Looking for the worms

Birgit Oelkers joined us at Nurture Development for a couple of days in July 2015 to learn more about Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD). She is the driving force behind Plan & Approach, a social entrepreneur, Community Builder and a facilitator. Here’s her story!


This summer I’ve immersed myself four weeks in the world of ABCD in Gloucestershire, in the world and the work of the Barnwood TrustYou’re Welcome – and Nurture Development. I live in Holland, under the smoke of Amsterdam. At home I’m engaged in my neighbourhood and different grassroots initiatives and as a freelancer I’m working as a trainer and an ABCD practitioner.

On 21st July 2015 I joined one of Barnwood Trust workshops, ‘Community Building in Practice’ in Bishops Cleeve. It was led by Richard Holmes, of Barnwood Trust, and Cormac Russell, Managing Director of Nurture Development. A total of 15 people from Gloucestershire participated. Some of them are committed community members and many are professionals working for organisations and services.

In this blog I’m going to highlight six elements I came across during the workshop.

Birgit Oelkers.

The Worm Story of John McKnight

I love to go to the west of Ireland to the little villages. We rent a little house there and there was a lake nearby. I love fish and wanted to go fishing, but I didn’t have any bait, so I went to a little store in the village and asked the gentleman there: ‘Do you have any bait?’ He asked: ‘What do you mean by ‘bait’?’ ‘Well’, I said, ‘like worms.’
He couldn’t believe it. He said: ‘on your way to my store, did you see those three big white stones at each site? I think if you go out there and turn one of these stones around, you’ll find a lot of worms.’ This is the great, great lesson, which is: ‘All around you there is everything you are looking for.’ Which is hard to see if you think the way to have a good life is to buy. So that’s why, being a consumer, you never see what’s there.

This story is part of John McKnight’s keynote speech at the ABCD festival, which took place in June 2015. Richard Holmes, from Barnwood Trust, brings John’s story in because it catches one of the most important shifts ABCD is about. And it leads us to the thread questions for this workshop:

· What can local communities do for themselves?

· When do services and councils have to get out of the way?

· What can you do to be supportive to communities?

1- ABCD is challenging stuff. It starts with yourself.

Richard and Cormac warn that it can be quite confrontational to get involved with ABCD. This is because ABCD is about people, about what they bring in and all assets that they have.

‘We have to bring our whole selves to the space. It’s deeply challenging stuff. You are revealing more about yourself and others. It can be a bit uncomfortable because you have to ask yourself different questions without immediately knowing answers.’

That’s also what this group experiences when Richard asks them “what is your role in your family, in your work, your friendships and in your community?”. It leads to a bit of confusion and some more question marks such as ‘I don’t know what my role in my community is; nobody asks us about that; we lost touch with our neighbours; how can I help others figuring out what’s their role could be in their community when I don’t know it for myself?’

2- The impact of ABCD on the relationship client/server

ABCD offers a new perspective on the relationship between clients and professionals. Many of the participants have a client/server relationship. In a body language exercise it becomes clear that the powerful part is the server/aid worker. Even if they do their best to listen sincerely and be nice, that does no change the balance of power. The server is in the role of expert, have solutions and the idea to fix the client. The client/patient is dependent on care, on what the server has to offer, as if they are not capable and therefore expect to be fixed.

How might this balance change when the relationship is based on ABCD?

Standing on a chair as a client, looking down on the server (or helper?), shows how the dividing of power has completely changed. The patient is no longer the one who waits, the client no longer the one who lies on its back. The expert is no longer expert and rescuer, but one of those who can contribute.

Cormac explains that ABCD doesn’t go for a better relationships client/server, but enables citizenship. It’s not meant to make clients happy, but to shift the relationship client and helper. And to give the clients the tools to find their own approach with support of their communities.

3- How to support a community in an asset-based way?

You only know what you can contribute as a server, when you know what a community already has and wants to go along with.

ABCD always starts with what’s strong, not what’s wrong. With exploring all the assets a community has. The skills, the stories, the places, the local economy, the things happening on the doorsteps, the initiatives, the hidden treasures and little elephant trails. The nurturing, love, friendship. All those things communities can do and services cannot deliver.

This kind of asset mapping is not about gathering data and numbers, it’s about connections, building relationships. It’s community mapping. You can’t do it for people, only with people. Have the confidence to start an open conversation. And it really takes to take a closer look, to go out there, to get to know which issues the community thinks to need more attention. The hidden assets are only to be seen when you stop minding programs and organisation targets.

That brings us to the worm story of John McKnight.

4- Everything is right around you. Look for he worms under the stone

The most valuable assets of a community are often invisible. Very often even for communities themselves, until the assets are appointed and people are invited to use them. And for people from outside the community, these assets are mostly completely invisible. Certainly for services, because a vision by working with targets and problems, and a needs based approach, is not keen on everyday community assets. Because these are often so unspectacular and carried out programs of services they are seen overlooked either not taken seriously. You have to look in another way and elsewhere, as the worm story of John McKnight shows us.

Cormac illustrates this with a story about an accidental asset mapping during a walk in Cheltenham with another workshop group.

“During the walk we pass a military store with many weird and wonderful things in the window. We went in and talked to Steve about selling military equipment, wondering who could be his customers. He told us more about the people coming to his store and mentioned also a group of ten old men who had served in several wars. They meet each other every Friday morning in his store. He said ‘This world, my Friday morning group, is completely invisible for you, isn’t’ it? You make maps of people like me. In your world you think you’re the only one who thinks about health.‘

Steve would never come to a meeting a service will invite him for. He thinks people like us are weird. But he would very welcome you if you would walk into his place.
So, look for he worms under the stone.”

This illustration was part of Graham Ogilvie’s artwork created during Cormac’s session in Aberdeen in October 2014. Read more about this session here.

5- Getting closer to a community by having more learning conversations

If you want to have learning conversations with the community, it helps to have open questions which shine a light on what’s important for a community. Questions which concentrate on primary assts. Richard mentions some examples:

1. What do you care about to act on? What needs attention in the community, by the community? itself, what floats your boat.

2. What assets you have? Which assets can you use?

3. Who else you know can help? Who’s good for a favour?

4. Which external forces are necessary to fly in?

And it helps a lot when you know what moves people. There are five ways in which people are motivated, Cormac shakes up his sleeve:

1. Care: stuff we are in for, where we go for.

2. Concern: about what and whom we love and don’t want to be harmed or threatened.

3. Relationships: being in connection with others of actually getting space for yourself from others, having fun with each other.

4. Change: going for a better world, stand up for social justice.

5. The desire to contribute: everyone with a gift is very willing to share it.

6- ABCD is sharing stories

Sharing and spreading stories is one of the strongest guidance of ABCD. Participants shared stories on community life and they showed the richness and variety, the power and lightness of communities, and the fun and pride of community members doing things together. Some of the stories were:

· The hideous, dark and smelly underpass, which young community members and a street artist made usable and beautiful.

· The playing fields the community is looking after.

· The transforming of an unsafe and filthy area in a green, lovable place.

… and many more community stories!

All the learning issues and the different kinds of learning in this workshop –working in big and small groups, telling stories, body language exercises, having great food for lunch- gave a prospective on what community driven work can mean in practice.

People go home with the plan to go on in a kind of community of practice. And they fill a whole basket full of changing ideas for home. Here are some impressions:

What to start

”Thinking more about what I can do in my community. Looking closer. Having longer conversations with the neighbours. Thinking big, doing it small. Actively thinking about learning conversations and what motivates people to act.“

What to continue

“To care. Being a good neighbour. Doing the things I enjoy, even when my husband tells me the water is too cold. Meeting and talking to more people in my village. Being a good listener. Building links and get out and talk to people. Listen to new ideas. Laughing!”

What to stop

Trying to impose ‘solutions’ so readily. Stop negativity. Thinking organisation. When hitting a brick wall, not giving up that easily. Having conversations with people which has pre planned agenda’s. Telling people they need to do what I suggest.“

Everything we need for a change is already there. We don’t have to wait for permission, for the right moment. The harvest of serious and hilarious intentions for tomorrow shows that we literally can start the next day. Just start with sharing community stories and try to make the invisible more visible.

As Marcel Proust already said: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

More on what our Gloucestershire Learning Site: here.

Which of our team members is in Gloucestershire: Cormac Russell, Managing Director of Nurture Development; Jennine Bailey, Associate.

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