The Importance of the Gatekeeper

The final step in cultural shifting revolves around the gatekeeper.  The only way new people, ideas, or products can successfully enter an existing community is when they are introduced and endorsed by a viable gatekeeper.  A gatekeeper is an indigenous member of the community who has either formal or informal influence with the culture.  These gatekeepers can be formally elected or selected leaders, or they might be one of the members who everyone can count on to get things done.  

These gatekeepers are powerful because they transition their influence to the person, idea, or product they are endorsing or rejecting.  This transition of influence is the first step to the inclusion of the new thing into the culture.  The mere fact that the gatekeeper likes or dislikes the idea is enough to sway other members to his or her side.  Remember, 60% of the membership of any community is usually neutral (or slightly on the negative side) on issues.  The gatekeeper uses his or her power and influence to persuade others to follow his or her lead.  The assertive gatekeeper will readily offer his or her opinion; the unassertive gatekeeper usually must be asked.

To effectively shift a culture to accept something new requires that the change agent identify and then enlist a gatekeeper to facilitate the passage.  This is simple yet complex in how it plays out.  On the one side we know that gatekeepers are a part of any culture or community.  We know that 20% of these gatekeepers are positive people interested in taking risks to promote things they feel good about.  We know that when the gatekeeper endorses a person, idea, or product, other members observe this and open their thinking to the same.  We also know that the more enthusiastic the gatekeeper is to the new item, the more apt others are to do the same.  All of this makes sense when we think about culture and community. If you want to bring a shift in cultural perspective, the endorsement and support of a gatekeeper is absolutely essential.  To this end, then, the ability to identify and then ask for gatekeeper assistance without being perceived as attempting to meddle or influence is a true art in changing culture. This may play out differently for people than for ideas or products.

In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell reflects on the kinds of people necessary to move something from one level to another.   The movement of ideas, products, or even people ultimately has a tipping point.  Gladwell looked to understand how this might work.  In his book he describes three types of people who move ideas, people, or products into the mainstream.  He calls these folks “connectors, mavens, and salesmen.”  

  • The “connectors” are the people with broad circles and those who can influence a lot of these people.  These connectors are unique because their circles extend beyond the usual parochial boundaries.
  • The “mavens” are people who have a deep level of information and who are always looking to share this information with others.  A key thing about mavens is that they get nothing for their information.  They share important and useful things because they enjoy helping people.
  • The “salesmen” are passionate purveyors of ideas, products, or people.  Salesmen may not necessarily have deep relationships, but they have the opportunity to share things. 

A gatekeeper is a person with one, two, or all three of these qualities.  Gatekeepers are the key to cultural shifting by promoting and rejecting things that push the community to a new level.  The way they influence the culture can be either positive, when they support and endorse the new person, idea, or product; or negative, when they oppose or work against the new person, idea, or product.

    Over the years anthropologists have attempted to examine what type of people lead to social change and cultural shifting.  As new things help to develop or enhance the existing culture, the elements of positive gatekeepers become important to understand.  The theory behind this is called social influence theory. This theory teaches us the following facts about gatekeepers:

  • They tend to be positive people.  They genuinely like people and look for the good in everyone they meet.
  • They are social risk takers.  They reach out to the underdog and are willing to take cultural flack if need be.
  • They reach out to new things, and they are curious and interested in why, how, and why not.
  • They tend to be younger people and not so caught up in dogma.
  • More often than not, they tend to be women.  Men are usually more conservative and they become more easily set in their ways.
  • They are highly social and tend to be good mixers.
  • They tend to have respected influence with their community.

Positive gatekeepers are essential for the diffusion of new ideas, products, or people to penetrate into an existing community. The positive gatekeeper who steps forward to introduce or to endorse something new is critical to helping a new person in becoming a valued and respected member of a new group. 

The 4-Step Community Building Process: Step 3 Understand the Elements of Culture

Step 3: Understand the Elements of Culture

All communities have key ingredients that make the community a community: These include common rituals, patterns of behavior, and, often, jargon.  As we look at Step 3 in the process of making change, these elements of culture become critical to this thesis.  That is, once a person has expressed an interest in looking further into something that excites him or her and discovers that a culture exists, the next logical step is to understand and then carry out the actions of the culture in an effort to join.  When the actions of culture get defined in the following four ways it gives the newcomer clear things to consider in joining.  The more one understands what the community does that is common, how its members move about in accomplishing those things, what words and phrases are used to communicate their actions, and the history that bonds its members, the more easily the understanding will become assimilated into the fold.

For cultural shifting with people, this process is best done by observing the community in action and being clear about your observations.  These observations will help you to be able to clearly consider the actions you will need to do to be more easily included into the community.  The sooner you come to know the rituals, patterns, jargon, and memory of the community, the quicker your passage.

In cases where you are considering the inclusion of people you work for or care about, the process is the same.  That is, the observation and analysis of the rituals, patterns, jargon, and memory of the culture will help you gather the information to pass on to the individual you are helping.  In many ways this is what we do with our children.  Once we locate a possible venue for them, we gather as much information as we can to see how other members behave, move about, and talk. 

In situations where new ideas or products are being considered, Step 3 is adjusted.  The elements of the culture are important, but they must be framed around how the idea or product might influence or impact the rituals, patterns, jargon, or memory of the culture.  Indeed, new ideas or products will always change or adjust the rituals, patterns, jargon, and memory of the community.  These influences must be identified and understood so as to offset challenges by the negative gatekeepers.  For example, if a new computer methodology is being introduced to a group and will influence how the group does its business, the change agent needs to know this and be ready to prepare members for these changes.

To this extent, with ideas or products the change agents must do a probability analysis of impact on rituals, patterns, jargon, and memory of the culture.  They need to remember that most people will be somewhat resistant to this new idea or product.  The sooner they can focus on the impact and prepare the group for change, the easier the new idea or product will be diffused.

Either way, for people, ideas, or products, understanding the elements of culture becomes a critical piece to the process of Interdependence.  The easiest way to gather this information is to observe the culture firsthand.  In this observation, the change agent wants to be open, receptive, and highly observant of the cultural nuances.  He or she needs to make mental notes and, at times, formal notes if the culture is complex.

If observation is impossible, another way to gather information is to ask others.  This type of interviewing will glean important information and perspectives from people who have had previous experiences with the culture.  These leads can be invaluable.  Be cautious, however, of the possibility of bias or bad information.  Sometimes the informant may have an ax to grind or may be suspicious of your questions and intentionally skew the information he or she gives.

A third method for learning the elements of community is to read.  Often information for prospective members is easily at hand.  As with most written information, it is usually simple and abbreviated.  Sometimes this abbreviation can be a problem as nuances are left out.  Successful  change agents will try to use all three methods.  They ask, observe, and read as much as they can about the community.  Usually if you do these three things, you will not go wrong.

The 4-Step Community Building Process: Step 2 Find the Venue

Step 2: Find the Venue or Connection Point

Once the change agent has identified the positive capacities for inclusion or incorporation, the next critical step is to find the place that the person, idea, or product will relate.  Quite simply, finding the setting where the person, idea, or product might be accepted sets the stage for inclusion and cultural shifting. 

By “venue” or “connection point,” we are referring to the viable marketplace for the person, idea, or product.  With ideas or products the change agent can think in the conventional framework of a marketplace.  That is, if you have developed a product that is best suited for accountants, your potential marketplace would be with the fiscal offices of a corporation or with an accounting firm.  These or similar marketplaces offer the best possibility that your product will be understood and, hopefully, purchased.

With people, the concepts of venue and connection point have equal importance.  If you are looking to find a framework of new friends, you have a much better chance of connection if you take a hobby, passion, or capacity and join up with others who share that same passion.  A good example is the efforts we make with our children when we attempt to broaden their horizon. 

In a more formal way, this step works with agencies that attempt to connect people back to community.  One example from our agency is the story of David.  Al first met David while working years ago at our local county home for the aged.  One of our first efforts was to help David begin to meet people and make new friends.  Using the capacity model portrayed in step 1, we identified a number of things David enjoyed or had an interest in.  One of these passions for David was oldies music.  While at the facility, David listened regularly to oldies music on the radio.  After he moved into his own apartment, we identified an oldies club not far from where he lived.  This venue offered a good starting point for David because he had a natural affinity for the same common theme, which attracted others together.

The secret to step 2 is to find the appropriate venue that matches the interest or positive points of the individual.  In many cases, this is anthropological work.  We know that people gather for all kinds of reasons, but the most powerful reason is to celebrate that which they share.  Finding the matching community for the interest is critical to meeting new friends and, possibly, changing the culture.  In David’s example, finding the oldies club was a direct match to his interest in oldies.  Often we have to look closely, but the process accelerates by asking people who might know.  In David’s situation, we called the local oldies radio station to inquire.  The resources are out there; we just have to find them.    

One powerful strategy in Step 2 is found with the website  Some of you reading this book might be familiar with this social networking website, but, if not, it offers a wonderful and easy way to find a community-based venue that matches the interest.  When you log onto, you will first be prompted to identify what country you want to search.  As you know, the Internet has created a “global community,” and so there are meetup groups all over the world.  Once you identify the country, you are prompted to identify a postal or zip code.  This allows the meetup search engine to hone directly into your community.

Last, you then have a search bar to enter in a “keyword” that identifies your interest, passion, or affinity.  When you hit the “enter” button, the search engine will display every club, group, or association that is registered with meetup in a geographical order starting with those groups closest to your zip or postal code. If this is not enough, the listings of groups are further developed with information about the groups’ patterns and expectations, and meetup even identifies some club members and offers their email addresses so you can connect electronically.

Now, one caution about step 2 must be addressed when applying the steps of cultural shifting to people, especially newcomers who have been excluded.  The existing members of community may not see or understand the relevance for people who have been traditionally excluded.  For example, people with disabilities have been historically separated from typical populations.  Given this historic sense of congregation, the natural tendency, even for professionals in human services, is to keep these same people congregated.  That is, if we discover in a capacity exploration from step 1, that our friend David loves the oldies, a natural propensity might be to see if there are other people with disabilities who like the oldies and then put them together.  How many times do you see groups of people with disabilities doing the same thing together?  This phenomenon is evident in our stadiums or theaters that have “handicap sections” where all folks with disabilities are herded to watch the game or show.

Even when we find the appropriate natural community venue, the energy to congregate people might unfold.  An experience a few years back drove this home for us.  CLASS was assisting a friend to connect in the community.  Using step 1, we discovered that Jim had an interest in swimming.  To build on this we went to step 2 and explored Jim’s community to find a swimming venue.  We decided on the local YMCA near Jim’s home.  When Jim and Al went to the YMCA to get him a membership and find out more about the swimming options, the membership director pulled Al aside.  Using a soft voice so that Jim wouldn’t hear, he told Al that he could arrange for the agency to have the pool all to itself every other Tuesday evening.  This way we could bring all the handicapped people we like and they could swim together.  Even the YMCA membership director thought about people with disabilities in a congregative manner.

The bold fact of all these experiences is that people gather.  They gather for all kinds of reasons and interests.  For every capacity or passion there is a place that people gather to celebrate these passions.  Once we get over our habits of segregation and congregation we can come to see that these places are ones that offer a wonderful starting point to culture.  In these gathering places we can find the key to cultural shifting and the dispensing of social capital and currency.

The 4-Step Community Building Process: Step 1 Find the Passion

Step 1: Find the Passion or Point of Connection

Finding the key points of strength and passion is the first step to cultural shifting.  To build a strong bridge we must have a solid foundation to ensure the bridge will be safe for passage. The passage of people, products, or ideas into culture requires the same strength.  To this end we must identify all that is strong or good about that which we hope to shift the culture around.

For people, this means we look for the following elements in them:

  • Passions
  • Capacities
  • Interests
  • Hopes
  • Dreams
  • Skills
  • Talents
  • Fantasies
  • Propensities
  • Avocations
  • Hobbies
  • Strengths

When we find any or all of these things in people it helps us in two ways in supporting them.  One is that the identified passion or skill helps uplift the person.  In fact, it is a type of empowerment.  What we mean here is that when a passion is identified in a person, the acknowledgement of this passion is extremely strengthening.  People like to talk about that which they enjoy, and this leads to empowerment.  Think about it—empowerment is a feeling we get when we are relevant and respected.  When we identify a person’s skills, this naturally makes him or her feel good.

Contrast this with a focus on people’s problems or deficiencies.  When you identify problems, especially those that are difficult to address or erase, you are actually disempowering.  You never feel good about the things you cannot do or the things you do not do well. 

This negative perspective, however, is exactly the way our system deals with difference or disability.  Think about it. When a person with a disability is referred to a human service agency, the first thing that happens is a formal assessment of the person’s problems.  These assessments are performed with detailed tests and reports.  Once the problems are identified and labeled, an individualized program plan (IPP) is developed, and most often the effort is to fix the person’s problem. 

This deficiency model creates a negative slant and skews the process. It causes people to think negatively and critically about their reality.   Further, serious frustration can occur if the problem cannot really be fixed.  In many ways this is not the route to empowerment.  In fact, focusing on problems continues to bait negativity and it sets the tone for a poor self-image.

The capacity process suggests the exact opposite.  By looking for those things that are positive and strength oriented, we can help people build on those capacities they already have and promote their relevancy to the community.  The same is true with products or ideas.  When we look for and find the positive elements of ideas or products, we signal the initial points of connection of these things to the greater community.  Obviously, when we itemize the good points of an idea we are more apt to get others to endorse or embrace that idea.  The same is true with products.  That is why advertisers stress the positive aspects of their products.  As simple as this seems, the positive factors are the reason you buy the product.

The following experience highlights this notion.  A number of years ago one of the authors attended a three-day gathering with people from all over the country.  When the presenter came into the room, he asked everyone to take out a sheet of paper.  He asked everyone to write the word “positives” on the top of the page and to privately identify as many good things about themselves as they could.  Folks looked around at each other and then started in on the task.  Within five minutes the presenter got their attention and asked them to again take out another sheet of paper.  This time he told them to write the word “negatives” on the top and fill in as many problems, deficits, or struggles they have.  Again, people got right into the task.  At this point the presenter asked for a volunteer to illustrate some points.  As is typical, most folks looked away, but the presenter made eye contact with Al.  “Sir, please stand up and pass your positive list to the person to your right,” he said.  Being the good volunteer, Al complied with the request and passed his “positive” list to the person to his right.  To this person he did not know, the presenter said, “Please introduce this man to your left, using his list as a guide.”  This person stood up and began to introduce Al by referring to the good things he had written about himself.  Al smiled sheepishly and looked around at these unknown people as he was being introduced.  Shaking his head affirmatively, the presenter then looked back at Al and asked that he now pass the “negative” list to the person to his left.  Al paused and then hesitantly handed his second list to the person.  Again, an introduction occurred by a stranger, this time using Al’s “negative” items.  Al did not know these people and as they came to know him through his problems and struggles he felt embarrassed and ashamed. Even as a conference activity, when you are identified with negative items, it hurts.

In many cases people know their passions and interests, and they are quick to tell you if your bent is toward looking for the positives.  With other folks you have to dig.  In the work we do with our agency, we often meet folks who have been so sheltered or inexperienced that they do not readily display their passions.  Some people have been so devalued that they cannot seem to find their passions at all.  In these types of situations we must give the time and space necessary for people to identify those points of connections.  This only happens when people feel valued and respected.  It also happens when we welcome and include those who have a history with the person to help uncover the passions.  Families or other relations have been invaluable for the capacity-building work we do in Pittsburgh.

Investing in Social Capital

If there is a single dimension that must be repeated and underscored with Interdependence, it is that of relationships.  Our daily contacts with others are what make our lives rich.  Just think of your typical day—the people you touch, the people who touch you.  It boggles the mind.  Yet without them, how lonely life would be.    

However, our experience suggests that most people with disabilities have deep social distance from typical, freely-given relationships.  We know too many people who only relate with human service professionals who are paid to be with them.  Indeed, in a recent project completed by the Interdependence Network, a coalition of human service agencies interested in social change, this is exactly what was found.  After interviewing more than 200 people with disabilities supported at human service agencies across North America and Canada, the group found that most people with disabilities spend most of their free time socializing and engaging in activities with staff.[i]  This is not an indictment of the thousands of caring direct care staff, but a healthy, happy life includes multiple types of relationships.  Certainly there is a role for staff to play, but we do not think the role is “best friend.”

Often, members of the community are under the impression that people with disabilities are just fine in their own world.  Further, as this concept develops, human service workers may be perpetuating the myth.  To this point, we have had professionals boldly tell us, “Come on, do you believe that there are typical people who would choose to be a friend to a person with a severe disability?”

It is amazing that people with this notion are in human services.  Can you imagine the audacity and baggage of this statement?  We need to reflect and ask what creates the real problem in this relationship issue.  If we question the viability of people who have a disability, then WE ARE PART OF THE PROBLEM!  If we perceive that the key to the relationship problem is found in needing to teach people with disabilities relationship skills, then we need to ask ourselves to reassess.  Many people who have disabilities may never learn the “appropriate skills” of relationship building, and should this be, then, an end to their community quest?  We think not.

We need to pause here and reflect further on this issue of relationships for people with and without disabilities.  Recognize that most people with disabilities are often caught up in a homogeneous world where they are surrounded by other people with disabilities.  Because most friendships need the fuel of proximity and because people with disabilities are thrust upon each other in disability-specific programs and environments, relationships between people with disabilities abound.   These relationships seem normal, and often support people promote them and think they are appropriate or, worse, “cute.”

Not only can this be demeaning, but it can be atypical in the promotion of relationships.  Now, it is true that most of us develop relationships from a basic sense of homogeneity.  You probably grew up in a town where most of your neighbors and classmates were socioeconomically and culturally similar.  As you aged, your relationship experiences probably diversified a bit.  To this extent, you started to meet and connect with people who had differences.  Think about when you went off to college or the military and the myriad of different people you met.

As these experiences mature, however, diversity brings an interesting enrichment to our lives.  That is, as we meet and relate to different people, in an unconscious way, we start to place ourselves in a broader scheme of life.  This type of comparison allows us to stretch our awareness of self and life.  To this extent, diversity is the stage of growth.

Think now about people who have no actual chance to relate to different people and who are constantly in the company of those exactly like them.  What a narrow and limited perspective.  Yet in many regards, this is exactly the world we have created for people with disabilities.  

At CLASS in Pittsburgh, a four-step process is used as the foundation for supporting community engagement:

Step 1: Find the Passion or Point of Connection

Step 2: Find the Venue or Connection Point

Step 3: Understand the Elements of Culture

Step 4: Find or Enlist the Gatekeeper

This basic model is used by all our programs in some fashion, from our Skill Building Programs to our kids’ programs. Success in the community starts with getting involved. The approach promotes diversity in relationship opportunities.  To this extent, people with disabilities and those without disabilities are encouraged to connect.  Indeed, the more exposure people with disabilities have to people without disabilities, the quicker the realization of Interdependence and the broader we become as a society. 

Given the impact of a broader perspective, next month's posts will look at each of these steps more closely. 


[i].  Dimakos, Kamentsy, et. al. Somewhere to Live, Something to do and Someone to Love:  Measuring Social Capital Among People with Disabilities. In Press 

The Other Side of Inclusion

"I do not give a fig about simplicity on this side of complexity; but I would give my arm for simplicity on the other side of complexity"  -   Oliver Wendell Holmes

I remember reading this quote years ago and pondering its impact.  Justice Holmes wrote this in contemplation of the law.  He relished the simple notion of the US legal system, innocent, until proven guilty.  Yet in law today, as in Justice Holmes day, is decidedly complex.  Many an innocent person, has been convicted of wrongdoing.  Indeed, we know today that the "Innocence Project," an effort to use DNA evidence, has freed over 100 previously convicted people in the US who were thought to be guilty.

Justice Holmes knew that even an accusation in many situations, was tantamount to being convicted.  He knew how complex the law is, and how difficult it is to get on the simple side of complexity.

With all due respect to Justice Holmes, I believe the same adage can apply in the field of human services.  There are hundreds of thousands of people that are not active, engaged, or included in the general community.  These people include persons with disabilities, elderly folks, individuals encased in poverty, and people who are experiencing mental health issues.  The simple notion for these people is that they would love to be involved, included, or active in community, yet, they are caught in a huge web of complexity.  This complexity is tied to their condition, situation, eccentricity, or perceived problem.  In essence, they are thought to have a highly complex problem or issue.

As I have pondered this phenomenon in my 40 plus years as an advocate in the disability arena, I can't help not thinking about Justice Holmes admonition.  How do we get to the simple notion of community inclusion, when we are confronted with these huge complexities of disability, age, or poverty?  And then it hit me.  We are caught in a "micro" web of analysis, and this complexity of condition has blinded us to the simple notion of community engagement.  Allow me to explain.


The Micro Perspective

All people want simple things.  They want to be able to get a job to earn money, they want to do meaningful things with their time, they want to live around people they like, they want to be able to get around and engage in the community, and they want to build relationships.

Yet, when people begin to experience struggles, or demands that can be complex, like the advent of a disability, or challenges brought on by aging, or economic struggles that can occur in the natural rhythms of life, these people get thrown (referred) into a complex web of actions.  That is, often these people enter systems, or agencies that are hell bent on helping them, but look at their situation through the lens of their disability or infirmity. 

This micro interpretation has good intentions, but much like the complex legal system, it can lose sight of the simple goals, and begin to push the person to change, adjust, or fix their problem so they can fit in to a perceived community norm.  As noble as it is, the micro perspective can become a "black hole" that encases the "client" and puts demands on them that can be unrealistic, or impossible.

In my career as an advocate, I bought this paradigm and began to build programs and services that attempted to change or fix people with disabilities so they could fit into the greater community.  Yet, at the end of the day, people we supported remained disconnected and socially isolated.  In some twisted way, we projected these failures on the "client."  We thought that they were just not motivated, or able to do the things they need to be included, or worse, we began to create alternative solutions.  We developed group homes, sheltered workshops, special education classes, special recreation and initiated a "dualistic society."  In essence, we gave up on the simple notion of community.


A Macro Perspective

Yet, if we can awaken as advocates, and start to think about the other side of the inclusion agenda, we might find more answers to the simple notion of community.  That is, if you can not change, fix, or ameliorate a challenging condition, is this the end of the story?  I think not.  Indeed, there is an entirely new playing field, full of possibilities and opportunities if we just begin to look at the other side of the challenge and take a macro approach.

This perspective suggests that it is not our differences that divide us, but our judgments about these differences.  That is, once our judgments expand, then the challenge of inclusion lessens.  Think about it.  You may have had a particular judgment about something, bore out of ignorance, or misunderstanding.  But once you became more closely introduced to a situation, your judgment might have changed.  Allow me a story here.

A number of years ago, I had a colleague who was deeply homophobic.  He was anti-gay, and always using slurs and degrading references.  Worse, he even used the Bible to endorse his views using the Book of Leviticus to justify his judgments.  Time marched on, and he came to learn that one of his sons was gay.  This was a telling, and taxing experience for him.  As adamant as he was with his position, the closeness of family began to chip away at his judgments.  With the social influence of his family and friends he began to change his judgments and soon, became an outspoken advocate for the inclusion of all people.  Indeed, he even began to re-read the Bible, and for every negative interpretation he found that could relate to homosexuality, he found 10 more references about loving your neighbor, and opening your heart to all people.

Now this story has an interesting relevance to a macro perspective.  That is, my friend's initial judgments were that gay folks were the problem.  If only these people could wake up and change their orientation, then all would be well.  This is the epitome of the micro perspective.  Identify and then change the gay individuals problem.

Yet, in a macro interpretation, the real problem was the judgment of my friend.  And in the end, the change was there.  Once he became closely connected to what he perceived as the problem, he began to change.  There are important lessons for us in this story.

A macro agenda redefines the problem; it begins to re-interpret what normal might be and has its roots in culture change.  It is an anthropological perspective, not a clinical or therapeutic one.

Now this notion of culture change or community change is not a "silver bullet" or panacea.  It is not some easy quick fix.  One just needs to look at macro, community history of any social movement to understand how challenging and tedious it can be.

Still, in the scheme of things, this macro agenda offers so much more possibility to us, than the micro, "change the person" approach.



And so Justice Holmes was right after all.  Any thinking human service advocate would do well to look at the opposite side of their community agenda.  If we want to help people do meaningful things and get jobs, what are the judgments of the employers; if we want people to be engaged in the community, what are the judgments of the "typical" folks in those communities?  This thinking reframes the target.  How can we get the "typical" person in the community to change their perspective on disability, or aging, or any other situation that disconnects people?

There is much more that can and should be said about macro change, but it is clear to me now, the first step in this macro agenda, begins with the development of "social capital" or the relationships in a persons life.  That is, rather than segregating people into programmatic systems, how can we develop opportunities for disconnected folks to build social capital in the greater community.


Al Condeluci 

Lessons learned from the October 25 Symposium in Pittsburgh


The challenge of self-determination, consumer satisfaction and community inclusion is front and center with most human service organizations today.  Individuals and organizations have realized that the traditional public and private methodologies have not led way to the inclusive opportunities that are wanted.  Consequently, new approaches must be sought and developed.

Interdependence is a concept that reframes the structure around human services.  It is an approach that focuses on assets and looks to build partnerships and consensus.  It suggests that the realities that surround people who use human services are often not the issues that services must be framed around.  Rather, Interdependence appeals more to the realities of relationships and the basics of human values that we all crave as members of groups within our greater culture.

The concept of Interdependence uses a macro perspective that demands we understand culture, community and social capital.  Using the metaphor of a bridge, we can better understand why people with differences remain in separate, offset places.  Although a person’s difference might separate them from others, it is the passions, capacities and similarities of people that can create the foundation to build the bridge back to community.  On the other side of this bridge is the community, with all of its customs, rituals and structure.

In order to be successful, we must look at community and how relationships are built.  We define community as a “network of different people, who come together regularly, for something in common.”  This definition helps us understand that building relationships is a process and as support people we can facilitate this process.  The 4 key steps in the process are:

  1. Identify the passions, interests, hobbies, avocations of the person. (Find their similarity)
  2. Find a community or group that meets around the same commonality you found in the person you support. (explore
  3. Study, observe or discover the key behaviors that are expected in this group. (So you might coach or prepare the person for what is expected)
  4. Find a “gatekeeper” or influential member already in the group and ask them to introduce your client to the others. (so that their value spreads to your client)

It is important to appreciate the influence of these four steps.  They create the process necessary for people to begin to develop social capital.  The more time people spend and the more similarity they exchange, the greater the chances that a relationship will unfold.

The 4 steps.jpg

More forward thinking individuals and groups are beginning to embrace and utilize the component parts of Interdependence to not only approach human service needs, but to build the very fabric of their communities.  Such was the activity recently supported by the Milbank Foundation for Rehabilitation at the Interdependence Network Symposium in Pittsburgh on October 25, 2013.

Al Condeluci speaking the crowd at the october 25 symposium in Pittsburgh


Should Do

The first task was to become clear on what we should (vision building) do individually and collectively to build opportunities for all people  to be more active in the community.  Using an interactive, nominal process the groups identified many strategies that they should do:

1.     Ask individuals what they want (assess needs on individual and community level)

2.     Start from the beginning to focus staff efforts toward building social capital (language of job description, hiring, training, etc.)

3.     Resource allocation (focus mission and reflect social capital (government funding and board dialogue)

4.     Connect with churches, charities, and other existing infrastructure to continue community-wide dialogue(share stories and process)

5.     Engaging in community mapping (understanding “local” and matching interests)

6.     Brainstorm better transportation options (getting people where they need and want to be)

7.     Model and bridge community engagement and relationship-building

8.     Create and find work opportunities people want to do, not just what “we” think they should do

9.     Educational curriculum relevant to the individuals

10.  Network with other agencies

11.  Putting energy into on-line vehicles(i.e. social media) to grow and support all people with disabilities in communities of faith and inclusion

12.  Be an ambassador of and for people by gathering and circulating empowering information that connects the community

13.  Initiate weekly “community connection conversation party” (getting to know who lives in the neighborhood, what the needs are, where the resources are, etc.)

14.  Discard acronyms

15.  Engaging the business community (social capital in the workplace)  through education, reaching out, catalyzing opportunities for meaningful employment, etc.

16.  Better educate people around socially connecting patterns, norms, actions, and ways to feel and experience belonging (teach the hidden “rules” of belonging I and to a community)

17.  Run a cost/benefit analysis of accessible transformation vs. isolation

18.  Tap into the power of storytelling

19.  Promotion of individuals with disabilities serving on boards, community action groups, etc.

20.  Eliminate site-based services, and shift paradigm from “disability” service to people service

21.  Adapting building / redesign of facilities promoting the arts to become more accessible and inviting to our populations

22.  Maximize inclusive options of places to live

23.  Acknowledge and discuss issues as an organization

24.  Eliminate the “us” vs. “them” language and mentality

25.  Increase dialogue/interactions across staff/participants

26.  Increase time/opportunities to meet/plan with individuals and family to discuss possible community connections (done with intention)

27.  Introduce concepts of social capital from the ground up (state government)

28.  Educate the greater community on inclusion and social capital as well as the smaller community we are connected with

29.  Asking the people we support about relationships

30.  Find ways to keep people safe in the community (including safety)

31.  Imbedding social capital into government funding RFP’s

32.  Help providers and family members understand, value and embrace relational safety as opposed to system safety

33.  Define our compass point, and measure our success

34.  Train staff to be community connectors

35.  Peer-run education, support groups with opportunities, consultation, and staff (seeing people as individuals rather than consumers)

36.  Create opportunities to enhance and build already existing relationships

37.  Stop focusing on group activities

38.  Provide resources (booklet, Internet, etc.) to share with teams to ensure it is accurate and current

39.  Educate the community on the integration and inclusion (campaign)

40.  Continue to engage people beyond their presenting “need” to help them create strategies to build their social capital

41.  Provide transportation into the community

42.  Living support including support in the areas of living, learning, socializing, and working

43.  Participants in every community activity/event/board/organization

44.  Change the universal symbol for disability

45.  Financial assistance for community events

46.  Open Universities for persons with disabilities


Could Do

The next step was to reconvene and the same work groups converted their list of "shoulds" into ones they could actually do.  This conversion created a new list of "coulds".  This new list included real actions that group members think they can actually do in their daily life.

1.     Individual assessment of social capital

2.     Help non-profits to organize themselves into a symbiotic network of thought and positive action (connecting churches, charities, etc. to encourage a community-wide dialogue)

3.     Refocus staff efforts (build bridges, consumer-focused lens, recruiting, training, etc. all reflecting social capital mission and take conversation to a board / state-funding level)

a.     Engaging in community mapping (understanding what is in local communities and matching interests)

b.     Regional events and education to shift perceptions

c.     Model and bridge community engagement and  relationships-building skills

d.     Create and find  work opportunities people want to do, not just what “we” think they should/could do

4.     Be ambassadors of and for people by gathering and circulating information that empowers people and strengthens communities

5.     Engage the business community (social capital in the workplace) through conversation, education, and advocacy to catalyze opportunities for meaningful employment

6.     Better educate/inform people about social norms to help them feel more connected in social groups (teaching the “hidden rules” of belonging in and to a community)

7.     Turn the focus of systems toward engaging people with disabilities and enhancing their social capital to facilitate social inclusion for all

8.     Run a cost-benefit analysis of accessible transportation vs. isolation

9.     Transportation (Information, access, spontaneous, on-call, staffing)

10.  Inclusive recreation with in-place adaptations

11.  Promotion of individuals with disabilities serving on boards, community action groups, etc.

12.  Education on integration/inclusion/increasing comfort level of all individuals

13.  Speak up (acknowledge and discuss collaboration amongst colleagues)

14.  Educate stakeholders and community

15.  Ask participants about their interests

16.  Plan with intention of building relationships

17.  Find ways to keep people safe in the community

18.  Train staff on how to be community connectors

19.  Define our compass (measure outcomes)

20.  Stop focusing on group activities

21.  Be more open and engaging when out in the community


Will Do

The third step of the process was to have the same workgroups identify the top 5 items that they "will" do when they left the meeting.  The group then recorded their 5 "Wills”.

The final activity was a reconciliation of the "will do" strategies each group identified. 

1.     Ask individuals what they want (assessing social capital)

2.     Educating the community about our work and finding a way to promote our specific populations through positive means

3.     Refocus staff goals (build bridges to focus on consumers first i.e. recruitment, training, job descriptions, etc. to aim for reinvigorating social capital)

4.     Engaged community mapping (encourage colleagues and find tools to share)

5.     Network, Network, Network

6.     Transportation and facilities maximize utilization

7.     Speak up (acknowledge and discuss collaboration amongst colleagues

8.     Ask participants – interests, participation so we can plan with the  intention of building relationships

9.     Define compass (measure outcomes)

10.  Train staff on how to be community connectors

11.  Measure success of social capital building

12.  Formalize the measures (use of EHR, use of student interns, build structure to enhance focus, etc.)

13.  Define our compass in the day programs, set goals, and measure outcomes

14.  Empower individuals to self-advocate

15.  Stop focusing on group activities

16.  Conduct the social capital study in Central Pa

17.  Work to share resources, natural supports networks, and information

18.  Introduce the interdependence paradigm in the classroom

19.  Being more open and engaging when out in the community

20.  Peer-run education for community/peer-run support groups

21.  Write a book about ASD and relationships

22.  Create opportunities to enhance and build already existing relationships

23.  Regular (weekly) communication (staff, families, people supported, community organizations) related to importance of relationships

It was exciting to see the similarity and diversity of opinion on this issue.  One theme was abundantly clear, if we are to build a culture that truly finds opportunity for community inclusion, we must change some of our current behaviors. 



Change is never easy.  People and organizations have a propensity to keep the status quo, reject new ideas and continue the course, even if it does not solve the problem.  Yet to stay the same is to stagnate.

What you have just read is the fuel for change – the raw material of growth.  The strategies listed offer us a map to a new place – one that is at higher ground, further evolved.  Know, however, that the achievement of some of these solutions will not come easy.  They require a conscious and direct effort.  They also require that individuals and organizations have a warm and hospitable core. 

Either way, we must step forward to address these issues.  Rarely do people realize the opportunity we have to touch lives and, in turn, impact our culture.  How fortunate we are – yet how serious the task.  Thanks for all that you do and best of luck in continuing to build a community where each belongs.

Jeff Fromknecht & Al Condeluci