September 28, 2022

easy as ABCD(E), part 1

a street in San Francisco's Chinatown
photo caption: looking down a busy street in San Francisco’s Chinatown neighborhood. Tourists and locals stroll down sidewalks brimming with businesses, apartments, and restaurants. I remember this stroll as a casual walk between dumpling houses.

This is the first in a 2-part series on Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD). View both entries for the complete walkthrough.

Last week I wrote about my time working in public health during the covid pandemic. My team uses a place-based approach to help people learn about covid, the vaccines, and how to make informed decisions about their health. By centering the needs of people in community, we work at a level that’s easy for leaders to overlook. This approach has been personally meaningful and also had a real impact on community. Institutions are used to putting themselves first. But to some extent, my work is still a programmatic solution to human problems.

While my work centered community needs, it also put our institution at the heart of any solution. We identify those needs, then adapt our program to meet those needs. This creates a cycle of dependence where the residents become our clients. They are customers of a service that we offer. We miss out on having their equal partnership on a puzzle we can solve together.

I built a program to address people’s needs while acknowledging their strengths. What if we did the reverse and started with their strengths instead? People in a community have strengths and resources that they often use to survive. Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) can help people take stock of their own strengths. These strengths already exist in their community but may not be as widely known or used.

ABCD is sometimes called ABCE, where the E stands for Engagement. One way to understand ABCD is by imagining a glass that’s half-full or half-empty. Lots of social programs base their offerings on what they think a community needs. When we focus on their deficits, we see the community’s glass as half-empty. This can feel discouraging to the people in that community. Some even start to internalize what others think about them and people around them. Who would want to hear only about what they’re not good at, rather than what they are? ABCD focuses on what a community can do: the strengths, resources, and talents that are already present in their community.

ABCD is a flexible approach that starts within the community. Nurture Development has a great guide that I used to better understand these methods. They describe 7 steps that I’ll summarize below.

  1. Collect stories. Learn more about each other and our circumstances.
  2. Bring together a core group. Choose leaders to do this activity who are well-connected in community.
  3. Map the talents, capacities, and assets of individuals, associations, and local institutions. Write out our strengths in a way that everyone can see them.
  4. Find and engage connectors who can build relationships. Create connections between everything you mapped.
  5. Ask the gathered community to create a community vision and plan. Decide how you can solve the problem given what you have at hand.
  6. Engage the self-mobilization of the community’s assets by assets applied through association. Take the strengths and motivation from the previous steps. Apply them to the problem you face.
  7. Lever knowledge of the community’s assets and strengths to secure investments and resources needed from outside the community for community-driven development. Take what you have to ask for what you need.

Now that we have a basic understanding of ABCD, I’ll go through each step one by one. I recently worked on a public health campaign around covid-19. I’ll add to each step a few ideas of how I could do this to support communities facing covid. I hope this addition will help you apply the framework to your own issues or problems.

Step 1: Collect stories

Nurture Development says, “Stories are collections of the cultural capital of a community.” I like to say that data can tell people “how much?” but stories tell someone “why should I care?” Collecting stories accomplishes two things. First, it shows people that their experiences have value. Second, collecting stories reinforces people as the center of their community.

For a covid response in public health

Collect stories connected to people’s experience during the pandemic. One question you could ask is, “how have you kept yourself and others safe during covid?” Over the past year, I’ve heard a lot of stories about the ways people care for their community. Some delivered masks to people who didn’t have them. Others checked in on an elder in their neighborhood. Others bought groceries for people laid off through lockdowns and closures.

It’s difficult to see these questions by themselves as a means to an end. People in white-dominant institutions become obsessed with what things “mean.” Sometimes stories are just stories. Sometimes the lessons we can learn from them take days, months, or even years to surface from them. This is why long-term, lasting, evolving dialogue with communities is so important.

What other questions could we ask?

  • what does your community mean to you?
  • what strengths do you find in your community?

Step 2: Bring together a core group

Gather a group of community leaders who can map the strengths and skills of their community. People should be well-connected, but not in the money-and-access way white-dominant culture imagines. Rather than thinking about the “power players,” think about who is well-known. My Seeya (grandfather) was this type of person. He knew everyone in the Sri Lankan community of Austin. He struck up conversations with everyone. He hustled non-stop and stored the connections he made both in his head and in an actual rolodex.

For a covid response in public health

There are lots of people I know in public health who could either serve in these roles or know someone who can. My local public health department signs contracts with “Community Navigators.” These Navigators speak to and about activities that are happening in the community. These contacts were some of the most knowledgeable people I’ve met. Beyond them, we could use specific groups that established themselves during the pandemic. We had task forces grouped by racial and ethnic affinity. Other community leaders could also serve in this capacity.

How else could we have built a core group? I’d look for ways of meeting that honor people’s time. What could members of this group do independently? How could we include people from communities that are hard to reach? The Sri Lankan community was a fraction of all people in Austin, but they still numbered in the hundreds. These communities the core groups represent don’t have to be big to be meaningful.

Step 3: Map the gifts and assets of individuals, associations, and local institutions

Members of the core group and community lead this asset mapping. The central goal here is to build relationships. Along the way, we’ll learn more about this community’s brilliance! We’ll find connections and opportunities that we don’t have to create ourselves. They’re already there and ready for community members to engage with them. John Pattison at Strong Towns has a great overview of asset mapping in practice.

There are five asset mapping subcategories:

Identifying associations. These are your community groups, social organizations, coalitions and more. Here’s more information about these. The goal is to ask ourselves, “who are we already connected to? Who are the leaders of those groups? Who else might already be working to improve our community?” These associations will lead you to other leaders who hold knowledge and connections.

Identifying individual gifts, skills, and capacities. This exercise helps show people that we appreciate their abilities and contributions. One way of doing this is through a capacity inventory. Creating such an inventory helps catalogs all the things a community doesn’t need. This might feel like a needless exercise—lots of people want to get to the “how can I help?” step first. A capacity inventory can give the community itself an idea of what it’s working with. People aren’t useless! External forces and conditions are often the reason they lack certain resources. Don’t shut out a community’s talents and resources by focusing first on what they need.

DePaul University’s ABCD Institute has an example of a standard capacity inventory. While it does explain the concept, I wouldn’t use it myself. The questionnaire itself is a little too heavy on white-dominant cultural logic. Not every responds well to survey questions. Some of the items on the inventory are specific to the needs and interests of white culture. Plus, you would need very patient people to answer six pages of questions. How else could we collect this information?

What if we we convened a group and discussed the problem. What do we know about the problem? What do others in the group know about the problem? How might community members already be solving it? What skills do they have that would be useful in solving it? One of the principles of ABCD is that everyone has gifts. It’s up to us, fellow members of a community, to discover them or show them off.

Identifying the assets of local institutions. Create a list of local public institutions. What services do they provide? What kind of community spaces are available to us? In my neighborhood, I have a library branch and a tool library. Both provide free/inexpensive access to resources.

Identifying physical assets and natural resources. What’s special about your region? What does transit look like around your neighborhood? Are the roads and sidewalks accessible? Does your community have access to open spaces or parks for gathering? Are there forests for low-cost outdoor activities?

Mapping the local economy. How do people usually meet their needs here? What kind of economic resources does the community have? What do we have to get outside our community? My neighborhood has many convenient grocery stores, but few gas stations. Another neighborhood may have a thriving nightlife or lots of young people. All these and more are strengths available to the people who live in the area.

For a covid response in public health

A mapping process like the above would have come in handy for my work in public health. My team was looking for people who were not reached by our county-wide messaging. We met with community organizations that formed during the pandemic. We also met with organizations that repurposed or expanded their mission during covid. These community groups often had a long history of supporting the people in their area. They saw a need, led with generosity, and adapted to the changes that came.

For a covid response, I would first convene the group to brainstorm all the pieces of the puzzle. What do we need to solve? We’d want to talk about the community’s potential exposure to covid and access to vaccines. We’d want to know more about people’s ability to live through these volatile times.

Our group could use the exercises above to know what problems are already covered. Our strengths, like having good public transit, might help get vaccines to people. We’d need to ensure we place the vaccine sites near transit hubs and other convenient spots. Cataloguing our strengths will help us know where to focus our attention instead. For example, a diverse mix of cultures might mean we have language barriers to overcome. It could also mean we have people we could hire as interpreters and translators. Knowing that strength means we don’t need to ask for that kind of help from our partners.


In steps 1–3, we learned more about our community and each other. We convened a core group of folks to drive this work. And we mapped the talents, assets, and strengths we’ll use to solve the problem locally. Now that we have all that, it’s time to do something about it. We’ll address steps 4–7 next week.

my name is josh martinez. i have always loved trying to understand systems, and the systems that built those systems. i spend a lot of time thinking about how to get there from here.

i own and operate a consulting practice, Future Emergent.

say hello: josh[at]bethefuture.space