In distressed communities across the United States, savvy organizers and leaders are rediscovering ancient wisdom about what builds strong communities, and then developing new ways to fit that wisdom to late 20th century community realities.
This quest for effective community-building tools has accelerated in the recent past, in direct response to both a rapidly shifting political and economic context and deteriorating conditions in lower income and working class neighborhoods across the country. Despite the best efforts of creative community developers and organizers; despite their significant successes in continuing to involve major public and private institutions in support of affordable housing and community development; despite signs of creative new approaches to community development on the part of some federal agencies, banks, and other investors; despite all of these energies concentrating on attracting help from the outside for distressed communities, that help is continuing to evaporate.
So, while it is clear that these efforts to attract outside resources must continue, and even accelerate, it is also abundantly evident that they will not suffice. Serious community builders have no choice but to return to basics, to the communities themselves to rediscover and mobilize the strengths, capacities, and assets within those communities.
Unfortunately, this vital and necessary work has been made much more difficult in recent decades, as a powerful set of contrary voices has gained ascendancy. These voices insist that communities focus not on their strengths, but on their deficiencies, problems and needs. Help from the outside will arrive only when a convincing story of emptiness and need has been told. Rewards will flow to those whose "needs surveys" point to high rates of teen pregnancy, crime, school drop-outs, drug use, homelessness, lead poisoning, etc. Drawing a compelling "Needs Map" is the key to opening the vaults of most government programs, and most other funders as well.
The near monopoly power of the Needs Map, with its unrelenting focus on deficiency, has managed to obscure that fundamental piece of ancient wisdom now being rediscovered by community builders: namely, that communities can only be built by focusing on the strengths and capacities of the citizens who call that community home. Those who have escaped the lures of deficiency, therefore, have been drawing up a new map based on old truths, an "Assets Map".
This Assets Map points to one way of thinking about the basic kinds of building blocks that exist in every community. At the center of the map, and of the community building process, lie the "gifts" of individual residents their knowledge, skills, resources, values, and commitments.
Beyond individuals and their families, the second basic set of community-building assets can be found in those groups and organizations, sometimes called "associations," in which local citizens come together to pursue a wide range of activities. These associations, whether primarily organized to promote religious, cultural, civic, recreational, or other ends, are both more ubiquitous and more willing to adopt community building tasks than many community leaders expect.
Finally, the Assets Map points to the potential power of institutions located in virtually every community schools, parks, libraries, police, human service agencies, community colleges when those institutions can refocus at least part of their considerable resources on community building.
When all these local community assets the gifts of individuals, the power of citizens' associations, and the resources of local institutions have been rediscovered, "mapped," and mobilized in relation to each other and their potential to solve problems, then a community previously regarded as empty and deficient will appear on the large civic stage as capable and powerful. With this goal in mind, consider a few of the concrete tools and methods local communities are developing to rediscover and activate their assets.
This is why many communities have begun to act on a simple two-part pledge, which is basic to community building: Every person in this community is gifted, and every person in this community will contribute his/her gifts and resources.
These two commitments are particularly important and necessary in communities where many of the residents have been marginalized. That is, they have been defined primarily by their needs and deficiencies. They are too old, or too young, or too disabled, or too poor to have any gifts and resources. They are, therefore, seldom asked to contribute to the community. (This may constitute the cruelest form of social isolation.)
To rediscover the gifts and resources of all community members, over one-hundred community groups have utilized some form of a "Capacity Inventory." The inventory is simply a questionnaire aimed at uncovering a person's skills, areas of knowledge and experience, commitments, and willingness to be involved in community building and/or economic development activities. It is the opposite in spirit of a "needs survey."
Though a prototype version of a capacity inventory is reproduced in the Building Communities from the Inside Out (co-authored with John McKnight), most communities that have had success with the inventory have taken time to construct their own custom-fitted version. This construction process seems to be most productive when community leaders first address the question, "To what uses will the information gathered in the capacity inventory be put?" This recognizes that the inventory is meant to fulfill two basic functions. First, because neighbors interviewing neighbors have proven to be highly effective, the capacity inventory is a tool that can build relationships. And second, it is designed to produce immediately useful information, not "data" to be computerized and stored.
Among the many potential uses for the capacity inventory, the seven listed below seem to be most common. Each, of course, requires asking residents a different set of questions.
Though recent evidence may indicate a decline in associational life in the United States, communities that have initiated an "Associational Inventory" have regularly uncovered a much more varied and numerous set of local associations than expected. One very low-income neighborhood in Chicago, for example, recently "mapped" 249 local associations. Furthermore, when asked, these associations are proving more than ready to contribute to community building activities.
A number of communities are developing and using valuable methods of rediscovering and further activating their neighborhood associations. Basically, the approaches involve, first, an "associational inventory;" and second, an "associational survey."
The inventory uses simple, common sense methods, such as:
All of these possibilities and more underscore the central importance and power, when systematically rediscovered and mobilized, of the community's associations.
The first step, quite obviously, is to re-establish relationships between the leaders of these local institutions and the community builders. What has happened next in a number of communities is a set of discussions aimed at discovering ways in which cooperative efforts lead both the institution and the community.
Frequently, what interests community builders most about the resources that local institutions bring to the table has very little to do with the central "missions" of the institutions, e.g. a school's "curriculum," an agency's "services." Rather, community builders often regard these institutions as "treasure chests" filled with potential community building resources. A school, for example, contains treasures such as: facilities and space, which would host and incubate a range of community groups and activities; materials and equipment, from computers to blackboards, all of which could be invaluable to community groups; purchasing power, with which to buy from local enterprises; hiring capacity, which could partly target local residents; teachers, who could bring their expertise to bear on community issues; and young people, most important of all, who could come back into the community as contributors to the rebuilding process.
Every local institution constitutes this kind of treasure chest, filled with valuable community-building materials. If all of these materials were available to community builders, they could move forward with their agendas much more rapidly.
Once these combinations of local assets and capacities individual residents, citizens' associations, and the resources of local institutions have been mapped and mobilized, a community is well on its way to regenerating itself. Such a community may still, of course, require help from the outside. But it is now in a position to control and define that help, to focus and direct outside resources to the locally generated agenda and plans. Rather than existing as an object of charity, such a community will say to the outside world: we are mobilized and powerful; we are a sure-fire investment.
John P. Kretzmann is the director of the Neighborhood Innovations Network, a project of the Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research of Northwestern University. 708-491-3518.
Back to September/October 1995 index.