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Strengthening Community Action Through Community Development Social Work Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Social Work
Wordcount: 3740 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Although the term empowerment is frequently used, the availability of high-quality research which demonstrates its success for improving the wellbeing of communities is fairly minimal (Woodall et al. 2010). There is, however, some evidence that shows that empowerment programs can lead to improve outcomes for participants. For example, in examining the effectiveness of interventions using community development approach, the Migrant Resource Centre of South Australia, which provides programs that targets particular community groups, including women, younger people, has recorded some promising ability to impact the lives of young refugees (MRCSA Annual Report, 2009). In fact, this essay argues that while community development interventions are difficult to measure, the migrant Resource Centre of South Australia has registered significant gains in the area of youth empowerment.

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This essay will highlight the various intervention programs implemented by the Migrant Resource Centre of South Australia (MRCSA). However, case study will focus on its youth empowerment component and to evaluate the overall effectiveness of community development approach of the organisation. To achieve this task, the essay is partitioned as follows. The first part will examine the definitions of empowerment. The next section will discuss about community development as a strategy and a model of practice by the Migrant Resource Centre of South Australia (MRCSA). The third section discusses the impact and challenges of this intervention. The final part of the essay will evaluate the impact of MRCSA’s youth empowerment program among a number of interventions.

Background and definition of the Concept of Empowerment

In the 1990s the term empowerment began to replace community participation (Rifkin, 2003). Empowerment according to Rifkin has conceptually evolved from the idea of lay participation in technical activities to a broader concern of improving life situations of the poor. This evolution can be traced historically in the areas of policy and in community activities. In the policy area, Rifkin proposes that three theoretical constructs can be identified to trace the changing view of participatory approaches from consensus building to empowerment. These Rafkin stated correspond to the political and political environment of the time.

The historical development of the concept of empowerment helps explain why there is no universally accepted definition of empowerment (Rifkin, 2003). However a number of scholars defined it as a process (McArdle, 1989; Laverack, 2005; Werner, 1988; Kilby, 2002). McArdle (1989) defines empowerment as a process whereby decisions are made by the people who will wear the consequences of those decisions. Similarly Werner (1988) and Laverack (2005) describe the concept of empowerment as a process by which people are able to gain or seize power to control over decisions and resources that determine their lives. Moreover, Kilby (2002) describe a process by which disadvantaged people work together to increase control over events that determine their lives. Expansion of individual’s choices and actions, primarily in relation to others … fundamentally a shift of power to those who are disempowered.

From a public health perspective, empowerment involves acting with communities to achieve their goals (Talbot & Verrinder, 2005). This implies working with disadvantaged individuals or groups to challenge structural disadvantaged (on the basis of class, gender, ethnicity or ability) and influence their health in a positive way. The application of the concept into the field of health promotion as outline by Laverack and Labonte (2000) is categorized in two folds; the bottom-up programming and the top-down programming. The former more associated with the concept of community empowerment begins on issues of concern to particular groups or individuals and regards some improvement in their overall power or capacity as the important health outcome. The later more associated with disease prevention efforts begin by seeking to involve particular groups or individuals in issues and activities largely defined by health agencies and regards improvement in particular behaviours as the important health outcome. Laverack and Labonte (2000) thus viewed community empowerment more instrumentally as a means to the end of health behaviour change. They argue that community empowerment which is defined as a shift towards greater equality in the social relations of power is an unavoidable feature of any health promotion efforts.

On a much broader scale empowerment promotes participation of people, organisations and communities towards the goals of increased individual and community control, political efficacy, improved quality of community life, and social justice (Wallerstein, 1992). The next section is a case example of how this approach is applied by an agency in dealing with question of social inclusion.

Community Development: A case of Migrant Resource Centre of South Australia (MRCSA)

By reviewing the previous definitions of empowerment and examining MRCSA’s framework, It is clear that the worker in (MRCSA) understand and adopt empowerment concept similar to which all of McArdle (1989); Laverack (2005); Werner (1988); Kilby (2002) and WHO (1986) do understand and adopt where empowerment is a matter of giving people the right and the opportunity to exercise power and control regarding making decisions that affect their health promoting.

In addition, in order to empower migrant people and communities, the (MRCSA) provide and still providing number of interventions based on community development model of practice. According to Tesoriero (2010), community development is the use of a set of ongoing structures and processes which enable the community to meet its own needs. Similar to Tesoriero (2010), Community Development is understood and implemented by the (MRCSA) as a multifaceted program of activities that concentrated on supporting the need of new arrivals and their new and emerging communities to understand their rights and obligations, to link into training and employment pathways and to develop networks of support within their local and in the broader community (www.mrcsa.com.au). In fact, The MRCSA has adopted Laverack and Labonte’s (2000) bottom-up approach in implementing their programs by consult sing and working closely with leaders and key representatives of new and emerging communities, including women and young people, to support them in gaining the knowledge and skills that they need to further their independence as well as their capacity to support and provide assistance to their members. Moreover, beside community development programs, MRCSA is providing number of women’s advocacy programs, youth leadership and participation and employment advocacy programs, As well. The programs also include Refugee Men’s Talk, an initiative supporting men to adapt to their new social environment.

To ensure and facilitate the participation of new and emerging communities in their local areas and in regional areas where they settle, or resettle, the program includes local government and regional initiatives. MRCSA believes that new and emerging communities require a place in which to implement their own activities. The organisation provides these through its own community centres and through linkages with other community facilities.

Also, Given that community development as an approach require working across divergent spheres, the Migrant Resource Centre of South Australia (MRCSA) maintain link with a number of stakeholders. These include the Commonwealth Government, the state of South Australia and the NGO community.(www.mrcsa.com.au). At the level of the Commonwealth Government, the links include; Department of Immigration and Citizenship, Centrelink, Employee Advocate, Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Australia Council for the Arts. At the level of the State Government the links are; Multicultural SA, Department of Health, Department of Families and Communities, Department of Education and Children’s Services, Skills SA, English Language Services – TAFE SA, Arts SA, Office for Women, Women’s Information Service, Women’s Health State Wide, Local Government Association of SA and Be Active. The links within the Non-Government Sector includes; Settlement Council of Australia (SCoA), Refugee Council of Australia, Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia (FECCA) LM Training Specialists, SA Council of Social Service (SACOSS), Service to Youth Council (SYC), Working Women’s Centre, Migrant Women’s Support and Accommodation Service, Youth Affairs Council of SA (YACSA), Anglicare SA, African Communities Council (ACCSA), Middle Eastern Communities Council (MECCSA), Volunteering SA and Northern Territory. Analysing this web of networks from Labonte’s, (1992) community development continuum, the MRCSA’s programs deal with individuals which transcend to small groups, community organisations, coalition advocacy and political action. With this wide array of networks, the organization has been facilitated to maintains a huge amount of social capital and through careful co-ordination, it stands a lot to gain in achieving its primary objectives (Butter et al. 1966)

The next section will focus on one of its many programs in the area of youth enhancement.

Youth Empowerment Program

The Migrant Resource Centre of South Australia (MRCSA) works closely with the leadership and key representatives of its client communities, including women and young people to support them in acquiring the knowledge and skills that they need to further their independence and self-determination, as well as their capacity to assist their members with their settlement and participation (www.mrcsa.com.au)). These goals are achieved through a number of programs including ethnic leaders’ forum, adult migrant education, community management and leadership forum by way of funding and leadership training. This section focuses on its youth empowerment program with emphasis on the Newly Arrived Youth Settlement Services (NAYS). The primary objective of this program as outlined in the MRCSA Annual Report (2008-2009) is to empower young people to develop their own programs and to become advocates for themselves, their families and communities.

In partnership with TAFE SA, the MRCSA conducted a number of training programs for young people who were not engaged in school or work. Specific training includes Certificate II in Information Technology, Productively Places Program Certificate II, Volunteering, work experience capacity building, apprentiships and traineeships (MRCSA Annual Report (2008-2009).

Through its new arrival humanitarian settlement program, the MRCSA has been an advocate and a voice for the inclusion and participation of young people of refugee background (www.mrcsa.com.au). According to the 2010 MRCSA Youth Empowerment Program Annual Report, the program has since 1998 addressed the needs of young people from new and emerging communities in South Australia through a multi-faceted program. The program provides young people with a range of services that aim to further their resilience, leadership skills and pathways to employment and independence. The MRCSA Youth Empowerment Program for 2008-2009 provided assistance to five hundred and twenty-nine (529) young people of refugee background, most of them recent arrivals to South Australia, to achieve some of their goals (Annual Report 2009-2010). These achievements were based on strong foundations upon which MRCSA operate. The next section will discuss the guiding principles which form the basis of MRCSA’s operations.

MRCSA Guiding Principles

The Migrant Resource Centre of South Australia’s philosophy and approach in working with young people from refugee backgrounds outline a number of guiding principles (Annual Report, 2008-2009). The principles discussed below indicate that MRCSA operates Laverack and Labonte’s (2000) bottom-up approach of community development. The guiding principles include the following:

Firstly, any youth programs, initiatives or activities are shaped and driven by the young people themselves through consultation with their peers. Secondly, young people are encouraged and supported to speak for themselves to drive their own development; the role of the MRCSA is that of mentor and advisor only. Thirdly, the importance of young people’s connection to family and community is recognized, valued and supported. Fourthly, the ethnic, religious and cultural identity and heritage of young people is affirmed and respected. Fifthly, respect for gender differences and how these impact on the planning and delivery of the youth program. Also, young people are active decision makers. Finally, an action research approach informs continuous service improvement and best practice.

These guiding principles are based on the premise that empowerment strategies focus on what people can do to empower themselves and so deflect attention from social issues (Keleher et al. 2007; Keleher, and Murphy, 2004) . However, Labonte (1990) warns that unless national and international trends are taken into account, the decentralization of decision-making may shift from victim blaming of individuals to victimizing powerless communities. In view of such warnings, Wilson et al (1999) suggest that effective primary health care as in the case of public health functions depends on efforts to link local issues to broader social issues. Intersectoral action can be used to promote and achieve shared goals in a number of other areas, for example policy, research, planning, practice and funding. It may be implemented through a myriad of activities including advocacy, legislation, community projects, and policy and programme action. It may take different forms such as cooperative initiatives, alliances, coalitions or partnerships (Health Canada http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca)

What are the Barriers?

In achieving their goal of empowering communities, the Migrant Resource Centre of South Australia (MRCSA) faces a number of challenging issues.

When young refugees arrive in Australia they face a number of challenges. They need to begin a new life, establish new friends and networks and find pathways that link them into mainstream community (MRCSA Annual Report, 2008-2009).

Some young people may also be at risk and need to deal with issues around language, religious identity, grief and loss, the justice system, consumer culture and intergenerational tension (MRCSA Annual Report, 2008-2009). Young people also need ways of dealing with race, racism and their identity (MRCSA Annual Report, 2008-2009).

There are fewer opportunities for young women from new and emerging communities to participate in sport due to the barriers they experience from within sporting environments and their own communities (MRCSA Annual Report, 2009). These barriers can be based on cultural, religious, and gender expectations of young women and their roles in their community. The report (MRCSA, 2009) also highlighted other factors affecting young women participation in sports. These include; lack of parental support, perceived fear of racism, lack of knowledge about the structure of sport in Adelaide and high cost of membership and registration fees.

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On the other hand, community development approach can pose barriers to Public Health Practitioners in a number of ways. Epidemiological, sociological, and psychological evidence of the relationship between influence, control, and health, provide a rationale for a community empowerment approach to health education. For example, studies show an association between powerlessness (or similarly, learned helplessness, alienation, exploitation) and mental and physical health status. Examining the application of community empowerment approach to health education, Israel (1994) identified a number of limitations and barriers to this approach. Firstly, situations where community members’ past experiences and normative beliefs result in feelings that they do not have influence within the system (powerlessness, quiescence) and hence, they may feel that getting involved in an empowerment intervention would not be worthwhile. Secondly, differences in, for example, social class, race, ethnicity, that often exist between community members and health educators that may impede trust, communication, and collaborative work. Thirdly, role-related tensions and differences that may arise between community members and health educators around the issues of values and interests, resources and skills, control, political realities, and rewards. Fourthly, difficulty in assessing/measuring community empowerment and being able to show that change has occurred. Fifthly, the health education profession does not widely understand and value this Approach. Next, risks involved with and potential resistance encountered when challenging the status quo, for the individual, organizations, and community as well as the health educator. Seventhly, the short time-frame expectations of some health educators, their employers, and community members are inconsistent with the sustained effort that this approach requires in terms of long-time commitment of financial and personal resources. Finally, the collection and analysis of extensive amounts of both qualitative and quantitative data to be used for action as well as evaluation purposes may be perceived as slowing down the process.

Inspire of these barriers, community development is still relevant to Public Health Practitioners. Epidemiological, sociological, and psychological evidence of the relationship between influence, control, and health, provide a rationale for a community development approach to health education (Israel, 1994). For example, studies show an association between powerlessness (or similarly, learned helplessness, alienation, exploitation) and mental and physical health status (Israel, 1994).

The challenges posed by community development approach also extend to the wider arena of state level. The demand on government and competition for resources by professionals is a major obstacle. Similarly, Inter-professional distrust and reluctance to share information also remains a major obstacle. The way in which governments fund departments can be an obstacle to collaboration (Baum, 1993). It is therefore argued that Stability of an organisation and its staff is important for interagency agreements and establishing trust (Walker et al. 2000). Walker (2002) further argued that Competition for resources can affect trust and intergroup conflict can occur when there is a lack of adversaries. However, insecurity brought on by political and economic uncertainty can facilitate political coalitions (Weisner, 1983).

Overcoming the barriers

Overcoming the barriers will require a concerted effort from communities, concerned organisations and government. The Proceedings of 2008 the Conference on Social Inclusion for New and Emerging Communities, outline some of the areas that need urgent interventions are discussed below.

Racism and discrimination

Identified as a major area of concern, combating discrimination requires coordinated and targeted social inclusion and human right measures. The focus should not be limited to what occurs in a social context (e.g. schoolyard, public places etc.) but also the systemic racism that supports discrimination, the perpetuation of racial stereotypes, and institutional inclusion e.g. within the justice system, the employment sector and in the blocks to the recognition of overseas qualifications and experience as well as the registration and utilization of these.

Women and safety

Women should have the right to feel safe in their homes as well as the broader community, to access culturally appropriate services for themselves and their families (e.g. health, childcare, education etc ), to learn English without it compromising their chances at finding a job and to undertake training that prepares them for work and improve their employment potential.

Empowering young people

The voices of the diversity of young people rather than a token representative from new and emerging communities must be listened to and give strong credence in the advance of a national or state framework for social inclusion. Supporting the empowerment and participation of young people as future citizens and leaders of Australia will serve the country culturally, socially and economically.

Base on the above discussion in the case of challenges to MRCSA operations, solutions to barriers could be summarized therein; Barriers can be overcome through integrated structures, developing responsibility – within structures

Support of local leaders, developing leadership skills for negotiation and collaboration. Enhancing Regional networks/structures, established processes and relationships are important for collaboration.


From the case studies, it was found that the Migrant Resource Centre of South Australia (MRCSA) utilize community mobilization approaches to improve equity of services, reduce institutional barriers within the society, enhance participation in new and emerging communities, strengthen civil society associations and create healthy social policies. The programs demonstrated that opportunities for community ‘voices’ to be heard had been increased and this had raised community capacity to maximise their needs and create change.

This study also found that empowerment can have a positive impact on participants’ self-efficacy, self-esteem, sense of community and sense of control and, in some cases, empowerment can increase individuals’ knowledge and awareness and lead to behaviour change. These findings were particularly apparent on youth empowerment approaches and those programmes concerning young women.


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