Asset-based community development language is everywhere.  I am seeing it in a new health department initiative, on church denominational websites, and in grant requirements from major foundations.  However, when you look closely, the development efforts you find look nothing like the citizen-driven initiatives that John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann, the founders of the ABCD movement, describe.

John McKnight shared that the best way to discover a true ABCD effort is to ask this question,

“Tell me of a time when the neighbors themselves did something great together?”

When I ask this question of churches, non-profits, and even funders, the number one response I hear is of how an institution is using institutional assets (either their own or others.)  They often add a “survey” of the community and call that citizen input.  I very rarely hear stories of how the neighbors themselves are actually engaged in strengthening their own neighborhood.  When I do hear stories of neighbors, it is often middle-class individuals who have moved into a lower income community with the specific objective of “serving” and often these efforts are done without any interaction with the original residents other than doing things “for” them.

The easiest way to discern if something is truly developing the capacities of the community is to ask, Is this approach growing “citizens” who are shaping their own neighborhood, or is it growing “consumers” of goods and services produced by others?

In a recent meeting with a potential funder, Mrs. Patrice Shelton, a resident of Hillside Court and a person who not only knows what ABCD is in theory but lives it every day, shared an excellent example of the difference between institutionally-driven development and citizen-driven development.

Patrice shared how she had met Shawnika when she was a new mother at age 17.  She saw something in Shawnika and she invited her to come serve on the resident-led cheerleading team.  Over the next year, Patrice continued to give Shawnika increased responsibilities and Shawnika rose to the challenge every time.  Patrice began taking Shawnika to outside meetings, exposing her to people and opportunities she would never have had if she simply stayed in Hillside.  Today Shawnika is the head coach of the middle school girls cheer squad in her community and last year she launched a mentoring group called “sister circle” to help girls make wise choices so that they will not face the challenges she had to overcome as a young single mother.

Patrice did this not because she runs a single mothers program, not because she was paid to do it, not because she had an outcome requirement to meet.  She did it because she recognized Shawnika had a gift to give.  This kind of trust and mutual respect grows out of authentic caring relationships formed over time in an organic way.

Our city runs a number of programs for young single mothers like Shawnika.  Shawnika could have enrolled.  She would have met some nice people who were paid to help her grow as a mother and as a provider for her family.  She might have done well in these programs and perhaps she would even be better off financially.  However, none of them would have given her the sense of belonging she has found among fellow residents as a member of the Hillside Court Partnership team.  None of them would have affirmed her as a citizen and given her the opportunity to shape the future of dozens of young ladies in her neighborhood.  None of them would have helped her see herself for the wonderful gift she is to her community.

In the communities where your organization serves, do you celebrate the assets of the neighbors or do you focus on meeting their needs?

How might the assets of the neighbors be mobilized in a way that strengthens the whole community?

Is your organization ready to make the shift from “meeting needs” to “building on assets?”