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The Harvard Family Research Project separated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to become the Global Family Research Project as of January 1, 2017. It is no longer affiliated with Harvard University.

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M. Elena Lopez, from Harvard Family Research Project, discusses expanding the role of family support to include supporting families’ using information to improve their communities.

“Families are empowered when they have access to information and resources and take action to improve the well-being of children, families, and communities.”¹

Over the last two decades, this fundamental family support premise has largely focused on individual family access to information and resources to attain individual goals. Less attention has been paid to the ways that families—as part of neighborhoods and communities—can collectively use information as a tool for creating community-wide family-strengthening activities. However, the growing momentum of “civic participation” in education, health, and welfare reform suggests the need to expand the notion of family support to include getting and using information for collective action. This signals changes in the way programs and professionals can support families, with strategies such as:


  • Families working together toward collective rather than exclusively individual family-strengthening goals.

  • Families building their capacity to get and use data, a service not traditionally offered by family support programs.

  • Families deciding the means by which information about families is gathered, used, and disseminated—a task traditionally controlled by professionals.

  • Families learning to connect information with opportunities for neighborhood-based action.


Related Resources

The Annie E. Casey Foundation. (2001). Using Strategic Communication to Support Families. Baltimore, MD: Author. Produced for the Casey Foundation’s Making Connections Project, this is a how-to guide about strategic communication for the 22 cities striving to build strong families and neighborhoods through the initiative.

Bruner, C., & Kot, V. (1999). Resident Experts: Supporting the Neighborhood Organization and Individuals in Collecting and Using Information. Des Moines, IA: Child and Family Policy Center. This report focuses on the ways in which neighborhood residents can be involved in collecting data about their own communities for use in reform efforts.

One attempt to invest in this broader notion of family support is Making Connections, a multi-city demonstration project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation (AECF). Lodged within a larger neighborhood transformation initiative, Making Connections is about engaging low-income families and communities in family-strengthening efforts. (For more information see

A key component of Making Connections is to build capacity for generating information to support action. In each site “learning partners” perform roles such as coordinating study circles, conducting data-related training and technical assistance, and providing data analysis and synthesis. These partners vary across sites and include a mix of local foundations, research and policy centers, individual consultants, and advocacy organizations. Some partners that participated in AECF’s National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership built on their existing data warehouses to provide neighborhood level socioeconomic and demographic information.

Early Lessons
The early lessons from the first phase of the project suggest new and different ways of supporting families.²

1. Support and validate families’ knowledge about family-strengthening goals. Some Making Connections sites adapted a study circles model,³ where small groups of residents gather weekly four to six times in a facilitated dialogue to explore specific concerns. Participants included community residents and, in some cases, service providers. The study circles focused on topics such as:


  • Identifying family and neighborhood assets.
  • Envisioning what strong families and desired neighborhoods look like.
  • Voicing the needs of families and communities.
  • Understanding the challenges to meet those needs.
  • Applying data to meet residents’ priorities for action.

As residents shared observations about families and neighborhoods, and their theories of what long- and short-term actions can effect change, they demonstrated the value of local knowledge in problem-solving. For example, the Seattle study circles revealed the gaps between the solutions generated by immigrant families and the programs offered by service agencies. Families educated the service providers and funders about the importance of life skills and cultural preservation to strengthen the bonds between parents and children.

In addition, the study circles validated the co-production of local learning by the residents and study circle sponsors. Learning partners synthesized the information and organized cross-neighborhood gatherings to verify residents’ issues and solutions.

2. Build families’ capacity to get and use data. Making Connections supported site efforts to determine the information they needed to address local issues. Residents identified research topics and shaped data collection and use. As residents collected data, they not only learned new skills, but also gained the opportunity to bond with neighbors and engage in civic activities. For example:


  • A grassroots organization in Indianapolis conducted neighborhood asset surveys. The surveys showed a wide range of skills in neighborhoods that are often portrayed as poorly educated. They also indicated that residents longed for more activities for children, beautification of the area, and safer neighborhoods, all of which would enhance family life. Following door-to-door dissemination of the results, some residents have joined the organization’s action committees.

  • Four Denver neighborhoods formed a Neighborhood Learning Partnership to develop information-based solutions to the problems facing their neighborhoods. The learning partnership identifies what, how, and to whom the information is released, as well as how it is used. When one of the identified needs was the “digital divide,” the learning partnership commissioned an assessment of local technology needs as a first step to make technology and the Internet more available for families and residents in the neighborhoods. (See

3. Support families’ decision about new forms of documentation, use, and dissemination of data. Making Connections supported new and existing avenues for residents to explain the meaning of family strengthening from their own perspectives. Using stories, residents interpreted data about families in ways that also serve to educate mainstream society about the strengths of poor families. For example:

  • Low-income Milwaukee mothers videotaped their families and produced a documentary that shows how they have the same values and desires as more affluent families. The women participate in workshops, where the video is shown to service providers and policy advocates. (See

  • MYTOWN in Boston offers walking tours of the South End, researched and conducted by youth. Youth interview residents who share life stories and identify important places in the neighborhood’s past. Through their research and tours, the youth expand the history of the city by including ethnic groups that are often disregarded in mainstream texts. They begin to develop a sense of home as they learn about their own families and communities contributions to the city’s history. (See
    MassHumanities/ Fall2001/ mytown.html

  • One neighborhood in San Antonio seeks to bridge the generation gap between youth and older family members and community residents through an oral history project. Residents videotape interviews with seniors to transmit Latino knowledge and traditions that are not given visibility in textbooks and the media.

4. Connect information with resources and opportunities for action. Unlike focus groups where participants share their opinions and then walk away, study circles focus on relationship building, networking, and action. Individually and collectively, as residents have gained deeper knowledge about family issues, they have directed their energy toward volunteer and other opportunities. For example:

  • In Des Moines, study circles have enhanced residents’ roles as consumers, advocates, and decision-makers. The circles have linked residents’ identified needs with resources, such as Habitat for Humanity, and opportunities for parent and community involvement in school programs. Study circle participants formed a neighborhood advisory council to work on common issues across neighborhoods. Several community organizations have invited the council to promote mini-grants for resident-led activities to improve neighborhoods.

  • When New Orleans residents who had participated in study circles decided that families needed a clean neighborhood, the learning partner provided them with the training and tools to record the location of trash piles and abandoned cars. The learning partner geographically coded the information and residents used the resulting maps to identify priority areas for neighborhood clean-up drives.

Just as family support programs seek to empower individual families to make informed decisions about their goals in life, they also need to create opportunities for families to deliberate ways that communities can create family-strengthening activities. Charles Bruner made the observation that “professional expertise cannot create solutions nor be a substitute for the direct experience and insight of those they are designed to help.”4 Blending local and professional knowledge is both promising and challenging; and evaluators have the unique opportunity to lend their skills as new roles for families and professionals emerge.

M. Elena Lopez, Senior Consultant, HFRP

¹ Family Resource Coalition. (1996). Guidelines for Family Support Practice. Chicago: Family Resource Coalition. Page 6.
² Information for this article was derived from interviews with learning partners in eight cities, site documentation, and Web resources.
³ The sites used different terms for the study circles, such as family circles and neighborhood circles. Information about study circles is available from the Study Circle Resource Center at
4 Bruner, C. et. al. Wise Counsel: Redefining the Role of Consumers, Professionals, and Community Workers in the Helping Process.

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