July 13, 2009

Serving up Community Bread & Butter in Nova Scotia

I just spent 3 days in Antigonish, Nova Scotia at the St. Francis Xavier University for "From Clients to Citizens: Deepening the Practice of Asset-Based and Citizen-Led Development", a conference co-hosted by the Coady International Institute and the Asset-Based Community Development Institute. Approximately 100 people were there representing 32 countries, all involved in asset based and citizen-led change. An amazing group of people.

I've been a bit stumped about what to write about this experience. The plenaries and small group discussions were rich with ideas, experience, different perspectives and opportunities for new learning-oriented relationships. I had the opportunity to reconnect with my colleagues from the ABCD Institute Faculty and to meet people who are pioneering grassroots grantmaking in South Africa and Australia.

But after some reflection, here is the first thing I want to share. I'm remembering a wonderful woman from Ghana who stood up in one of the plenaries and said "ABCD (asset-based community development) is what we do in Africa and what we have always done. It is how we live." We had been talking about the political context of some of the language that we were using - how dangerous it is in some places to talk about active citizens, local associations and community building. Not just unpopular but dangerous. In this context, I was assuming that this woman was talking not only about how people in her community live, but how they survive.

I remember John McKnight and Jody's Kretzmann's early speeches and writing about asset-based community development. They always began by saying that they were sharing community wisdom - what they have observed from talking to hundreds of community people in hundreds of church basements, community centers and front porches all across the United States. They essentially said the same thing that this woman from Ghana shared. People in neighborhoods that were doing okay in spite of the odds were all doing the same thing in different ways. They were all turning to each other instead of outsiders, and they were being resourceful in thinking about what they could do with everything else within their reach in their neighborhood. Out of these conversations, the principles of asset-based community development emerged. And with the publication of Building Communities from the Inside Out in 1993, ABCD became a hot item.

This gathering of amazing people from 32 countries reminded me of the bread and butter nature of asset based community development. Powerful in a fundamental way, grounded in communities everywhere, it exists in a space that can be witnessed by research entities, funding organizations and others who care about communities but who are not of communities. It was there before ABCD became a hot item and will be there if or when interest moves on to another hot item. It is basic to how communities work when they are working well. It's bread and butter.

That doesn't mean I think we don't need gatherings like this one in Antigonish or that we can count on "bread and butter" always being there. The simple fact that 100 people from 32 countries were willing to travel to Antigonish tells me that people are feeling a deparate hunger for the bread and butter of community and are seeing that citizen-centered change is their best option for increasing community well-being.

I'm confident that the relationships and the learning that began in Antigonish last week will continue. But for me, I'll be thinking about the woman from Ghana - thinking about the hunger for more that brought her all the way from Ghana to Antigonish, juxtaposed with the deep confidence that she expressed when she reminded us that this is how her community works and has always worked. I'll be thinking about the simple power of bread and butter.

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