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ABCD: It Is Not About Overt Positivity

Part 2 of a series on ABCD 'frustrations' requiring fresh thought

Have you ever watched Room 101? The premise of the show is to invite a panel member to offer their frustrations, with a view to persuading the host that what is presented should be entered into Room 101 – never to be seen again. For those with a love of the modern classics, the concept originates from the Room 101 described in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) starts with what’s strong not what’s wrong, but should we be expected to always look on the bright side of life? This week’s offer to Room 101 is "overt positivity" in the face of structural inequality; when misguided ABCD practice ignores the underlying issues of power and oppression in communities. ABCD can’t meaningfully operate with willful blindness to the challenges/problems in communities, but nor can it gain traction unless it seeks to address people’s inbuilt negativity bias/effect. How do we navigate between these extremes so that we operate in the real world where the glass is both half empty and half full at the same time?

  (H)ow can we use what’s strong to address what’s wrong, but also make what’s strong, stronger?

Imploring people to only talk about what they are proud of and what’s great about where they live is a bit like saying, “So you’ve lost a leg, but don’t fret at least you have another one.” Or, “In your community people die 10 years younger than the next community over, but don’t worry, at least you watch out for each other and there’s a great sense of community."

Like anything when done out of context or to the extreme it makes people feel unheard, disrespected and disabled. It would be wrong to assume that when it comes to our communities, many of the passions/concerns discussed are disinterested in or naïve to issues of power - or a lack of, to be precise. But in the corner of many public meetings sits the 800-lb guerilla watching over and listening in. This guerilla beats its chest in glee when we skirt over the challenges that people face. In some of our communities, for example, people are dying prematurely 20 years before their neighbours only a mile away. Their deaths are not the result of a deficit in their "positive mental attitudem," or proof that they need another therapeutic programme, but consequences of injustice and inequality. To ignore such realities is quite simply dangerous and feeds directly into the hands of the neoliberal agenda.
So, ABCD is not about ignoring people’s problems or concerns, or skirting over social justice and political issues. But if it’s not about leap-frogging over what’s wrong what’s all this malarkey about "focusing on what’s strong not what’s wrong?"

Here is where the nuance comes in, and in a world of soundbites, where you have 15 seconds to get your message across, nuance is not always welcome. The choice 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. But why choose this sequence over the alternatives? Because 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 this process;

  Strong communities are those where the skills and talents of residents are known, recognised and connected.
  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, “Sre 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 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 they are then 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), using their shared agency to contribute to their community’s wellbeing. 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 as 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 recognize 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! You only have to check out the pot hole gardeners to see that there is a willful child inside us all that is just dying to make some mischief and make the world a better place by doing so.
In the final analysis, an effective ABCD-driven effort is made up of folks who start with an acceptance of the world as it is, not as it should be. But they do not stop there, they go on from there to co-create the world as it should be, not as it is, and in so doing they use what’s strong to address what’s wrong, and to make what’s strong stronger still. More power to their elbow we say!

Now, here’s the question: will you join with us in throwing "overt positivity" into Room 101?

Part 1: Should the Term Asset Map Be Put Into Room 101?

Co-authored by Shaun Burnett

Shaun Burnett is an associate of Nurture Development. He balances his time between mentoring Asset Based Community Development initiatives across the UK and as a practicing community builder, closer to home, in North Ayrshire, Scotland. He has a passion for citizen-led action, in particular, how communities harness and nurture the energy of young people to drive change.

This blog was originally posted on the Nurture Development website, and appears here with permission.

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Cormac Russell is Managing Director of Nurture Development, Director of ABCD Europe and a faculty member of the Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) Institute at Northwestern University, Chicago. He has trained communities, agencies, NGOs and governments in ABCD and other strengths-based approaches in Kenya, Rwanda, Southern Sudan, South Africa, the UK, Ireland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Canada and Australia.

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The reflections of the last two blogs in mind, I’d like to share an ABCD practice I find really helpful in hatching possibilities from inside out. Or in coming to our senses. Please remember you don’t require all of your senses to engage. Helen Keller had three senses, yet led a more sensational life than most people with five sense ever do.

Jane Jacobs' (an American-Canadian journalist, author, and activist who significantly influenced urban studies) advice to communities is to stop being subservient to those with grand visions and “Do what’s right for now and the future will turn out as well as it can.”

Try describing something you see in the place where you live without using a metaphor. Right now, I see a tree outside my window, with brown, red and green flecks on its bark. It’s leaves are being moved by a gentle breeze and shadows are casting across it at different points, changing very rapidly. Now I see the reflection of sunlight on one of the leaves of the tree, which has a dew drop that is yellow in one spot because of its refraction of the sun. On the limb of the branch above the one with the yellow hued dew drop, I see a brown squirrel, moving swiftly downwards towards the base of the tree. Now it’s on the ground. The ground on which it’s moving is…..

Wow, it’s really hard not to fall into a metaphor…

The Welfare State is an important extension of our human community’s capacity to care; not a replacement for it. Communities produce care (full-stop) and the systems or service world should simply be the support to that care where required, a resource to carers and not the source of care.

I’ve had the privilege of seeing a lot of professional practitioners wrestle with the dilemmas that Asset-Based Community Development presents - serving while walking backwards being chief among them.

Society is often spoken of as if it has only two important dimensions; namely, individuals on the one hand and formal institutions on the other. What this map of civic space leaves out is everything in between: families, neighbours and friends, clubs, local business, faith communities and associations.

Part 3 of a series on ABCD 'frustrations' requiring fresh thought

John McKnight has a passion for jazz. Once a year he becomes a roadie for one week and travels on a bus with an aging “old time” jazz band. He once told me if he hadn’t gone down the road he went, a life as a jazz musician would have been a dream come true. Not at all surprisingly, one of his favourite metaphors for leaderless groups is a jazz jam session.