Community-led initiatives (CLIs) are any form of action undertaken by self-organised groups of people, often but not always living in the same geographical location, to improve their social and environmental conditions.
Use of the term community-led stresses the leadership of and within communities that take initiative to bring about the changes they wish to see. They don't just speak out against problems, they take concrete action to address them and help create a better world.
Community-led action doesn’t automatically imply a concern with issues such as sustainability and social justice, although that is often the case. The CfF wiki is specifically concerned with community-led initiatives on sustainability and climate change, supported by a defined set of values that stress caring, solidarity, cooperation, equality, inclusion and ecological integrity.
Meaning of Community-led Initiatives
The first "Status Report on Community-Led Action on Sustainability and Climate Change in Europe" describes CLIs as follows:
Community-led initiatives (CLIs) arise whenever people self-organise in the places where they live to take action on issues that concern them. These issues may range from local to global in scope, and often bridge these levels of scale. They may, for example, address local sustainability issues directly and at the same time consider them in global context, or pay attention both to the direct local impacts of climate change and its global causes and solutions. As well as being effective and important in their own right, they often inspire other people, within their home communities and elsewhere, to question and transform their ways of thinking, acting and being in the world.
CLIs, as a concept, emphasises the role of “communities” as transformative actors and drivers of societal change. However, the meaning of the term “community” is ambiguous. As in the status report, it is understood as referring to collectives of individuals in both rural and urban contexts that intentionally join together to initiate a project that serves themselves, their wider community and their natural environment. This could for example be a group of committed people from an urban neighbourhood, inhabitants of traditional village communities or workers associations.
The concept of CLIs, as used by ECOLISE, depicts a wide range of activities. At the same, several defining criteria and common principles can be identified to unify all initiatives that fall under this umbrella term. Most fundamentally, CLIs are:
- targeting the restoring of social and ecological qualities
- operating at a the local or regional scale (small-scale and place-based)
Furthermore, CLIs’ orientation ranges from adaptive approaches to transformative approaches. Adaptive CLIs aim to address specific societal challenges as a direct response to a perceived threat. Transformative CLIs take a more systemic approach, as they do not only address societal challenges, but also challenge the systemic structures and institutions that created those challenges in the first place.
Terminology and Related Concepts
Use of the term Community-led initiatives here derives from the wording in the full name of ECOLISE: the European Network for Community-Led Initiatives on Sustainability and Climate Change. Its usage here is independent from, but has some overlap with, the use of community-led as an adjective in other contexts, and in combination with other nouns such as development and action.
In the context of EU policy, the Local Development Network offers the following definition:
The term ‘community led’ is closely related to ‘public engagement’. It encapsulates practices of ‘empowerment’, ‘mutual learning and ‘consensus building’ between citizens’ groupings and public authorities as key principles of ‘bottom-up’ development for designing ‘citizen-driven’ services.
The Movement for Community-led Development (MLCD), following the Inspiring Communities Network in New Zealand, employs the following definition:
Community-led Development (CLD) is the process of working together to create and achieve locally owned visions and goals. It is a planning and development approach that’s based on a set of core principles that (at a minimum) set vision and priorities by the people who live in that geographic community, put local voices in the lead, build on local strengths (rather than focus on problems), collaborate across sectors, is intentional and adaptable, and works to achieve systemic change rather than short-term projects.
MLCD attribute the origin of the term 'community-led' to a report developed on behalf of various first nations groups by the Caledon Institute for Social Policy in Canada. Its usage in European local development dates from 2014, when the European Commission's LEADER programme was extended from its previously rural focus under the broader term Community-Led Local Development (CLLD).
Our use of the term community-led initiative here on the CfF wiki is closely related to our understanding and use of the term community. It is related, with various levels of overlap in meaning and associated values, to many synonyms for community-led used in different contexts. Some of the most important of these are as follows:
These and other adjectives are used in combination with various nouns, such as:
Understanding Community-Led Initiatives
From conceptual work undertaken in planning the 2021 Communities for Future Status Report emerged the following framework for understanding community-led initiatives, which can be used to explore key principles and other concepts. Community-led initiatives are:
Spaces for and of...
- Democratic political practice
- Environmentally and socially destructive economic systems are inherently connected with centralised and inequitable political systems capable of co-option by those who already hold wealth and power. Moving towards sustainability and social justice requires more inclusive and democratic forms of decision-making and allocation of rights over shared resources. Approaches to inclusive governance already in use by many communities of place and/or practice provide potential models for a wider democratisation of society.
- Economic pluralism
- It is increasingly evident that current economic paradigms - particularly the capitalist premise of perpetual growth in GDP - are fundamentally incompatible with sustainability, including fulfillment of existing highlevel political agreement. However, diverse and abundant alternative ideas and models now exist, which abandon theoretical dogma in favour of the practical question of how to live together in shared prosperity on an ecologically finite planet.
- Living values
- Incumbent economic and political systems implicitly embed values at odds with sustainability and social justice, and hence build these in operationally as both operational features and inevitable outcomes. Community initiatives seeking to create and enact alternative economic and governance paradigms operate according to very different sets of values. Making these values explicit enables critical self-reflection (and formal evaluation) on whether and to what extent they are, or are not, being upheld, and at the same time highlights contrasts with dominant systems.
- Regenerative cultures
- Values of sustainability, justice and care, in the context of accelerating social and ecological degeneration, oblige us to move from exploitation to regeneration as the cultural premise for human societies. Regenerative cultures take many different forms, rooted in place and responsive to local and regional environmental, ecological, economic, social, and cultural conditions. They represent diverse possible responses to current crises, and indicate potential trajectories towards human presence on earth becoming something that safeguards and enriches the biosphere.
- Translocal networks
- Locally rooted action that remains local in perspective and scope is limited in its potential, in itself, to contribute to wider transformation. Collaboration among those working towards regenerative cultures in different places allows them to become more than the sumsome of their parts. Through networking, mutual inspiration, shared learning, diffusion of ideas and practices, and strategic action at national and international levels, local and regional initiatives connect, spread and grow into broad-based movements for change.
- Local to bioregional partnerships
- The specific thematic focus of any translocal network is never by itself adequate to navigate the complexity of local realities. When multiple networks converge in a single physical locality, broad partnerships of actors working at local-to-regional scale can emerge, each bringing its own set of perspectives and competencies. Their combination in multi-stakeholder partnerships working towards agreed broad goals creates the greatest potential for both rapid local transition and catalysing wider societal transformation.
- Social solidarity economy
- An economy based on principles of competition and self-interest puts provision of basic needs at odds with regeneration of social and ecological value. Collective, democratically organised action through inclusive place-based partnerships, connected via translocal networks, can be the basis for reshaping economic life at all levels on the basis of solidarity, cooperation and care for people and other living systems.
Exploring practical sustainability through
- Social innovation
- The modes of thought and action accessible through dominant regimes can only ultimately reinforce the material and subjective structures of oppression that are the root causes of inequality, injustice and ecological degradation. Niche actors able collectively to understand, organise themselves and act upon the world are capable of innovative forms of action that challenge dominant logics and provide alternatives to them. Their transformative potential is particularly evident in the face of game-changers: radical shifts in conditions that bring into question the viability and desirability of current systems, demonstrating both the possibility for and necessity of radical change.
- Working with nature
- Conceptual and material separation from nature is a key root cause of current crises. Recognising that human economies are living systems, embedded within and dependent upon biological processes, is key to their sustainability. Understanding the principles that allow ecological systems to combine productivity and resilience can also inform the intentional design of human systems.
- Transition design
- Environmentally and socially destructive impacts are not incidental or contingent side-effects of capitalism, but inherent, if unintended, consequences of its need to extract surplus value. Recognising this raises the converse prospect of deliberate design of socio-economic systems for sustainable and equitable outcomes, through inclusive and democratic processes and as unique expressions of local biocultural conditions, and in mutually beneficial interrelationships with other localities.
- Commons ecologies
- Basing production on private property disincentivises social responsibility, while centralised state control undermines individual and community autonomy. Commons, in which users self-organise for the stewardship and allocation of shared resources on the basis of need and capability, are the basis of all known cases of human societies living within local ecological limits. Commons ecologies existing in mutually generative relationships with each other are an outcome of Transition design that provide a potential model for global sustainable society, rooted in diverse local specifics
- Growing edges
- Community-led initiatives have not, on any large scale, halted or reversed environmental and social damage or the economic and political systems that rely on them. In some cases and respects, by decontextualising normalised and accepted behaviours and conventions with socially and/or environmentally perverse outcomes, they make them more visible, indicating where more work is needed (including within community initiatives themselves) to become consistent with expressed values. Barriers and constraints experienced by community initiatives working towards environmental and social outcomes supported by broad social and/or political consensus but impossible to achieve in practice, reveal the contradictions and points of intransigence in dominant systems.
- Emotional responsiveness
- Cultures of community led action that acknowledge and do not marginalise the emotional dimensions of social change can enable broader engagement and contribute to a healthier group culture. This involves acknowledging emotions associated with social change: the issues (e.g. climate change); the lack of sufficient response (e.g. frustration or anger at Governments or businesses furthering climate injustice); and the process of community change (e.g. burnout, conflict in groups, challenges of unfunded community work and the slow pace of change).
- Penha-Lopes, G. & T. Henfrey (2019): Reshaping the Future: How Local Communities are Catalysing Social, Economic and Ecological Transformation in Europe. The First Status Report on Community-led Action on Sustainability and Climate Change. Brussels: ECOLISE.
- O’Brien, Karen. 2014. ‘Adaptation vs Transformation’. Perspectives on Climate Change. Retrieved 23 November 2020 (https://cchange.no/2014/01/adaptation-vs-transformation/).
- Wittmayer, J. M., R. Kemp, A. Haxeltine, F. Avelino, B. Pel, S. Ruijsink, M. Søgaard Jørgensen, and S. Rach. 2016. Transformative Social Innovation: What Have We Learnt in Four Years of Research. Transit Brief. 6. TRANSIT:EU SSH.2013.3.2-1 Grant Agreement n.613169.
- Kolosy, Katalin. 2018. Clarifying the EU Jargon: What Does “Community Led” Really Mean?. Local Development Network.
- Movement for Community-Led Development, 2015. Defining Community-Led Development. https://mcld.org/definition/. Accessed 2 November 2020.
- Torjman, Sherri and Anne Makhoul. 2012. Community-Led Development. Ottawa, Ontario: Caledon Institute of Social Policy.