ABCD: Origin and Essence by John McKnight

I came to Northwestern University in 1969 after 16 years of neighborhood organizing and civil rights activism. My home base was the Center For Urban Affairs, an urban policy research group of 24 academics, largely social scientists. What struck me was that, while all were dedicated to social justice and urban change, their implicit view of neighborhoods was that they were full of problems and victimized, broken people. All of their work focused on policies that would alleviate poverty and discrimination. Their understandings of the appropriate actors to implement their policies were government, health and social welfare agencies and other large institutions. Their unstated institutional assumption was that “fixing” neighborhoods was an outsiders job.
Having come from neighborhood organizing, it struck me that there was obviously a missing piece in the academic and policy world-view – neighbors. At that time, none of the policy research recognized that a principal party in neighborhood change was local residents and their inventiveness and problem solving capacities. Nor did the researchers conceive that there were local resources that represented the wealth in local places.
Because of the policymaking blind spots, Jody Kretzmann and I undertook research to make visible the multiple resources in neighborhoods. Over four years we gathered resident stories (called ‘case studies’ in universities) in several hundred neighborhoods asking, “Can you tell us what residents in this neighborhood have done together that made things better?” The responses provided us four key understandings/findings that became the core of ABCD practice.
The first is that scale is a critical factor in effective neighborhood work. Our stories came from small neighborhoods and towns. So, the three findings that follow are based upon information gathered in small space-bound places. The essence of ABCD is lost when neighborhood personal relationships are not the basic connective tissue.
Second, our analysis of the hundreds of neighborhood stories enabled us to identify the principal local resources that generate productive neighborhoods. These resources became the classic 5 assets that are the core of our work:
1. Individual resident capacities

2. Local associations

3. Neighborhood institutions – business, not-for-profit and government

4. Physical assets – the land and everything on it and beneath it

5. Exchange between neighbors – giving, sharing, trading, bartering, exchanging, buying and selling
The popularity of ABCD grew out of the fact that these assets had three critical aspects. They are 1) simple, 2) usable and 3) universal. Were that not the case, I think ABCD wouldn’t have flourished. I also believe that ABCD’s future will depend on our ability to maintain those 3 characteristics at the center of our work.
Third, in analyzing the stories, another core finding was the common method used by the groups to implement their collective activity. This method involved three steps:
1. Local assets were identified

2. Assets that were unconnected were connected

3. Usually, a group or individual acted as the initiating connector.
Central to this process is the connective function. In fact, the hundreds of stories could be understood as descriptions of how unconnected local assets got connected. This understanding emphasizes the importance of ABCD work focusing on connectors in contrast to leaders. True, some leaders are connectors but most connectors are not thought of as leaders. Although there are thousands of leadership development programs, we have a unique role in enhancing the capacity of people who are connectors and expanding the understanding of this function.
A fourth finding was the method used by effective local groups that engaged outside institutions. The process emerges when local groups undertake a more comprehensive initiative. In planning such an initiative, three steps are generally involved:
1. What can we produce with assets in our neighborhood?

2. What can we produce with our assets and some supportive outside resources?

3. What will our assets not be able to produce so that outside resources will have to do the entire function?
The sequence here is critical because, “you don’t know what you need from outside until you know what you have inside.” Therefore, ABCD work always starts with “what do we have in the neighborhood that can produce what we want?” The answer, of course, requires a thorough understanding of what local resources are available. This is why the “map” of the 5 assets has been so universally useful.
In summary, when people ask what is the work of ABCD, I think it is to enhance and support local residents’ capacity to make visible their assets and to support and enhance the connection of those assets. These two essential roles are the way we undergird productive citizenship.
I would emphasize the word “productive.” The basic standard for determining whether local activity is ABCD work is to ask who was the producer of the outcome. If it is a group of local citizens, then it qualifies. And to be the producer doesn’t mean to be advisor or advocate. It means to be the implementer – a person with the power to act. Coming to the question of essence, I think ABCD practitioners created many paths. All these paths have been made by walking them because there is no single ABCD path. However, in general it has seemed to me that there are 3 main directions that our folks have taken. The first is policy development. The second is institutional consultation and the third is neighborhood connecting. It is my general observation that we have, in the aggregate, been strong on the first two paths but less so on the third.
Actual work in and with neighborhood people has not been very common even though the “green book” was written primarily for them. In part this has been because institutions and policymakers have organizations that can find us and solicit relationships. On the other hand, local neighbors and their groups are not often organized to reach beyond their boundaries.
It is my hope that in the years ahead, we place increasing emphasis on developing a neighborhood constituency and stimulate more and more local folks skilled at connecting. To achieve this end we will need to place special emphasis on the first 2 assets: gifts of local citizens and the associations they create to implement their purposes. They are the assets that citizens control. Power grows from that control. We have Faculty members who have done great work in the neighborhood domain. I want to commend them for this difficult and often unpaid work. Perhaps they can become a team within the faculty – an association!
Let me add that for several years we have had some support from the Kettering Foundation to focus on local citizenship. That work has led me to focus on neighborhoods and their associations. It’s my hope that this research will extend the influence of others who have also focused on local citizens and their associations. There are 4 areas I’ve explored:
1. A study of the public benefits of local associations exploring all the work they do that provides for the common good. It demonstrates how many functions usually claimed by institutions can be provided by associations. The village involved has 1600 people and no significant outside institutions, which may explain why the associational functions are so productive. A Study of the Community Benefits Provided by Local Associations by John McKnight (2013).

2. The support of 4 neighborhood initiatives where the connecting process is being used to identify the contributions neighbors want to make to their neighborhood. The result is often the formation of new associations to produce community wellbeing. See Exemplary Materials for Designing a Community Building Initiative in a Neighborhood by John L. McKnight (2011) and Asset Based Neighborhood Organizing: The Method of the Abundant Community Initiative in Edmonton, Canada by Kim Hopes, John McKnight and Howard Lawrence (2015).

3. Work, together with Tom Mosgaller, focusing on a statewide movement to create associations in small towns that develop local philanthropy. They then frequently use this money to revision the town engaging many of the local citizens in producing the future. See The Nebraska Community Foundation website.

4. Engaging the school leaders in 5 small Minnesota towns in an exploration of the special knowledge of local residents and their associations. This knowledge can then be connected to the young people in town. These largely unexplored assets represent the possibility of a teaching town – a village with the capacity to raise its children. See The Educating Neighborhood: How Villages Raise Their Children by John L. McKnight (2015) and A Guide for Precipitating an Educating Neighborhood Partnership by John McKnight (2015)
Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that, “The health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions preformed by private citizens.” This is why the ABCD work that enhances citizens and their associations is critical to the future of democracy. Citizens and associations have a different place in democracy than institutions. In the 20th century there were 2 great tyrannies and both had great institutions. They were tyrannies because they stamped out all free standing associations and the free expression of citizens. They knew that they could control institutions but they couldn’t control citizens so they outlawed the basic power-making tools of citizens – freedom of expression and association. This is why the essential home of ABCD is with citizens, their gifts and their associations.
One other thought. What is written above is what I remember and believe. It is not the truth. It is not an argument. It is a history and a hope.

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  • Wow – thank you John and Cormac for that gift!
    Really interested in the importance of scale: for us, the scale of the family or household is also crucial alongside the individual and the community scales. The financially and emotionally sustainable household is particularly a base from which many individuals with significant health or other challenges can contribute and develop their potential as productive citizens. Some of our services have made serious attempts to organise themselves around the individual, but few around the family or household of which that individual is a part.

    July 26, 2016 at 2:02 pm
  • Geralyn sheehan

    John and Cormac, Wonderful summary of core learnings that can define change for local folks wanting change in their communities. How can I get this summary in PDFs so I can share it with folks?

    July 31, 2016 at 2:00 pm
  • sajjad rehman

    In UK, creating assets by asserting invisible local assets has transformed minority communities where connectors have connected the society for a common need in particular to keep younger generations in touch with own culture,traditions, language, religion and identity. The connecting of community assets lead to establishing of institutions run and managed voluntarily that over the years have developed into places of worship, community centers, meeting places, spiritual healing centers and many organizations to support the respective society for needs not met by government establishments, e,g. funeral services, committee banking, death committees, etc. Interesting though, the first generation who began building assets by pooling talent within their community did so without any formal knowledge or study of any community development theories / tools. Necessity is mother of invention, seems to be the most fundamental principal.

    August 2, 2016 at 12:14 am

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