While in London, my daughter and I became quite adept at navigating the tube (London’s version of a subway system.)  Every time the train would stop and the doors would open, the voice would say, “Mind the gap between the train and the platform.”  When I looked at that gap, I understood why that was a persistent warning.

While I was at the ABCD Festival in the UK, I heard a similar warning over and over.  I heard,

Mind the gap between the community and the institution.”

Our UK friends taught me that ABCD practitioners are “gappers.”

Gappers are those who stand between institutions and the community with the goal of holding institutions back and creating spaces for democracy to take root.

Most gappers I met in the UK worked for a governmental entity.  They have a hard job.  As one representative from the Coady Institute stated, the goal of a gapper is to shift their organizations “from DCBA to ABCD.”  That is a shift from a Deficient Counting Before Assistance approach to Asset Based Community Driven approach.

John McKnight suggested that all gappers ask these three questions before they act:

  1. What can the community do for themselves?
  2. What can the community do with some help from institutions?
  3. What can only institutions do?

In addition, Dan Duncan, an ABCD Institute faculty member, added these additional two questions for gappers to consider:

  1. What is our institution doing that the community could do?
  2. What could our institution do to support the community’s efforts?

During the conference I participated in a round table discussion specifically for gappers.  One seasoned gapper said that he was often criticized in his institution. His co-workers would say to him, “You always take the side of the community.”  He said to us, “If that is the only thing on my epitaph, I will die a happy man.” 

That is the heart of a true gapper!

In that circle, there was a lot of frustration.  It was obvious that many thought that they would be able to work within institutional structures to build community.  A task that simply can’t be done.  I heard people say,

“My boss does not give me the freedom to do this work.”, “No one in my organization gets it.”, and “I have no support.”  

In that conversation there were two pioneering young gappers named Chris and Shawn.  As they listened to their frustrated peers, I heard these young rebels challenging their peers to

“Go where the positive energy is and pretend the negative voices don’t exist” and to

“Ask forgiveness, not permission.” 

The best advice that came from that conversation among the gappers was,

“Proceed until captured!”

Being a gapper is not for those who need to be given authority by others.  It is for those who act based on what is right not what is approved.  It takes a lot of courage.

I was blessed to meet some wonderful gappers who are doing great work.  I was also sadden to hear of gappers who undermined the health of the communities.  Two stories come to mind.

Terry Bergdall, who is a faculty member of the ABCD Institute shared a story about a community that decided to rebuild an abandoned building and turn it into a community center.

The community members all brought what materials they had and banded together making the most of what little they had.

The project was nearly complete, they only needed roofing materials to complete the structure.  The community found an old structure and decided to take the metal roofing material from the old structure to use on their newly renovated community center.

A  UNICEF worker was so impressed with the work of the neighbors that he offered to provide new roofing materials. So the community stopped the project and waited for the new materials to arrive.  The materials never came and the project was never completed.

Gappers can empower citizens or disempower them.

While at the festival, I shared a cottage with a lovely woman from South Africa they all called Mum Nkutha.  Mum Nkutha had a multitude of stories of how institutions killed citizen-driven projects but the one that stood out to me was the story of a village that had no water supply.

The older men of the village decided to dig a trench from the mountain down to the village to capture the water.

A well-meaning aid worker came through the village and saw these older men laboring on the ditch and decided to help.  He then brought in young strong men from outside the village to complete the ditch.

She said it was heartbreaking to see the men of her village sitting on the sidelines watching these outsiders finish their project.  It robbed them of the dignity and the pride they had felt in helping their community.

John McKnight often refers to those working in a community setting as “circles” because of the way power is shared and distributed evenly within a community context.  He uses a triangle to visually represent an institutional model where most of the power and control is concentrated in the hands of a few.  He drew us this visual of the role of those in the gap.


John McKnight reminded us that when there is no one standing in the gap, what often happens is this:

Triangles and Circles

When a Gapper does their job well, they are invisible.  What you see is citizens shaping their own community.  However, we live in a society filled with triangles.  For citizens to discover their shared passion and mobilize around what they care about, someone has to hold back the institutions.  This is the noble role of the gapper.

This post is dedicated to all the folks standing in the gap.  May God protect you from the pointed edges of all those triangles and may the beauty of thriving circles warm your heart and nurture your soul.