Sample plan for a community-based think tank

The following is an example of a plan for a community-based think tank initiated by an innovatively minded educational institution, grassroots activist group or community agency—or better yet, a collaborative partnership among several organizations—in a highly populated, ethnically diverse urban area such as the East Bay surrounding Oakland, California. The think tank organizers might begin by mobilizing and organizing several different small, community-based think tanks in different communities. In the lower-income, but increasingly gentrified West Oakland, there could be a “think tank” including especially long-time residents, many of whom are being forced out of their community by gentrification. In collaboration with people from the organizing partnership collaborative, they would identify the several problems that they first wish to address—to learn more about, discuss, and begin to identify some initial steps toward solutions. The think tank would come up with its own definition of the problems, but it would not be surprising if they identified such problems, as lack of affordable housing and the impact of gentrification, income inequality and employment, access to health care, and environmental injustices due to toxins in the community. In nearby Richmond, which includes a significant portion of lower-income neighborhoods, there might likely be similar problems identified, most notably pollution from nearby oil refineries, but also perhaps other issues such as street violence, or underfunded schools. Not that these issues might not well be the decided upon emphases in West Oakland, or any other East Bay neighborhood or community.

The above stated, possible problems of concern, are only for purposes of illustration. The point of a community-based think tank is not to begin with “what the problems are” without community participation, but to mobilize and organize one or several community-based “think tanks” that includes a diverse crosssection of residents. However, practically speaking, community participation may be mobilized more easily if people know that problems that they already care about can be the focus, if that’s what they decide. The think tank organizers will likely be more successful in their efforts if they identify one or two problems, based on input from community leaders, that are likely to be of concern. Then, they can solicit participation from people by stating that they will be working on solving one or two initially stated problems, and that community participants will have the option of identifying additional problems, and giving priority to those additionally identified problems, if that’s what they decide.

The process will not be a short one. To be successful, a community-based think tank must involve a “critical mass” of people who are willing and able to be engaged in ongoing deliberations and in reaching out to others in their community for their insights and viewpoints. A critical mass would probably require at least a dozen or more community participants and could easily involve a couple of dozen or more, throughout the entire process, along with perhaps five to ten people from the “organizing” groups. These numbers are not hard and fast, but estimates based on my past experience with other planning and organizing groups. Over time, experience in trying out this idea will be the best guide of what number of people to try to start with. The think tanks may likely begin with a smaller “core group,” who will then reach out to others, as part of this process of inquiry, dialogue, and engagement.

Community participants will be asked to frame issues for investigation largely out of their experience, knowledge, and sense of what’s important. In addition, organizers of the think tank could also bring up issues and ideas to others in the think tank as “food for thought.” An important role for the organizers will be to encourage equal and mutually respectful dialogue among these all-too-often unconnected groups of people. Conscious efforts should be made to nurture, multigenerational and multiethnic participation and dialogue, and to involve people who are marginalized in different, or even unanticipated ways, including besides age and race, also gender, income, sexual orientation, and able-ness, among others.

The think tank should make use of the sorts of principles of transformative action research that are being discussed in this book. To start with, participants must be valued as having the wisdom and experience to create knowledge, to identify and solve problems. They should be given support and guidance in learning how critically minded and imaginative inquiry can be down-to-earth and understandable, as well as powerful and useful. The following are highlights of some key principles to keep in mind in creating a ‘‘culture’’ of transformative action research among think tank participants. Participants should learn how to:

  • become more conscious of the processes by which they build knowledge;
  • wrestle with complexities of judging the evidence, learning that so-called “data analysis” is a rich, textured, necessary and also uncertain process of judging and weighing evidence that comes from many sources and often points in many, sometimes competing, directions;
  • discover ways of broadening their experiences, so participants aren’t limited to their previous, even though still quite important, experiences;
  • benefit from collaboration with others, whether through informal conversations, formal interviews, or reading what others have had to say;
  • communicate what they know to others, which may often include articulating broad ideas and recommendations that may have general applicability, while also sharing tangible examples and telling stories that can make abstract ideas and alternatives “as big as life”; and
  • • engage in thinking and dialogue that aim to probe beneath the suface, looking at the immediate task as well as the long-term and “bigger picture," and continually asking new questions and imagining new alternatives.

I would expect that any endeavors to develop community-based think tanks will be worthwhile in and of themselves—in generating ideas and strategies which may be useful food for thought for other community residents, professional service providers, educators, and community leaders, public officials and policy-makers. Beyond this, in experimenting with community-based think tanks, I expect that we will learn about the challenges and difficulties, as well as the promises and opportunities that come to light along the way.

As discussed in Principles and Methods of Transformative Action Research (Bilorusky, 2021), one of the best examples I’ve seen of something like a “community-based think tank” were the several “African American Health Summits” organized and conducted by the Bay Area Black United Fund (BABUF) in the early 2000s. At that time, under the leadership of their Executive Director, Dr. Woody Carter, BABUF was intently engaged in an “African American Health Initiative.” This project had many facets to it, including the four, “Health Summits” focusing on different aspects of the problem of health disparities that have been weighing heavily on African Americans. Related to this, BABUF was also training grassroots “critical mass health conductors” (named in honor of Harriet Tubman, Conductor of the Underground Railroad during slavery). The “health conductors” were engaged in educating friends, neighbors, and family members in ways to take initiative to preserve and advance their health, including strategies for preventing such chronic illnesses as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity.

The weekend-long “Health Summits” brought together hundreds of professionals and lay people—to share information, learn from and listen to one another, and develop networks and connections for follow-up actions. Each health summit had both a structure and a theme, such as mental health for example, as well as an open-ended format designed to elicit any and all ideas that any participant wanted to bring up in a workshop, topical session or informal conversations during some of the rather ample time to mingle and associate with one another. I, and a few WISR colleagues, and especially Vera Labat, MPH, had the privilege of being involved to collaborate with members of BABUF in the effort to plan and then evaluate the effectiveness of three of the four health summits. This included working together to document and record the many invaluable ideas, recommendations for actions and suggestions for further inquiry put forth by participants, be they medical doctors, public health professionals, educators, therapists, social workers, or lay people from many walks of life (See: Bay Area Black United Fund. Bay area African American Health Initiative, 2003, 2005, 2007).

This is merely one example of a very noteworthy, “community-based think tank-type” effort. It is a good one, and of course, others might well design something that would look quite different, using the principles outlined and discussed in this chapter. I do believe that trying out this idea more often, in different communities and on various issues, is long overdue.

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