Keeping the People at the Center

November 4, 2013 2 Comments

Since my recent visit to LUPE in San Juan, Texas, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes LUPE’s community union model so different from most of our efforts (IISC’s and the social sector at large). César Chávez spelled described the core premise succinctly. “From the depth of need and despair, people can work together, can organize themselves to solve their own problems and fill their own needs with dignity and strength.”

LUPE’s model begins with people who are affected by injustices, meeting them at their point of individual need and connecting the dots between those individual needs and wider patterns of injustice that call for collective action.

There’s been a lot of buzz about “Collective Impact” as an approach to addressing complex, systemic social problems in recent years. Visiting LUPE reminded me that too often in multi-stakeholder planning and action efforts aiming for collective impact, the people who are most affected by the injustices are, at best, one voice among many. At worst, they are under-engaged, under-involved or even unwelcomed.

What would it take to keep those most affected by injustices at the center of the work? LUPE’s example offers some concrete guidance. We could:

  • Meet people at their point of individual need and build solidarity and mutual accountability. Facilitate people’s discover of the patterns of injustice that cry out for collective action. This would take social service into the social change arena, as our friends at the Movement Strategy Center have urged.
  • Nurture a base of members who develop, implement and fund the collective agenda. This would put the people most affected in the driver’s seat rather that on advisory groups.
  • Develop the capacity of leaders from among that base of members. This would cultivate the talent of those on the margins and correct for the inequitable distribution of legitimacy described so well by our friends at The Data Center.
  • Incubate businesses and other enterprises that address the priorities of the members. Tax preparation and auto insurance are two examples from LUPE’s work, growing from the needs of the members.
  • Cultivate and support political leaders and candidates for public office. Our friends at Lawrence Community Works have often said that they have been working to develop the next generation of leadership in every sector, including the public sector.
  • Engage with public officials, allies and service providers from a position of strength and independence. People acting together on their shared interests are not clients or program participants. They are change agents who have made common cause, and they can freely seek to align with others who share their vision and goals.

As I reflect on my work at IISC, I wish more of it had been built on Chávez’s premise about collective action around shared interests. I’m struggling to see how we can bring this sensibility into efforts that are not being driven by the people who are most affected. What do you see?



  • Curtis Ogden says:


    Thank you for these two posts. So important! You’ve given me a lot to think about as we continue to move our myriad collective efforts forward. Something I’ve been sitting with is the need to spend more time in communities, not doing but rather interacting and seeing how life is happening there along with all the innovations that are part and parcel of daily living, especially in places where there are considerable odds. There is much richness to share, so perhaps part of the trick is flipping the script, not denying need, but embracing what we have to learn from those most affected in terms of strength and resilience and creativity. What’s that quote – “The teachers are everywhere, what is wanted is a learner.”


  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    True enough–we need many more learners. I struggle with how we create spaces where the whole system can be in the room without dwarfing or marginalizing “regular folk” whose lives are the center of the concerns being addressed.

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