7 Top Tips For Supporting Citizen Driven Community Building – Part 4
This is the 4th in a series of 7 top tips for supporting citizen driven community building. This week we explore how residents can make change by starting with what is local and within thier community control before inviting external support.
Top #4: Start with what’s strong to address what’s wrong
An asset-based perspective works with the belief that enduring change only happens bottom up; when local people discover they have invaluable capacities and can create and build power by coming together to enact and embody the common good.
This form of change happens from inside out. The syntax of such enduring change starts with:
1.The identification, connection, and moblisation of assets that are local and in community control. Putting authority for the invention and production of solutions in the hands of local people, not outside experts.
2.Then progresses to focus on resources, that are local but outside of community control. Bringing these resources under democratic community influence is made increasingly more possible by virtue of the above starting point.
3.Ultimately powerful, inclusive communities can confidently turn their attention towards assets that are outside of community control and proximity when and if they need to – this will not always be easy and hardly ever conflict free. This process enables communities who are often defined as problematic and needy to build civic muscle and the collective authority as citizens to produce their own solutions using local resources where appropriate, and then to draw in external support as needed.
This sequence ensures that when outside solutions come they match up with the abundance of community, not it’s scarcity.
Abundance not scarcity
In contrast, a scarcity mindset would lead us to start and all too often remain at the third stage of the sequence described above, with a focus solely on the external. Since, the scarcity perspective would have us believe that the limited, yet most valuable resources exist outside of our communities in institutions. This is a half-baked truth, and even if it were completely true, attempting to liberate those external institutional resources without first liberating local capacities nearly always results in top-down, bureaucratic solutions that simply do not work. Hence, why it is so essential to start with what is strong, not with what is wrong.
Still, the dominant narrative is deficit-oriented and would have us start with what is wrong. This deficit process, is questionable and unhelpful at ten separate levels:
1. It maps the territory negatively and then assumes the map is the territory, creating a self-fulfilling Prophecy.
2. It fails to get to the root of the problem because it mistakes the symptoms for the cause. It compounds this by confusing its service categories with people’s needs.
3. It creates a dangerous binary equation in thinking about people living with low incomes, where the only options are perverse: poor people are either a) deviant and in need of surveillance or sanction, or b) deserving of services and programmes, either way they are powerless to produce valid solutions in their own right.
4. It suggests the best solutions come from outside experts.
5. It suggests the given problem is persistent, pernicious, permanent and pervasive. It’s part of the ‘culture’ now.
6. Resources largely flow towards funded programmes, not low-income families and communities.
7. People receiving services come to be defined by their deficiencies, not their gifts, skills and passions, and come to be defined out of their communities as friends and neighbours, and redefined as clients and neighbours.
8. Active citizenship retreats in the face of ever-growing professionalism.
9. People come to assume that their associational, economic, cultural, ecological assets are irrelevant.
10. Communities internalise the deficit map and come to see themselves as the sum of their problems and collectively believe that the only way things will improve is when external agencies come in to make them so.
Starting with what’s strong should not blind us from what’s wrong
In some of the communities we serve, people are dying prematurely- 20 years before people who live in neighbourhoods only a mile away. Their deaths are not the result of a deficit in their ‘positive mental attitude’, or proof that they need another therapeutic programme, but the consequence of social and economic injustice and inequality. To ignore such realities is quite simply dangerous and feeds directly into the hands of the neoliberal agenda.
ABCD is not about ignoring people’s problems or concerns, or skirting over social justice and political issues.
So if it’s not about leap frogging over what’s wrong – what’s all this about ‘focusing on what’s strong not what’s wrong?’
Here is where the nuance comes in, and in a world of sound bites, where you have 15 seconds to get your message across, nuance is not always welcome. The choice before communities and practitioners is not a binary one, where it’s either about the glass half full or empty. It’s not about which we ignore and which we acknowledge, but about where we chose to start.
The logic flows like this: “OK I know the glass is both half full and half empty, but if I’m going to address the half empty part, where am I best starting?”
Here the question gets reframed and we beat the binary trap. In this formulation, it’s about sequence: we choose to start our efforts towards a solution with a focus on the half-full part of the glass, not as an act of willful blindness towards the half-empty part, but because we have truly looked at the whole (glass) situation and truly named and claimed the challenge before us.
In this description of ABCD, there are no parodies, no short cuts, no tricks. It’s about citizens creating an alternative, by starting with what they have in their control to get what they want and offering an invitation for outside resources when it is helpful and when they are ready.
This begs another question: ‘why, chose this sequence over the alternatives of starting with an external focus?’
Because mindful of the ten reasons set out above, they know the consequences of reversing the sequence, and when starting with a focus on the half empty, they know this actually results in a willful blindness towards the half-full part of the glass and dependency on external top-down solutions. ABCD is therefore, an act of willfully seeing the whole glass, and beyond.
There are three apparent movements in the process of starting with what is strong:
1. Learning conversations that draw out what people care about enough to take action on, as distinct from what their opinions are about what others should do for them. The key question is “are you a citizen, or do you just live here?” In these conversations, people are ‘heard into expression’ around their dreams (what they want to move towards), concerns (what they want to move away from), gifts and talents, political impulses, and who and what they’d like to connect to.
2. Once we’re clear through hundreds of one-to-one learning conversations where the dreams and concerns are, we can connect people to others at an individual and associational level who share their dreams/concerns in small groups of local kitchen table conversations towards shared action.
3. These groups look at their dreams and concerns through the lens of ABCD, and ask how can we use what’s strong to address what’s wrong, but also make what’s strong, stronger? As these small groups gather momentum and agency then they are supported to connect together to figure out what they can do collectively that they cannot do alone.
In this way individual energies get connected, amplified and multiplied through the building of new associations and ultimately over time, an association of associations (this takes years and is messy) begins to take shape, using their shared agency to contribute to their community’s well-being.
This action is deeply political, and not at all aligned to positive psychology. These efforts should be referenced under Political, not Psychological. What is distinct from classic Alinsky-style Community Organising, which has made a virtue out of staying focused on the problem and pointing communities towards external solutions, is that ABCD calls our attention to the internal resources we have as a new starting point. This dramatically changes the power orientation. Power is no longer thought of a finite resource and power struggles as a zero sum game. Instead, power is considered to be infinite, it grows with every new connection, every new relationship.
Strong communities are those where the skills and talents of residents are known, recognised and connected. But they are also places where citizens can define their own problems, their own solutions to those problems and the action they wish to take to make those solutions visible. Quite simply, our lives are full of ups and downs, there is no recipe for infinite happiness except perhaps to recognise that happiness like unhappiness is fleeting; we do however experience joy, particularly as evidence confirms, when leaning into our relationships with others, and in contributing to the wellbeing of our communities.
What we’re suggesting here is that we do not ignore structural inequality, but nor do we ignore our collective capacities and gifts to deal with it, and as an added bonus try to have fun along the way!
What does all this mean for asset mapping?The answer to that question can be summed up in four principles:
The answer to that question can be summed up in four principles:
• Asset mapping was never intended to be about data gathering by institutions but about relationship building between neighbours.
• Asset mapping was never intended to be about scoping out alternatives to funded programmes, but about enlarging the commons and free space for mutuality and community.
• Asset maps as well as being citizen-led, are meant to be dynamic and fluid; people change, new neighbours move in and out, new groups pop up and fizzle away; the map changes with the community as well as helping the community see what resources they have to draw on to make change happen from inside out.
• Asset mapping is not an action step. It simply builds on the discovery phase following, through learning conversations, the discovery of what people care enough about to act upon. In conclusion, it is pertinent to be reminded that ‘the map is not the territory’. It’s also important to remember there is no one map in diverse and inclusive communities, but rather a mosaic, yet to be connected.
Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be discovered; it’s hidden behind the local, the small, the ordinary – and it’s just two door knocks away.
7 Top Tips for supporting citizen driven community building series