National Association for Rights Protection and Advocacy

Community Wise: An Innovative Strategy for Change
Lauren Jessell, LSW, Victoria Blom, LSW, Liliane Windsor, MSW, PhD

Traditional research methods have been used to create interventions for people with substance use and emotional challenges that are, at times, ineffective and disempowering. In this presentation, we will discuss an alternative to traditional research and group interventions in hopes that the ideas behind our work can be adopted in one's own life, practice and/or research. Using community based participatory research methods, we worked with Rutgers University and the Newark Community Collaborative Board, a group of service providers, community members, researchers and people with lived experiences related to the intervention. Together we used our different knowledge and skills to develop and then evaluate an intervention called Community Wise.

Community Wise is different than mainstream treatment modalities because it looks at the environmental and contextual issues that affect how a person feels and behaves, rather than enforcing a strict focus on personal responsibility and disease. It is a 12 session group intervention for individuals with a history of incarceration and substance use that was specifically tailored for people living in Newark, NJ, a predominantly low income, African-American community. Community Wise was designed to reduce substance use, health risk behavior related to substance use, psychological distress and reoffending. However, Community Wise does not try to teach or control people and it does not push any specific avenue to wellness. Instead, Community Wise encourages people to think critically and find their own path to a healthy lifestyle by looking at deeper issues within society that affect how people feel and behave. This idea is based on Critical Consciousness Theory, which asserts that people can be empowered by engaging in a dialogue with one another about the oppression they experience in their daily lives.

In the Community Wise groups, participants are encouraged to talk about their experiences as they relate to oppression; for example, participants discuss their experiences related to their race, gender, class and being labeled a drug addict and criminal. Simultaneously, participants begin to redirect their behavior into actions that benefit them and their community. As part of Community Wise, participants work together on projects that build capacity within their community. For example, graduates of the program have gone on to accomplish a number of things, including creating a women’s support group, buying an “adopt a lot” in Newark and planning to grow an urban garden, writing a book of personal stories, fundraising for a Diabetes Walk and  providing personal testimonies in City Hall in order to influence legislation. 

Since the Spring of 2012, a total of 56 individuals have completed Community Wise and we found that participants significantly reduced their substance use and became more engaged in their communities. In this presentation, we will explore how these findings and the theory behind Community Wise can be used in our own lives and, for those of us who are providers, mentors or researchers, in our work. We will discuss how the concepts behind Community Wise can empower individuals to make meaningful changes, both in their personal lives and within their communities. We will also review the kinds of discussions that individuals had in the Community Wise groups and how the group facilitators worked with group members as equals, making this an effective alternative to mainstream treatment.

The objectives of this presentation will be:

-To discuss problems with traditional research and mainstream interventions and how Community Wise and Community Based Participatory Research are different.

-To describe Community Wise and the use of Critical Consciousness Theory as an intervention to effect change

-To explore how the group discussions and the group facilitators worked to create a group that was effective and truly empowering

-To discuss how the ideas behind Community Wise can be used in our own lives and work

Read an article on Community Wise from the Newark Star-Ledger.