My friend and ABCD Colleague Wendy McCaig, who is the Executive Director of Embrace Richmond, recently attended an ABCD Festival in England to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the ABCD Institute established by John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann. She wrote a blog post about her experience entitled, “All talk and no practice.” Wendy gained an important insight that I want to share with you here.
As I continue to reflect on the lessons I learned from the ABCD Festival in England earlier this summer, it is the challenges facing ABCD that I am drawn back to. Repeatedly throughout the conference I heard frustrations that ABCD language is finding its way into many conversations but when you look at what is called “asset-based”, what you find is not actually citizen-driven but simply institutions that are using asset-based language without practicing ABCD.
One speaker suggested that we change the acronym from Asset-Based Community Development to Asset-Based Citizen-Driven. I have begun to adopt citizen driven language because it is what differentiates true ABCD from efforts that are simply using ABCD language.
I thought a lot about how this adoption of the ABCD language without the practice is impacting those of us who are ABCD practitioners. Many shared that language without practice is watering down the movement, making the language meaningless and creating confusion about what ABCD truly represents.
The best way to determine if an effort founded on authentic ABCD practices is to ask the question that John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann asked when they first began researching ABCD.
“Can you tell us what people have done here together to make things better?”
This question focuses on the fruit that is born out of authentic practice. Throughout the conference, I asked many people to tell me about the ordinary citizens in their community who were working together for change. Instead of naming citizens who were working together, I often got stories of how their agency or non-profit is engaging the citizens in programs that are designed and run by the agency. This is exactly the threat that Kretzmann is naming.
John McKnight asked another important question, “Who are the producers?” If the community development effort is being produced by an institution and citizens are simply asked to give input or to serve in the effort, it is not citizen-driven and therefore, not ABCD.
I am seeing a similar response to our ABCD efforts in the Hampton Roads communities. Many who learn the ABCD principles and practices of ABCD get excited about the possibilities of adopting these practices in their neighborhoods. Unfortunately, however, many of the efforts to get to know neighbors continues to further the ministry’s or helping agency’s needs-based practices. ABCD is often seen as a great way to connect with citizens but only to further the programs already in place to serve residents as consumers instead of encouraging the citizens to become the producers of solutions.
I’m convinced the motive for this is the desire of well-meaning helpers to operate from their long-held patterns where they retain control of what helping actions take place, where they take place, and for whom they take place. Encouraging citizen ownership of the transformation of their own communities by stepping back and taking humble positions to support citizen actions needs to happen for ABCD practices to occur.