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Core Concepts

When we begin thinking and acting with belief in the inherent power of communities and neighbors, we begin to see things in a new light. ABCD offers several core concepts that can bolster your efforts to weave your community together and grow local power.

The Four Questions

The work of sparking effective, community-led change begins with four primary questions:

  1. What can local people do by themselves, using their own resources?
  2. What can local people do with a little help from outside institutions and professionals?
  3. What can only outside institutions and professionals do?
  4. What should institutions and professionals stop doing?

An asset-based practice always begins with the first question, based on the commonsense notion that in community, “we don’t know what we need until we know what we have.” Only by answering this first can we accurately understand what kind of support communities need from the outside. The tools in this module will help you answer the first question of what community members can do, and what resources are already at hand, waiting to be tapped.

The Seven Functions

What essential functions are citizens able to collectively perform that create greater community wellbeing? Data shows that only a small percentage of our health comes from our access to healthcare systems. The bulk of our health flows from our habits, our connection to others, our economies, and the state of our environments—in other words, factors that are within our own control and those of our neighborhood.

The same can be true of other functions: our safety, economy, the environment, food, the growth and well-being of our children, and our care for one another.

Ironically, most discussion and funding for these important areas of life revolve around organizations and programs. When we focus instead on seeking out and nurturing hand-grown solutions, however, the results are consistently more relevant, successful, and long-lasting than when we simply look to programs and professionals.

The Six Assets or Building Blocks

Six unique assets, or resources, appeared again and again in the stories told to McKnight and Kretzmann about what neighbors drew upon to make things better. These six assets are:

  1. Individual Gifts and Talents
  2. Associations (voluntary, resident-led groups and clubs)
  3. Institutions (formal organizations such as for-profit businesses, non-profit, and government agencies)
  4. Physical / Place-based assets
  5. Economy and Exchange
  6. Stories / Culture

Looking at our community through these dimensions of abundance is a powerful starting point as well as an ongoing habit that enables us to grow local control, connection, and collaboration around the issues that affect us.

Institutions Stepping Back

ABCD also encourages those paid professionals connected to a community to “lead by stepping back,” making room for residents to lead and to uncover their own assets and abilities. Professionals and institutions can become better local problem-solvers by re-focusing their role and resources to act as supporters of neighbor-driven ideas.

(For an example of how outsiders can support local power, see this video: Ernesto Sirolli: “Want to Help Someone? Shut Up and Listen.”)

John McKnight and Cormac Russell write:

No matter how hard they try, our very best institutions cannot do many things that only we can do; and what only we can do is vital to a decent, good, democratic life. Traditional approaches to change making tend towards reform of institutions and a focus on an individual’s supposed deficits. Underlying that approach is the assumption that the role of communities is defined as what happens after the important work of professionals and institutions has been completed. The ABCD approach inverts that, highlighting that in a vibrant democracy the opposite is true: the role of professionals is defined as what happens after the community functions are performed.

Ultimately, ABCD is a set of beliefs and tools for re-locating the power into the hands of everyday neighbors to name their challenges as well as their hopes and dreams, and to uncover the resources within their own reach they can utilize to tackle them together.

In a world of increasingly complex, daunting and interconnected challenges, ABCD is a tool for meeting these challenges with the maximum resources and diverse, grassroots leadership possible.


(Note: An additional, sixth asset—Stories and Culture—has been named and added to ABCD thinking since this video was produced.)


Test your knowledge

The work of sparking effective, community-led change begins with four primary questions. Which of the following is not one of these questions?


Go on a Neighborhood Treasure Hunt!

Alone or with one or two of your neighbors, take a walk through your neighborhood wearing your “asset lenses.” What assets and resources do you see?

  • What do peoples’ homes or yards tell you about their culture, gifts or passions?
  • What signs of group or club activity do you see?
  • What are the physical, institutional, economic and cultural / story assets here?
  • If you notice problems or challenges, how could you imagine using the assets you saw to solve them?

If you meet someone along your way, try striking up a neighborly conversation. (As a Community Weaver, this will probably come naturally to you.) See what you can learn about them, what local assets or treasures they know about, and what things they care about or be involved in already in the neighborhood.

When you get home, note down the treasures you found, any ideas that came to you, as well as any notes on what the experience was like.

Going Further

Follow these links to dig deeper into the ideas shared above and to see more examples of ABCD in action.