This post focuses on civic engagement and Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD). For more information on leading change through ABCD see these posts:
One of the most appealing aspects of Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) as a change strategy, is that people’s contributions to the overall effort are not ranked or graded. ABCD is not a competitive endeavor. If “asset” is defined narrowly to refer only to financial assets, then assets are a scarce resource, and solutions to the challenges we face become commodities. However, recognizing the value of assets such as diversity, relationships, social and cultural literacy, and underappreciated human ingenuity, transforms our pursuits into inspiring models of collaboration. This capacity centered approach to community building becomes a great way to ensure that a community is greater than the sum of its parts.
There is no mathematical formula that tells you when a community achieves this ‘greater than’ status. It is not marketing that makes it so. You can’t simply claim it, but it does have measurable indicators. A strong, vibrant community combines among other things, a strong sense of place, the promise of social and economic opportunity, and general agreement on quality of life measures. These are all attributes that complement people’s self-interests. People are always more likely to act where they can see a return on the investment of their time.
So how can we embark on a conscious effort to achieve such a community? How do we leverage all of these hidden assets so that individuals and groups contribute more than their usual ‘part’?
Not all of the community’s positive activity is deliberately communal, or coordinated. Many good things happen without any urging or direction. Individuals contribute to the quality of life in their community in a variety of ways. Many of these actions require very little time, and go unnoticed by most people. Someone may pick up a piece of trash laying on the ground and put it in a garbage can. They might stop a child, or a pet from running out into a street. These are all things that take seconds to do, and people do them without being asked.
Then there is the type of civic engagement that is a little more public. The realities of modern life suggest that there are far more people who will engage in short, easy positive actions because they are just that, short and easy. The longer the time commitment that is expected, and the more people are expected to be “out of their comfort zone,” the fewer the number of people will be involved. But sometimes deeper, more deliberate and focused community engagement is required in order to make a greater impact.
How then do we encourage deeper civic engagement? The simplest answer is that you identify the things that people like to do, or are good at, and find opportunities for them to do more of those things for the benefit of the community. This is one of the fundamental tenets of ABCD.
Another quick path to deeper community engagement is a friendly invitation from someone a person knows and trusts. That’s right, just ask.
There are people in communities with fairly large circles of acquaintances. They seem to know everybody. They are connectors. Their conversations often include phrases such as, “Do you know X? The two of you should meet.” These connectors, whether deliberately or not, are often creating an invitation to actions with a higher profile, and carry a greater time commitment. They might include things such as volunteering at community events, or helping to raise money for some cause. The fact is that anyone can be a connector, regardless of their perceived circle of influence. People enjoy doing things with people like, and with whom they share common interests. Just ask.
An often forgotten, but especially important strategy to make your community greater than the sum of its parts, is to look to the community’s marginalized people. Nursing home residents, homeless people, homebound people, and countless others all have knowledge, wisdom, gifts, skills and talents to contribute to a community. Usually, however, nobody bothers to speak to them, or even acknowledge their presence in the community. You don’t know what they are capable of unless you talk to them face to face. Make life more fulfilling for these residents, and you’ll see life get exponentially better for all community members.
Let’s review. What are some strategies we might use to engage residents in an effort to improve your community’s quality of life?
- People will act when their self-interests are served.
- People will do the things they enjoy doing. They will also do things they enjoy a little less, as long as they’re doing them with people they like being around.
- People will act when someone they trust and respect asks them to act.
- EVERYBODY has something to contribute to the quality of life in a community.