Might be good better adjusted further

Long before I had ever heard of Asset-Based Community Development, I was introduced to the “principle of subsidiarity.” According to Wikipedia, “The principle of Subsidiarity” is defined as

“An organizing principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. Political decisions should be taken at a local level if possible, rather than by a central authority.”

This one principle is the most helpful lens for larger institutions such as social services agencies, police, universities, health departments and philanthropic foundations who are seeking to strengthen communities. Subsidiarity challenges us to trust in and invest in the “competent authority” closest to the issue.

In Cormac Russel’s latest blog series, he encourages large institutions to do just that, suggesting that these larger institutions invest in the capacity of smaller community-based organizations such as civic associations, community-based non-profits, churches and local businesses.

Two reasons why “local” trumps “large”:

  1. Citizens have local knowledge that can only be gained by proximity and presence. Local knowledge can’t be bought, it is only revealed through trusting relationships. After a recent murder on my street, I talked to a neighbor who is “in the know” and I learned the “word on the street.”
  2. Neighbors trust neighbors more than they do institutions. When the police ask my neighbors about the shooting, many were afraid to speak to the police. It all comes down to trust.  Cormac brilliantly articulated that “community buildings happens at the speed of trust.”

If you try to lead a community building effort from the outside, you may succeed but it will be a long and bumpy road. Outsiders, particularly government employees are viewed with suspicion.

For this reason, John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann, the founders of the ABCD movement, put a high emphasis on the associational life of communities.  The more neighbors come together, the more local knowledge is passed and the more trust is established.  Local knowledge comes in many forms; from childrearing, gardening, cooking, relationships, schooling, employment and wisdom of all types.  This sharing of knowledge makes communities stronger and healthier. By investing in small groups of neighbors or community-based organizations that promote the associational life of a community, you are making a wise investment in the community building process.

My advice to any institution seeking to strengthen a community is “Go local, or go home!”

When organizations assume they have the “knowledge” that the citizens need they undermine the associational life of a community and do more harm than good.

For the past five years, Embrace Richmond has been investing in the associational life of the Brookland Park area.  First by helping to strengthen the merchants association and most recently by focusing on block clubs that are strengthening the civic associations. While I live in this particular neighborhood, I am not a native and am thus viewed as an outsider.  We have made significant investments in identifying local leaders, providing training, and financial support to them to help them succeed.

These pictures were taken at a recent gathering of neighborhood residents who came together to support one another in the community strengthening efforts they are working collectively toward.


This is what true democracy looks like, citizens supporting citizens.

This kind of effort does not spontaneously happen.  We have invested tens of thousands of dollars into this community, not in the form of programs, but in the form of capacity building for local leaders who are bringing neighbors together around what they care about.

Far too often, if the institutions are not given total control over an effort, they wrongly believe that they are not needed.  The reality is neighborhoods need institutional investment to grow their local capacity. What communities don’t need is to grow dependent on institutional programs.

ABCD is about growing local capacity.  

Or as our Embrace Richmond team says, growing great neighbors!