Radical Psychology
Volume Seven, 2008

Community Participation in Developing Primary Prevention Programs to Enhance Community Well-Being

Jean-Marc Bélanger [*]

In 1991, the Ontario Government announced the Better Beginnings, Better Futures project as a 25 year comprehensive, community-based research demonstration project for young children and their families living in eight disadvantaged communities in Ontario, Canada. The objective of this longitudinal prevention policy research is to provide information on the effectiveness of prevention using an ecological model as a policy for children. The three goals of Better Beginnings, Better Futures are to: a) prevent emotional and behavioural problems in children; b) promote the optimal emotional, behavioural, social, physical and cognitive development in children; and c) strengthen the ability of communities to respond effectively to the social and economic needs of children and their families (Ministry of Community and Social Services, 1989).  This paper addresses issues relating to one site of the project, the Sudbury Better Beginnings Better Futures project. This particular project focuses primarily on a community development approach to ameliorate the well-being of the community. The community has been driven by the motto that: “To meet the needs of the children we must first look at the needs of the parents”. By focusing on programs that are inclusive of parents’ needs, this community-based approach seeks to promote the reduction of a number of social, emotional, physical, health and academic problems for children. By enlisting the participation of the residents of the community, the well-being of the whole community is meant to be enhanced, as residents strive to make their neighbourhood a secure and nourishing place to live for themselves and their children.

Eight sites across the province of Ontario were selected in 1991 to be involved in the project, five of which focused on developing programs for children from 0 to 4years old, whilst three sites -- known as the older sites -- chose the ages between 4 and 8 (from junior Kindergarten to grade 3). The major responsibilities of the eight sites of Better Beginnings, Better Futures were to develop and implement high quality prevention programs for young children and their families, characterized by meaningful and significant involvement of community members in all aspects of program development and implementation. The Sudbury Better Beginnings, Better Futures Project is one such older site and distinguishes itself from the other sites by putting strong emphasis on a community development approach (Reitsma-Street, 1992) in designing and implementing programs for children.  The overall goals of this project were to create a healthy and safe environment from which children could develop to the best of their capacity. The Sudbury project started offering its first programs for the community in 1991 and has since then continued to develop multiple programs aimed to benefit the children and the parents of the community, including early bird breakfast and after school programs in neighbourhood schools and centres, summer and cultural activities, numerous community event and workshops, as well as establishing partnerships with different organizations in the Sudbury region (Diallo et al.,1997).

Sudbury and its surroundings is a community of approximately 165,000 people, which makes it the largest city in Northern Ontario, Canada. Its economy, which used to be mainly focused on the mining industry, is now more diversified with avenues in health care, education, technology, tourism, retail, as well as government services. Linguistically, the population is composed of approximately 70% English speaking citizens and 30% French speaking citizens. There are several cultural groups that live in the community. Specifically, in the two neighbourhoods where the community project is located, that is the Donovan and Flour Mill/Moulin à Fleur, 1,473 children were registered in the seven elementary schools of these neighbourhoods. Forty eight percent of parents reported English as their mother tongue, 38% reported French and the remaining 14% reported another language (Sudbury BBBF, 1990). Moreover, the community has a relatively high concentration of off-reserve children of aboriginal descent. Using a very conservative estimate, approximately 300 aboriginal children lived in these neighbourhoods at the time the project started (The Ontario Prevention Clearing House, Newsletter, 1991). Consequently, the Sudbury Better Beginnings, Better Futures project was conceived with these linguistic and cultural characteristics in mind.    That is, promoting respect for different languages and cultures (Diallo, 1993) as well as promoting bilingual and multi-cultural representation and participation (Diallo, 1998a) was considered of paramount importance from the onset.

In addition to the ethnic mix, this particular geographical area was considered to be at “high risk” and “disadvantaged”. That is, many families struggle with low income, lone parenting, minimal child care resources, poor quality housing, high rates of crime in the neighbourhoods and a paucity of employment opportunities (Sudbury BBBF, 1990) These indicators of disadvantage may place the children within these families at risk for present and future economic, social, educational and emotional problems (Schneiders, et al., 2003; Aneshensel and Sucoff, 1996). Indeed, the rate of teenage pregnancies and illiteracy in the school-aged children was already higher than accepted standards (Sudbury BBBF, 1990).

The overall purpose of the Sudbury Better Beginnings Better Futures project has been to make primary prevention programs, as defined by Cowen (2000), available to all children in the Donovan and Flour Mill/Le Moulin à Fleur neighbourhoods, by focusing on a community development approach and enlisting the participation of parents in order to enhance the well-being of the whole community. Hence, the notion of community well-being or ‘wellness’ (Prilleltensky and Fox, 2007) employed incorporates the notion of individual and collective needs. The following sections of this paper provide an account of some of the achievements of this community development project.

The Community development Model

The ecological model of human development (Bronfenbrenner, 1997; Bronfenbrenner, 1986; Trickett, 2002) forms the foundation of the Better Beginnings, Better Futures projects.  Within this model, the importance of taking into account parent, family, neighbourhood and community influences on children’s development is underlined (Leventhal and Brookes-Gunn, 2000; Bronfenbrenner, 1986).  With this in mind, each of the Better Beginnings, Better Futures projects were required to develop programs that could be expected to improve child development outcomes within their respective ‘high-risk’ communities (Peters et al, 2004).  

To meet the needs of the children we must first look at the needs of the parents. This motto probably exemplifies best the approach taken over the years by the Sudbury Better Beginnings, Better Futures Project. The needs of parents were addressed by directly involving them as community members within the project.  Thus from the onset, community members participated in the Sudbury Better Beginnings, Better Futures project in various ways. In order to identify the “real” needs of the community (Diallo, Reitsma-Street and Arnold, 1997; Diallo, 1993; Diallo, 1998b), residents participated in action research by surveying other community members and asking them what they felt the families of the community needed most. The needs of the children, as identified by their parents and other community members, became the cornerstone of the project by which programs were designed. In particular, parents wanted a safe place where children could play and learn (Diallo, 1998b; Diallo, 1993; Diallo and Reistma-Street, 1994). While negotiating the contract with the funder, community residents were insistent that the community development components of the project would be included in the contract. Frequently, rules imposed by funders threaten to destabilize important aspects of a community development model. By negotiating the aspects of their community development model with the funder at the onset, community members became more confident and powerful in the use of their model, which included a model of decision-making through consensus (Diallo, 1998a; Diallo, 1999a).

In addition, the community model includes an active partnership between the community residents and the project staff. Various strategies were designed in order to achieve that goal but the principle behind it was that community members would participate in the decision-making process when decisions that involved their children would be made. In other words, community members have a ‘real’ voice.

Tools for the community

There are six “tools” that were developed by the members of the Sudbury Better Beginnings, Better Futures project in order to equip and to aid the community in being effective in utilizing their community model. These six tools are: 1) the development of a vision and principles; 2) the establishment of caucuses in order to ensure representation from all segments of the community; 3) using the circle as a mean of conducting meetings; 4) using consensus as a decision-making model; 5) the research caucus; and 6) the establishment of a council as an administrative structure.  Each of these tools is considered in turn.

First and foremost, the vision and principles of the association were developed at an early stage in the development of the project. In 1991, just a few months after being funded to provide programs for children, the community members held several meetings in order to develop their vision of the project and to develop 11 principles, which are still being adhered to and upheld at this point in time in 2008 (see appendix).  The whole process began with the idea that people need to form a vision of what they can become and to be able to visualize their community. The process of constructing and articulating a vision must include those people who will be the subject of the development process; that is, those whose well-being will be improved by it (FWDM, 1984). Needless to say, however, a vision must remain within the realm of possibilities. The initial vision developed by community members was simply to have a Better Beginnings, Better Futures project which would provide programs and activities for children in their community. Periodically, at various community meetings and with other work done in the community with parents or cultural groups, participants were asked to talk about their vision. In a particular workshop dealing with vision, community members were asked what they would like their children to look like at different stages of their lives (4,6,12 and 20 years of age). These moments taken for reflection, kept the vision alive. At present, residents still periodically visualize how they want their community to be. A major benefit of having developed the vision and principles is that it ensures ownership of the project to community members. It also provides guidelines for people who want to actively contribute to the project, since a condition is to abide by the principles of the Sudbury Better Beginnings, Better Futures project.

Second, in order to ensure representation and participation for the two major linguistic groups (French and English) and all cultural groups of the community, four caucuses were created by the Sudbury Better Beginnings, Better Futures project. These are the Anglophone, Francophone, Aboriginal and Multicultural caucuses.  Each has a purpose to ensure representation on cultural and linguistic levels and each caucus has elected members on the Council. At the General Meetings, caucuses meet as well so that community members have direct access to their representation. Individuals choose which caucus they feel they identify with the most and attend that one.

From the beginning of the project it was identified that several groups needed to be drawn together, especially those who were more marginalized in the neighbourhood such as people with low incomes, Francophones and Aboriginals. Also, it was recognized that the caucuses would provide a forum by which cultural autonomy could be developed, processed and achieved thereby leading to confidence around any integration among and between groups. Meetings, workshops and training related to cross cultural differences were held during the first years of the project. Members from the Francophone, Aboriginal, English speaking and Multicultural groups meet in their own caucus, in their own language, in their own physical space and make decisions regarding the type of programs they want for their community (Diallo et al., 1997). However, final decisions on major directions remain with the Council of Better Beginnings Better Futures. Nonetheless, this type of forum serves as a tool to empower the various cultures, who are generally silenced by the existing social structures in which they live. Not only do the caucuses provide a space for having a voice, but also a space into which decisions relevant to specific cultural needs can be met. Each caucus has representation on Council which solidifies that voice and the legitimacy of the decisions.

Third, the circle, inspired and borrowed from the Aboriginal tradition of the Medicine Wheel (Nabigon, 2006; Graveline, 2003; White, 1992) is a technique that provides a great means for group bonding. The circle symbolizes harmony with all of creation which includes fellow human beings. In the words of an aboriginal elder:

We take hold of the present, and make the future what we want it to be. Our work is to empower the people where they live, not to create another bureaucracy. We are and must always be helpers to the People. In healing ourselves, we heal our communities and out Nations. The people are the experts, they will always know what to do provided they have the context in which to do it. (Elder Dr. Art Solomon, L.1.B.D.D., in White, 1992, p.3).

Moreover, a circle allows people to sit in equal fashion within the group. Meetings at the Sudbury Better Beginnings, Better Futures project usually start with a “circling-in” and end with a “circling-out”. In circling-in and -out, everyone takes a turn to speak, and is thus able to voice concerns, opinions and feelings without interruption or response from others. It gives a chance for people to say what they might expect from the meeting, or what they enjoyed or didn’t enjoy about the meeting. Circling-out for example, may provide space for an individual to express whatever she or he did not have a chance to say during the meeting. By and large, the circle is perceived as being a reassuring process for people, as it frequently gives a feeling of not being alone in feeling or thinking in a certain way.  As such, it contributes to an increase in self-confidence whilst allowing people to express ideas in a space created specifically for that purpose (Bélanger, 1995). In addition, the circle both reinforces and gives acknowledgement to the people that they are the true “experts” of their community.

Fourth, consensus as an approach to decision-making has been very effective, especially in the earlier stages of development of the project. Today it is still a principle that has value and is used when it is felt by the community members that it is possible to attain. That is, there have been situations in which voting was perceived as a more efficient way of reaching a decision. Nevertheless, consensus is always the preferred method of reaching a decision and is used when possible.

Fifth, the Better Beginnings, Better Futures project utilizes an action research approach, which has been perceived by the community to be “a process for gaining knowledge and taking action” (Sari and Sari, 1992, p. 267).  From the beginning and from the community’s perspective, research needed to be demystified. A local research working group called the research caucus was established and contributed greatly to demystifying research mostly by describing research as part of us and part of what we do (Logbook, 1989-1992).  The research caucus continues to hold monthly meetings by which community members can take a lead in and/or participate in research activities occurring in the project. It is also a medium through which the community at large is informed periodically of the research activities undertaken within the project.     

Sixth, an important change occurred in the administrative structure of the project in 1994 when the project evolved from an informal and light structure, commonly referred to as the Sudbury Association (1989 to 1994) to a more formal structure, referred to as the Council. This evolution was made possible by involving the community in a process which allowed the development of a sense of ownership and that led to empowering the community to participate actively in choosing their form of governance. In this newer structure, community residents play key roles and are voted in by the General Assembly. This structure is more formal and clear.  In addition, there is a higher involvement from community members than in earlier days of the project, which could be an indication that community residents identify with “their” project (Bélanger and Diallo, 1999).

The preceding six tools used by community members and staff of the project are all conducive to meeting an important goal of community development -- to empower community members both personally and collectively. Empowerment benefits individuals in their relationships with their family members and friends, in their relations across various sectors of the neighbourhoods, and is transmitted to children growing up in the community, who then learn how to use these tools effectively.

Changes in the community

Over the course of the last 17 years, many changes have occurred in the community. Four components attached to the program can be seen as contributing factors in effecting positive changes. These components are: a) school-focused components; b) child-care components; c) care-givers involvement components; and, d) community development components. The following changes are what have been observed in the community over time. These observations are drawn from quantitative and qualitative data gathered through various research findings and reports (Reitsma-Street, 1992; Diallo, 1993; Diallo, Arnold and Reitsma-Street, 1993; Diallo and Reitsma-Street, 1994; Diallo, 1995; Diallo, 1996; Diallo, 1998a; Diallo, 1998b; Diallo, 1999a and Diallo 1999b), as well as being corroborated through individual interviews with community members and staff.  

School-focused programs have contributed to lower vandalism in the neighbourhood and less violence in schools due to peaceful playground programs.  In addition, an increase in awareness concerning different cultures is apparent within the community, given the aboriginal cultural programming introduced in schools as well as the multicultural support provided within the project. As a result of these programs, there has been also a noticeable increase in children’s sociability around their peers and teachers.  Perhaps the most surprising finding, there has been a reduction in teachers’ absenteeism from the schools. Over time, the quality of the schools have improved as a better atmosphere and concrete sources of support to help their work seems to have attracted good quality teachers.

The observations around the child-care components reveal that there are less children on the streets, given that there are now more attractive, safe and accessible places for children to play. This was facilitated through the rehabilitation of certain areas of the neighbourhood, where projects were developed which included children in such activities such as planting flowers.  In addition, fencing was put in appropriate places making the surroundings safer for the children from traffic. The clearing of the grounds of litter and other debris also helped in beautifying the neighbourhood. All of this contributed to a greater awareness toward environmental issues and pride in one’s neighbourhood. As well, caregivers noticed improvements in children’s overall social behaviour, in that there was less fighting amongst them.  Moreover, the children began achieving better success at school, due in great part to the early bird program, where breakfast is provided and the opportunity to socialize are enhanced.

From the care-givers components point of view, evidence of increased self-confidence, leadership and care-givers skills acquired by community residents through training programs and workshops offered to them were noticed. Moreover, care-givers have demonstrated an increased interest in what is happening in the schools. Additionally, general improvement in family functioning has been noted, with parent support groups and a general climate of support and friendship permeating the project.

The major goal of the community development component -- empowerment -- has been markedly achieved, whereby a stronger sense of community with more active and organized community members is noted.  In addition, stronger relationships between families, neighbours and ethnic communities are apparent. Moreover, the project has a hiring policy of giving preference to qualified people from the community, which has created jobs and has had a positive economic impact on the neighbourhood.  At present, 90% of staff members are residents of the community. People feel empowered as their neighbourhood is now a place where residents, parents and children can meet and play safely.  Additionally, a very important change in the community has been the development of a more trusting relationship between the agencies, the Better Beginnings, Better Futures project and the community members. This has led to improved agency services that are more appropriate to community needs as better communication and cooperation between agencies, schools and health services have also benefited the community. Overall, these improvements have led to less intrusive services for children.


A key to the success of this community project has been the participation of community members. Residents participate in various ways, such as attending general assemblies, caucuses, or for some, being an elected member of Council. Some work for the project full-time or part-time, while others volunteer in specific programs or activities. Many participate by taking part in various events organized by the neighbourhood, or by donating some of their time, money, food, clothing, material or other contributions. Participation is voluntary and people choose their frequency of participation. The philosophy of the project is not to tax people with too many expectations. Everyone gives what he or she is capable of giving, which may change as the circumstances of community members change. Any and all levels of participation by community members in activities offered by the programs is openly appreciated and valued.

What motivates people to participate is also interesting to know. First and foremost, it is their community. This sense of ownership reflects the pride they have in continuing to want to live, work and play in a community which is secure and where people can continue to learn new things and improve their skills. Residents are not only interested in the present state of their community but also with the future that their community holds for their children. They view the Better beginnings, Better Futures project as a body that supports the community and that provides a means to help residents stand up for their rights.

The well-being of the community

Involvement in the affairs of their community has brought major benefits to community members both at the individual and community levels. Changes experienced by members of the community are marked by an increase in self-confidence; acquisition of new skills such as learning how to chair meetings, gaining knowledge on decision-making processes and learning how to become more resourceful in one’s own community. Individuals are also better able to interact with different cultural communities within and outside their neighbourhoods. In addition, individuals have expressed, in the context of various meetings and community gatherings, the pride they now have in their own community.

Overall, the neighbourhoods appear to have become more secure and welcoming places; places where residents may be able to enjoy life. Moreover, residents describe having a stronger sense of belonging to the community and feel more organized as well as more resourceful when needing to stand up for their rights. Indeed, many residents have experienced situations where they were able to influence the decisions made by decision-makers.  In this way, there is a perception that the voices of residents are heard.


In the context of the experiences of community involvement with the Sudbury Better Beginnings, Better Futures project, residents show improved mental health aspects of well-being which ultimately benefit the whole community. Residents feel valued and feel that they have a voice within their community. There is a perception of being part of a more caring community and residents have expressed having gained a better understanding not only of their own individual situation but also that of others in the community. It is an inclusive community which now seeks to understand differences rather than feeling the intimidation and exclusion that often results from living in ignorance amongst these same differences. It is also a community which has learned to put their children first by better understanding themselves, learning to work together in both easier and more difficult times and a community who has its children’s present and future best interests at heart.  


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The Vision of the Sudbury Better Beginnings Better Futures Project

The Better beginnings Better Future Project is committed to promoting a healthy environment in the Donovan and Flour Mills area through:

1. The community making decisions and participating;

2. Including and responding to the educational, social and health promotion services in the area;

3. Planning and organizing for the many different programs, and;

4. Providing access for all socio-economic groups.
The Principles of the Sudbury Better Beginnings Better Futures Project

1. To pay attention to the emotional, social, physical and intellectual well-being of children with the community;

2. To build leadership and partnerships in the community;

3. To pay attention to the residents’ strengths and knowledge and to understand their concerns and needs;

4. To ensure participation for Native, francophone, anglophone and multicultural groups in structure and programming of the project;

5. To build cooperation and support among cultures;

6. To promote community members taking part in programs through educational, health and social services;

7. To practice and promote decision-making by consensus;

8. To care for members of Better Beginnings Better Futures and its partners by providing mutual support, learning and personal development opportunities;

9. To build a community development process that will continue after the Better Beginnings project is ended;

10. To build strong partnership among those who live, play, work and serve in the Donovan and Flour Mill neighbourhoods;

11. To do and to use research for the benefit of the community.

Biographical Note: Jean-Marc Belanger is the Director of the School of Social Work at the University of Moncton, New
Brunswick since 2007. Previously he was at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario specializing among other interests in community development. He has been involved with the Sudbury Better Beginnings Better Futures Project since its inception in 1991.

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