“Participatory methods” in community development initially emerged in the 1970s, and interest in their use has continued to increase among practitioners, especially in recent years.1 Many practitioners agree that this growing acceptance is a good thing, as it has made us pay attention to the ways we engage with the communities we want to help. However, I would invite us to look beyond the methods to consider what I will call the “participatory approach” – the philosophy, goals, and assumptions that enable us to work in genuine participation with communities.

The participatory approach is not so much a matter of methods as a mindset: listening to and respecting the people of the community; encouraging them in attaining their goals; providing training, mentoring, and help, but not taking over the process. PRA, PLA, ABCD, GRAAP, AI,2 and a host of other abbreviations are methods for following the participatory approach – but, they are merely tools. Consider a sculptor or woodcarver. He needs command of his tools, but he is much more than a technician. An artist of any type must work with the characteristics of his medium, rather than against them. A woodcarver looks at the grain and shape of the raw piece of wood he’ll use. He considers how easily it cuts and splits, whether it’s a soft or hard wood, and whether it should be oiled or waxed or varnished or left unfinished. That’s what an artist does when working with an inanimate medium – it’s even more complicated when he works with something that is alive! The maker of a bonsai has to consider how the tree he chooses grows. And the trainer of a thoroughbred race horse has to understand how a given horse runs – and even more, how it thinks. When we in the area of community development work with people, and with groups of people, we face an even greater level of complexity! A change agent cannot go in with a fixed plan of what he wants the community to become. He must work with the community, acknowledging that they are the ones who will live with the consequences of whatever changes occur, and that they are therefore the rightful owners of the community.