May 27, 2022

easy as ABCD(E), part 2

a green sign that reads "mount baker neighborhood welcomes you" overlooking the neighborhood of the same name
A green sign with an image of mount baker on it that reads “mount baker neighborhood welcomes you.” the sign overlooks the Seattle neighborhood of the same name. small houses and buildings line the main street. there are myriad similarities and differences between this neighborhood and Chinatown from my last post. every neighborhood, no matter how similar, is unique.

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

Last week, I started to explore the concept of Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD). ABCD also goes by Asset-Based Community Engagement (ABCE), but I’ll stick with ABCD for now. This is part 2 of my walkthrough attempt to apply ABCD to a community-led response to covid-19.

I learned about ABCD through an article at Strong Towns called Start With What You Know, Build on What You Have. For this walkthrough I use a guide that Nurture Development created. They describe this 7 step process for ABCD:

  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.

I covered steps 1-3 last week. This week, I’ll go through the remaining steps by thinking about how I could use it to fight covid. At the end, I’ll summarize my thoughts about using this approach.

Step 4: Find and engage connectors who can build relationships

In Step 3, our core group of leaders mapped out what their community has at its disposal to solve problems. Now, it turns its focus outward, to even more community connectors. ABCD asks people from the entire community to come together to solve one or more problems. Involving that many people into any activity calls for strong and far-reaching relationships.

I’m also reminded of what I learned during my Targeted Universalism walkthrough. No matter how thorough you are when you create your core group, you’ll always leave out someone’s needs. The connectors you’ve found so far will need to keep connecting. We can ask ourselves, how do we mobilize together? How do we keep people connected and engaged with the work ahead? How can we pool our resources to solve a problem that our whole community faces?

For a covid response in public health

My team engaged dozens of connectors in our work to reach people affected by covid. It worked because those connectors in turn knew dozens more people we could follow up with. When we engaged people, we always led with some form of, “how can we support what you’re already doing?” People appreciated this method much more than if we had led first with our own agenda and ideas.

This step follows a similar line as our approach. People in many large, white-dominant institutions feel burdened by meetings and competing priorities. It’s easy to stick with the partners we know rather than putting work into new relationships. A wider network with more connectors can lighten the load for everyone involved.

Step 5: Ask the gathered community to lead the creation of a community vision and plan

In this step, the assembled community members decide how they will solve the problem. This means creating a shared understanding of what they want to solve and how they want to solve it. Nurture Development says, “communities can drive the development process themselves.” They will do this by, “identifying and mobilizing existing, but often unrecognized, assets.”

The specifics here may not feel as clear as the steps to this point. The guide doesn’t go into great detail for what this will look like. Every community will develop a plan that is unique to their specific assets. This is also where the process could fall apart. I can imagine the group will need careful preparation and guidance so as not to go in many directions. Participants need to create a tangible vision for what success means to them.

For a covid response in public health

In my mind, this is where this plan and my reality most diverged. Those of us in public health could have spent more time coming up with a shared vision for life with covid. There was a clear assumption at every level that people would want to avoid covid at all costs. They would accept the vaccine without reservations. We of course now know that didn’t happen for many reasons.

Even well-intentioned folks made missteps throughout the pandemic. Experts highlighted how covid affected Black and brown folks differently than white folks. A lot of that early messaging blamed those communities for their own disparities. In some ways, learning that communities of color were most at risk was freeing to white communities. We were no longer in this together. Instead, we had people fighting to survive while others fought for their right to a haircut.

Engaging with affected communities through a process like this would have clear benefits. We’d reduce the paternalism that communities of color often feel from white saviors. We’d spend more time from the start generating ideas and solutions that would help. We’d create a foundation for building trust over time.

Step 6: Engage the self-mobilization of the community’s assets

By this step, you have a map of your community’s assets. You have a network of local leaders who can reach many people across the community. And you have a plan and shared vision of the road ahead. Choosing the road, defining its path, helps motivate and mobilize everyone involved.

We use the strengths we have to mobilize ourselves and the associations we mapped in Step 3. As new opportunities and issues arise, we can look back to the shared vision to help us decide how to proceed. We can set aside opportunities that don’t quite match our goals. We can apply our collective focus to the efforts that matter to us, in our community.

For a covid response in public health

The more we know about a community, the more we can do to support their response to a problem. There’s also a framing to this walkthrough and the guide that I’ll explore further in my summary. I’ve implied that the navigators of this work come from outside the community. It’s a recognition that in our current state, the institution holds significant power. It’s very common for an institution to come into a community with a plan already created. They “enlist” community members to support by lending their connections, trust, and goodwill. We planned the party, but they send the invites. ABCD is an invitation to do more than that.

By this point, the “public health response” should be whatever the community proposes. ABCD creates a durable vessel that communities can use before, during, and after a crisis. It’s also freeing for the institution. Program staff usually have to plan everything. They decide to hold a party, they create the invitations, choose the DJ, order the food, and host the event. An institution facing budget cuts often has to cut back on how much time they have to spend on each community. ABCD instead spreads the party responsibilities among everyone invited. Given our limited capacity, we can take on the roles that we’re truly needed for. Public health will always be an important resource for information and advice. We don’t diminish our power by sharing it.

Step 7: Leverage knowledge of the community’s assets and strengths to secure investments and resources needed from outside the community for community-driven development

Once the community has begun its work, it will have a better sense of what it does and doesn’t need. In some ways, ABCD rejects the charity model of “take what you can get” from society at large. In this step we engage people outside our community to request exactly what we need. This could mean asking for funding, language or translation support, infrastructure, expertise, etc. . We draw upon our connections to help us deliver what we need to continue our work.

Sometimes the people we ask for investments can’t give them to us, or want to give them in a different way. The core group and connections we built will help us with this. Their organizing may be able to shift or influence any power imbalance that appears.

For a covid response in public health

So many institutions begin their community-focused work with a needs assessment! As we have seen in this walkthrough, the needs assessment is the last step. Think about a typical institutional approach. The investigators assume they understand the problem and offer solutions to match. Here, the community assesses their own situation and relation to the problem. They can then request what they don’t have access to.

In covid, this kind of engagement unearthed some lessons that were new to me. For instance, we distributed over the counter covid test kits to community members. Those kits came from the manufacturer with instructions in English and sometimes Spanish. Some of our partners told us that while they appreciated the kits, they couldn’t use them as is. People in the Asian diaspora didn’t feel comfortable speaking either language. A kit without instructions is worse than no kit at all. Doing the steps wrong, or misinterpreting the results, could lead to unintended exposure.

One of my colleagues undertook an incredible effort to record video instructions. He wrote a script and hired people from the community to read it in their native language. With the help of our communications team, he spliced each audio into its own version of the video. All told, he was able to distribute test kit instructions in 17 languages. There are so many examples of communities trusting us to hear them and then working with us to make it right.

Summary and closing thoughts

I’m most curious about the localness of ABCD. How could we scale up these techniques to a larger level? How would this process work beyond a neighborhood to a county, state, or nation? I’d like to find more case studies and guides for a practice that’s 30+ years old at this point.

I was so drawn to ABCD when I read about it in my final days in public health. It felt like such a reverse from the typical assessment that people begin to “help” a community “in need.” There’s a tinge of pity embedded in those kinds of relationships. I don’t like thinking of communities as deficient or lacking something. Instead, communities are like the people inside them. Every community, no matter how well-off, is imperfect. Each has its differences and strengths that make it unique. No community is without needs. Instead, communities who appear to be without need have already had their needs met.

My critiques of ABCD starts here, too. I said above in Step 6 that ABCD implies the “we” aren’t part of the community we work with. In this practice I felt like a facilitator who was telling others what to do.

A lot of community development presupposes an otherness between “us” and the “public.” We call a rapid community assessment a “windshield assessment.” As colonizers or people in power, we believe we can scan a community and know everything we need to know about it. We embellish the differences we interpret as flaws. We list differences like multigenerational households as challenges to our plans. We pathologize places where our institutions played a role in creating those conditions.

The same is true in ABCD. We become the facilitators of this process. We are the guides for how a community can discover itself. But it’s backwards logic. We don’t need them to have a seat at our table. The table needs to belong to everyone. Our seat came by default, by virtue of our money, power, influence and privileges. If these communities started with our assets, what would they do with them? How would they choose to involve us if our presence wasn’t guaranteed?

ABCD is much better than the reactive approach many used during covid. But it still centers people as assets, tools that can be best put to use by some group of leaders. If we think of ABCD as a step on the road towards equality, what can it prepare us to do instead? How can we stop centering powerholders when those powerholders love what they’re holding? ABCD might not be able to solve that puzzle alone, but it could prepare us to do so much more.

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

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