addition, community partners pointed out that
enhancing participants’ video production skills could better prepare them to find
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quality jobs in New Orleans, particularly given the city’s burgeoning, governmentsubsidized
film industry.
The project’s leadership committee recruited additional community partners
through fliers; announcements at local social service, arts, and faith-based organizations;
and word of mouth. The ten community partners selected for participation
were primarily African American men, but they represented considerable diversity
in age (twenty-eight to seventy-eight years old), income, and education. Each
community partner was told that he or she would receive a stipend of two
hundred dollars for his or her participation, in addition to a video camera and
several copies of the final film production at the project’s conclusion and access to
all project footage and data (Catalani et al. 2012).
The videovoice method included several stages taking place throughout a
twenty-week period. A key initial stage involved conducting co-trainings in video
production, community research, and media ethics. An initial weeklong training
and orientation was followed by eighteen weeks in which systematic data collection,
transcribing, interpretation, and editing of footage took place as part of an
iterative process in which all partners participated and continued to learn from
each other as they co-created the film (Catalani et al. 2012). As partners collected
video footage about community needs and assets through neighbor interviews
and everyday neighborhood sites, sounds, and events, they met weekly to discuss
what had been captured using the aforementioned SHOWED technique (Shaffer
1983). During an iterative process of data collection and discussion, partners
identified three major themes: healthy housing, economic development, and
education. With the help of filmmaker partners, community partners learned
Final Cut Pro editing software and led the film-editing process with the mentorship
of filmmaker partners.
The final film, In Harmony, was a twenty-two-minute exploration of community
assets and needs rooted in the city’s history, current neighborhood conditions,
and future hopes from the perspective of the people who call it home
(Catalani et al. 2009). Partners strategically shared the film with community members
and local policy- and decision makers through online and offline screenings.
Approximately two hundred people attended two community premiere celebrations
in popular local venues and participated in follow-up action-oriented
discussions. The nature of these lively and moving events was captured in the
words of those who spoke, including an elderly African American woman who
remarked that this was the first time in her life she had been engaged in an
open and frank discussion of race and racism in the presence of white people.
Postscreening written evaluations revealed that the vast majority (83 percent)
agreed very strongly that the film brought up issues that they cared about. Most
respondents (80 percent) indicated that they were interested in joining with
others to take action on the issues raised and most (69 percent) reported that
they would be interested in participating in the next videovoice filmmaking
project, with many signing up on the spot for further involvement.
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The final films were shared online through YouTube (
VideoVoiceCollective) in November 2008 and, within two months, had received
over forty-four hundred views from across the North America, Europe, South
America, Asia, Northern Africa, and the Middle East. Finally, the film and extras
were made into a DVD and strategically distributed to over one thousand people.
Project evaluation revealed a range of outcomes, from individual empowerment
to community capacity building. The participatory evaluation of the project
indicated a high level of equitable engagement between community, academic,
and filmmaker partners. All partners reported enhanced sense of control, noting
that they felt more in command of the issues that mattered most to them after
participating in the videovoice project. Additionally, all partners reported that
they were more engaged in community action and had more confidence in their
ability to carry out community projects, particularly video production projects.
In keeping with the desire to transfer skills to the community, four local partners
went on to gain employment that used their newfound video skills, and several
continued to initiate new projects without the aid of outside filmmakers or
researchers. One of these individuals, a former teacher, became the director of a
new organization: the New Orleans Videovoices Project. With the help of additional
grant funds, she has led four additional videovoice projects with several
New Orleans communities.
Project outcomes extended far beyond the partners themselves. As noted
above, many of the two hundred community members at the initial screenings
expressed their interest in becoming involved, and several of these went on to
become partners in future videovoice projects as a part of the New Orleans
Videovoices Project. These included a video in collaboration with youth returning
to the Tremé neighborhood and a video in collaboration with a community clinic
in the historic African American neighborhood of Algiers.
The New Orleans videovoice project, in sum, built local capacity to produce
media and work collaboratively on social justice projects while enhancing understanding
of local concerns through a rich and innovative community assessment.
The arts have been a catalyst for change and growth in wide-ranging circumstances,
providing a rich legacy for health organizers and promoters to draw on
in their community organizing and community building efforts. As Vivian Chávez
and her colleagues (2004) suggest with respect to participatory video, such an
approach “has the potential to open communication and promote dialogue. Its
images, sounds and music can motivate and inspire,” while bringing in new
partners who can share additional skills, which in turn may help attract the
interest of audiences including funders, government agencies, health workers,
youth, and community coalitions (401). Given the many challenges that will
confront community health organizing in the coming decades, new ways to
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awaken and empower ourselves and our communities are needed. The arts can be
among our most effective tools.
The authors gratefully acknowledge Giovanni Antunez and Megan Gottemoeller,
who coauthored a related earlier paper with the first author, and Patricia
Wakimoto and Peter Solomon for helpful suggestions and assistance with editing.
Portions of this article were adapted from M. McDonald, G. Antunez, and
M. Gottemoeller, “Using the Arts and Literature in Health Education,” International
Quarterly of Community Health Education 27, no. 3 (2006–2007): 265–278. Used with
permission of Baywood Publishing Company, Inc.
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Former surgeon general Joycelyn Elders used to say that to the skeptic, a partnership
was an unnatural act between nonconsenting adults. And indeed, many of us have
seen partnerships (or more formal coalitions) fall apart when they have come together
primarily because of a stipulation of funding and do not represent any genuine shared
concern with working collaboratively to help bring about change. Even when the
commitment is there, moreover, the challenges to coalitions are many. As public health
leader Lawrence W. Green (2000) points out, for example, “Most organizations will
resist giving up resources, credit, visibility and autonomy.” Further, “not everyone
insists on being the coordinator, but nobody wishes to be the coordinatee” (64–65).
Although the challenges to coalitions and related partnerships are indeed
numerous, as this part makes clear, done well, and particularly when grounded in a
strong theory base, coalitions and other partnerships can not only function effectively
but also make a real impact in terms of community and policy change on both the
short- and longer-term levels (Wallerstein et al. 2002; Wolff 2010).
We begin in chapter 17 with Fran Butterfoss and Michele Kegler’s widely used
coalition for community action theory (CCAT). Building on Feighery and Rogers
(1990), they define coalitions as “formal, long-term collaborations that are composed
of diverse organizations, factions, or constituencies who agree to work together to
Building, Maintaining, and
Evaluating Effective
Coalitions and
Community Organizing
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achieve a common goal.” They stress in particular the action orientation of community
coalitions and the importance of a guiding theory that is not simply an academic
exercise but rather aimed at improving how coalitions work in practice.
After introducing the multiple theories that contributed to CCAT, Butterfoss and
Kegler discuss the benefits and costs of coalitions and then lay out a set of constructs
and “practice-proven propositions” for understanding coalition development, maintenance,
and effective functioning. The various stages of coalitions, and the tasks
associated with each, are described, with attention to such key issues as coalition
context, leadership and staffing, and so forth. Finally, the authors come full circle to
stress the need for careful documentation of both short-term successes and
longer-term impacts, once again, toward the end of improving practice.
Many of the propositions and challenges laid out in chapter 17 are illustrated
within a real-world context in the chapter that follows. In chapter 18, Adam Becker
and his colleagues present a case study of coalition building and community organizing
to address the problem of childhood obesity in the largely Puerto Rican Humboldt
Park area of Chicago. Often referred to as one of the most serious and difficult public
health issues of our time, the childhood obesity epidemic (one in five children is
now clinically obese) is particularly problematic in low-income communities of color,
where a host of environmental and other factors conspire against healthy eating and
physical activity (Ogden et al. 2010; Bell and Lee 2011).
Yet such neighborhoods are also replete with strengths, including, in Humboldt
Park, a determined community member who translated her personal need for
exercise into the Muévete walking club, which then expanded to include other
activities. Indeed, a strength of this coalition, which also posed challenges, was its
conscious decision to have an organic, local approach to planning and (evolving)
intervention development, rather than a more formal initial assessment process.
Although chapter 18 does indeed illustrate a number of the propositions laid out in
Butterfoss and Kegler’s CCAT, it challenges others, providing some of the additional
“real world” testing that can in turn help guide further theory refinement.
Finally, Becker and his colleagues beautifully illustrate the importance of a true
ecological approach to addressing complex health and social problems. Through its
Producemobile, the Muévete walking club, a farmers’ market, rooftop gardens at local
schools, and such policies as allocating new park land for urban agriculture, the
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Humboldt coalition’s many activities helped create sustainable change on multiple
Although not without difficulties—some coalition partners, for example, dropped
out because of the primacy of the focus on the Puerto Rican community—this case
study well illustrates the power of a strong, if informal, coalition. Indeed, substantial
reductions in childhood obesity rates over the six years of the coalition’s work,
at a time when obesity rates in boys were continuing to climb nationally (Ogden et al.
2010)—stand as an important testament to the effectiveness of the Humboldt
coalition’s community building and organizing on multiple levels.
A persistent challenge in community organizing and coalition-building work has
involved the difficulty of evaluating such efforts—and doing so in a way that doesn’t
in the process mitigate community empowerment and other core principles of
community building and organizing initiatives. The distrust of evaluation in many
low-income communities of color, moreover, only adds to these difficulties. Indeed,
health education leader Kathleen M. Roe is fond of quoting African American
and Native American commentators who define evaluation as “victimization” and
“intellectual theft,” respectively (Roe et al. 2005). She cites in particular the powerful
words of Candace Fleming (1992), who notes that among Native Americans, evaluation
means the loss of funding, programs, and autonomy; the loss of wonderfully
talented and committed people; diminished respect in the eyes of the community and
the culture; and missed opportunities to help shape one’s own future.
Fortunately, the past two decades have seen the development of a growing
body of methods and tools for evaluating community organizing, coalitions, and
community-based initiatives in ways that can empower, rather than disempower, the
involved communities and program staff. In particular, the advent of participatory or
empowerment evaluation has caught the imagination of many and is increasingly
being used, either on its own or in conjunction with more traditional evaluation methods,
to help engage community members and project staff as integral members of the
evaluation team. In the final chapter of this part, Chris Coombe in chapter 19 provides
a comprehensive introduction to the theory and practice of participatory evaluation,
defined by Steve Fawcett and his colleagues (2003) as a systematic and collaborative
approach in which those taking part in a project or effort are involved in
understanding and evaluating it. Coombe describes the roots of participatory
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research in multiple traditions, among them action research, popular education, feminist
research, and community-based participatory research. She further distinguishes
between the “pragmatic stream” in participatory research, most concerned with
program improvement, and the “transformative stream,” emphasizing equity and
social change (Cousins and Whitmore 1998).
Drawing on the work of various theorists and practitioners, the chapter then
offers a useful eight-step process for participatory evaluation, emphasizing its
goodness-of-fit with principles of community organizing and capacity building. The
challenges of this approach are discussed, and its utility underscored, particularly
given the often messy and complex contexts and realities that community building
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