The ‘it’ is usually undefined, but everyone in the room understands it to be some combination of justice, sustainability, compassion – a general orientation toward social, moral, or spiritual goals that are bigger than oneself and a way of working toward those goals that is inclusive, participatory, and authentic. Heads nod. How can we hope to move forward when so many people don’t see the world from this perspective, when so many people don’t seem to care about the things we care about?
For me, this question is one of the most natural, but most destructive, we can ask. It stops us from exploring whether or not “those people” might have something unique and powerful of their own to contribute to new versions of the world. And it immediately freezes our own energy, locating the problem somewhere outside of us and shifting us away from reflecting on our own failures to “get it.”
Which brings me to John McKnight. In the early 1990s, McKnight and his colleague John Kretzmann researched and popularized the “asset-based” approach to community development (ABCD). ABCD breaks with development tradition, seeing a community not primarily in terms of its problems and needs but in terms of the gifts and resources it already has that can be used to foster further development. Whereas a need-focused approach might frame a 70-year-old grandmother by her poverty, her struggle with diabetes, or her limited formal education, an asset-based approach might see her as a politically savvy, neighborhood leader with significant social capital – someone, in effect, who is a rich community resource. Similarly, a burned-out industrial site becomes the perfect location for an urban garden or community market. A street riddled with empty storefronts is also a street with strong churches and civic associations. A neighborhood torn apart by violence is also a neighborhood knit together by a strong, shared connection to history and place. Start looking at the world this way and even the most apparently distressed community becomes thick with potential for creation, connection, and change.
Many social activists today draw on the appreciative spirit of ABCD, whether or not they use the specific tools that McKnight and his colleagues developed (e.g., “capacity inventories”). They recognize how limiting it would be to write off all of the potential for social transformation inherent in any community.
When it comes to moral insight and social creativity, however, we are often still stuck in an old, need-based paradigm. We continue to act as if such insight and creativity are limited to a select group of morally or socially “developed” individuals and organizations. The problem here is an inversion of the old development problem. It’s not less-industrialized communities and less economically advantaged people who are presumed to be morally “underdeveloped.” It is the people who fill corporate boardrooms, and political bodies, the people who pursue and defend established approaches to economics, education, governance, and lifestyle.
What are we losing when we think and act this way? The friend sitting across the table from you – co-worker, funder, political representative, antagonist – might not share your political views. He might have a different perspective on career and income than you do. He might appear to care little about environmental issues. He might not emphasize participation and engagement in the work that you do together. But those facts do not circumscribe him any more than income or education level circumscribe the grandmother above.
What if we took an “asset-based” approach (though perhaps we can come up with a warmer term) to our relationship with him and with the structures he represents? In terms of the kind of development we’d like to see in the world, what are his assets? Maybe he is particularly tender with colleagues who are suffering. Maybe he brings humor into difficult situations. Maybe he has a way of getting through to certain groups of people you find it difficult to communicate with. Maybe he has a reverence for what is still good and meaningful in old social patterns that you have discarded. Maybe he deeply loves literature or art and could be an ally in trying to bring a more holistic approach to the work you are doing. Maybe he is unafraid to speak out when he is hurt, surfacing issues that you and others might gloss over.
I’ve never met a person who doesn’t have something beautiful and hopeful about their way of engaging with the world. When I fail to see this, the limitation is with my eyes not with their spirit.
This doesn’t mean we don’t challenge or even fight perspectives that seem damaging any more than ABCD means we don’t attempt to treat drug addiction or eradicate poverty. It simply means that we start those challenges, those fights, by finding, valuing, and learning from the resources in any person or community.
Our best chance for change is to become wholehearted scavengers, seeking with a real appetite for any clue as to how we can evolve a healthy future together, no matter where that clue might come from.