Identifying, connecting, and mobilizing a neighborhood’s assets for the greater good is a complex endeavor — anyone who has been involved in working for change within a community has likely experienced that. There’s no instruction booklet or easy-to-follow diagrams.
However, there are five principles that can help bring about real social, economic, and environmental change. Together they form a powerful compass that helps neighborhoods locate their own resources and gifts and find their way to a more sustainable future.
These are the five fundamental principles of a connected community — or CAPRI for short:
What does it mean to be a citizen? In a modern consumer society, it’s a journey from clienthood to citizenship. “Client” is a word steeped in a long history of paternalism and patronizing power relations: in the late fourteenth century it meant “one who lives under the patronage of another.” Its Latin root, clientem, means “follower or retainer.” It’s linked to the Latin clinare, “to lean,” as in leaning on someone else for protection. While modern usage typically describes the more positive and equal relationships between customers and experts, it still refers to people simply by what they consume or rely on — and overlooks their local relationships and contributions to their own and others’ lives.
Becoming a citizen isn’t just about voting. It’s about the full measure of someone’s participation, connection, and contribution to a community. Active citizens contribute to the well-being of their communities. They are producing democracy, not just consuming in the marketplace.
There are certain things that only citizens, in association with one another, do best. To find out, ask these questions:
- What can residents in communities best do together?
- What can residents do best with some outside help?
- What do communities need outside institutions to do for them?
2. Relationship oriented
A Connected Community goes beyond individual power toward community power. Sadly, the power of relationships tends to be undervalued in industrialized societies. But community power presents a powerful and often untapped force for good. It enables cooperative behaviors to amplify and multiply the capacities of individuals, ensuring that the whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts. Just like a choir can achieve performances that even the very best solo singer cannot, so too communities can do so much that we simply cannot do on our own.
Community power is key to our individual well-being, public safety, response to natural disasters, and vocational opportunities. Community is about relatedness. And so the people and groups who are relationship-oriented are the creators of the connected community.
The starting point for Asset-Based Community Development — or ABCD — is what’s strong, not what’s wrong. Some misunderstand “asset-based” as a catchphrase that attempts to minimize life’s challenges or normalize injustices. But nothing could be further from the truth. ABCD is the process by which relational power is mobilized to produce sustainable and satisfying change.
With that in mind, ABCD starts with what’s strong and enables local people to get organized to address what’s wrong and make what’s strong even stronger. It also asks searching questions of those who seek to define certain neighborhoods by the sum of their deficits.
Small, local places are the stage on which a good, sustainable, and satisfying life unfolds. Seeing the neighborhood as the primary unit of change is a powerful strategy for addressing some of our most intractable sociopolitical challenges. But it may seem to contradict most helping strategies, which see only individuals or institutions as domains for change. While personal transformation and institutional interventions have their place, we have seen that by intentionally organizing relational power at the neighborhood level, local residents can connect local human, associational, environmental, economic, and cultural resources. They can come up with solutions that escape the reach of top-down institutions and distant technologies.
Around the world, we have witnessed the power of collective agency — to surpass even the collective impact of institutional partnerships that purport to address issues such as child poverty, obesity, and dementia. True partnerships between citizens and institutional systems will emerge only when institutions begin organizing in the way people organize their lives, humbly showing up at the local level, first appreciating what is there, and then offering their human and other resources.
In neighborhoods and small townships, residents come to believe they can make an impact, neighbor to neighbor. A small local place also provides the context within which the multiplicity of helping agencies can agree on common ground, automatically taking them beyond their administrative boundaries to work across silos in service of the neighborhood.
5. Inclusion focused
Communities have imperceptible perimeters separating those who belong from those on the outside — the unwelcome strangers, so to speak. But the principles and practices of a connected community are focused on welcoming those outsiders at the edge of our community’s perimeters. A community that does not have a place for them is no place for anyone: if they do not actively welcome everyone’s gifts, they disable themselves and others and build a bastion against the authentic community. Every gift builds power, and civic power grows further when shared gifts are amplified, multiplied, and diversified within associations.
In short, the community is about inclusion. Investing in the group life of the neighborhood is about recognizing that collective community power is measured not by the strengths or capacities of its leaders, but by the power, connectivity, and inclusivity of its groups.
It is important to note, however, that a connected community is not a substitute for services. Nor are services or professional programs a proxy for genuine friendship and community-led inventiveness. Community-building efforts built on the CAPRI principles recognize that:
- Everyone has certain capacities: a gift (they are born with), a skill (they have learned and practiced, and could potentially share/teach), a passion (they act on), and knowledge that they can contribute to the wellbeing of their community.
- Social movements grow stronger when these capacities are discovered and connected into productive reciprocal relationships with associations, the local environment, the economy, and culture.
- Finally, power grows from the bottom up, and from the sidelines in, when people identify what they care about enough to act on collectively, and then take that action and learn as they go.
Cormac Russell is a veteran practitioner of asset-based community development (ABCD) with experience in 36 countries. A social explorer, author, speaker, and managing director of Nurture Development, he sits on the faculty of the Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) Institute, at DePaul University, Chicago. John McKnight is cofounder of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute, a Senior Associate at the Kettering Foundation, and sits on the board of a number of community development organizations. Russell and McKnight coauthored The Connected Community: Discovering the Health, Wealth, and Power of Neighborhoods.
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