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Transforming communities one small step at a time

Professor Pennie Foster Fishman

12 July 2016

Asking critical questions of the right people at all levels of a community and helping them to take action can create the small, immediate wins that eventually lead to transformational systems change, a US expert said.

Professor Pennie Foster-Fishman, an expert in community level systems change from the Department of Psychology at Michigan State University, said constantly defining the small steps that could lead to greater gains could shift the context of people’s day to day life and improve outcomes.

For example, conversations with families in one community had identified that most young people were not receiving mental health support due to an onerous assessment process. The simple solution – to reduce the number of steps from five to two – led to substantially more people accessing services.

Professor Foster-Fishman is the co-creator of the ABLe Change Framework, which provides a number of strategies to help communities achieve sustainable change around issues affecting children, youth and families. The Prevention Centre hosted her in July to deliver a webinar on applying the framework to community settings in Australia.

Professor Foster-Fishman said people planning interventions often ignored individuals experiencing the problem, such as the children, youth and families living in poverty.

Community partners

“If they are engaged, it is through a brief needs assessment, then the experts decide what to do with that data,” she said. “In a systems approach, these individuals are partners throughout all the phases of the work, and this way you can create innovative day to day solutions in your community that cost no money to implement.”

Professor Foster-Fishman originally trained as a clinical psychologist and worked as a case manager for people with schizophrenia, when she quickly realised that the system that was supposed to support clients was failing them.

She received her PhD in organisational/community psychology from the University of Illinois at Chicago and since the 1980s has worked with hundreds of communities to try to achieve systems change.

“Despite the fact I have partnered with some incredibly motivated individuals who worked incredibly hard to try and change the world, I could not understand why there was such a high failure rate,” she said. “It seemed the contextual focus always got in the way of good work.”

The ABLe Framework, developed with systems theory expert Erin Watson, helped shift the focus to the system itself, giving communities the tools they needed to implement change at multiple levels.

Bringing people to the table

The key was to bring different actors together in a trusted, safe space – people who had never been at the table, but who could volunteer to help achieve community change – and to ask them the critical questions that would identify roadblocks to change and opportunities to initiate quick wins.

“What we are trying to do is capture those conversations from the parking lot and make them part of the agenda,” Professor Foster-Fishman said.

One of the first communities where the ABLe Framework was implemented was Saginaw, Michigan, a community with intractable social problems, a high rate of violence, multi-generational unemployment, substance abuse and crime. Every organisation serving the community was overwhelmed, and a historic mistrust had developed between them.

As a result of Professor Foster-Fishman’s work, Saginaw is now identified as an exemplar model in the state for cross-sector communication. It has introduced shared protocols, co- location of staff and formal collaboration across agencies, and has significantly improved access to services for children, youth and families.

– By Helen Signy, Senior Communications Officer