ABCD- Asset Based Community Development

Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) is defined as a sustainable approach to community-driven development. I’ve been using ABCD models since I first dabbled in social enterprise & community development 15+ years ago. Recently, I went to one of my first in-person learnings since March 2020 ( and all things COVID) and it was on ABCD. I was thrilled! After all my years dabbling in systems change theory, social innovation and Art of Hosting… ABCD feels even more palpably important in an era of growing public distrust, system collapse and community need.

Put on in Moncton, New Brunswick, by the lovely Tamarack Institute , the workshop was called “Foundations of ABCD” with Cormac Russel, of Nuture Development. Cormac kept emphasizing how our social contract with institutions is broken, and that we need to re-centre communities & neighbourhoods as the richest unit of change. That community needs are met with three lanes of a weird highway…

  1. What can communities do alone?
  2. What can they do with help?
  3. What do they need done for them?

…and we’ve moved *so* much of the emphasis to things done FOR community, often by institutions & professional helpers. Often what’s done for community and not BY community, is a poor fit, is unwelcome, un-needed or genuinely harmful. As Rosabeth Moss Kanter put it “ when we do change to people, they experience it as violence. But when people people do change for themselves, they experience it as liberation

We need to flip our models. To deepen our community’s autonomy & power, ABCD models suggest we start by recognizing and celebrating our riches and strengths– not with with sprinkles of money, helicoptered-in professional helpers and funding criteria and boxes within boxes. As a settler living in Mi’kma’ki, with a deep painful colonial history, this sort of hyper-institutionalized community development feels like Colonization 2.0.

The first lane of how communities get their needs met, “What our communities can do alone”— is deeply relational. Based on building, maintaining and nourishing relatonships. Just as Aiko Bethea spoke to Brene Brown about creating transformative cultures, I feel like more & more community work needs to become less transactional and more RELATIONAL. And institutions can’t help but be transactional– and we’ve never had a more apparent need to deepen our relationships “… Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging work is not transactional. It’s relational, if it’s going to be transformational. So let me say that again, that Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging work is not transactional. If you want it to be transformational, it has to be relational.”

I look forward to my next era of work emphasizing relationships, depth, grassroots, de-colonized practices. And I beg people working in community, even those of you like me who spent years professionalizing your activism, to keep asking yourselves some tough questions:

  • Am I being OF community or doing TO community?
  • Am I engaging in community work as transactional or relational?
  • Are there ways I can help liberate community to do change for themselves/ourselves?
  • Are there ways I am doing change TO communities that is harmful?
  • Are you doing things about them without them?

For more information on ABCD, check out this 4-page guidebook by the Tamarack Institute, watch Cormac Russel’s TEDx Talk Sustainable community development: shifting the focus from what’s wrong to what’s strong

Here are my personal sketchnotes: