Last week I received a call from an exasperated university professor.  Her students had been volunteering in one of our communities and she said, “They want to get their hands dirty and really do something meaningful.”  I understand her frustration.  She only has a semester with these students and she wants their time in the neighborhood to be valuable and impactful.  The university places a tremendous value in place-based learning and as someone who does a lot of teaching, I highly respect their commitment.

The hard part comes when individuals who are only in the community temporarily see a need and want to address the need through a programmatic response.  Most professionals are trained to diagnose a situation from a needs-based approach and ask, “What is broken and how do we fix it?”

I am so thankful that the professor who is facilitating the student’s time in neighborhood respects that our approach is exactly the opposite of the traditional way students are trained.  We never start with the question, “What does the community need?”  We start with the question, “What do the residents care enough about to support?” and secondly, “What do they have to work with?”

This asset-based approach to community development is often frustrating for anyone seeking to have a significant impact in a short period of time.  Often, the things the neighbors care about are not the same things that the “professionals” think they should care about.  When groups enter into communities without proper training in an asset-based approach, residents can feel as though they have nothing to offer and outside groups feel as though their good deeds are not being valued.  In the end, everyone can end up frustrated and discouraged.

I do believe outside groups can add tremendous value to the health and well-being of a community if they are properly trained and if they understand that their role is not to “fix problems” but is instead to “support local leaders.”  Resident leaders may not have the educational training or expertise of the outside groups but they have something far more valuable – trust and relationships.  When you partner an effective local leader with an outside volunteer whose sole job is to support that leader, amazing things can happen.

In the next few weeks my associate Qasarah Bey will have the opportunity to teach these students about asset-based community development.  I don’t know if any of them will realize just how significant this paradigm shift is in their short stay in our neighborhood, but I do pray that the seeds that Qasarah plants will bear fruit in their professional careers beyond this learning opportunity.  It is a privilege to have the opportunity to sow into the lives of these bright and dedicated young people.

What would it look like if church missions groups stopped “fixing problems” and started empowering local leaders?