connect

Jerusalem, Israel

MiniActive: Local Women, Local Action

Jerusalem Intercultural Center

May 4, 2017

Empowering local women and minority populations to become agents of community change

Can a functioning street lamp be the key to peace?   Sometimes, it’s almost that simple.

In 2011 a group of Palestinian women in East Jerusalem decided they’d had enough of broken street lamps, unrepaired roads and other nuisances that caused daily tensions and disrupted the peace of the neighbourhood.   Local volunteers started using the municipal hotline to demand the repair and replacement of faulty street lamps and were soon meeting with relevant municipal authorities. No, the women explained, contrary to what municipal workers too often said, the street lamps would not be broken by local youth.

Five years later, the street lamps are still working, bus stops have been repaired and thousands of other small and large improvements have been made.

Empowered by a unique program called MiniActive that focuses on community-led action and helping local residents become change agents in their own neighbourhoods, MiniActive volunteers are leading the way for civic action in East Jerusalem, and across the city.

From Activism to Action

Conditions for the more than 300,000 Palestinians living in poverty in East Jerusalem often put the health and welfare of local residents at risk. The quarter’s winding streets are poorly maintained, filled with potholes and often littered due to inefficient garbage removal by local authorities. Public stairs and walkways are uneven and unsafe, and few public buildings – schools, welfare offices, community organizations – are handicapped accessible.

Compounding these challenges, residents often lack the tools to self-organize and build the organizational capacity needed to effect changes on their own, leaving them feeling disempowered and disengaged from civic processes. Such frustrations can be exacerbated by cultural and language barriers, or unfamiliarity with municipal services.

For these reasons, the success of the intervention by Palestinian women in East Jerusalem around municipal repairs to their neighbourhood caught the eye of the Jerusalem Intercultural Center (JICC).

Since 2004, the JICC had been engaged in a series of internal discussions about activism as a tool for community change. Since their mission was to help residents of all identities create positive impact within their communities and in the city as a whole, activism seemed an important approach. However, over the years they had noticed that much of the activist energy was non-effective, more cause and complaint than positive impact.

By contrast, the activism of East Jerusalem’s neighbourhood women was practical, positive and place-based.  Its example galvanized the JICC to pilot a new model for community engagement called “MiniActive.”  The central idea? To let people train themselves to change the world, by choosing a very small part of the world to change.

Agents of community change

MiniActive was launched in 2012, with the support and partnership of the JICC and the Jerusalem Foundation and the dual objective of effecting real change and empowering community action. Its goals are to advance human rights in East Jerusalem by creating sustainable grassroots advocacy and empowerment mechanisms; to empower women as agents of change; and to help all residents, but mainly women, take practical steps to improve the everyday lives of East Jerusalem residents.

MiniActive workshops consist of small group meetings in which each of the participants is invited to choose an issue to work on that is both ‘do-able’ and requires working with or convincing others to do something, whether it be neighbours, local agencies or the municipality, because learning to work with others is critical to developing organizational capacity. Examples can be repairing a street light, improving garbage collection in a specific location, fixing a pothole, replacing a safety fence, initiating an event in school, or simply connecting neighbours to meet together over an issue.   The criteria for choosing projects are:

  • Results can be achieved in 1-2 months. The relatively quick results seen on the ground in this model boosts participants’ self-confidence and empowers them to ‘graduate’ on to larger and more complex issues.
  • The solution cannot be achieved alone – some other body or organization must be activated to achieve success. This often includes the Municipality or other service provider
  • A passion for community. The participant has passion to achieve this target issue.

Whether it’s a problem on the street, an issue to be tackled at the local school, or a service improvement at the health clinic, the program empowers participants to identify problems in their immediate community, and helps them to develop effective methods of solving those problems, which can be applied to larger-scale problems in the future as well.

Language classes, recycling, horticulture: a community hub

In 2014 MiniActive upgraded its monthly professional development seminars for their volunteer coordinators from East Jerusalem’s various neighbourhoods. Previously, monthly meetings largely consisted of peer learning and assistance on a case-by-case basis. The new format included workshops on how to map local needs and set priorities; how to navigate the Municipality and its different departments; how to navigate other service providers (phone, electric, water, etc.); how to write letters to these agencies; how to deal with the Municipality’s contractors in the field; who might (or might not) be willing to work with them should a woman be supervising– and more.

In addition to in-service seminars about accessing local services more effectively, Hebrew classes have been organized for more than 200 women to facilitate communication with municipal service providers.  An important project outcome was the addition of Arabic-speakers to the municipal hotline, both to encourage participation and to handle the volume of calls MiniActive outreach was generating.

Since its overall goal is to improve residents’ immediate environment, in 2014 MiniActive began to offer courses and workshops that focused on a broader definition of improving one’s environment, such as composting, recycling, etc.  A photography workshop increased the women’s ability and propensity to look around them and see new ways to improve their neighbourhood.  In 2016, the first ever Arabic-language horticultural therapy course was added.

MiniActive has become a community hub, offering a wide range of activities – from exercise to crocheting to baking to trips – where local women can gather to enjoy their leisure,  each other’s company, and the rewards of hard work.

Today MiniActive’s network of volunteers spills across 15 districts, with 50 – 100 women in each district, and covers nearly every neighbourhood in East Jerusalem. Working in small groups of 4 to 6, the women of MiniActive are working on 500 issues each month, solving approximately half and continuing to work on the remainder, and improving the everyday lives of residents through continual communication and interaction with service providers (telephone, electricity, water, municipality, etc.) and community members.

What’s more, municipal service providers recognize the effectiveness of MiniActive’s work and are less inclined to see the complaints as antagonizing ‘nuisances.’ Rather, MiniActive participants are viewed as partners in the change process.

Success

MiniActive has galvanized civic action in East Jerusalem neighbourhoods. In 2016 alone more than 6,000 formal complaints were filed, and over 2,300 problems resolved. Among the improvements, all bus stops in three neighbourhoods were repaired or replaced.  On a larger scale, MiniActive’s response to an acute problem around garbage removal resulted in the launch of the “We Won’t Live in Filth” Facebook campaign. The result? Millions of shekels were added to the East Jerusalem sanitation budget, and garbage collection became a central issue in local activism throughout Jerusalem.

From its modest beginnings, MiniActive quickly grew to a network of 1,000 Palestinian women in every corner of East Jerusalem, arguably the largest network of volunteers in East Jerusalem.  In 2015, MiniActive’s success was internationally recognized when the project’s director was invited to present at the Global Partnership for Social Accountability (GPSA) Partners Forum in Washington, DC.  In November 2016 a group from the Czech Republic visited Jerusalem to learn about MiniActive. Interest in the project remains lively. Today, the MiniActive Facebook page has over 20,300 ‘likes.’

Over the past 5 years a growing MiniActive volunteer network has solved thousands of neighbourhood problems and is training hundreds of women on how to engage local service providers and municipal services to bring about community change by working with the system, and despite the system.

For the first time, MiniActive empowers participants to be stakeholders in their own future.

Making it Work for You:

  • Define realistic objectives in advance to make sure you can actually advance towards desired outcomes.
  • Prioritize actions according to importance, even when “urgency” threatens to re-order actions.
  • Building consensus takes time. Make sure urgent items don't disrupt important consensus building processes.
  • Take an approach that brings the “other side” (the government, the neighbours, etc.) on board for a win-win outcome.
  • Break up a large issue into many smaller problems and tasks. This makes results more achievable and more feasible.
  • Groups dynamics and peer learning are the key. Consult with each other on how to proceed while ensuring each member of the team can work independently to advance her project.
  • Use the synergy of community forces as a tool to create power and move your project forward.



For this Good Idea contact:

Dr. Hagai Agmon-Snir, Director, Jerusalem Intercultural Center
P.O.Box 1477
Jerusalem, Israel,
91014
972-2-6728040
hagai(at)jicc.org.il
http://jicc.org.il/

Maytree