Grassroots community leaders as a community of practice
Dillon, Michael David
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Often people have a desire to improve their communities through various community change initiatives, but lack the experience or aptitude for success. Community leadership institutes offer training and hands-on experience alongside community change initiatives. This case study details an action research (AR) project that involved a grassroots neighborhood leadership alumni association in the Southeastern United States. The purpose of the study was to investigate how a community leadership group learns to plan and take action on community problems. The study was guided by four research questions, which were: (1) What types of learning are taking place with the alumni as they make efforts to solve problems in the community? (2) What are the alumni learning through their leadership efforts in the community? (3) To what extent are the alumni operating as a community of practice (CoP)? and (4) In what ways did the relative power of the researcher and the community stakeholders influence this AR project? Qualitative research methods were employed over a period of seventeen months, in the form of thirteen semi-structured interviews and four observations of leadership training. The findings indicate strong elements of experiential learning, formal training, past experience, and social learning. The alumni showed moderate indications of behaving as a community of practice (CoP). Eleven interventions consisted of short term strategic positioning goals, medium range goals aimed at developing operational and tactical strategies, and a long term goal of regular organizational assessments. Although an unexpected dissolution of the alumni association’s relationship with the institute slowed progress, the result of the AR case is a community leadership alumni association poised to move forward as a CoP despite disruptive change. There are four conclusions of the case, which are (1) Learning takes place as a rhizomatic network of learning types including but not limited to experiential learning, formal training, past experience, and social learning, (2) Through community leadership, adults learn functional skills, relationship skills, and gain personal insights, (3) Disruptive change can impact a COP’s definition of community, purview, and organizational practices, and (4) The entwined relationship between actions and power defined the AR process.