A lot of people talk community assets but then bring in outside experts to fix the neighborhood. We have to defend the power of the local.”  Jody Kretzmann

As I continue to reflect on the lessons I learned from the ABCD Festival in England earlier this summer, it is the challenges facing ABCD that I am drawn back to.  Repeatedly throughout the conference I heard frustrations that ABCD language is finding its way into many conversations but when you look at what is called “asset-based”, what you find is not actually citizen-driven but simply institutions that are using asset-based language without practicing ABCD.

One speaker suggested that we change the acronym from Asset-based Community Development to Asset-Based Citizen-Driven.  I have begun to adopt citizen driven language because it is what differentiates true ABCD from efforts that are simply using ABCD language.

I thought a lot about how this adoption of the ABCD language without the practice is impacting those of us who are ABCD practitioners. Many shared that language without practice is watering down the movement, making the language meaningless and creating confusion about what ABCD truly represents.  In speaking with my own Communities First Association colleagues, we have all struggled to find a way of vetting ABCD efforts that leads to a consistent understanding and application of ABCD philosophy and practice.

The best way to determine if an effort founded on authentic ABCD practices is to ask the question that John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann asked when they first began researching ABCD.

“Can you tell us what people have done here together to make things better?”

This question focuses on the fruit that is born out of authentic practice. Throughout the conference, I asked many people to tell me about the ordinary citizens in their community who were working together for change.  Instead of naming citizens who were working together, I often got stories of how their agency or non-profit is engaging the citizens in programs that are designed and run by the agency. This is exactly the threat that Kretzmann is naming.

John McKnight asked another important question, “Who are the producers?”  If the community development effort is being produced by an institution and citizens are simply asked to give input or to serve in the effort, it is not citizen-driven and therefore, not ABCD.

Here is an example of the difference.

In Hillside Court, a number of fathers got together and started throwing a football around on Saturday mornings with the boys from the neighborhood. Before they knew it, the boys would come to their door every day to ask them to play football with them.  After a few months, the boys started talking about forming their own football league.  The men saw how important it was to these young boys to have their own neighborhood team and they found that they really enjoyed coaching.  With the help of two of our congregational partners and a private football league, they had their own team.  A year later, they were allowed to play in the city Parks and Recreation league.  Today they have basketball, baseball, cheerleading and football teams for all age groups.  It is still run by residents, coached by volunteers who are residents and funded through a resident-led organization called Hillside Court Partnership but is now also supported by the city Parks and Recreation department.  This is a pure ABCD effort.

In the nearby community of Bellmeade, a new school was built.  That school has a new gym and a wonderful practice field.  Parks and Recreation runs that center and offers football, basketball, and baseball through that center.  The coaches are hired by Parks and Recreation to coach the children of the neighborhood. They actively recruit parents to volunteer.  It is a great program. They have professionally trained and skilled coaches who are paid for their coaching skills. This center is an asset to the community, but it is not an asset-based citizen-driven program.  It is run by an institution that produces programming for citizens to consume.  Volunteers are plugging into a program, they are not creating it or directing it.

In Hillside, the residents are the producers. In Bellmeade, the residents are consumers.

I had someone say to me recently, “I think it is a shame that the Hillside kids refuse to play in the Bellmeade teams.  The Bellmeade teams are much more competitive and they would win more games if they combined teams.”

What my well-meaning friend can’t see is that this is not about sports.  It’s about the heart and soul of a community.  That team means the world to the Hillside community.  They fought long and hard to be a recognized team, to have the opportunity to compete with other communities.  It’s not about winning or losing it’s about having the ability to create their own future and to shape the future of their youth and their community.  These coaches do what they do, not because they are paid to care about the kids but because they feel called to care for these kids.

If you were to show up as an outsider to the Hillside verses Bellmeade ballgame, you will likely have no idea how each of these teams is impacting their community.  If the goal is to have a professionally run program with a competitive team, Bellmeade would be considered the successful program.  If instead your goal is to strengthen a community, there is no doubt that the Hillside team is the real winner.

So, I leave you with these two questions courtesy of John McKnight:

Can you tell us what people have done here together to make things better?

Who are the producers and who are consumers of your community development efforts?