“Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”
~ Mary Oliver
When we want to create change in our community, the first step in an asset-based, community-driven approach is to gather the neighbors and begin naming the good and the gifts among us.
John McKnight, one of the founders of Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD), often says, “You can’t do anything with a need, so why start there?” When we choose to start with gifts, neighbors experience their own power as they affirm together that they can create the change that is needed.
As we begin to uncover the treasure trove of skills, capacities, contributions, ideas and gifts within our neighborhoods, we can then begin to find creative ways to connect those assets so they can become powerful together. It is through relationships that we activate our local assets and give them a place to shine within the community.
These two actions—discovering and connecting/activating assets—are the fundamental engines of asset-base practice. They are also very often a natural habit of community Weavers everywhere.
Growing Community Power
Asset mapping is ultimately about moving power into the hands of residents and associations in a community so that they can imagine and take the action that they want to take in their community.
The most creative and expansive asset mapping and mobilization happens when residents “own” the map as theirs to create, update, and draw from to activate resources and build relationships. Through doing so, neighbors can discover their own capacity to work collectively to address the issues they care about and to realize their shared aspirations.
This discovery process can also reveal the best ways that local institutions can support community initiatives and problem solving. When we start paying attention to and documenting what resources community members already have and have access to—i.e. asset mapping—we begin to answer the first of “The Four Questions” in ABCD that we explored in Core Concepts:
- “What functions can community members perform by themselves?”
The answers to the other questions will then begin to emerge:
- “What they can do with help from institutions;
- “What only institutions can do”; and
- “What institutions should stop doing.”
As you and your neighbors take stock of what you have already at hand, you grow your power to initiate your own solutions and ideas, and can also see more clearly what other resources and supports you actually need (if any) from external organizations or experts. This puts you and your neighbors in a place of greater power and self-determination in relation to organizations and other players who are more traditionally treated as having the answers, and being deserving of the funding and authority to lead local change.
The result is a community in which everyone—from neighbors to the organizations and paid professionals who serve them—is giving from their strengths and playing their most natural roles to create positive change.
Form Follows Functions: Ways to Map Assets
There are about as many ways to map assets as there are communities and dreams or challenges they are holding! The format you choose to map your community’s assets should flow out of what is most practical for you and the group of neighbors or partners you are working with.
Some groups, like the Resident Consultant and Neighborhood Ambassador Teams with the Free Library of Philadelphia, recorded the resources they uncover in an online spreadsheet that their community-building team have shared access to. They used these spreadsheets in their work to connect their neighbors and organize community projects or events. Other groups, like the Roving Youth Corps in Indianapolis (mentioned in Module 2), used giant sheets of paper and sticky notes to record and display the gifts, passions and good work of their neighbors. The Abundant Community Initiative in Edmonton, Canada, chose to use a database developed with the help of volunteer coders to capture the gifts of households on each block.
The most important thing is that the form of your asset map follows its function---that is, that you choose a design and a format that you and your co-weavers can actually use. Because asset mapping is meant to allow you to connect, activate, and tap into the assets in your community, try to approach the format with this in mind. In all of the above stories, the asset maps were used actively and frequently to inform, inspire, and support the work of building community.
The Philadelphia team actively used their growing map by sharing the updates each time they got together. They also added a powerful layer of practice by building in time to each of their meetings to exchange wonderful stories about the neighbors they were meeting and their gifts and contributions. This repeated group revisiting, reflection, and delighting together in their growing map naturally led the team toward creative ways to connect and celebrate their neighborhood assets. For instance, they wrote newspaper articles about the small businesses they were meeting and pulled together Story Circles among Veterans, Crossing Guards, or neighbors organizing on their own time to ensure that their neighbors had access to food.
The Roving Youth Corps in Indianapolis utilized their giant paper maps as a living work-space which they could return back to over and over again. Their map helped them not only to document and visualize what they were learning, but also to brainstorm and strategize how to connect their neighbors so the gifts could be used and known within the community. The paper format helped them work together in physical space and move the sticky notes around.
They could clump people together with shared gifts, or draw arrows between people who might be able to use each others’ assets. If a neighbor shared that they enjoyed cooking, the youth would follow up with them and ask if they could hire them to cook for an upcoming event. Or, if they met multiple neighbors with an interest in gardening, they would bring them together to know each other. One year, a neighborhood talent show was organized drawing from the many gifts listed on the asset map.
The key is to not be intimidated by or get stuck in the format. Allow your asset map to be a living, evolving portrait of the abundance you uncover as well as a practical guide for relationship-building for you and your community weaving collaborators. Also, as you continue finding more and more people who are inspired by your weaving work, you can welcome them to join you, and they may bring new ideas and innovations to the format you use for mapping assets!
Asset Maps as a Celebration Tool
In addition to serving as wonderful day-to-day tools for your and your team’s community weaving, your asset map can be a fantastic tool for reflecting your community’s abundance back to itself. This can generate local pride and relationship-building among neighbors for collaboration, shared action, and mutual support.
In Philadelphia, the team hired a neighborhood artist they had met through their learning conversations to help them design an illustrated map of the neighborhood assets they most wanted to celebrate. The artist created a colorful, vibrant map that they then published as a spread insert in the local paper, along with quotes from team members and neighbors about the project, their learnings, and their gifts---along with an invitation to readers to join in the fun!
In Indianapolis, Broadway Church (host of the Roving Youth Corps) commissioned a local artist to paint a picture celebrating the gifts of neighbors, which now hangs in the entrance to the church. Another Indianapolis group, the Learning Tree, used funding from a local foundation to hire neighbors to paint images representing their and their neighbors’ gifts on a set of doors that someone happened upon in an alleyway. Then, they organized a block party to display the doors and further build community and mutual delight among neighbors.
Most importantly, your asset map should serve your community weaving. And just like the weaving itself, it will serve you best if you approach it with a spirit of experimentation, play, and including others in your work.
Below is a summary of what asset mapping is and what it is not. This can be helpful to keep in mind as you begin playing with this tool and inviting others in to play with you.
What Asset Mapping Is
- A way for community members to gain clarity about what was previously invisible (“making the invisible visible”)
- A community-driven process
- Owned by residents
- A way to strengthen an organization’s commitment to building citizen power, local relationships, and self-determination
- An ongoing, emergent, iterative process
What Asset Mapping Is Not
- A list
- An action step to be performed by agencies Done to or for community members by outside agencies or professionals (rather than enabling the community to do it for themselves)
- A list of institutional assets or services
- A complete and final picture of what is useful in a community
As a Community Weaver, we are sure you will find asset mapping to be a highly practical tool as you connect and build power among your neighbors. Enjoy experimenting with ways to portray the abundance within your neighborhood, drawing from the many examples and resources on asset mapping within ABCD as inspiration.
What are some ways you and others in your community are already in the habit of noticing, celebrating and connecting assets in day-to-day life?
When you learn about an exciting skill from someone, do you announce or acknowledge it in some way that others might also benefit from, or that helps that person feel proud of their skill?
For example, you may take note of someone who has a special skill with children, decoration, or bookkeeping and make a note of it in your phone. Or perhaps your neighborhood hosts a regular talent show, a skills directory, or has a culture of celebrating the gifts and talents of neighbors during meetings or events.