In his recent Kindle book Asset-Based Community Development: An Incomplete Guide, Cormac Russell describes eight touchstones of Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD). He points out that whilst all eight Touchstones rarely appear together and do not represent a step-by-step guide to community building, they do show up regularly in ABCD community practice around the world. He says: ‘We hope that in hearing about the good faith community building efforts of others from around the world, you might feel affirmed in your own efforts, and perhaps, find some ideas that lead you towards new possibilities and adventures.’
I’ve taken long quotes from Cormac’s book—I’ve shortened length of paragraphs to help easier reading online— for each of these touchstones and included the link for further information on the Nurture Development website that Cormac provides:
‘Discovering and connecting an initiating group of residents: In every community, there are connectors: people who value relationships more than single issues and care about community building more than problem solving. Often in the art of finding connectors, it helps to remember it takes one to know one, so once you’ve found two or three, they’ll find four or six more, and so on like that.
As the numbers of connectors multiply and relationships deepen a circle of connectors representing the diversity of a local community starts to form. When a group of connectors connect as an initiating group of residents, with the purpose of having a listening campaign across the neighbourhood, it is fair to say that an incredibly important touchstone of collective citizen-led action has been reached.’ More
‘Recruiting a Community Animator: Including the stranger at the edge and dealing with some of the more complex challenges and conflicts of community life can often demand ongoing and very skilled support. A Community Animator, or what some refer to as a Community Builder and others as an ABCD Community Organizer, is typically a paid role, but one that is non-directive in terms of what actions residents might take together.’ More
‘Hosting Community Conversations: What is it that an initiating group of citizens, with or without the support of a Community Animator, typically does? They shift the dominant conversation. In many of the communities in which we work, there is a hidden conversation that overshadows grassroots progress, which is founded on an assumption that ‘the only way things are going to get better is if someone from outside comes in to make them better’. This dominant conversation is best shifted gently, through an intentional process of introducing new questions that shine a light on what is strong, not wrong, locally.
These new conversations involve a mix of one-on-one chats, and conversations with small groups/associations. They also include processes like asset-mapping or what I prefer to term place-based portrait making. They form the basis of a listening campaign that surfaces what it is that people care about locally and to which they are prepared to commit collective effort and personal and associational contributions.
These conversations are also about power and local self-determination. So, connectors and animators support the wider community to discover and connect, firstly, what resources they have locally that they alone can use to achieve their goals. Secondly, they identify what else they could achieve with some outside support, and finally what they want done by outside actors for them. ‘ More
‘Engaging Community Groups and Organisations: Most if not all neighbourhoods are to some degree already organized, for example there are all kinds of formal and informal clubs, groups, and networks interested in an almost endless array of things, from the five people who informally join each other to walk their dogs each morning to the members of a Neighbourhood Watch committee. People group up to do together what they can’t do alone.
A listening campaign like the one mentioned above actively includes such formal and informal associations. In addition to finding out what they, as a group, care about and what resources they can share and tap into, connectors and animators also share themes that are emerging from other conversations that they are having in the wider neighbourhood and invite curiosity about what resources they could lend to other local community building efforts as well as their own.
The conversation with local associations also looks at what they have done previously and what they would like to do collaboratively with other associations in the future. Over time, these conversations prepare the soil for the establishment of an association of associations.’ More
‘Building Connections and Social interactions: The physical design and planning of many neighbourhoods make it difficult for neighbours to naturally connect. For other neighbourhoods, as the demographic has changed so too have the opportunities to socially and economically connect, fewer school-going children and more senior citizens mean that encounters at the school gate are no longer a regular a feature of neighbourly life….
… So, what can connectors and animator do to help? They can and many do intentionally create social spaces for people to interact and exchange gifts. That is not to say that they tell people what activities they should engage in. This touchstone is not about bringing in an expert on bee-keeping to deliver a talk, and hoping neighbours will be enticed to come and then engage with each other. Instead it is about what happens in between the moment you have conversations with a resident who knows a lot about bee-keeping and a local sports group that would like to share their hall more with their community. Animators and connectors actively join up those assets.’ More
‘Visioning and Planning: It is important to say that as well as exchanging gifts, skills, knowledge, and passions as described in Touchstone 5, eventually in an effective community building process you will begin to see social spaces and community conversations being convened with a view to residents and their associations visioning and planning together. An association of associations provides a diverse, dynamic, and broad neighbourhood network necessary for the community to bring into view their vision for the future and how they plan to get there. It doesn’t really matter how that’s done–there are endless methodologies… Typically, we see communities using approaches that make best sense to them.
When you get right down to it, these visioning processes tend to happen through a blend of formal and informal conversations. The formal conversation can take the shape of ideas fairs or more focused neighbourhood planning processes; often starting with an intentional process of storytelling about what’s already been achieved. By starting with what we have already achieved using what we have, it is possible to positively pivot into a conversation about what else is achievable.’ More
‘Implementing Change: You can recognize a citizen because they are in association with their fellow citizens, agreeing on priorities and sharing commitment to do something about the things they say they care about. Acting together across the life course, from children learning to take turns and include each other while playing games on the street to adult associations responding to economic exploitation or to harm being done to the local environment, is how we learn to work together in civil ways, even and perhaps especially with people we don’t agree with or whose difference we don’t yet understand.
We may not see eye to eye with all our neighbours on religion, politics, how to raise our children, or whom we should incarcerate and whom we set free, but when we join together to do something practical about, for example, all our children being able to play safely on the streets around our shared neighbourhood, magic happens, and the foundations of a more pluralist civil society are laid. When citizens take collective action to make manifest their shared vision, they will take care to maintain and protect what they have created; because they will have become the primary investors in a better tomorrow and their authorship will evident throughout their neighbourhood.’ More
‘Celebrate Every Step of the Way: There will be many ups and downs along the way on the journey towards a more collective and inclusive culture of community. So, it is important to have fun and to celebrate the little things and even the setbacks along the way, because they are often where we learn most. But there will be days when you’ll be on top of the world, when everything seems to be coming together, so do make sure to mark those days with some kind of pop-up party—remember in other words to celebrate.
Mostly in life, things will be in-between the lows and highs; they even seem boring, and in those times, although folks will accept that things are not going backwards, they will often quietly wonder if they are really moving forward. Regular scheduled meals and storytelling gatherings are a perfect antidote to these moments of doubt, as they provide a great opportunity to make invisible impacts visible.’ More
‘The 8 Touchstones are not linear; they interlace with each other. Effective communities all over the world and across history have started at different points. So, start anywhere but go everywhere, and remember that if you’re an outside actor, community building is the work of local residents; your job is to precipitate, facilitate, catalyze, and support, not to direct, do to, or do for….’
I love these sections that Cormac has written and the further details that can be read on his Nurture Development website. I can strongly recommend Cormac’s Kindle book, which can be purchased for the princely sum of £0.77. Thanks to Cormac for giving me permission to make so many long quotes.