Creating Collaborative Solutions With Communities Using ‘Gifts Explosion’ and ‘See It My Way’
By Aakanksha Sinha PhD, MSW
As a social work practitioner, educator, and researcher, I have spent over 10 years engaging with communities, academics, and students to develop and implement programs that support historically marginalized communities. Much of my career has focused on challenging the traditional, top-down manner in which social service agencies pursue their important work. Though this paternalistic approach hasn't gotten in the way of increasing access to resources, it has concentrated power into the hands of service providers and excluded the very communities being helped from informing and strengthening the programs purportedly designed for them.
An alternative, the person-centered (PC) model, focuses on the client’s experiences throughout the design and implementation of a program. Many of the ideas behind the PC model can be seen in the book Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center by bell hooks (who does not capitalize her name) and the works of Paulo Freire and Lorraine M. Gutierrez. Social workers have long used the PC model at an individual level while providing counseling services. It has also been used by grassroots organizations and community-led advocacy groups.
I have used a variety of techniques to develop an in-depth analysis of my client’s needs. They included ethnographic interviews and surveys. I've also used stakeholder analysis, which aims to understand who needs to be involved in the development of a solution and their viewpoints, challenges, and strengths. These techniques were helpful for large-scale research projects and heavily funded programs. But they did little to illuminate the link between the deep-rooted structural inequities and present realities of my clients, leaving it unclear how their social identity influences their day-to-day privileges or problems. And they were seldom helpful when community well-being required cost-effective and timely programs or policy changes for a number of reasons. For one, they required notable training in various research methodologies. They involved time-consuming planning and coordination between the community and social service organizations. Finally, they were expensive, requiring investment in data analysis tools, voice recording devices, survey mailings, and other elements of large-scale assessment.
More recently, social innovation organizations—such as IDEO, Design Impact, and Greater Good Studio—have pushed forward human-centered design, which embraces PC principles in the pursuit of social equity. There is a number of human-centered design resources that help service providers ensure communities participate in building solutions: IDEO’s design kit, Design Impact’s Metathemes, Racial Equity Tools, and Community Tool Box.
Inspired by human-centered design, I created accessible, affordable, and fast data collection tools that prioritize building authentic relationships between the client and the service providers. I have turned to two of them again and again to help organizations and communities dismantle oppressive and paternalistic dynamics in the design of social programs and services. Both tools—which I call “Gifts Explosion” and “See It My Way”—aim to provide a holistic understanding of individuals' identities and their cultural, economic, and political realities. Social service agencies can use them to identify a community's true problems and strengths. In the process, they will build trust and community buy-in that will make programs more effective and faster to implement.
The Gifts Explosion tool uses aspects of the Positive Deviance approach and community asset assessment. I was inspired to develop it while working on a project related to financial empowerment in Columbus, Ohio, in 2017. I spoke with a 34-year-old volunteer at a local church regarding her financial challenges, beginning the conversation with a routine introductory question: How do you describe yourself? She shared that she was a mother of four children, struggled to provide basic necessities such as food and rent, did not know how to support her family, and often felt helpless about changing her situation. It wasn't until later in our 90-minute conversation that I learned about the remarkable effort she was putting into taking care of herself and her family. She ran six businesses, provided counseling at her church to women who were previously trafficked, managed her household on earnings of less than $8,000 per year, and had built a very strong social support system.
This interaction and many others like it made me tangibly experience a common critique of social agencies—that they often emphasize working on communities rather than working with them. The people being helped were socialized to only present themselves in ways that seemed to emphasize their struggles rather than their holistic selves, because that's how many good-intentioned social agencies, including their initial assessment tools, were able to make sense of how their organizations fit into the equation.
Gifts Explosion is a rapid way to surface and apply a communities' talents and resources toward helping itself in tandem with a social agency's aid. I break it down into four broad categories to keep the assessment tool easy and fast to use.
“Gifts of the Head” refer to people's knowledge that they can potentially teach to others, such as the steps involved to set up recycling in a household. In 2019, I used this tool while working with a neighborhood in Seattle to develop a council of local people who could lead responses to the community's problems. One resident indicated he deeply understood the city's policies related to tenant safety due to his past housing experiences. As a result, the social service agency suggested he join the council to help other tenants understand their rights.
“Gifts of the Heart” refer to causes that people hold dear and that they are willing to promote to others in the service of a stronger community. Examples include caring for the elderly or ensuring that people don’t go hungry. In 2018, I worked on a project to assess the community resources available to support at-risk youth in Seattle. A community member shared that she wanted to start a book club to engage local foster kids and other at-risk youth because she empathized with them due to her past experience. While this book club was not officially put into place, it inspired service providers and local residents to think of new ways to work with the children in their community.
“Gifts of the Hand” describe people's skills that could help support the community, such as gardening or cooking. In 2019, I worked on a project in Seattle to increase awareness about food insecurity. A community member using this tool indicated that she loved to sketch and hoped to apply her passion toward supporting the community. The project leveraged her skill to start an Instagram handle, where she used her artistic skills to spread awareness about hunger issues. She also used her sketching skills to present information about food access to the larger community.
“Gifts of Belonging” include relationships and other elements of people's lives that make them feel connected to one another. That can include places like a community center or the bonds between neighbors. In 2018, I oversaw a student project that was focused on elderly communities and their feelings of social isolation in Seattle. A student using the tool learned that for one participant, his local church not only gave him meals but also provided a place to meet people and develop friendships. The church was a clear “gift of belonging” in his life, and understanding it as such helped the agency recognize and take advantage of its dual role.
In my experience, Gifts Explosion has worked better as a rapport-building tool in small discussion groups that make people feel comfortable to discuss their lives, rather than as an in-depth community or individual asset assessment tool. Clients who went through the process said they felt relieved that they were able to break away from the label of being a “problem” that needed fixing. Some were inspired to consider how their skills could support their communities. Others indicated the exercise made them feel responsible for their communities and they felt enthusiastic about integrating their skills into social programs.
The second tool, See It My Way, is an empathy-building exercise that examines the systemic inequities within a community and how they crop up in an individual's daily activities. It corrects the common mistake of attributing people's behaviors to some innate quality without accounting for the structure of the places, processes, and norms that frame their lives. I developed it while working on a project addressing food security in higher education in 2019.
My clients, who were low-income undergraduate students reporting difficulty with affording meals, noted the good intentions of the food programs at their universities, but found them frustrating to use. For example, the pantry where students picked up the food was not open during holidays and emergency school closures, times when they acutely needed the help. Yet the university wasn't aware of the service gaps and their negative impacts.
To overcome this lack of understanding, I used aspects of person-in-environment perspective (a social work theory), ethnographic research, photovoice (a qualitative research method involving video or photos), and IDEO’s card sort tool to come up with the See It My Way exercise. It uses images of daily activities—such as grocery shopping, family time, attending school, and transportation to work—along with a set of discussion prompts to explore how and why staff, donors, and clients experience the activities differently. The discussion questions include: How do you do this activity? What is your ideal way of doing it? Why can’t you do it in your ideal way? How does your daily life affect your approach? The exercise spotlights the structural inequities—rather than individual factors—that make certain tasks effortless for some and difficult for others.
Using See It My Way requires that participants feel safe to discuss what can be difficult issues. Conversations can become heated, but if managed well, they can create authentic and useful understandings of people's lives. One client, who was a recipient of meals from a local food bank, did the exercise and learned that she had to take two buses to reach a store selling fresh vegetables, while the service provider could do the same at a market within less than half a mile. It helped put her frustration and experience in perspective, and improved the quality of the conversations she had with the service provider. More importantly, it increased the buy-in from both sides to develop a program that was not influenced by the values and experiences of service providers. The program was also better able to account for everyday barriers that could get in the way of well-intentioned services.
Both See It My Way and Gifts Explosion have thrust me and those I work with into thought-provoking and often difficult conversations. The discomfort, if managed well, is worth it. By shedding more light on deep-rooted inequities, the tools create a space where service providers and clients can share their experiences and build programs that are made more effective by escaping a deficit-based approach. See It My Way and Gifts Explosion aren't perfect, but I continually try to improve them. By sharing what I've learned, I invite others to use and build upon them to make a more just world of shared power and collaborative solutions.