How to Facilitate a Community River Clean-up (when you are not a facilitator)


In our 2023 year end blog, we look at how a leader without facilitation training can help a community do an important sustainability project. I admit it would be easier and likely more efficient, if you can get a facilitator to help you do this. But imagine, you are a leader who uses your skills to coalesce citizens to take collective action on a serious and complex community problem. This blog helps you contemplate that.

In the video below, I speak with a family member, my eldest niece, Margaret, who is in charge of social responsibility for her company in Puebla, Mexico. She asked me how to facilitate community participation in the ecological restoration of a river affecting the large city of Puebla and several nearby affected smaller communities. The river was incredibly polluted, thick with sludge, garbage, toxins and had an unbearable foul smell. WOW! She has no training in facilitation but is a great communicator and leader.  First the photos to give you a preview of the city and river, then the video on me and Margaret talking about the problem. Enjoy!

View of city near the river

Looking down on Atoyac River with garbage on the bank

The 19 + minute video outlines some of the challenges she faces in getting the community members to collaborate and trust each other enough to do the work needed. It also includes a few stances and tips I am suggesting she might try as someone who has a vested interest in ensuring the project succeeds, but also who realizes the very long-term nature of this project. Apologies if there are a couple of rough segues as I tried editing it from an hour-long interview to keep only the essential parts.

Here are some additional ideas for the stance a leader could take and might do when facing similar challenges. All of these tips are based on my own experiences and advice from colleagues who do awesome community development and facilitation work.

Ten “simple” to-do’s for involving the community involvement in solving a complex problem

  1. Know there is a way to help solve a complex problem despite the many setbacks and obstacles you will face along the way. Be brave. Hold out hope for those with whom you are working.
  2. Seek emotional, financial, political and economic help to take on this project.
  3. Find champions in the communities or groups with whom you are working. Stay in close, regular communication with them so they can be your “ear on the ground”. Support them with what they need to do their jobs.
  4. Get the group or community to envision a much better situation. Keep reminding them of this vision. Have them put it into powerful words, draw it, create a song about it or do anything which creates a rallying call when things get tough. In my niece’s case, she had a great idea of bringing local artists together to draw or sculpt a new living river ecosystem.
  5. Have an honest problem identification session – state all the things that are stopping success. Acknowledge the hopelessness. Acknowledge the sadness and anger. Hold healing circles if needed.
  6. Narrow down the BIG problem to something manageable/doable. Identify the first root cause that if addressed could build hope and start things rolling in the right direction. In my niece’s case, the root cause might be inadequate systems to handle the garbage generated”. And the problem question to be answered might be: “How can we throw less trash in the river?”
  7. Then have a problem-solving (strategy creation) session(s). Brainstorm the many ways you could solve the simpler problem.
  8. Create action groups with various skills and experiences. Maybe there are people who have the right political connections; others may know how to fund-raise; some may be good researchers or data collectors; others might be willing to implement physical solutions (e.g., picking out the trash from the river).
  9. Create milestone goals and monitor success every 3-4 months.
  10. Once one aspect of the problem is solved or started, identify the next obvious problem, and start again at step 7.

For those of you familiar with the ICA (Institute of Cultural Affairs) ToP® (Technology of Participation) strategic planning process (vision, obstacles, strategies, actions) you may recognize aspects of that model. I am deeply grateful for learning this powerful model decades ago. It continues to serve me and the many groups I have worked with all over the world. Please offer your ideas too, as I am coming at it from limited community development experience.


Here are some other relevant resources in our Bronze and Silver Facilitator Memberships for purchase that might help leaders who want to build trust and foster true collaboration but who may have little or no facilitation training.

Bronze resources – I recommend in particular, the resources in Dialogue and Engagement; Strategic Planning; and Conflict Resolution.

Silver resources – I recommend in particular, Meetings That Rock Light and Meetings That Rock Essentials mini courses, and Facilitator Templates to help you be a better collaborative leader.


Barbara MacKay

Barbara loves “everything facilitation”. She thinks BIG! She loves working with other facilitators around the globe to create transformational results for client groups. She loves teaching others how to do that. She loves presenting at global facilitator conferences. She loves certifying new professional facilitators. If you also love what process facilitation can do for the world, connect with her – virtually or in person. She believes facilitation processes, used well, will provide the roadmap to a more just and sustainable world.

Leave a Comment