There is No One Version of ABCD

This is the latest post in a series that looks at Asset-Based Community Development. Previous posts include:
Asset-Focused Leadership
Asset-Focused Leadership Part II: the Importance of Associations
The Unexpected Benefits of ABCD

I want to present a different way to think about Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD). People tend to think of ABCD as something that requires a “community” in order to implement strategies, or projects. Community is after all, part of the name, right? We have a vision of what we want things to look like, and our minds jump to a scale that reflects the ideal. We want a ‘big tent,’ and go to great lengths not to exclude anyone. That’s admirable, but I’m impatient. I have a bias toward action.

I believe that before you create a group, or better yet, a network, you consider your own assets. What can I do RIGHT NOW based on the skills, talents, and relationships that I have? Where can I plant the seeds of change? Who can I help educate? Make a list that answers these questions, the make it a to-do list. This is also ABCD.

If when you are accomplishing these small tasks you cross paths with one other person who shares your values and your vision, have them answer the same questions. Then try to connect your combined assets in a way that could lead to a specific action. Do your assets complement each other’s? Do they get you at least halfway to a collaborative action? This is also ABCD.

When I think of things that could be changed for the better, I often divide the necessary changes into two categories. Is this problem something that requires a change in policy, or is it something that can be addressed by changing practice? When you look at a list of changes of practice that could lead to positive improvements, those modifications are frequently things for which you don’t even have to acquire permission. For example, handling situations with more generosity, and more humility isn’t difficult, or expensive. It also tends to reveal shared values among people who are not frequently in conversation. This is also ABCD.

I will repeat something I have said many times before. ABCD isn’t necessarily a detailed process, or plan. It is more of a worldview. You can engage in ABCD without creating an actual asset map. You can engage in ABCD without positional leadership. ABCD simply requires authentic human connection, and a mutual commitment to create change by allowing people to share their skills, talents, and knowledge for everyone’s benefit.

The Unexpected Benefits of ABCD

NOTE: This post is a companion piece to the post, “Asset Focused Leadership,” which provides an overview of ABCD fundamentals.

“Happy accidents are real gifts, and they can open the door to a future that didn’t even exist. It’s kind of nice sometimes to set up something to encourage or allow happy accidents to happen.” — David Lynch

An asset-based community development (ABCD) approach to creating change requires a recognition of the fundamental humanity of every member of the community, and allows each person’s gifts, skills, and talents to be shared and celebrated. It should not be surprising that these basic tenets often result in unexpected discoveries of human ingenuity and accomplishment.

Communities use ABCD to uncover, and creatively implement ways to address local issues. Along the way, however, small groups of collaborators, many of whom have only recently met, begin to see their community through a different lens. As people work together to create positive change in their community, social capital, and trusted personal relationships are created.

That trust can be a key to a sense of belonging for people who formerly found themselves on the margins. Being surrounded by gifted, caring people does more than instill confidence that committed people can get things done. It often uncovers a generosity of spirit, and a level of compassion that the community had not previously seen.

The unexpected benefits of taking the time to ask people what they care deeply about, and what their talents are, consistently changes the conversation. People are forced to rethink notions about where wisdom and expertise reside. That gives them confidence to believe that they don’t have to wait around for someone else do something about improving the things that they are passionate about.

Vision is Personal

Creating change is inescapably tied to a shared vision. People can’t keep their eyes on the prize, if they don’t know what the prize is. A common notion of what the future should look like, however, is not enough.

Visionary concepts can be abstract (“We see a world where everybody . . .”). Change is social and shared, but above all else, change is personal. The key to a vision being a motivator for action, is for each individual to see themselves in that future.

One of the reasons why I am an advocate for Asset Based Community Development (ABCD), is that at its core, ABCD mobilizes people based on what they care about the most, and how their personal talents can best contribute to positive change. A group, a community, a movement, is made up of individuals with both broader common interests, and specific self-interest. Don’t just rally around the abstract and the generalized. Ask people to put themselves in the future being created.

Asset-Focused Leadership

“Every single person has capabilities, abilities and gifts. Living a good life depends on whether those capabilities can be used, abilities expressed and gifts given. If they are, the person will be valued, feel powerful and well-connected to the people around them. And the community around the person will be more powerful because of the contribution the person is making.”
– John P. Kretzmann and John L. McKnight

If you are interested in developing many of the other concepts we’ve been looking at, such as collaborative leadership, supporting more effective networks of concerned people, and helping them find their power; then Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) is the organizing strategy for you. I have dedicated a good chunk of my life to helping folks discover community-building assets. I have done countless ABCD workshops, and have written about it on occasion. ABCD principles contribute many useful ideas to a re-imagined concept of leadership; therefore, I’ll dedicate multiple sections to it.

Don’t be scared off by the word phrase “community development.” Community can refer to small groups of people who are passionate about the same issue, neighborhoods, or communities of interest – including those made up of people not sharing a community of place. For our purposes, development simply means to make better. Let’s start with the fundamentals.

ABCD, is an approach described by John McKnight and John Kretzmann, in the 1993 book, Building Communities from the Inside Out. It is founded on the belief that communities and neighborhoods thrive when built upon the knowledge, interests, and capacities of their residents, groups, and institutions.  This contrasts with the typical “needs-based” approach where the starting point is based on an assessment of deficiencies.

ABCD is not a formula. Rather, it is an approach to creating positive change that has many paths, but which necessarily includes three elements. One of the roles of leaders in asset-based endeavors to be a persistent compass when it comes to these three filters.

  1. ABCD is, by definition, asset-based. It starts with what already exists in the community. ABCD requires the community to inventory the skills and talents of individuals, the assets of formal and informal associations (including relationships) and those of local institutions.
  2. ABCD is internally-focused. The community frames the issues and challenges, and designs possible plans of action. This internal focus is intended simply to stress the primacy of local definition, investment, creativity, hope and control.
  3. ABCD is relationship-driven. To be successful, communities must be deliberate about constantly building and rebuilding relationships among residents, local associations and local institutions. Relationships create the underpinnings on which trust is built. Sharing common values and goals is one thing, but when you add trust to the mix, you have the beginnings of a recipe for power.

asset vs needOne way for leaders to assess their efforts as they begin is to ask themselves these questions:

  • Who decides what will be done? – Is this the vision of a small group of individuals, or is there a shared vision across a larger group of stakeholders?
  • Who are the producers of results? – Are “interventions” being done to, or for people; or are people accomplishing things on their own behalf?
  • How will the gifts of individuals & the community be identified and mobilized? – What approaches to asset mapping and strategic planning make the most sense?
  • Whose capacity is being built? – Are you simply replacing one rigid top-down system for another?

 Mapping Assets

Simply put, asset-mapping is systematically finding out what skills, talents, knowledge, relationships, and other assets currently exist in the community. This should include unearthing the capacities of:

  • Individuals – Talk to as many people as possible. Don’t forget marginalized people, those whose presence is not frequently (if ever) recognized.
  • Associations – These are social assets. They are not always easily recognized. They are identified by the fact that people are associating with each other without getting paid. The people in associations are together because they share a common passion or interest. Associations can be formal (a church congregation), or informal (a group of friends who meet every Tuesday for coffee at the same café).
  • Institutions – All public, private, and nonprofit organizations including schools, government, and businesses.
  • Physical Assets – This includes things like public space, buildings, and natural assets.
  • Exchange – Financial transactions, including things like deliberate local purchasing or boycotting.

Don’t panic. You don’t have to map the assets of the entire community. This isn’t an exercise in database creation. This is about looking for opportunity. These opportunities reveal themselves during the process of finding out how newly discovered assets can be connected and leveraged to increase relationships and moving people to act.

Once you know what change your community seeks to make start mapping with folks who might already be working to create that change?  No special training is necessary, though there are many people who can help you get started.

Your early group of leaders will have to define your community, figure out who is available to do the work on the ground, and assess your initial resources to do the mapping. You can use any number of methods, either via surveys, or better yet through one to one conversations, or appreciative inquiry. Remember, lists of information are good, but stories are even better because they can reveal hidden social and cultural assets.

Useful Resources

More on ABCD to come