SLS Offers Its First ABCD Short Course

April 19, 2021

Last month, in partnership with the School of City and Regional Planning, Serve-Learn-Sustain offered a short course on the basics of Asset-Based Community Development. “ABCD,” as it’s known, was founded by John McKnight and Jody Kretzman, who as local organizers and community researchers in Chicago, came to believe that existing deficit-focused frameworks for development missed what fundamentally animates and defines communities: their assets. Although a focus on assets is core to Serve-Learn-Sustain’s approach to both community- university partnerships and sustainable communities education, SLS had not before offered a course focused solely on ABCD.  Collaborating with consultant and ABCD Institute Board Chair Seva Gandhi, SLS Director Jenny Hirsch and I facilitated the course with an eye toward creating a welcoming and compelling experience for everyone who wished to join us, in and beyond GT. This eclectic makeup meant that our course, which was themed around belonging and community security, was enlivened by the experiences of city planning graduate students, CoE and IAC undergraduates, GT staff and faculty from the Scheller College of Business and GT Housing, and practitioners from nonprofits, local government, and community-based organizations. 

In the first two sessions of the six-session course, students were exposed to the basics of ABCD and offered activities to strengthen their emerging understanding. We adapted the Parkway Community ABCD tool, an SLS standby, for the course and added the exercise, 12 Domains of People-Powered Change. (The ABCD Institute hosts a variety of tools and resources related to understanding and teaching ABCD.)  Both exercises were meant to challenge deficit-bound points of view and help shift our perspective away from external service providers and institutions and toward the gifts and skills; local associations; public resources; infrastructure; local businesses; and culture-ways in communities as central to inaugurating transformation.  The third session, a site visit, immersed students in three different contexts for exploring ABCD: a virtual visit with the Center for Sustainable Communities focused on mapping assets in Hampton Roads, Virginia; a virtual visit with local youth empowerment organization Marietta YELLS; and an in-person visit to Clarkston, where students interacted with several local partners, such as Refuge Coffee and Upper 90, getting a sense from them of the rich tapestry of assets that makes Clarkston and its vibrant refugee communities so special. In the second week’s sessions, ABCD practitioners visited the course, including: De’Amon Harges who shared his role as a community builder and “roving listener,” Allison Lourash who described her work as a disability access advocate, and Vanessa Westley, formerly of the Chicago Police Department, who offered the perspective of her years using restorative justice models and ABCD in law enforcement. These visitors spoke of their own experiences engaging ABCD and offered us important means of reflection; Harges asked us, “What do you want? What are you willing to give up? And what are you willing to share?” On this theme of sharing, Harges, Westley and Lourash all illuminated the promise at the heart of ABCD approaches: when we share and connect gifts and assets in a community, their power to transform the neighborhood is activated.  

In the final session, ABCD co-founder John McKnight visited us. McKnight is no less engaged today in community development, research, and teaching than he was seventy years ago as a community organizer in Chicago. John’s visit—rich with his storytelling—provided a reminder that he and Kretzman didn’t “invent” ABCD, they merely described what they discovered was already happening in the communities in which they worked.  McKnight recalled how local mothers in Chicago created—with no funding or external resources—summer programming that connected their children to local businesses, building a web of homegrown mentors and positioning their children to see, and draw on, community assets that could positively shape their lives.  Through that example and other portraits of the power of ABCD in local places, he warned us that despite the allure of big, broad-scale solutions, ABCD works best when it is “small” and focused on what happens when people direct their care and abilities toward their own neighborhoods.   Finally, students submitted write-ups of interviews they conducted in pairs with ABCD practitioners from a diversity of backgrounds and specializations.  Reverend John Unger, a state senator from West Virginia, shared with his interviewers that his own political campaigns have been asset-based; instead of promising residents that he is their solution, his campaign centered on showing residents how to get their voices heard—from potholes to major policy—and then leverage the networks they created themselves. 

Although six sessions over two weeks is indeed short, the community of the class cohered through depth of dialogue around what we all might do—with ABCD’s tools—to make our communities more just and welcoming. During the second week of the course, the horrifying murders of eight people—six of whom were AAPI women—at three Atlanta area spas reverberated through our course community as they did through our city and country. That violence—and its connection to scores of other hate crimes perpetrated against AAPI and BIPOC community members—underlined the centrality of translating questions of safety, belonging, and justice that were central themes of the short course into avenues for solidarity, coalition-building, and institutional transformation.  The organizing gifts of students in the course emerged; you can learn more about that recent organizing—which embodies the connecting of gifts and assets in the service of transformation—in Jenny Hirsch’s recent post.

In their course evaluations, some students discussed the applicability of ABCD frameworks to their studies in, for example, city planning, while others reflected on ABCD’s impact on how they see their own communities, and their roles in them.  One student wrote, “[For me], I think this is a paradigm shift not only in how to approach communities but, in this divisive world we live in, in how we should interact with others more broadly.”