7 top tips for supporting citizen driven community building – part 7

Last week’s blog highlighted the virtues of hyper local, civic relationships. Food provides the perfect example of this. Eating food together, especially locally sourced food, is best understood as a civic/political act, not a personal lifestyle choice. Its positive consequences reverberate well beyond the individuals around the table and have an impact at economic, ecological and environmental levels, not to mention population health.

As with last week’s post, each of the other blogs in this top tips series have paid tribute to the impactful nature of the Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) approach in supporting citizen led community change. I have written previously on the history and heritage of ABCD here and in my book: Looking Back to Look Forward.
Top tip #7: The focus is on growing a culture of community not converting people to Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD)

For me, the central value of approaches like ABCD is that their founders and stewards do not pretend that they offer a panacea. Furthermore, they refuse to allow such approaches to be characterised as models. Instead, they continually invite us to ask of each other: ‘what’s best for this place and this place alone?’

This week’s blog applauds Prof. John McKnight and Prof. Jody Kretzmann for their humility and continuous refusal to claim movement status for ABCD itself.

Throughout their community work and academic careers, spanning the last six decades, their primary focus has remained on the emergence of hospitable communities, not on the growth of ABCD. I suspect that, somewhat ironically, this is why ABCD has spread so far and wide across the globe. The ability to strike a balance between the structures needed to maintain an identity and a real presence in the world, and the informality needed to build trusting relationships that enable us to be truly present to local people and practitioners, will remain a central challenge for the future of ABCD efforts. If John and Jody’s example is to be followed and the ethics and ethos of the ABCD approach are to be maintained, we will need to have the confidence to affirm the virtue of the ABCD approach, while simultaneously having the humility to emphasise the greater importance of growing a culture of community wherever we are. Hence this post asserts the importance of not prescribing ABCD as the cure for modern social or political ills, but instead using it as a lens and a set of practices through and by which to open our eyes to what’s present and what’s possible in local neighbourhoods.

Most would agree that movements like, for example, the slow food movement are living expressions of Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD), though I hazard to guess that the majority of people within such movements have never heard of ABCD. Still, this should not be a cause for concern for those who are ABCD enthusiasts since our shared objective is not to convert people to ABCD but to support people to re-seed and enlarge associational life and free space for civic action. In sporting parlance, I think the expression would be keeping an “eye on the prize.”

ABCD is not a Model; it is a description of how a neighbourhood becomes a community.
ABCD is essentially a description of how people generally come together to grow power and be in right relationships with each other, their culture, ecology and local economies.

Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) is a means towards such deep community, as it provides us with a wonderful description of how others have previously engaged in building their own communities and how savvy practitioners have supported them. Nevertheless, ABCD should not be thought of as an end in itself. Yet in a consumer society, obsessed with programmes and models, outcomes and targets, it is easy to inadvertently turn approaches like Asset-Based Community Development into ‘sacred cows’ to be worshiped in their own right. Our experience is that, in the long run, this is to be guarded against, since to do so is to risk alienating local folks who have worked hard to build their community long before ABCD came on the scene.

ABCD is a means to an alternative future, not an end in itself.
Collectively producing an alternative future requires collective commitment to create the conditions for a culture of community to flourish; the efforts of a heroic few will never be sufficient. Hence, that commitment is not the same as the aggregation of a multitude of individuals who make a personal commitment to be kind towards each other. Creating a culture of community in not therefore the net result of what numerous individuals do for each other through random acts of kindness (although they help), but through the capacity of the collective to call kindness forth as ‘our way’ around here.

Last November when I was in Austin in Chicago, I overheard a local resident check a young man who ‘cat whistled’ at a lady across the street. He looked at the young person and said, ‘We don’t treat women that way ’round here, real men don’t intimidate women; this ain’t a jungle, you’re a good kid, don’t do that, she’s someone’s mama, and you’d beat on someone if they did that to yours’.

And that was that. The gentleman who spoke to the kid had a powerful public voice and a real physical presence. The kid heard him, but wasn’t afraid of him. This man called respect forth from this young person on behalf of the community. It was not a random act of kindness, it was an intentional lesson from an elder to a youngster about the ways of the village. This elder was not threatening towards the kid, he didn’t use his physicality, nor was he insinuating that he’d report the boy to the authorities. Instead what this community elder did was invoke the local culture as the authority, because he understood the meaning of the adage “it takes a village to raise a child”. He may as well have said: ‘we have a way around here, and what you’re doing is not that way; you’re better than that, you’re an Austin boy, come on, step up!’ And the young man did.

In a hyper individualistic society, it’s hard to find many similar cultural expressions to match this one (though they are there if we search hard enough), but the results of their absence is evident everywhere: gang violence, endemic loneliness, atomised communities, neglect of local ecological systems, economic disinvestment, falling property prices.

The story of the above interaction is a sub plot of the story of the Westside Health Authority, a community driven effort in Austin, Chicago, by local residents to make every block in Austin a village to take back authority for their health and raising their children. This effort is the opposite of what happens in a shame-based culture where children are punished and repressed. Shame-based cultures demand conformity; if you don’t conform you’re ostracised, made an outlaw (outside the protection of the community).

The Westside Health Authority welcomes the stranger at the edge of their community, it encourages diversity, decency and difference but also affirms the need for a culture that says ‘let’s join your uniqueness into our local way so that you can enrich it and it can enrich you’. The enrichment process means change is endless but because it is co-created, it evolves into a deeper more inclusive culture while maintaining its core, so that everyone of every age can feel an affinity towards ‘it’ and feel related to ‘it’, since they are ‘it’. They can proudly affirm “we made this, and we re-make it every day, come join us, we need your gifts”.

In times past, shame cultures had the power to label certain members and push them to the edge. Isolated from their kin and communities, those who were marginalised were forced to find new affinity groups, often among others who like them were rejected. In this way, certain closed and cloistered communities have become architects of their own destruction, by rejecting difference they commenced a war of attrition against their way of life. Hence communities can only flourish when they learn to create a culture of welcome at edge of their established customs and practice, norms and mores and establish explicit practices, rituals and a place of hospitality for the stranger (for example the Quaker tradition of keeping an empty chair at family table during their Sunday meal – for the stranger).

That welcome must accept both the fallibilities and gifts of the stranger. Equally important is the willingness of existing communities to accept each other’s fallibilities. Since it’s through the door of human fallibilities that possibility enters; it’s through the exit door of capacities and cultural, ecological and other shareable assets that possibility finds actionable expression and becomes a gift to others…. but only when the gift is received. Hence the great possibility the world offers us is in the ‘exchange’ of gifts and not in personal development or behavioural change. Those exchanges can only flourish and prevail in a culture of community.

In the final analysis, ABCD is a restorative and generative act, which could as easily be described by many other terms. It is also an anti-colonial stance since while colonialism destroys local culture, ABCD seeks to honour it. The process of honouring local culture starts with an invitation to local residents to appreciate the remnants of their culture, as they presently exist and then to restore it, not to its former glory, but towards a more current and inclusive expression. The message must be: ‘growing a culture of community matters’, not ‘please convert to ABCD’. The method should never be the message nor should it ever do anything to eclipse the message. We want to cheer on community weavers, not convert more ABCD believers.

Thank you so much for sharing this top tips series with us, we hope you found it useful and would warmly welcome your comments and reflections.
Cormac Russell
Title image is Street Party Table by Garry Knight licenced by Creative Commons

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