Foster Fishman Pennie  Square

Pennie Foster-Fishman


PhD, Organizational/Community Psychology, University of Illinois at Chicago, 1994
MA, Organizational/Community Psychology, University of Illinois at Chicago, 1991
BS, Psychology, Summa Cum Laude, Wittenberg University, 1984

Research Statement

Dr. Foster-Fishman's research interests primarily emphasize systems change, particularly how organizational, inter-organizational, community, and state systems can improve to better meet the needs of children, youth, and families. In her research and evaluation practice, Dr. Foster-Fishman is known for designing and applying innovative facilitation, team, and evaluation techniques that promote real-time learning, systems alignment, and participatory voice. To date she has published over 45 articles and book chapters that have examined how to effectively design and pursue change. Dr. Foster-Fishman also has over 25 years of experience as a systems, organizational and community change consultant. She has consulted with hundreds of public sector agencies, not-for-profit organizations, community and state-wide coalitions, and international, federal and state change initiatives aiming to improve their effectiveness and strategic alignment. She has worked closely with national foundations and state and federal funders to enhance their funding mechanisms and strategic approaches. Her frameworks for building collaborative capacity and for promoting systems change have been adopted by communities, coalitions, funders, and state and federal government agencies around the world. 

Current and Recent Projects

ABLe Change

TheABLe Change Framework is designed to help communities more effectively address significant social issues affecting children, youth, and families. The model is based upon the premise that communities can achieve transformative results when they:

  • make local system and community conditions the intentional targets of their change initiatives
  • pursue the effective implementation of their efforts
  • build a community engagement infrastructure that supports real-time learning and action across diverse stakeholders and sectors

Developed by Drs. Pennie Foster-Fishman and Erin Watson at Michigan State University, the ABLe Change Framework is a dynamic model of change that is adaptive to local conditions, providing stakeholders with the flexibility they need to effectively address targeted community problems. Drawing upon research on community change from around the world, ABLe Change provides a robust toolbox of powerful yet feasible strategies communities can use to pursue transformative change. This model is currently being used in several states to support their efforts to build effective early childhood systems so all children enter school ready to learn.  The ABLe Change Framework is organized around 6 “simple rules” that, when pursued together, transform how community stakeholders work and learn together. The ABLe Change Simple Rules includ:

  1. Think Systemically
  2. Engage Diverse Perspectives
  3. Incubate Change
  4. Implement Change Effectively
  5. Adapt Quickly
  6. Pursue Social Justice

BC Pulse

Funded by the  W.K. Kellogg Foundation, BC Pulse serves as a backbone organization for supporting effective system change in Battle Creek, Michigan. BC Pulse has adapted the ABLe Change Framework and supports collective action and learning across Battle Creek stakeholders and organizations to connect, leverage, support, and align current and future system change efforts to better meet the needs of children and families. Specifically, BC Pulse:

  • Facilitates action and learning
    • Facilitates conversations across stakeholders for the purposes of developing service alignment and coordination, which may also include developing policies and practices and shifting power to support systems change goals.
    • Provides space for residents, service providers, and community leaders to raise system issues for collective problem-solving.
  • Brokers authentic and expert knowledge
    • Assists the community to use data, residents' lived experiences, and evaluation findings to inform action-learning conversations, local decisions, and future programming efforts.
  • Promotes effective implementation
    • Provides organizations, staff, leaders, and residents with coaching and support around effective implementation.
    • Connects new initiatives to ongoing change efforts.
    • Links individuals and organizations to training and capacity building opportunities.
  • Creates a systems change movement
    • Actively weaves together action and knowledge resulting from BC Pulse conversations to maximize impact.
    • Provides opportunities to align goals, practices, and resources across organizations and residents.
    • Promotes a climate of shared accountability.

Pulse Survey

The Pulse Survey was a collaborative data-collection effort designed to help stakeholders understand the conditions affecting the families of vulnerable children ages 0-5 in Battle Creek, with the intent of exploring and improving the delivery of health, education, and financial services and supports to those families. The survey was developed by the System exChange Team at MSU, BC Pulse, and an advisory committee representing organizations providing health, education, and financial services and supports in the Battle Creek community.

The Pulse Survey was launched in summer 2014; data was collected from 574 vulnerable families across 14 data collection sites in Battle Creek.  The survey was designed around the community problem solving framework: a framework that reflects the ways key community conditions (e.g., service quality and accessibility, responsive providers, community mindsets, service coordination) contribute to individuals’ and families’ attitudes, knowledge, skills, and behaviors. The specific areas of interest within this framework were identified by members of the local advisory committee to guide the design and use of the survey.


Because past data collection efforts often obscured the inequities within Battle Creek, the Pulse Survey was intentionally designed to understand where and how disparities emerge. By oversampling vulnerable families of color, we ensured a sufficient sample size within each subgroup to allow us to conduct multiple subgroup comparisons on our targeted outcomes. Overall, this approach resulted in great insight about how specific populations differentially experience the system and success.  Future Pulse Surveys will continue this practice, allowing participating partners to learn more about how disparities play out in the service delivery system and how to address them collectively.

Battle Creek Impact Academy

The Impact Academy was designed to promote the effectiveness of change efforts pursued by community-based organizations. Too often, organizations pursue projects that include targeted problems, solutions, implementation processes, and evaluation & learning efforts significantly misaligned with the authentic needs and aspirations of local residents and the system or place conditions affecting their targeted problem. As a result, well-intentioned projects often fail to achieve their intended outcomes.

Through the Impact Academy’s training and coaching series and peer-to-peer learning network, participants learned how to enhance their strategic design, strategic implementation, and strategic learning efforts.  Participating organizations engaged up to 5 members from their organization in this learning and capacity-building experience. In each training and coaching session, participants worked with others from their organization to apply key concepts to their work and future project plans.

Related Programs

Selected Publications

  • Foster-Fishman, P. G., & Watson, E. R.
    The ABLe Change Framework: A Conceptual and Methodological Tool for Promoting Systems Change
    2011, American Journal of Community Psychology
  • Yang, E., Foster-Fishman, P., Collins, C., & Ahn, S.
    Testing a comprehensive community problem solving framework for community coalitions
    2012, Journal of Community Psychology, 40:681-698
  • Foster-Fishman, P.G., & Droege, E.
    Action research as systems change
    2011, H.E. Fitzgerald, C. Burack, & S. Seifer (Eds.) Handbook of Engaged Scholarship: The Contemporary Landscape. Michigan State University Press.
  • Nowell, B., & Foster-Fishman, P.
    Examining Multi-Sector Collaboratives as Vehicles for Building Organizational Capacity
    2011, American Journal of Community Psychology, 48:198-207
  • Foster-Fishman, P. G., Law, K. M., Lichty, L. F., & Aoun, C.
    Youth ReACT for Social Change: A Method for Youth Participatory Action Research
    2010, American Journal of Community Psychology, 46:67-83
  • Foster-Fishman, P. G., Pierce, S. J., & Van Egeren, L. a.
    Who Participates and Why: Building a Process Model of Citizen Participation
    2009, Health Education & Behavior : The Official Publication of the Society for Public Health Education, 36:550-69
  • Foster-Fishman, P.G., & Long, R.L.
    The challenges of place, capacity, and systems change
    2009, The Foundation Review, 1:69-84
  • McNall, M., & Foster-Fishman, P.G.
    Methods of rapid evaluation, assessment, and appraisal
    2007, American Journal of Evaluation, 28:151-168
  • Foster-Fishman, P. G., Cantillon, D., Pierce, S., & Van Egeren, L. P.
    Building an Active Citizenry: The Role of Neighborhood Problems, Readiness, and Capacity for Change
    2007, American Journal of Community Psychology, 39:91-106
  • Behrens, T. R., & Foster-Fishman, P. G.
    Developing operating principles for systems change
    2007, American Journal of Community Psychology, 39:411-4
  • Foster-Fishman, P.G., & Behrens, T.
    Systems change reborn: Rethinking our theories, methods, and efforts in human services reform and community-based change
    2007, American Journal of Community Psychology, 39:191-196
  • Foster-Fishman, P. G., Nowell, B., & Yang, H.
    Putting the system back into systems change: a framework for understanding and changing organizational and community systems
    2007, American Journal of Community Psychology, 39:197-215
  • Foster-Fishman, P., Jimenez, T., Valenti, M., & Kelley, T.
    Building the Next Generation of Leaders in the Disabilities Movement
    2007, 22:341-356
  • Nowell, B., Berkowitz, S., Deacon, Z., & Foster-Fishman, P.G.
    Revealing the Cues within Community Places: Stories of Identity, History, and Possibility
    2006, American Journal of Community Psychology, 37:29-46
  • Foster-Fishman, P.G., Fitzgerald, K., Brandell, C., Nowell, B., Chavis, D.M., & Van Egeren, L.
    Mobilizing Residents for Action: The Role of Small Wins and Strategic Supports
    2006, American Journal of Community Psychology, 38:143-152
  • Foster-Fishman, P., Nowell, B., Deacon, Z., Nievar, M. A., & McCann, P.
    Using methods that matter: The impact of reflection, dialogue, and voice
    2005, American Journal of Community Psychology, 36:275-91
  • Allen, N. E., Foster-Fishman, P. G., & Salem, D. a.
    Interagency teams: A vehicle for service delivery reform
    2002, Journal of Community Psychology, 30:475-497
  • Salem, D. a, Foster-Fishman, P. G., & Goodkind, J. R.
    The Adoption of Innovation in Collective Action Organizations
    2002, American Journal of Community Psychology, 30:681-710
  • Goodkind, J. R., & Foster-Fishman, P. G.
    Integrating diversity and fostering interdependence: Ecological lessons learned about refugee participation in multi-ethnic communities
    2002, Journal of Community Psychology, 30:389-409
  • Foster-Fishman, P. G., Berkowitz, S. L., Lounsbury, D. W., Jacobson, S., & Allen, N. a.
    Building Collaborative Capacity in Community Coalitions: A Review and Integrative Framework
    2001, American Journal of Community Psychology, 29:241-61
  • Foster-Fishman, P.G. Salem, D. A., Allen, N., & Fahrbach, K.
    Ecological factors impacting provider attitudes towards service delivery reform
    2001, American Journal of Community Psychology, 27:785-816
  • Butterfoss, F., Cashman, Z., Foster-Fishman, P.G., Kegler, M., & Berkowitz, B.
    Roundtable discussion and final comments
    2001, American Journal of Community Psychology, 29:229-239
  • Foster-Fishman, P. G., Salem, D. a, Allen, N. a, & Fahrbach, K.
    Facilitating interorganizational collaboration: the contributions of interorganizational alliances
    2001, American Journal of Community Psychology, 29:875-905
  • Foster-Fishman, P. G., & Keys, C. B.
    The Person / Environment Dynamics of Employee Empowerment : An Organizational Culture
    2001, American Journal of Community Psychology, 25:345-369
  • more publications