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Discover Assets in Your Community

By Tom Peterson

“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”    — Charles Darwin

On the surface, a retirement center and an elementary school may seem like an unlikely pair. The beneficiaries of each institution differ vastly in age, health status, and life experience. Yet, anecdotal evidence suggests that partnerships between the two can be mutually beneficial.

In his book The Element (written with Lou Aronica)Ken Robinson tells of a retirement center owner in Jenks, Oklahoma, who offered to help kids in the elementary school across the street. With the school district’s consent, he set up a glass-walled preschool/kindergarten classroom in the lobby of the retirement center. The program paired an elderly resident with a child for one-on-one activities where each reads in turn. So far, the results have been surprising: The elders are finding something to look forward to when they get up in the morning and are taking fewer medications. And the children have greatly improved their reading abilities. Equally important, Robinson says the program “has restored an ancient, traditional relationship between the generations. The very young and the very old have always had an almost mystical connection.”

What happened to make this possible? The retirement center and school were both untapped community assets that, when aligned, achieved powerful results for each institution and the broader community.

What is a community asset?

It’s often easier to focus on problems or what we lack than to look for something that could help us. Perhaps bad is just more interesting. But a number of recent approaches to change tell us to stop fixating on (then trying to fix) problems. Instead, they suggest, find out what’s going well and discover helpful assets then and build on that.

An asset is anything of value, anything that can provide an advantage. A community asset is anything that can improve the life of a community, but that’s already in that community.

Kinds of community assets

Repurposing assets is an ancient tradition—animal bones became valuable tools and weapons. In a time of scarcity, scraps of cloth were sewn together into warm, colorful quilts. Used clothing converts into much hipper “vintage” clothing. Old military bases were repurposed to new uses, such as Austin’s airport and the Presidio in San Francisco. And buildings get green “points” for old materials that are repurposed in construction. So what kinds of assets will you be looking for?

People. The number one asset for any effort, especially on a community scale, is people. And it’s all about relationships! Each person brings different gifts to the common purpose. The tribe of world change is made of many types (and, hopefully, each of us has several strengths). Here are just a few examples:

  • Those who make sure the effort is inclusive, diverse
  • Visionaries who can help us find the right way
  • Truth-tellers, prophets, who don’t let us off the hook
  • Connectors who bring others and key institutions to the cause
  • Organizers who make sure it all gets done
  • People who love data and what it tells us
  • Rainmakers who can develop funding sources
  • Operators on the ground (who often see what visionaries miss)
  • Enthusiasts who make the rest of us glad we’re involved!

rails-to-trails-repurposed-300x154Physical. A community asset can be a structure or a place like a school building, church, grocery store or hair salon where people talk, spread ideas, and care for one another. Perhaps it’s an abandoned railroad that could be turned into a hiking and biking path, creating a healthier community. Almost every American city is currently rediscovering the asset of its once-abandoned urban center. In 2009 when Tony Goldman was looking for a way to revitalize a district of abandoned warehouses in Miami he realized they had one asset in abundance: blank walls. So he invited artists to paint murals, to create Wynwood Walls, a giant outdoor art museum and attraction. Now dozens of internationally known muralists, graffiti artists have created an amazing multi-block art district.

Institutions. These include organizations, schools, banks, businesses, government agencies, and nonprofits. These institutions provide critical services for a community. They run buses, shelter homeless people, teach our children. They can also serve as communication nodes for networking.

Cultural. Often overlooked, invisible cultural norms may be among the strongest assets. In 1974 Muhammad Yunus, an economics professor in Bangladesh was curious about fighting how to fight poverty in a nearby village. He spent months listening to the villagers. He found a woman who every morning bought bamboo with a high-interest loan from a moneylender, made stools all day. After repaying the loan she ended up with only two cents for her family. Yunus later wrote in Banking for the Poor that women like her “were not poor because they were stupid or lazy. They worked all day long, doing complex physical tasks. They were poor because the financial institutions in the country did not help them widen their economic base.”

So Yunus and his team of students made their first low-interest loan—a tiny infusion equaling $27 dollars —that over time helped 42 villagers. Small five-woman groups provided support and accountability. These loans and many more were repaid at a rate of 98 percent! The Grameen Bank was born. Over the next 34 years, the effort has made $6 billion in loans to millions around the world. And microcredit has become an anti-poverty tool in almost every country.

A typical development process might have missed them, but the cultural assets here are many, including the power of small groups, women who worked hard and a banking system that completely ignored them (thus providing a giant opportunity).

Identifying assets

So how do we find these community assets? Below, we have suggested several online tools that can assist you in identifying assets in your community:

Community Tool Box

discover assetsIf you’re not familiar with Community Tool Box, out of the University of Kansas, spend some time exploring their 7,000-page, 46-chapter site. It’s full of no-nonsense “practical, step-by-step guidance in community-building skills.” In particular, visit the section on “Identifying Community Assets and Resources” for a thorough “how-to.” Community Tool Box tells us why it’s valuable to identify community assets:

  • They can be used as a foundation for community improvement.
  • External resources (e.g., federal and state money) or grants may not be available. Therefore, the resources for change must come from within each community.
  • Identifying and mobilizing community assets enables community residents to gain control over their lives. People can become active shapers of their own destinies, instead of passive clients receiving services from a variety of agencies.
  • Improvement efforts are more effective, and longer-lasting, when community members dedicate their time and talents to changes they desire.
  • You can’t fully understand the community without identifying its assets. Knowing the community’s strengths makes it easier to understand what kinds of programs or initiatives might be possible to address the community’s needs.
  • When efforts are planned on the strengths of the community, people are likely to feel more positive about them, and to believe they can succeed. It’s a lot easier to gain community support for an effort that emphasizes the positive—“We have the resources within our community to deal with this, and we can do it!”—than one that stresses how large a problem is and how difficult it is to solve.

Appreciative inquiry

The Appreciative Inquiry Commons website tells us it began in 1980 when 24-year-old doctoral student David Cooperider was studying organizational behavior the Cleveland Clinic. The approach focuses on asking questions about what gives life to an organization. AI gained traction and by the 1990s practitioners were working with governments, corporations and nonprofit organizations.

Positive Deviance

In a different approach, and positive deviance says that every community has “certain individuals or groups (the positive deviants), whose uncommon but successful behaviors or strategies enable them to find better solutions to a problem than their peers” (from the Positive Deviance Initiative). The classic example involves Jerry Sternin, who in 1990 went to Vietnam for Save the Children and used the positive deviance model to determine how deeply impoverished children remained well-nourished.

Community Asset Mapping

stakeholder health“Asset mapping” is a methodology for discovering the strengths and potentials in a community. Instead of focusing on the problems like unemployment or crime, this participatory approach seeks to discover the things that can help the community be healthier, more vital. Teresa Cutts has led community health asset mapping processes around the United States and in Africa. She says that the process “allows us to make visible the not only tangible assets but the intangible assets.”

For example, the clinic on the corner is tangible. The manner in which care is delivered is intangible. In Africa, people would walk many, many kilometers to a mission hospital to receive care instead of go to a government hospital that’s more convenient and better resourced but treated them shabbily. The asset was the way the care is delivered.

This form of mapping also allows us to make visible and better connect the relationships and social capital of not only providers but also those who seek care. We create spider grams that show how people are connected in terms of resources. They show whether they share funds or have, or want to, develop trusted relationships.

For more information on community asset mapping, go here and here.

Final piece of advice: Expect to be surprised!

Whatever combination of methods you use to identify community assets, by all means, keep an open mind to what you’ll find. Expect to be surprised. You may discover a business wanting to engage its talented employees as volunteers. You may find one very wise person who with a few words can point in the effort in the right direction.

Each one of us, alone, will not tackle the big challenge we’ve chosen. But we can partner with others, find the community assets and align them powerfully together toward a common vision. Imagine what could then be possible!

Photos: the Katy Trail in Missouri, from Rails to Trails blog; Magnifying glasses: Mohviek, Anna, Mohylek and !KrzusiekBu!, Creative Commons.