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110 7 Ethical Issues in Community Organizing and Capacity Building MEREDITH MINKLER CHERI PIES CHERYL A. HYDE Fields such as public health and social work may be described as “an inescapably moral enterprise[s],” concerned as they are with determining what we as societies and communities ought to do to pursue the public’s health and well-being (Petrini 2010; Dunn 1983). These, and related social change professions are governed by codes of ethics (for example, see National Association of Social Workers (2008) and the Coalition of National Health Education Organizations (2010) that serve as primarily prescriptive guidelines for appropriate conduct. Central to these codes are core values—social justice, empowerment, participation, wellness, selfdetermination , dignity, and respect. Ethical dilemmas arise when these values come into conflict while solutions are sought to a given problem or an intervention is implemented (Harrington and Dolgoff 2008). Recognizing and resolving these dilemmas is an essential skill for practitioners, including community organizers, health educators, and capacity builders. And while there are numerous frameworks for ethical decision making, this process boils down to three essential elements: the means, the circumstances, and the ends being sought (Childress 2007). In this chapter, we present some common ethical dilemmas in community practice. Community organizer Saul Alinsky asserted that “the ends justify the means,” essentially putting a higher value on what is accomplished than on how it is accomplished (Alinsky 1972; see also chapter 4). This approach, however, presents ethical questions and also risks downplaying core values. With respect to the means, we argue that community determination and participation are critical. The active involvement of people, beginning with what they define as the needs and goals, results in communal ownership of the initiative, the development of competencies, and reduced vulnerability to outside manipulation. Because community involvement and capacity building are primary objectives, this “means” also distinguishes true community organizing from other approaches, such as consultation and outside expert–driven planning. The significant ETHICAL ISSUES 111 emphasis in organizing on fostering community determination may at first suggest that the health or social work professional as organizer does not need to engage in extensive ethical reflection; after all, many of the processes in which he or she is already involved make increased freedom of choice for the community a central goal. Yet despite these lofty goals and guiding principles, the practice of community organization is, in reality, one of the most ethically problematic arenas in which health educators, social workers, urban planners, and other practitioners function. A primary reason why community organization is fraught with ethical challenges has to do with the circumstances that inform the effort. Circumstances are essentially the political, economic, cultural, and social contexts of an organizing campaign or intervention. These circumstances can include the reasons that community mobilization is necessary in the first place. They also can refer to obstacles with which a community must contend in order to be successful. It is possible (even probable) that circumstances will conflict with one another, thus generating ethical conflicts. Social factors, such as strong community networks, that might support an organizing effort can be undermined by economic realities that result in competition for scarce resources. For example, two communitybased organizations representing communities of color with shared interests (e.g., environmental justice or violence prevention) may find themselves in competition for the same source of funding. It is incumbent upon the practitioner to, first, be able to identify circumstances relevant to the community organizing campaign or initiative and, second, work with community members so that they develop analytical skills in understanding and responding to relevant circumstances. All too often we find ourselves searching for answers to the ethical challenges we face in the hopes that by doing so, we can move ahead with plans and programs designed to help achieve an initiative’s goals. But a resolution of these dilemmas may be less important than a continuing commitment to the process of articulating them, as well as the values and assumptions that inform our practice. In the interest of real community participation and empowerment, how do we facilitate dialogue rather than direct it? How do we tease apart our own agenda from that of the community? And what happens when there are multiple, and often conflicting, community agendas? These are just a few of the questions we face, and whether and how we think about them will have critical implications for our work. This chapter explores six areas in which health educators, social workers, and other practitioners frequently experience tough ethical...


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