Sofía UnanueAugust 19, 2019

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La Maraña is a woman-led, participatory design non-profit that empowers Puerto Ricans to improve their cities and communities.

In the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and María, La Maraña imagines a community-driven future, dubbed Imaginacíon Post-María, where local people plan and orchestrate sustainable rebuilding efforts that suit their community’s needs. It offers citizens direct power to imagine, plan and build the changes they desire in their communities.

After a year and a half of working hand-in-hand with three community partners across the island in order to bring Imaginación Post-María to life, La Maraña is looking to scale its model. In order to spread the Imaginacíon Post-María model across the island, they seek to create educational, open-source deliverables such as a Toolkit that can spark bottom-up action and spread organically across communities.

To scale their community-based model, La Maraña must strike a balance between standardizing and replicating their methodology while also encouraging freedom and openness of community participation. La Maraña came to the LabStorm group for advice on how to tackle this challenge, as well as the challenge of long-term funding and balancing on-the-ground activity with advocacy work. LabStorm attendees delved deep into the questions and through a lively discussion, came up with three major ideas:


  1. Simplify systems. Imaginación Post-María is completely community-driven, which means the design process, community engagement, and of course, outcomes, are dramatically different based on the project location and community demographics. When designing with kids, La Maraña used conversation and feedback to craft a dream playground. When working with a smalltown of 350 families, it built a town-wide, interactive scavenger hunt to showcase community members’ abilities. Since community members select and vote on projects, each community has distinctly different goals and needs.

    While this community-specific mentality is essential in La Maraña process, the LabStorm highlighted that in order to expand their model across Puerto Rico, La Maraña must standardize its process. But what does that look like without sacrificing community autonomy and creativity? LabStorm attendees weighed in with a few suggestions on how to maintain this balance. First, La Maraña can start by standardizing its community skills mapping process as part of its Toolkit. This guide can be shared widely and utilized by any community without La Maraña’s direct intervention. In order to keep track of projects and check in on progress at scale, LabStorm attendees suggested that La Maraña create an online communication channel. Online chat tools, such as WhatsApp, would allow La Maraña to keep in touch with community leaders and remotely track projects without being directly involved.

  2. Use community data as a self-advocacy tool. Through its work with community participatory design, La Maraña has seen that government officials are often dismissive of Puerto Rican communities’ needs. Since La Maraña partners directly with communities in the face of an absent government, they naturally fill an advocacy role. But with all of its projects on the ground, it can be difficult for La Maraña to find time to do political advocacy. So LabStorm attendees asked: do headquarters staff need to be the advocates themselves? Just like with their reimagining work, where citizens are at the center, advocacy too can be driven by the people most affected. Attendees suggested a process whereby La Maraña would capture complaints and ideas from WhatsApp messages with community members. Then, it could look for patterns in the messages and compile the results into easily digestible handouts. Community organizers could then use the handouts to show data and numbers about community needs and advocate for those needs to their local government leaders. Through this process of compilation and dissemination, communities would be incentivized to manage their own advocacy work, without La Maraña’s direct management.

  3. Engage with funders in new ways. The excitement throughout this LabStorm drove home just how great demand is for La Maraña’s community-empowerment model. With such demand, and need, it is feeling pressure to grow quickly. In order to scale, however, it needs more funding. Drafting a new community mapping process, setting up WhatsApp channels to analyze community members needs, and compiling those comments into a handout would all be costly up front, but could be built into operations once standardized. LabStorm attendees suggested that La Maraña apply for disaster recovery-specific government funds as they become available. Or, rather than looking for new sources of funding, another option is to ask current funders to aid La Maraña with building these tools. This tactic is low-cost and targets funders who have already decided to support La Maraña’s mission to play a role in the exciting next phase of the organization’s growth.

This LabStorm reminded us of the trade-offs of bringing a community-based model to scale. Have you seen a good example of a community-based model spreading and growing sustainably? Leave a comment below or send us a message at [email protected].

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