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Where does Culture House climb the Arnstein´s ladder?


This article is written by: Minna Wallenius

In an empowering community, participants experience inclusion, which in turn requires a conscious transfer of power, for example from staff to participants. The old, but still relevant, Sherry Arnstein’s ladder model of participation describes the amount of power people are given, i.e. the degree of decision-making power they have in planning and implementing activities.

Arnstein has said:

“The idea of citizen participation is a little like eating spinach: no one is against it in principle because it is good for you. Participation of the governed in their government is, in theory, the cornerstone of democracy—a revered idea that is vigorously applauded by virtually everyone. The applause is reduced to polite handclaps, however, when this principle is advocated by the have-not blacks, Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Indians, Eskimos, and whites. And when the have-nots define participation as redistribution of power, the American consensus on the fundamental principle explodes into many shades of outright racial, ethnic, ideological, and political opposition.”

Arnstein, S. 1969. A Ladder of Citizen Participation. Journal of the American Institute of Planners 1969: (35): 4. p. 215-224.

Similarly, various activities for young adults (employment, rehabilitation, leisure) claim to increase inclusion and seek social empowerment, but in practice can have a narrowly defined role and very limited influence. On the mental health side, we still often encounter an attitude among professionals who think they know better than the young person what the young person is ready to do and what he or she needs. Or a situation where a professional believes that a young person’s mental health problems are caused by his or her own weaknesses, rather than by the challenging life situation he or she is facing.

Against this background, it will be interesting to observe how Culture House as a community of young people in challenging situations take their place on Arnstein’s ladder.

Ladder rungs

The first rung is manipulation, i.e. creating the idea of inclusion by manipulating, i.e. making people believe that they have the power to take action. The second rung is therapy, i.e. we try to treat or cure the young person rather than change the circumstances in which the young person is – i.e. we think the fault lies with the young person.

The third rung is informing, i.e. we tell the young person what has been decided or what is going to be done, but the flow of information is at worst one-way. And even if young people are consulted, there is no real opportunity to influence them.

The fourth rung is consultation, which means that we really want to know what young people think. What should be done? What needs to be developed? Even at this stage, however, there is no guarantee that young people’s opinions will influence decision-making.

The fifth rung is placation. For example, putting hand-picked ”authoritative” people on working groups. This allows citizens to give advice or plans indefinitely, while those in power retain the right to judge the legitimacy or feasibility of the advice. On the mental health side, this is what happens when a ’quota-expert by experience’ is included in various committees, but has no real influence, even though he or she has the right to speak at meetings.

Rung six is a partnership where power is redistributed through negotiations between young people and workers. Responsibility for planning and decision-making is shared, for example through joint working groups.

Rung seven is delegation, where young people are no longer participants in activities, but are the agents. When they have delegated power over something, it means that they also have the right to decide on it, over and above the power of the workers. Young people have the final say in that.

The highest rung is citizen control, where the actors have overall responsibility for the action. They do the planning, decision-making and management of the activities, without any intermediary between them and the funding source.

Culture House activities in relation to the rungs

A redistribution of power is therefore an essential part of the growth of inclusion – and community empowerment. In an empowering community, power is consciously given to the young people involved. In in the Culture House, young people can play two roles: either as participants or as trained peer tutors. The training of peer tutors is intended to empower future peer tutors, and as part of this process, to give them more power than they had as participants. After the training, the peer tutors can decide what kind of activities they want to go to Culture House to do. Most often they lead groups, but they also organize excursions, theme days and events.

Peer tutors can decide, for example, what kind of group they will lead, what day and time the group will run, whether there is a registration or maximum number of participants and what kind of materials the group will need. The only thing the worker can interfere with in the decision-making process is how much money each group can spend. Based on this, I would estimate that peer tutors are operating at rung seven.

Even a participant in a Culture House has a fair amount of power in the community. Firstly, they are already asked at the introductory visit what they are interested in, and efforts are made to organize such activities. They are also free to decide which activities to take part in, when and how. All participants are informed about all the issues and their opinions are listened to. Community meetings are used as a form of decision-making in the Culture House, to which all participants, peer tutors and staff are invited. There is a issue that is discussed and a solution is found through joint negotiation. Everyone has an equal role in influencing to the solution. From the participants’ point of view, the Culture House is perhaps on rung six.

Citation: Arnstein, S. 1969. A Ladder of Citizen Participation. Journal of the American Institute of Planners 1969: (35): 4. p. 215-224.: Where does Culture House climb the Arnstein´s ladder?