The most common approach to ‘helping’ communities has involved focusing on the community’s needs, deficiencies, and problems. This depersonalising approach disempowers and often causes other forms of harm to community citizens.
The alternative path to community development, Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD), focuses on a community’s assets, capacities, and abilities. Significant community development takes places only when local community people are committed to investing in themselves and their resources. Healthy communities are built bottom-up, not top-down.
I have previously written several blogs focused on ABCD, the details of which can be seen here. Here, I start a short series of blog posts focused on the ABCD approach that has been motivated by the association that John Stanton and I have with members of the Kojonup community. I have recently described our last visit to Kojonup, the town closest to Carrolup, to support their citizen-led project using an ABCD approach to enhance the social and emotional wellbeing of the community, with an emphasis placed on empowering and connecting youth.
This first blog in the series focuses on some of the basic principals and practices of the ABCD approach. I have used the words of Cormac Russell, as taken from his excellent book Rekindling Democracy: A Professional’s Guide to Working in Citizen Space and his recent Kindle Book Asset-Based Community Development: An Incomplete Guide. In various parts of the latter book, which can be purchased on Amazon for the bargain price of A$1.37 (!), readers can link through to Cormac’s Nurture Development website, where particular topics are covered in more detail.
ABCD is about people living in local places taking responsibility for each other and their local resources. The work of ABCD involves paying attention to what is already present in a local place, not what one thinks should be there, or what isn’t there. These include:
- The gifts, skills and passions of local residents
- The power of local social networks/associations
- The resources of public, private and non-profit institutions
- The physical and economic resources of local places
- The stories of our shared lives.
The Asset-Based Community Development approach has a set of principles and practices that act like a compass in community-building work. These principles and practices fall into five categories:
Citizen-led: There are certain things that only citizens, in association with one another and the assets around them, can do. ABCD is focused on this domain of change. From this inside-out, citizen-led perspective, socio-political, cultural, environmental and economic change efforts, are viewed through the lens of the following questions:
- What is it that residents in communities are best placed to do together?
- What is it that residents can best do, with some outside help?
- What is it that communities need outside agencies to do for them?
The sequence in which the above questions are asked is critical. By asking “What can we do best for ourselves and each other?” (a version of the first of the three questions above), people are enabled to identify, connect and mobilise what they have, to make change happen. That puts them in the driving seat of change. They take the lead by using what they have, to secure what they need.
In this way, residents also assume a powerful lead in directing outside helpers in how best they can be helpful. Since, until residents know what they have which is local and within their control, they cannot know what they need from outside (which is not local and not within their control).’
Asset-based: Everyone has a gift (they are born with), a skill (they have learned and practiced, and could potentially share/teach), and a passion (that they act on) that they can contribute to the wellbeing of their community. Social movements grow stronger when the capacities mentioned above are discovered, and connected into productive reciprocal relationships with associations, the local environment, economy and culture. That power grows bottom up and from the side-lines when people identify what they care about enough to act upon collectively.
The ABCD approach starts with what’s strong and enables local people to get organised to address what’s wrong and make what’s strong even stronger.
Relationship-oriented: ABCD goes beyond individuals and their capacities to tap into relational power…. Relational power enables consensual grouping behaviors to amplify and multiply the capacities of individuals, ensuring the societal whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts. Relational power, also referred to as associational life, is a key determinant of individual well-being, public safety, response to natural disasters, and vocational opportunities.
Place-based: Small local places are the stage on which a good, sustainable and satisfying life unfolds. Seeing the neighborhood as the primary unit of change is a powerful strategy for addressing some of the most intractable socio-political challenges of modern living…. While personal transformation and institutional interventions have their place, we have seen that by intentionally organising relational power at the neighborhood level, local residents can connect local human, associational, environmental, economic and cultural resources together. And, by aggregating them at a hyper-local level come up with incredibly inventive solutions which are not within the reach of top-down institutions.
Inclusion-focused: Communities have imperceptible boundaries, inside which are those deemed to belong, and outside are those considered to be strangers. ABCD therefore, as well as supporting local residents to discover and connect local assets, is about actively creating a welcome for ‘strangers’ at the edge of those unnamed boundaries. Since there is nobody who’s gifts are not needed when it comes to creating an environment within which everyone’s gift is given and received.
John and I are two ‘strangers’ from the edges who have been welcomed into the Kojonup community and have offered our help for their citizen-led project if and when required.
I would like to emphasise again that most of the words in this blog are those of Cormac Russell of Nurture Development. My thanks to Cormac for allowing me to freely quote him.