Participatory Methods in Community Practice: Popular Education and Participatory Rural Appraisal

Paul Castelloe & Dorothy Gamble. The Handbook of Community Practice. Editor: Marie Weil. Sage Publications, 2005.

In its 10th Human Development Report, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP, 2000) focused on human development and human rights, describing seven basic freedoms necessary for human development:

  1. Freedom from discrimination by gender, race, ethnicity, national origin or religion
  2. Freedom from want, to enjoy a decent standard of living
  3. Freedom to develop and realize one’s human potential
  4. Freedom from fear of threats to personal security, from torture, arbitrary arrest and other violent acts
  5. Freedom from injustice and violations of the rule of law
  6. Freedom of thought and speech and to participate in decision-making and form associations
  7. Freedom for decent work without exploitation (UNDP, 2000, p. 1)

Although all these freedoms are important to community practice, this chapter will focus on the sixth freedom. The freedom to think and speak and participate in decision making is a basic right of any democracy, but it is easily eroded, even in nations believed to be mature democracies. In the United States, for instance, citizens easily fall into assumptions that only a select few should speak and participate in most decisions. In a society that places such a high value on formal education, we often dismiss those who have little formal education as having no knowledge. Even as professionals in community practice, we often believe that by demonstrating our personal expertise in problem assessment and problem resolution, we are more useful than if we help other people discover and solve their own problems.

Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator, always asked the teachers he was training to lead literacy programs, “What is: ‘to know’?” (Vella, 1989, p. 37). How do we know something ourselves, and how do we know what others know? This chapter focuses on how we help others to uncover and make use of the knowledge they have acquired through living and becoming adults—how we help others (re)discover, validate, and use what they already know. It also connects the practice of knowing and learning from life experiences to group- and community-level participation and action.

This chapter introduces two participatory methods that can be used in community practice: popular education and Participatory Rural Appraisal. We outline the ideas behind each method, describe the “how to” or practice of each method, and provide a concrete example of each method’s use. The goal of this chapter is to enable community practitioners to become more participatory and empowering in their work, and thus more firmly rooted in the hopes and dreams of the communities they serve.

Popular Education

Popular education is a participatory method that is particularly useful for drawing forth the wisdom, knowledge, and skills that people have gained from their everyday life experiences—and for using that experiential wisdom to begin to look more critically at the systems in which they live their lives. Popular education, which usually occurs outside of formal educational institutions, is education for collective action and social change (Arnold, Burke, James, Martin, & Thomas, 1991; Castelloe & Watson, 1999; Freire, 1970; Nadeau, 1996). This method is most often associated with the work of Paulo Freire in the Global South (Freire, 1970, 1996) and Myles Horton of the Highlander Research and Education Center in the United States (Glen, 1996; Horton & Freire, 1990; Horton, Kohl, & Kohl, 1990).

To develop a working definition from the works just mentioned, a popular educator can be considered someone who helps groups of people in low-wealth and marginalized communities learn to use reflections on their daily experiences to analyze the social, political, and economic systems in which their communities are embedded. Popular educators also assume that the skills and knowledge that people have gained through their life experiences can provide the foundation for creating significant community change. The work of a popular educator is to facilitate people’s expression of their experiential wisdom, help make connections among the skills and knowledge of group members, and help harness those skills and knowledge for community change.

Paulo Freire: Critiquing Conventional Education Practice

Much of the theory and practice of popular education is associated with the life and work of Paulo Freire. Freire was a Brazilian educator who worked throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s to link the practice of education with collective action and social change (Freire, 1970,1974,1996; Horton & Freire, 1990; McLaren & Lankshear, 1994; McLaren & Leonard, 1993; Taylor, 1993). Freire (1970) called his approach dialogic education. He emphasized that popular education is based on small-group dialogue, a form of interaction between educator and participants in which both are cospeakers, colearners, and coactors. He contrasted his approach to what he called banking education, the traditional approach in which directive teachers stand before passive learners and make deposits of prepackaged knowledge (Freire, 1970, 1974; Hope & Timmel, 1995). Some of the contrasts between dialogic education and banking education are outlined in Table 13.1 (see also Castelloe & Watson, 1999; Hope & Timmel, 1995).

One key concept in Freire’s writings on popular education is learning from experience, the idea that people learn best when they ground their learning in their everyday experiences. This idea has a rich history in both education and social work. In education, learning from experience is associated with the seminal work of John Dewey (1916, 1938). In social work, experiential learning has been a core component of community practice since its inception. Indeed, one of the books that served as a foundation for Freire’s approach to popular education, The Meaning of Adult Education (1926), was written by Eduard Lindeman, a professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work. Lindeman (1926) viewed adult education as a democratic and informal practice taking place in small groups where adult learners began their education from their own experiences. He believed that dialogues drawing from groups members’ experiences could spur social action. “Every social action group should at the same time be an adult education group,” Lindeman wrote, “and I go even so far as to believe that all successful adult education groups sooner or later become social action groups” (1945, p. 12). Other social workers echo this emphasis on experiential learning, including Jane Addams and the community social workers involved in the education programs at Hull-House in Chicago (Addams, 1910, 1930; Deegan, 1990); Mary Parker Follett, in her work with Boston neighborhoods and northeastern industrial relations organizations (1924); and Murray Ross, a founder of community organizing and development theory (Ross, 1955, 1958). Freire’s emphasis on experiential learning springs from this rich history within education and social work.

Table 13.1 Comparing Traditional and Freireian Approaches to Education
Traditional Banking Approach Freire’s Dialogic Approach
  • Students are seen as “empty vessels” which the teacher must fill with knowledge.
  • The teacher has all the necessary information, which is passed on to students.
  • The teacher talks and students listen and absorb—passively and meekly.
  • The teacher chooses the content, and the students (who are not consulted) adapt to it.
  • Knowledge is seen as objective, as a collection of impersonal, technical “facts” that have little to do with everyday life.
  • The teacher is neutral, objective, distanced from social conflict.
  • The purpose of education is to directly transmit cultural knowledge and cultural values to students.
  • Students are seen as potential agents or actors, people who can re-create the world.
  • Facilitator and participants are active and creative co-investigators/co-learners.
  • As a group, participants dialogue, analyze, brainstorm, plan, decide, and act.
  • The content is chosen by participants—participatory curriculum development.
  • Knowledge is subjectively, personally, and socially constructed. Knowledge emerges from everyday experiences.
  • The facilitator refuses neutrality; he or she is openly committed to marginalized groups.
  • The purpose of education is to help participants learn from their experiences, develop analyses of society, and plan for collective action.

According to Freire, the practice of popular education results in two major outcomes: critical consciousness and collective action (Freire, 1970, 1974, 1996; Horton & Freire, 1990; Taylor, 1993). In Freire’s (1970) model, popular educators bring groups of people together to reflect on questions related to generative themes, that is, high-priority community concerns such as job losses or environmental degradation. This process of using questions to reflect on generative themes sparks grassroots groups’ active involvement in using their everyday experiences to understand more critically the political, economic, and social systems in which group members live. Freire (1970, 1974) called this the process of conscientization, or the development of critical consciousness. As they develop critical consciousness, group members are able to break through their lack of self-confidence, their apathy, and their inaction to plan and carry out collective action to improve their communities. Thus, there is a cycle of reflection using questions to reflect on key community issues and the larger systems in which those issues are embedded, alternating with taking collective action to improve the community. Freire (1970) used the term praxis to describe this continual cycle of reflection and action.

Freire’s code-centered model of popular education. The concepts outlined previously are useful for understanding popular education, yet they provide little guidance for the practice of popular education. A community practitioner might be left to ask, How do I do popular education? How do I work with a group using a popular education approach? How do I work dialogically? How do I facilitate learning from experience, the development of critical consciousness, and collective action for social change? Answers to such questions can be found in several handbooks on the practice of popular education (Arnold et al., 1991; Hope & Timmel, 1995; Lee & Balkwill, 1996; Lewis & Gaventa, 1988; Nadeau, 1996; VeneKlasen & Miller, 2002). These handbooks provide a collection of participatory small group exercises used by popular educators; they also provide practice models for popular education work.

One such practice model is Freire’s code-centered model (1970, 1974). Freire conceptualized five steps in his model. First, popular educators immerse themselves in the community in which they will be working—they spend time there, talk with grassroots leaders and listen to their stories, and simply be with them as they live their daily lives. Second, they listen actively for generative themes—for pressing issues that community members mention and discuss (e.g., environmental degradation). Third, they create codes—pictures, drawings, or some other representation of a generative theme—that serve to represent a familiar issue from community members’ everyday reality (e.g., a drawing of a pipe spewing waste into the local river). In the fourth step, the symbolic drawings (codes) are shared with community members, who gather as a group to label the parts of the drawing and discuss their meanings. Popular educators lead the group through a process of decoding, a process of discussion to analyze critically the meaning of the group’s “lived experience.” Decoding is based on such questions as: “What do you see (when you look at these codes/pictures)? How is this similar or different from what you experience? How has this come about? What are the consequences? Who benefits? How could we change this?” By struggling through dialogue with these questions, the group comes to a more critical understanding of their situation. With this new understanding, they move to the fifth step—a plan for collective action. This might mean joining with other groups in addressing environmental degradation; it might mean working to create alternative, community-driven, ecologically friendly economic structures.

As is true in any of the participatory methods, popular educators themselves must be grounded in ethical values similar to those of social work, which emphasize helping people in need, challenging social injustice, respecting the worth of persons, recognizing the importance of human relationships, behaving in a trustworthy manner, and practicing in one’s area of competence (NASW, 1996, pp. 5–6). Freire described the relationship between the educator and learner when he said:

Another testimony that should not be missing from our relationship with students is the testimony of our constant commitment to justice, liberty, and individual rights, of our dedication to defending the weakest when they are subjected to the exploitation of the strongest. (1998, p. 56)

The Spiral Model of Popular Education

Arnold and colleagues (1991), working with popular educators in Latin America and South Africa, have developed the spiral model of popular education, which builds on Freire’s model but is applicable to a broader range of situations and is in some ways easier to apply. The spiral model is outlined in Figure 13.1.

As Figure 13.1 indicates, the spiral model has five steps:

  • Start by asking group members to talk about experiences in their everyday lives (i.e., learning begins with group members’ experiences).
  • Deepen the analysis by working with group members to make connections among their experiences (i.e., group members look for commonalities and differences in their experiences).
  • When appropriate, add or create new information to supplement members’ existing knowledge.
  • Practice skills and plan for action (i.e., group members try out what they have learned and plan for collective action).
  • Take action, and return again to reflection.

Figure 13.1

A concrete example. The collaborative work of Helen Lewis and the Ivanhoe Civic League in Virginia illustrates the use of popular education methods in community practice; this work provides a thoroughly documented example of popular education practice (Hinsdale, Lewis, & Waller, 1995). At the time of this work (the 1980s), Lewis was a popular educator at the Highlander Research and Education Center. She was invited by the Ivanhoe Civic League, a community-based organization, to help them develop a response to economic downturn. Ivanhoe had been a coal-mining town for most of the 20th century, but in 1981, the last major mine closed down. The Ivanhoe Civic League formed in 1986 to retain some of the former mining property, which the county was trying to sell, and bring industry back to the town.

In early 1987, Maxine Waller, a principal leader in the Ivanhoe Civic League, took part in Highlander’s Southern and Appalachian Leadership Training (SALT) program, a popular education program designed to build the capacities of grassroots leaders. The SALT program provided a space for Waller and other Civic League members to meet other grassroots leaders from community-based organizations throughout Appalachia and the South. They visited other communities and learned about their efforts to start community-based, community-driven economic development efforts. League members began to see the possibility of creating something similar in their own community and began to shift their focus from externally controlled industrial development to locally based development (a community-based tourism enterprise); they also began to focus on social development as much as economic development. The Civic League saw a need to reflect on this new direction for the community and plan it out carefully. Later in 1987, they asked Helen Lewis to come to Ivanhoe to facilitate a series of popular education sessions focusing on community-based economic development. Through these sessions, community members evaluated their past work and explored and planned possibilities for the future. This work led to many projects over the next few years, including general equivalency diploma classes; a youth group; plans for a community-based tourism facility; an oral history project that eventually resulted in two published books; a theater project; a series of Bible study discussion groups; and a series of cultural activities such as parades, potlucks, and performances by bluegrass bands, cloggers, and choirs. These activities helped local community leaders develop their capacities to plan and implement projects focused on community resources and strengths. This kind of social development is a necessary step toward helping communities develop their own small businesses, build community resources that would have value for new outside investors, and critically assess the value of externally controlled industries seeking to locate in their area.

Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA)

It is perhaps not surprising that many ideas and methods relating to participatory community work come from the developing world. In the southern hemisphere, often identified as the Global South, great differences exist between the relatively small number of people who are wealthy and formally educated and vast groups of people who are poor and lack formal education (yet have a wealth of life experiences). In the developing world, many efforts have been introduced in the past 50 years to improve the condition of people who are poor and marginalized. These efforts have been generated primarily by Western countries, whose development experts have introduced technologies for food crop growth. They have also made huge investments in such infrastructure as hydroelectric dams, and their organizations deployed thousands of development experts who worked with local government bureaucracies and engaged with grassroots citizens and organizations (McKay, 1990; Weaver, Rock, & Kusterer, 1997). Among those development experts engaged with grassroots field workers were some who began to listen more closely to what local people knew and had to say about their conditions. One of these was Robert Chambers of Sussex University in the United Kingdom.

Robert Chambers: Critiquing conventional development practice. Robert Chambers, a scholar and practitioner of international development, has written two influential books critiquing development work and posing challenging perspectives and methods to overcome the mistakes of development: Rural Development: Putting the Last First (1983) and Whose Reality Counts? Putting the First Last (1997). Both summarize the efforts of participatory development practitioners across the globe, and both highlight the emphasis these practitioners place on the ability of local, often nonliterate, people to make observations and collect information related to their condition, analyze and interpret that information, and plan for improvements in their own communities.

Chambers’s (1983, 1997) work is an implicit (and often explicit) critique of the status quo in international development. The foundation of his critique is that many of the mistakes in international development are the result of development professionals’ tendency to base decisions on abstract, decontextualized information—usually from secondary data or survey questionnaires. Chambers (1997) contrasted this traditional assessment and research process with Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA), a method that is grounded in the voices, wisdom, and experiences of people living in low-wealth and marginalized communities. Chambers argued that PRA methods are more quickly carried out than traditional community assessment and planning methods (e.g., survey questionnaires), that they are more cost-effective, and most important, that they are more reliable (1997, pp. 122–125). When properly used, PRA methods inform not only the outside facilitator but the local participants, who become empowered to take action based on a better understanding of their situation.

While Chambers was making these practice-focused critiques of international development, more theoretical critiques were being leveled at Western-originated development efforts, whether they resulted from Euro-American capitalism or from the centralized planning approach of the Soviet Union and its allies (Brohman, 1996; Escobar, 1995; Rahnema, 1997; Sachs, 1990; Schuurman, 1993). Furthermore, the plight of many of the world’s poor has steadily worsened. Although the proportion of the world’s poor living in extreme poverty decreased slightly (from 29% to 23%) in the 1990s, it actually increased in sub-Saharan Africa (UNDP, 2002, p. 10). At the current rate of development, it would take more than 130 years to eliminate hunger in the world (UNDP, 2002, p. 11). According to a UNDP Human Development Report (1999, p. 2), “Competitive markets may be the best guarantee of efficiency, but not necessarily of equity.” In spite of more than 50 years of development efforts, at the end of the past century, the top fifth of people in the world who had the highest incomes controlled 86% of the world gross domestic product, and more than 80 countries had per capita incomes lower than they had been a decade or more previously (UNDP, 1999). More specifically, worldwide development lags as more than 30,000 children every day die from preventable diseases; 113 million school-age children, the majority of whom are girls, are not in school; and 500,000 women die each year from complications of pregnancy and childbirth (UNDP, 2002, p. 11). It is within this larger context—declining well-being among most of the world’s poor—that PRA has emerged as a practice method.

PRA. In Whose Reality Counts?, Chambers (1997) compared Rapid Rural Appraisal (RRA), a participatory method developed in the 1980s that grew out of work in universities in Thailand, the United Kingdom, and Australia, with PRA, a related method that emerged from the work of participatory development practitioners throughout the Global South (particularly South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa) in the late 1980s and 1990s (see Pennell, Noponen, & Weil, Chapter 34, this volume). In comparing these two approaches, Chambers (1997) noted that although RRA does draw on people’s local knowledge, the collection of data is done by outsiders for the purpose of taking away this knowledge and applying it to plans, publications, and projects developed by people outside the local community. Although PRA also seeks to discover local knowledge by engaging with local people, its purpose is to draw on people’s wisdom in ways that strengthen their capabilities and empower them to take local, self-determined, community-driven action; to use their own skills to monitor and evaluate the action they take; and to build locally owned institutions that can become self-sustaining.

Attitudes and behaviors in PRA. The first steps in the PRA process require that a trained participatory practitioner or facilitator be invited into a community. Engagement between the facilitator and local community members could be the result of development efforts initiated at the national, regional, or local level. Of primary importance in training the facilitator is the development of particular attitudes and behaviors. According to Chambers (1997), facilitators need to behave in ways that represent trustworthiness and relevance: “Trustworthiness is the quality of being believable as a representation of reality; relevance refers to practical utility for learning and action” (Chambers, 1997, p. 158).

Practitioners have realized that PRA is more than a set of exercises; it is a set of attitudes and behaviors that outsiders use when engaging local people (Aaker & Schumaker, 1996; Chambers, 1997; Keough, 1998). Most basic is the attitude based on beginning community work from a perspective of sharing and partnership, which means that everything is done in an open, welcoming, and nonpossessive spirit. According to Chambers (1997), other principles used in PRA are the following:

1. Hand over the stick. When the facilitator hands over the “stick, chalk, or pen” to local people, this act enables local people to be the analysts, mappers, diagrammers, observers, researchers, historians, planners, actors, and presenters of their analysis; eventually they become the facilitators (p. 117).

2. Locals are the experts. “The roles of expertise are reversed, with local people as experts and teachers and outside facilitators as novices,” regarding local problems, culture, economic conditions, climatic conditions, health, and well-being (p. 117).

3. Respect local knowledge. Poor people’s realities will always be local, complex, diverse, dynamic, and unpredictable. No one can know that reality as well as the people on the ground, the people who are living it. This principle builds on the critical idea developed for popular education of learning from experience.

4. Be inclusive. Be inclusive in gathering participants to impart and analyze local knowledge. It is not enough to simply hear from key informants and identified gatekeepers of knowledge. Many realities emerge when a range of people are involved. These should be people from all age, racial, income, and gender groups—including all marginalized people.

5. Believe in local capacity. Facilitators help most when they can introduce methods to allow knowledge, analysis, plans, and action to emerge from local people’s knowledge. Facilitators help least when they frame the realities from their own observations and produce the analysis and project plans from their own expertise.

6. The people create the data. Diagramming and visual sharing are the best ways to help groups develop valid and reliable data. When using such methods, errors are more easily corrected, more complete information is generated, and the visual sharing is “the flowering of group-visual synergy” (Chambers, 1997, p. 207). In PRA, even nonliterate groups can do very complex analyses using diagrams and present the meaning of their analyses in sophisticated discourse.

7. Behave in ways that may be contrary to formal training. The best facilitator does not lecture, follow a blueprint, interrupt, or suggest solutions. Rather, the best facilitator establishes rapport, sits down, listens and learns, is patient and respectful, and knows when not to speak and when not to be present (Chambers, 1997, pp. 102–187).

PRA exercises. PRA has as its foundation a vast and ever-expanding set of participatory exercises developed by participatory development practitioners in the Global South that facilitators can use with grassroots groups (Archer & Cottingham, 1996; Gubbels & Koss, 2000; Leurs, 1996; Pretty, Guijt, Scoones, & Thompson, 1995; Theis & Grady, 1991; Thomas-Slayter, Polestico, Esser, Taylor, & Mutua, 1995; VeneKlasen & Miller, 2002). Chambers has described in more detail the methods and approaches of PRA in his book Participatory Workshops: A Sourcebook of 21 Sets of Ideas and Activities (2002). Practitioners have used these exercises in work related to management of natural resources, agricultural development, livelihood issues, health and nutrition, urban and rural poverty, violence reduction, housing issues, children and educational issues, crisis and refugee situations, and organizational analysis (Chambers, 1997). In Whose Reality Counts? Chambers (1997, pp. 118–119) outlined some of the participatory methods and approaches employed by PRA practitioners to elicit data collection and issue focus. The facilitator helps groups actively participate in these exercises and develops the questions that will help the group members analyze what they have represented. Examples of exercises and processes follow:

1. Mapping and modeling: People draw and color—using chalks, sticks, seeds, powders, or pens—making social, health, or demographic maps; resource maps; thematic maps; or topic maps (e.g., on issues such as water, trees, education, health and transportation resources, dangers, housing conditions, and access to things that fulfill their basic human needs).

2. Timelines and trend analysis: People chart, on paper or on the ground, chronologies of events, people’s accounts of the past, or a picture of how things have changed for a given place, so that an analysis of the causes of change and trends can be discussed.

3. Seasonal calendars: People develop a seasonal calendar, often by month, to show the impact of specific things such as rainfall and crop cycles for agricultural communities; a tourism industry; production cycles; illness patterns; fuel needs; migration and population patterns; work for women, men, and children; and so forth.

4. Institutional or Venn diagramming: People draw the critical relationships that exist in a community, identifying individuals and institutions important in and for a community or group; they then analyze the relationships and the meaning of those relationships.

5. Well-being (or wealth) grouping: People identify individuals or groups of individuals on cards and organize a “card sort” into groups of people who are most well-off and those most deprived, with a discussion of the key indicators of well-being (monetary and nonmonetary). This can lead to a discussion of people who are poor and marginalized and how they cope with these conditions.

6. Analysis of difference: People identify different groups, especially by gender, social group, occupation, age, sexual orientation, race, and cultural identity; this is followed by discussions of problems and preferences of the groups (Chambers, 1997, pp. 117–119).

The initial participatory exercises in PRA focus on data collection, such as those outlined previously. The next steps are often participatory exercises focusing on group analysis—exercises such as matrix scoring and ranking to express preferences; presenting maps, models, and diagrams to check and correct the perspectives; developing plans, budgets, and implementation and monitoring schedules; developing a drama or video that expresses the project and its purpose; and generating reports immediately after activities are completed (Chambers, 1997, chap. 6). These group activities help to deepen the learning of both the local participants and the outside facilitators. They also build the capacity of people to use similar methods for different community problems and empower the community when a planned change results from their efforts.

PRA: A concrete example. There are several books that present case studies of the use of PRA methods in various contexts and settings (Blackburn & Holland, 1998; Guijt & Shah, 1998; Holland & Blackburn, 1998; Johnson, Ivan-Smith, Gordon, Pridmore, & Scott, 1998; Nelson & Wright, 1995). Among the hundreds of case examples presented in these books, we summarize one to provide a concrete sense of how PRA is used in everyday participatory development practice.

James Mascarenhas (1998), an Indian PRA practitioner with a nongovernmental organization called OUTREACH, outlined the use of PRA methods in watershed development in South India. OUTREACH worked in semi-arid and drought-prone areas in South India (parts of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu) to help local people learn to manage their natural resources and environment in a way that would suit their needs. Mascarenhas outlined four stages that OUTREACH used when working with local communities. First, the OUTREACH staff worked to strengthen grassroots “self-help groups.” The focus here was on increasing community participation, starting and building self-help groups, establishing savings and credit programs, and raising awareness about issues affecting the environment and watershed. Second, the staff used PRA methods to delineate the local watershed, then to create a watershed management plan. The end result of this process was a complex set of plans—a watershed treatment plan, a financial plan, a timeline, an implementation plan, and a management plan—all of which were generated by local people and built on their experiences. Third, the staff supported the local community through the stage of implementing its plan (often involving ongoing PRA exercises that assess and monitor progress). Fourth, the staff continually worked to help local groups become increasingly independent—that is, the OUTREACH staff laid the groundwork for withdrawing from the project by constantly stressing the strength and responsibility of the local group.

Application to Social Work Practice

As described in the beginning of this chapter, participatory methods were a part of early approaches to social work (Addams, 1910; Follett, 1924; Lindeman, 1945; Ross, 1955, 1958). In more recent years, models of community organization and community practice have focused on the skills and knowledge of the practitioner as well as on building skills among citizen groups. Rothman (2001), for example, described the basic change strategy for locality development as “involving a broad cross section of people in determining and solving their own problems” and described their role as “participants in an interactional problem-solving process” (p. 45). Six of the eight models of community practice described by Weil and Gamble (1995) have outcomes focused on developing capacity to organize, organizing for social justice, or initiating grassroots development. The methodological objectives are described as developing skills and abilities of citizens and citizen groups, making social planning more accessible and inclusive, connecting social and economic investments to grassroots community groups, advocating for broad coalitions, and infusing social planning with a concern for social justice (Weil & Gamble, 1995, p. 577). In his development of six models of community work practice in the United Kingdom, Popple (1996) also had a primary focus on the engagement role and skills of the worker. His description of the community education model developed critical perspectives for the worker derived from the experiences and writings of Paulo Freire. Perhaps there is no better prescription for social workers to learn participatory methods than to follow the principles of Freire himself for engaging with groups to identify and analyze their reality, planning and taking action based on that understanding, and reflecting on the participatory action taken. Community practitioners will find the roots of participatory methods, as well as the values, concepts, models, and skills for community engagement, throughout the history of social work literature.

Practitioners can continue to build a knowledge base by combining the historical roots of community practice, their own experience, and the directive found in the Code of Ethics developed by the National Association of Social Workers: to embrace “ethical responsibilities to the broader society,” particularly to “facilitate informed participation by the public in shaping policies and institutions” (1996, pp. 26–27). The development and testing of participatory methods will provide more knowledge about the synergy that takes place between community members and workers. The two participatory methods described in this chapter should be part of community social workers’ repertoire that ensures the active participation of grassroots representatives so that the local community can be both the author and owner of effective social and economic problem solving.


Understanding the application of participatory methods moves the community practitioner to an increasingly inclusive and empowering practice. Effectively using participatory methods such as popular education and PRA requires practice and a strong commitment to democratic principles. Community practitioners must be able to give up the “expert” role to become a partner in learning with community members. They must be able to pose the questions that stimulate analysis by community members of their local conditions in relation to regional, national, and global contexts. They must act on the understanding that local people have the capacity to identify complex conditions, analyze all aspects of conditions that prevent them from developing to their optimum potential, plan solutions to problems, develop resources and take action, and create and employ monitoring and evaluation techniques for the action taken.

Participatory methods facilitate the involvement of many people who may not have had the opportunity to engage in local planning and action strategies. They also create the potential for developing new and lasting democratic institutions. This chapter began with the UN Development Programme’s (2000) list of freedoms necessary for human development—with its focus on the freedom of thought and speech, participation in decision making, and freedom to form associations. These are the freedoms that popular education and PRA can most directly affect. By using these participatory methods, community practitioners can ensure that their work is as democratic and empowering as possible.