Community development is most effective when you begin by building personal relationships. That seems obvious, right? Except that all too often it’s not. Most non-profit organizations are created to deal with specific problems – like cancer research, housing for the poor, mentoring for disadvantaged kids, etc. Their focus is targeted, narrow and often more about delivering specific services than they are about building community.
To say that Asset Based Community Development (or ABCD) is different would be an understatement. Asset-based community development is focused on identifying and bringing together the people, places, organizations and associations that give a community its unique identity. At their core, asset-based community developers believe that everything needed to improve their community is already in the community. They just need to connect it.
Community developers are more like gardeners than they are developers. Like a good gardener, developing a healthy, thriving community requires cultivation, persistence and patience. Just like a good garden plot, in development, you must water, feed and care for the community. Have you watched folks as they marvel over a beautiful garden plot? They’re transfixed by its beauty, mesmerized by the gardener’s ability to keep everything alive, thriving and full of color. But those gardens don’t just pop up out of the ground by themselves – they are purposely grown. All gardens begin with a single planting and develop slowly with multiple, successive plantings over time. This is also true in community development.
The process of developing community requires cultivation, persistence and patience. It can be frustratingly difficult and it’s time-consuming. If you want to know what makes your community so special, you must engage your neighbors and not just the ones you know and like. You need to discover through conversation what are their hopes and dreams for a better community. What do they see as the places, organizations, institutions, events and people that make your community so strong? In other words, what are the assets within your community that make it what it is? Identifying, connecting and cultivating all those assets is what Asset Based Community Development is all about. It may feel slow and frustrating at times but when it finally clicks, you’ll marvel at the results.
In the world of community development, success or failure is never measured on the performance of any one event. Every event, big or small, matters and should be viewed as a success. Think of it this way – someone who attended that event heard your message, saw your passion and they walked away knowing you love their community as much as they do. They now know that you are invested in the community and are there to stay. As an example, I would like to share the story of an event at St. James, Westwood, that we called “Jammin’ at the James”.
For the past several years the congregation of St. James has been working hard at getting outside of the four walls of our church and into the community. We’ve made good progress and connected with neighborhood civic organizations, local schools, churches and several community associations. We’ve co-hosted events in our community hall and on our front lawn. During the summer of 2019 the congregation decided to step out on our own to further connect with the community. We did this by inviting two of our community partners to join us to organize and host a community concert series, which we named Jammin’ at the James.
The goal was simple, invite our neighbors to our front lawn to relax, enjoy some great, live music and get to know one another. We hosted three monthly concerts. Those who attended the concerts were young and old, rich and poor, black and white. All were welcome and felt welcomed. We fed their bodies with free, delicious food prepared by parishioners, and we fed their souls. We gave to them what they seek and need most in life, a peaceful sanctuary where they can spend time relaxing with friends, family and neighbors. All left the final concert with just one question – “Will you do this again next year?”
They saw our passion and our love for our church and the community. We shared our community with them, and on those days, we fulfilled our mission as followers of Christ.
John Eby is a community developer and a member of the vestry at St. James, Westwood.