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What is Asset-Based Community Development?

[Originally published Nov. 28, 2018]

I know a pastor who never says the word ‘Need.’ I don’t think he’d say, “I need a cup of coffee,” any more than he’d say, “our church needs a new HVAC system.” The word just isn’t part of his vocabulary

That’s because this pastor -- Rev. John Edgar -- is a big believer in Asset-Based Community Development. He believes that positive change begins when you focus on the gifts and resources you have all around you, rather than the ones you don’t.

It’s getting cold outside, and I can imagine asking Pastor John, “If your fingers get chilly, wouldn’t you say you need winter gloves?” He might say to me, “Well sure, I could say that. But focusing on the problem doesn’t find you a solution. Maybe I don’t have winter gloves, but what I do have is you. And I bet you’d give me some gloves, if you had an extra pair.” He’s right, of course. “See,” Pastor John would say, “I did have the gloves. I just had to know where to look.”

Maybe that sounds like playful semantics, but in the early 2000s, Rev. Edgar and a committed team opened the United Methodist Free Store in a low-income neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio. They invited others to donate their gently used clothing, and then follow their donations, to build relationships with poor and marginalized people. Rather than endlessly debating whether the proverbial glass was half-empty or half-full, they decided to do something useful with the water in the glass.

Clearly, they’re onto something. Hundreds of people visit the Free Store every week, and Pastor John says their biggest problem is where to house the superabundance of not only gloves, but clothing and household items of every kind. Today, the Free Store gives away merchandise totaling $2 million every year. Additionally, a vibrant church and dynamic non-profit organization have been birthed from the store’s creation. The United Methodist Church and Community Development for All People has transformed its surrounding neighborhood through affordable housing, fresh produce, and a variety of other development initiatives that promote abundant life among people living in poverty.

Pastor John told me what they’ve done isn’t all that extraordinary. He says you just have to know where to look.

That’s the power of Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD). At its core, ABCD is a way to address pressing problems and tackle ambitious goals, by identifying and mobilizing the resources that are already present all around us. It's not magic, and it’s not academic jargon. It’s the radical idea that together, we have the capacity to provide what we need in the face of the human condition. We do this by locating all the assets we have around us, and connecting them with one another in ways that multiply their power and effectiveness.

It’s the radical idea that together, we have the capacity to provide what we need in the face of the human condition. We do this by locating all the assets we have around us, and connecting them with one another in ways that multiply their power and effectiveness.

The trouble is, most of us don’t think in terms of assets -- we think in terms of deficits. Particularly in urban areas, we’re taught to catalogue the problems we see: crime, unemployment, vacant and blighted housing, high drop-out rates, and so on. While those things are part of the human condition, if we let them define the situation, we come to see certain communities as deficient, and certain people as ‘needy.’ The result is that we end up endlessly chasing needs, and we disempower the very people we’re trying to help. Outsiders become the experts, and people in poverty become the receivers of their world, rather than the makers of their lives and communities.

Which is why the Maker’s Place is asset-based. We believe that our two greatest assets are God the Maker -- who made the world to be a place of abundance -- and people -- who are made in God’s image, and therefore are made to be makers. We believe everyone has a gift to share and something to offer, and everything we need is already present all around us. The key is to start connecting our assets together, and to align them with the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of people who are poor and marginalized. After all, every ‘need’ is really an aspiration in disguise.

Right now the Maker’s Place is sponsoring a Diaper Drive. (Read about that here.) We’re aiming to collect over 10,000 diapers to give out at community birthday parties for infants. This idea developed when we began to gather as pastors and leaders in Trenton. We realized that a number of us had skills and professional relationships related to child and family health. We also saw that Trenton has a higher infant mortality rate than it should, especially among communities of color (infant mortality expresses the number of children who die before age 1, and correlates with poverty and racial discrimination). Recognizing all this touched upon our aspirations. We want to live in a community where every child lives to see their first birthday, and parents don’t have to ration diapers or miss work. (Childcare and early childhood education programs don’t provide diapers, yet children cannot attend without them.)

Rather than bemoan the needs, our aspirations forced us to start looking for assets. We discovered a wealth of resources and capabilities. Our own local churches have deep and diverse knowledge of childrearing in Trenton. Our personal networks included relationships with excellent non-profits and institutions that work with low-income mothers and families. Additionally, our United Methodist connection meant that we could talk to an abundance of churches and individuals that are incredibly adept at collecting and giving. Our diaper drive is an expression of asset-based problem solving.

All of this just scratches the surface of ABCD -- but it’s a good place to start. So where do you fit in? Start by asking yourself: what are my gifts, assets, and aspirations? Every person has gifts of hands (what you’re physically good at or like to do), head (what you know or have expertise with), and heart (what you’re passionate about). How can you start with what you have, and begin connecting them to the assets of others, to magnify their effect and make them sustainable?

There’s a lot of different ways for asset-based development to take shape in your church or community, but only one real way for it to start. Whatever you do, start looking at the world around you based on assets -- what’s already there, rather than what isn’t. After all, it’s all about knowing where to look.


Curious to learn more? Look for new blog posts about ABCD in the next few weeks. And if you’re looking for a few more things to read right now, check out the story of Broadway UMC in Indianapolis, and how their Roving Listener project and asset-based approach shut down their programs and transformed their community. Find that here. You can also learn more about the Church For All People in a recent news article in US News and World Report. Just click here. We’re fortunate to say that the staff of the Church for All People will be coaching the Maker’s Place as we get started.

A mural outside Trenton's ArtWorks Building, near Stockton Street and Everett Alley

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