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Insights from ABCD

Author: David Towell

In adding to our Innovation Stories, there is much to be gained from exploring the rich strand of often very local work associated with what has come to be called Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD).

Let me begin with an interesting set of examples, drawn from the U.S. State of Georgia. John O’Brien has been a key partner in developing the Sustainability and Social Justice project and he is also an advisor to his home state of Georgia’s Governor’s Council on Developmental Disability (GCDD). The GCDD is sponsoring a set of local initiatives under the heading Real Community.

These initiatives necessarily have as one objective widening the opportunities for disabled people to exercise local citizenship alongside their fellow citizens. But the GCDD work is interesting because it starts from an asset based approach i.e. seeking to mobilise community action to meet widely shared local challenges e.g. of employment, transport, economic disadvantage, etc. and typically creates valued new 'community spaces' where people can come together to create joint responses to these challenges: for example a community garden, a church, a farmers market, etc.

The interests of disabled people are being advanced through a wider focus on community building and social justice – making the community better for everyone.

The Georgia 'Real Community' initiatives are informed by the asset based approach to community development (ABCD) most associated with the work of John McKnight, and captured in his book with Peter Block The Abundant Community (Berrett-Koehler 2010). The central theme of this work is expressed in the book’s subtitle 'Awakening the Power of Family and Neighborhoods'. ABCD starts not from the deficits in communities, even the most ‘deprived’, but rather from recognising the abundance of assets we can find if we focus on the diverse gifts which ordinary people bring to everyday life, nurture informal association and provide hospitality including to those at risk of exclusion.

In England, recent efforts to reform social care (i.e. to improve the opportunities and support available to disabled and other people at risk of disadvantage) have drawn on a four-quadrant model, simply characterised as: early intervention and prevention; choice and control; universal services; and social capital.

Work in the social capital quadrant has encouraged attention to practical ways of strengthening communities so that disabled people and others are more included, contributing members with better access to informal support. Some of the best examples of these efforts are brought together in the book In Community (HSA Press, 2009). For example, the Time Banking idea is one way citizens can organise to both contribute their skills and exchange these for the contributions of others through a scheme in which everyone’s contribution is valued equally (i.e. an hour of contributing whatever skill earns one time credit). Or to take another example, the voluntary sector organisation Grapevine in Coventry works to identify the interests and talents of individuals, for example with learning disabilities, and links these to places and activities in the community where they will be welcome and needed. Or in a slightly different way, the national organisation KeyRing promotes living support networks in which people living in their own homes, who might otherwise struggle to maintain their independence, are offered part-time help by a local volunteer to build their self-reliance, offer each other mutual support and make connections with others in their communities.

In this spirit, the Building Community Capacity stream of the national social care reform initiative Think Local Act Personal has published a set of nearly 40 case studies which point to opportunities to take these approaches further at different levels of local organisation. Some of these start from the ‘place shaping’ role of local government and other public agencies (for example, the case study from Wiltshire) and show how political decentralisation and co-production can be a route to building sustainable and resilient communities. 

Others (for example, the case study from Camden) show how outcome-based commissioning can seek to encourage wider economic, social and environmental benefits from the provision of social services. The cases under the community development heading include the growing interest in Local Area Coordination as a route to promoting the inclusion of disadvantaged people in stronger communities. And the cases under the grass roots development heading (i.e. arising through the self-organisation of citizens) include an excellent account of U3A (The University of the Third Age) in part of Lancashire, where the informal networks created under the guise of adult learning are mobilising the often under-used talents of older people to meet locally important challenges, from countering personal isolation to reducing the local carbon footprint.

Nurture Development is a key agency in the use of ABCD (asset based community development) in Ireland and increasingly elsewhere in Europe. The original formulation of ABCD, Building Community From The Inside Out (Kreitzmann and McKnight, 1993) described in detail the importance of mapping the various kinds of assets in any community, including actual and potential physical assets, but to my mind made relatively little reference to the strengths in the local ecology and the importance of sustaining these. However, fast forward 20 years and Nurture Development both restates a six step process for community building (Find connectors; Map assets; Identify community building themes; Build connections; Match funds; Celebrate and plan) but also offers a 12 domain agenda of 'big issues' where people power will be required to tackle contemporary challenges. These domains include attention to caring for the environment, responding to climate change, developing the local economy and being mindful about the production and consumption of food.

From the perspective of our work on sustainability and social justice, these domains provide a very useful framework both for asset mapping and for identifying community building themes around which local citizens might self organise. 
So, for example, in the London Borough of Croydon, the Council has invested in community building posts in each ward and this has led to the emergence of a large number of citizen groups, aspiring to inclusion, and pursuing a wide variety of locally-relevant themes, including some focused on protecting and improving the urban environment and building local resilience. 

All these examples start from a social justice perspective – more specifically an interest in providing the opportunities and support required to better include disabled and other disadvantaged people in stronger local communities. But they also begin to show the possibility of ‘win-win’ strategies on a broader canvass which include, for example, an interest in advancing sustainability, enhancing community resilience and better mobilising local human resources to pursue shared aspirations.

The Centre has published several reports on Local Area Coordination by Ralph Broad, who leads the Local Area Coordination Network in England and Wales, they are here. 


The publisher is The Centre for Welfare Reform.

Insights from ABCD © David Towell 2015.

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