Step 1: Assessing Your Community's Needs

The first step of the Success Cycle is to decide what project you would like to do for your community. This depends heavily on what your community needs. There is no simple formula, but common sense and the following steps can help you make the most of your talents in ways that will help the community.

Identify the Community

Your community may be a block, a neighborhood, a school, or a group of young people. Community is defined as a group of people who share an affiliation that they recognize. The community you will target needs to be identified. Use the following questions to do this. (Also, see "Worksheet 1: Notes on My Community", which can help you organize your thoughts.)

bullet How do you describe the boundaries of the community you intend to deal with? (If you target a school, does that include all of the school grounds and all school activities? If you target the neighborhood, where does the neighborhood start and stop? Are people who work in the area but don't live there part of the neighborhood?)
bullet What groups of people live or come together in the community? What physical characteristics or special needs do they have? What resources can be found in this community? (Groups of people -- students, teachers, administrators, business owners, residents, specific ethnic groups, children. Special needs -- persons with limited self-mobility, persons who use walking aids or specially equipped cars. Resources -- athletic fields, classrooms, labs and workshops, streets, houses, apartment buildings, community center, churches, urban leagues.)
bullet How do members of the community define/describe themselves?
bullet Who are the leaders and communicators in the community? Are there any special subgroups? (For example: principal, student council members, top athletes, club presidents, president of neighborhood association, chief of police, religious leaders, owner of local newspaper, head of women's club, head of local advocacy/assistance association, local government transportation department.)

Consult Information Sources

There are many kinds of information you can use to expand your knowledge of a community:

bullet Planning reports from zoning, health, building, and other local agencies or from regional planning groups.
bullet Newspaper articles, including those in local weeklies and school newspapers and those available online.
bullet Police records on crime or other calls for service in the area.
bullet School building records -- security, disciplinary, vandalism (repair and maintenance), among others. (Note: This does not include personal records of the students.)
bullet Interviews with key leaders -- carefully structured to allow them to give you their view of what is important to and causing concern among the community's members.
bullet Previous surveys of the community.
bullet Your own survey of the community.

Survey the Community

You can use many sources of existing information to survey a community, but these sources may not tell you all you need to know. Interviewing people -- asking them what they think, know, desire, or are concerned about -- helps to fill in the missing information. You may want to contact someone at a local newspaper, public relations agency, or the communications department in a nearby college or university for indepth help on surveying.

Checklist for Surveys

bullet Purpose. Why are you doing this survey? What do you want to know from or about your subjects? Make sure those objectives are related to your project.
bullet Subjects. Whom should you survey? For instance, if your concern is with crime in elementary schools, talking with parents of high school students will not be helpful.
bullet Unit and sampling. Decide what your unit of measure is. Are you looking at classrooms or individual students' attitudes, a neighbor-hood's concerns or residents' individual concerns? Do you intend to ask everyone, or just pick a sample? How will you be sure the group you sample is similar to the makeup of the community as a whole? One of your teachers may be able to help you with some basic research tips.
bullet Questions. Write clear, simple questions. Avoid negatives. Use words that suggest a specific kind of answer. Generally, it is better not to ask essay type questions. (For example, How long have you lived in this community? What are your concerns for the community: violence against women? violence against the elderly? the infiltration of drugs? the infiltration of gangs?)
bullet Testing. Try your questions out on a small group to make sure the questions are understood as you meant them to be and the answers give you useful information.
bullet Method. Decide whether you will mail the survey (which is inexpensive but risks low returns), use in-person teams for interviews (which can be accurate but time consuming), or ask questions by telephone (which can be efficient but may annoy people who want to be able to read the questions).
bullet Executing the survey. Create a questionnaire, based on your tested questions, that allows appropriate space for answers to be filled in. Train interviewers as necessary to ensure they will all discuss the survey the same way. Administer the survey to the group selected and collect the data.
bullet Tabulating results. Tally up the different answers you get by type of answer. Don't forget to include a space to tally those who did not answer the question. Decide whether to count them or not; once you do decide, be consistent.
bullet Analysis. What's surprising? What's expected and what's not? Negative, positive, and divided responses (such as "no clear majority agreed on the need for an evening juvenile curfew program") are important findings.

Examine Community Assets

As you look at possible problems to address, ask yourself, what are the assets of my community? Perhaps students have special skills or there is strong support for athletic teams. There may be an active neighborhood association, a library that offers study time or homework help, a community-based police ministation, strong faith communities, or other similar strong points. Perhaps parents take a real interest in their children's school, or a senior center offers eager and skilled volunteers. Consider marking both problem areas and assets on a map of the area. Build on the assets available in your community. If your community shows a strong interest in athletics, organize a softball game between school faculty and students. Charge a small admission fee and use the proceeds to sponsor a community cleanup activity.

Select a Problem To Address

You could try to tackle the most urgent problem, or the one that has gotten the most publicity, or the one that seems hardest or easiest to solve. The best chance of success lies in looking at the problem and looking at what your group can bring together to address it.

You don't have to respond to a major problem or a sensational crisis. You could address something that has just emerged as a problem, deal with a long-term problem, or prevent a problem by strengthening a good thing within the school or community. You should pick an issue that excites members of your group and that is important to the community.

Minuses and pluses. One approach to choosing an issue to address is minuses and pluses. (For an example, see the diagram below.) List minuses -- community or school problems you think you would like to work on -- on the left side of a piece of paper. Then, in no particular order, list on the right side of the paper the various strengths (pluses) your group has or could assemble to do any project. Next, draw lines connecting problems with strengths that could help solve them. The lines can crisscross and strengths can be connected more than once, as can problems. You can get a good idea of which problem(s) your group should work on by seeing which problems have the most connections with the strengths listed on the right-hand side.

Chart of Minuses and Pluses

Force-field analysis. Another method for looking at a community's needs and your group's ability to address them is called force- field analysis. For a simplified, but useful, version of this approach, see the diagram and complete the following steps.

Chart of Sample-Force Analysis

bullet Select a particular problem.
bullet List positive conditions or factors that make the problem better or keep it from getting worse. For each factor you list, decide whether it is a weak, moderate, somewhat strong, or very strong force. Draw arrows from the left toward the center. There should be one arrow for each factor, and its length should represent how strong that factor is, in your view.
bullet List negative conditions or factors that make the problem worse or keep it from getting better. For each factor you list, decide whether it is a weak force, a moderate force, a somewhat strong force, or a very strong force on the negative side. Draw arrows from the right toward the center. There should be one arrow for each factor and its length should represent how strong that factor is, in your view.
bullet Then examine both kinds of forces. (You do not need to address any relationships between them.) Are the negative forces overwhelming? Are the positive forces already making a difference? Can your group do things to either strengthen the positive forces or weaken the negative ones?

This sort of analysis can highlight not only a problem your group could take on, but also strategies to combat the problem. You should, of course, check with the audience or groups you plan to help. Does your proposed project meet their needs? Do they already have a project in the works or under way to provide this help? If so, can your group join in this effort?

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Youth In Action Bulletin April 1998   black   Number 01