Sunday, February 22, 2009

Organizing A Community

When I put out the word about seeking community service stories, I heard back from Marianne Lincoln, an Obama supporter on the west side of the state. First, let me just say: what a great last name to have! But this entry is not about Marianne's name. It is about her successful efforts in her community to make a difference. Marianne's story just may inspire some of you to follow a similar path.

Back in 1988, Marianne started getting involved in politics, thinking that was the best way to make major improvements in her unincorporated community of Spanaway, Washington (near Tacoma). After a couple years of helping others run for office, she ran herself. But during that campaign, a couple boys were murdered near her home. She couldn't wait for a decision by the voters. Instead, she got together with a member of the school board, a couple teachers and an advocacy group. They held some forums about community needs and then formed a non-profit and subsequently charitable organization to start advocating for change in their community. To this day, what they did and how they did it is used as a model for other communities.

"We held meetings, created events and went to government representatives and elected officials at all levels from local boards to Congress," Marianne says. "Then we went on the road to other communities in our county to tell them how to do it [and to give them assistance like incorporation papers to model]. In 3 years, we had active community associations in every suburban area. We now share information between our communities about government actions and criminal activities. We started a street fair, a winter light festival, a character quality program, and banded together our local Altrusa, the community association, the Kiwanis, and the Lions. We got our county parks to let us raise money, produce a design and write a grant for a huge skate board park. It took 5 years, and some finessing around [some] officials" who were not wildly enthusiastic about the project. "But the kids love it now!"

By the way, Marianne lost that election by 4 percent. "But I think I got far more done than I would have if I had been in the legislature," she says.

I asked Marianne which one of the projects over the years did she feel was the most beneficial. Her response: the community organization itself. Its usefulness to her community and as a model for other communities has been invaluable. If she had only one thing to do over again, it would be that. She says the creation of the nonprofit organization was like a "burst of firework, and then all the other things lit up because the thing in the center went 'boom'."
She explains that the organization came together as one big group to do a visioning process of what the community needed, and then worked from that list and made subcommittees including a transportation committee, a schools committee, a crime/resources committee, etc. She warns that transportation is the toughest and longest to come to fruition. Because the organization is a nonprofit, it has restrictions against having political leanings. Thus, its purpose is simply educational.

The character quality program (mentioned above) came about from conversations the group was having with community leaders about kids needing principles and values. During a number of "key leader" meetings (begun by the superintendent of Bethel School District and including members of their organization as well as other community associations, the Kiwanis, some pastors, etc.) - they came up with 12 basic qualities and attached one per month. For instance, "Empathy" was November, which fit well with Thanksgiving and giving in general. May was "Courtesy" month (which was useful because it also was the beginning of little league!). January was the month for "Hard Work"; December was "Kindness", etc. Over the course of the last 12 years, these 12 qualities have stuck and various groups and people - including teachers - have promoted them in their own way. One year a neighboring school came out with a calendar that had the core qualities connected to it. The larger school district followed suit (after some fits and starts with production). A list of the qualities can be found here.

Her advice to others about how to create something similar:
find out who is already meeting as a group in their community - whether that is the grange , or a sewing circle or a lions club - and have some conversations wtih the people whoa re active in those groups. See if you can get a core group of four or five people together and talk about community needs, for starters. Marianne also says that it can take a little while to find out where the community needs are if you do not already have an active community association. It may be that you will need to go through a process of identifying the need first, which could take up to six months. And definitely speak to city and county government folks too, in identifying those needs. And don't give up! Figure out a way to create your own burst of fireworks.
If you have further questions, feel free to email me at, and I can forward your inquiries to Marianne. Happy organizing!

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