I do a considerable amount of ABCD training. I always end an introductory training with an exercise that has people identify actions they could take, based on connecting the assets they have identified, and written down on index cards, to those shared by other people in their small group. Randomly placed 3 X 5 cards scattered on a table have not surprisingly, yielded tremendous amounts of energy, as well as some fascinating ideas.

We always take time to reflect at the end of the training. Here are just three of the things I have learned from those reflections.

First, people in their teens and early twenties seem to have the least trouble with the concept that everyone’s contributions have value. It seems like whenever groups of young people are connecting assets, they are more likely to work to ensure that all of the identified assets are somehow included. If your group is struggling you might consider welcoming some young people to join you.

Secondly, there are always surprises. One of my favorite reflection questions is, “Did anything about the process, or about your group’s assets surprise you? “ The following revelations have come from this question:

  • The quietest, most reserved person in the room turned out to be the bass player in a punk band.
  • Someone didn’t know that a person they worked with every day, spoke three languages.
  • Three people in one small group had actually made wedding cakes for friends.

Finally, people quickly recognize that ABCD promotes collaborative leadership. I ask folks about the process in their group. It almost never involves one person taking charge, and prescribing a direction for the group. The mere act of seeing the connections between assets encourages shared responsibility and collaborative leadership.

I’d be interested to hear about experiences that you’ve have had with people experiencing the connecting of assets for the first time.

A quick post-election reminder

By John Hamerlinck, 2016-11-10

In the aftermath of the catastrophic U.S. election, I find it necessary to remind myself of an important reality. Institutions cannot stop social change from occurring. Culture creates change. People locking arms with others who share their values, creates change.

If you want your community to be welcoming, safe, free of misogyny, racism, and other forms of oppression, the culture within your community can create that change. We do not need the permission of a government official, to do what is expected of respectful, compassionate human beings.

By all means, keep the necessary pressure on institutions that seek to be barriers to a more egalitarian society. But at the same time, do not forget that politics and policy are but a sliver of life in a free and democratic society.

(Reprinted from my website, https://leadingdifferently.com/)

Vision is Personal

By John Hamerlinck, 2016-08-08

Re-blogged from my website,leadingdifferently.com

Creating change is inescapably tied to a shared vision. People cant keep their eyes on the prize, if they dont know what the prize is. A common notion of what the future should look like, however, is not enough.

Visionary concepts can be abstract (We see a world where everybody . . .). Change is social and shared, but above all else, change is personal. The key to a vision being a motivator for action, is for each individual to see themselves in that future.

One of the reasons why I am an advocate for Asset Based Community Development (ABCD), is that at its core, ABCD mobilizes people based on what they care about the most, and how their personal talents can best contribute to positive change. A group, a community, a movement, is made up of individuals with both broader common interests, and specific self-interest. Dont just rally around the abstract and the generalized. Ask people to put themselves in the future being created.

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Originally published on my website, leadingdifferently.com, April 21, 2015

Real leadership comes from the quiet nudging of an inner voice. It comes from realizing that the time has come to move beyond waiting to doing Madeleine Albright

To get things done in this world you dont need a credential, or a badge that says leader. If the worlds greatest writer wrote a book illustrated by the worlds greatest artist titled, How to Ride a Bicycle, it would be a poor substitute for sitting on a bike, finding your center of balance, and pushing on the pedals. We learn by doing. Leadership is no different.

Every time that you: A) imagine something being different, or being better than it is; B) decide to do something about it, either alone or with others; and C) act to make that change happen YOU ARE DEMONSTRATING LEADERSHIP.

Leadership doesnt require great scale. It doesnt have to be obvious to everyone. Leadership is collaborative or distributed more often than it is positional. It doesnt need to be heroic; it just needs to effectively move you toward a goal. You lead anytime you do things like:

  • have the courage to challenge someones racist or sexist joke;
  • accept responsibility for (and learn from) your failures;
  • do what is right, rather than what is easy (to paraphrase Dumbledore);
  • see the gifts and talents of others, and acknowledge them; or
  • listen with the goal of understanding even when someones views or values conflict with your own.

Anyone who has a vision for something different and the desire to make that change happen can be a leader.

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Magnifying Assets

By John Hamerlinck, 2015-12-28

We tend to think of ABCD primarily as a strategy to change something that is broken, or not working, or wrong. It certainly is that. I would ask you, however, to also think about also using a capacity-centered approach to improving something that is not broken, but would be even better with a small amount of attention.

Think about it. The gap between something that is bad, and something that is good is so much wider than the gap between something that is good, and something that is even better. Development is not just about fixing; its about improvement. Complementing and reinforcing existing assets increase their capacity to positively affect more people, and more situations without fear of burnout, or a sense of going to a well too many times.

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Addressing Common Misunderstandings About ABCD

By John Hamerlinck, 2015-06-02

Over the years, I have had numerous occasions on which I have found myself responding to peoples negative reactions to the idea of Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD). I want to talk briefly about three common arguments:

  • first, that ABCD plays into a conservative, victim-blaming, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, worldview;
  • secondly, that it ignores the value of needs assessment;
  • and finally, that is somehow in conflict with confrontational organizing methods.

One of the biggest myths about the ABCD approach is that it somehow relieves oppressors and other bad actors from responsibility, and is subtly victim-blaming by telling people to count their blessings, and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. I contend that the opposite is true. At the root of successful ABCD is the idea that people are in fact, seizing power and finding solutions that turn them into producers as opposed to simply being consumers of programs and policies that are designed to oppress them. Demonstrating your assets encourages investment. Demonstrating needs will generally encourage little more than charity.

Speaking of needs, needs assessment is not necessarily the opposite of a capacity inventory. They both identify gaps. However, a lot of needs assessment seeks an unnecessary level of specificity. Needs assessment can actually become a barrier to action. For example, when climate change deniers say something like, We really need to study this global warming thing more thoroughly before we disrupt market forces , they are using the myth that too little needs assessment is a valid reason to do nothing.

What changes in our actions if we have 93 as opposed to 127 homeless families in the community? It might be impressive to develop an elaborate model incorporating a 15-category continuum of homelessness, but it is not necessary in order for us to act. If only 16.7% of our community survey respondents identified homelessness, or domestic violence, or hunger, as important issues do we just blow these things off? This is the anti-organizing, anti-community building trap of needs assessment. Do we only determine priorities by quantifying need, or do we create a way for everyone who is passionate about working on a particular issue, to connect with others who share their passion, to find creative solutions to the challenges that they face?

Negative responses to ABCD have often been the result of belief in the mistaken notion that it is somehow the opposite of achieving community change through a confrontational, Alinsky-esque organizing approach. It is true that there are many roads to creating change. However, painting this as some sort of dualistic, ideological smack down might be interesting to a handful of academic types, but it is simply seems counterproductive at best.

A confrontational approach works well in cases where the antagonist is easily identified. Increasingly, however, the enemy is an obscure corporate entity, hiding like a needle in the haystack of the vertical integration of a massive corporate entity. The more complex the issue is, the more important it is to know all of the tools (assets) at your disposal. ABCD doesnt need to know who a specific bad guy is. It can be used without permission, and can actually provide leverage in confrontational arguments, as it can demonstrate a proof of concept for might replace the status quo.

The two approaches can be, and are in fact frequently, complementary. It is easier to organize people in opposition to something, than it is to organize them in an effort to create the replacement for that thing. The best replacement for repressive, top-down, convoluted approaches is something rooted in the inclusive, community-building, and democratic culture of ABCD.

Some issues necessarily require direct confrontation. Others require identifying, connecting and mobilizing hidden strengths in an effort to strengthen community response. Some issues in our 21st century networked world demand strategies never imagined by either Alinsky or McKnight &Kretzmann. If proponents of various strategies have the same goals related, for example, to ending oppression, and the exploitation of people in the name of profits, then those people are on the SAME SIDE. Dividing and conquering a progressive majority over things like creating an argument over whose approach is better, plays right into the hands of those who want to maintain the status quo.

Capacity-focused or asset-based work is sometimes misunderstood because people have fallen into the trap of thinking that the strategy is only about mapping the assets, rather than being about mobilizing those assets. This is not the fault of the theoretical framework, but rather, it is the result of communities not having skilled community organizers who know how to leverage those assets strategically. As organizers, it is our duty to help people discover their power, set their own agendas, and make use of the many strategies that they have at their disposal.

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Finding Opportunities in Conflict

By John Hamerlinck, 2015-02-16

Published originally on my website Leading Differently: useful explorations for people who want to change the world.http://leadingdifferently.com

What people often mean by getting rid of conflict is getting rid of diversity, and it is of utmost importance that these should not be considered the same. We may wish to abolish conflict, but we cannot get rid of diversityFear of difference is fear of life itself. Mary Parker Follett

We experience conflict every day. Every time you make a decision you are to some degree, resolving conflict. For people organizing to create change, conflict sometimes needs to be resolved between allies, and of course, always needs to be addressed with adversaries.

Rather than survey the mountain of literature available on the topic of conflict resolution, lets focus for now on two things. First, well explore Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmanns, Five Modes for Handling Conflict, and think about how they might relate to leadership. Secondly, well address the notion that conflict this thing that wed all just like to go away, actually has numerous benefits that can help to develop other areas of our capacity to lead.

Five Modes for Handling Conflict (Thomas-Kilmann)


Chart source: An Overview of the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, http://www.kilmanndiagnostics.com/overview-thomas-kilmann-conflict-mode-instrument-tki

According to Thomas and Kilmann, our behavior in conflict situations focuses on two dimensions: 1) assertiveness (Whats in it for me and how do I get it?); and 2) cooperativeness (How can I satisfy others concerns?). Leadership means having to constantly balance these dimensions in order to move closer to your desired outcomes.

Competing Everyone uses all five of these modes of conflict resolution. More often than not, however, competing gets the most attention. When you are trying to make specific changes in the world, a zero-sum orientation is often where you find yourself. A referendum passes or fails. A candidate wins or loses. The key for leaders is not to let this single-mindedness spill over into every interaction, because the next success might depend on collaboration with one of your winner-take-all victims.

Avoiding dodging conflict for the sake of appearing neutral can have a similar outcome to any aversion to risk no pain, no gain. Removing yourself from a situation could mean not benefitting from the gains resulting from the successful resolution of the conflict. Leaders should to at least some degree, embrace conflict rather than avoid it.

Accommodating allowing an unchallenged win in an effort to not rock the boat is a situational judgment call. What is the return on the investment of this good will? One warning, accommodation is also where a lot of ethically questionable behavior resides like spinning something to make yourself look good, and the other party feel good,( lets let them think that theyve won this, meanwhile were sticking it to them over here).

Compromising This is what used to happen in politics. People agreed to something that was tolerable to all parties, and maintained some sort of reasonable working relationship. Granted, compromise usually ends up in only baby steps forward, but small steps ahead are better and no progress at all, or backwards movement.

Collaborating This is the elusive win-win situation. The value in collaborating lies in capitalizing on diversity diversity of ideas, of approach, of notions of success.

Conflict Can Have Benefits

Try to look at conflict beyond simply being something that you want to go away quickly. You might see that it has some benefits. Here are some of them:

  • Conflict checks our complacency and self-satisfaction simply by making us aware that problems exist.
  • Conflict reveals diverse perspectives, getting beyond an either/or worldview, challenging our assumptions and leading to more comprehensive solutions.
  • Conflict resolution requires you to tap into your creativity. You learn about yourself, and about others, leading to greater emotional intelligence.
  • The process of resolving conflict often opens up new communication avenues and processes. In fact, lack of communication is often the source of conflict.
  • Successful conflict resolution can build trust. When people feel heard, and when their opinions are recognized and validated, the fair treatment they received makes them more likely to come forward in the future, before conflicts have an opportunity to fester.

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Mobilizing associations is critically important in ABCD. In our recently-published book, Asset-Based Community Engagement in Higher Education, I explore how colleges might work with, and support the work of groups of community members who are not necessarily aligned with institutions. Here are four places to start.

1. Increase the number of personal relationships in the community.

Whatever your other goals might be, it is always useful to include increasing the number of personal relationships in the community. When people realize that there are others who care deeply about the same things that they do, they start looking for more out there who share their concerns. Pretty soon the talk becomes talk about doing something. Suddenly, a group of concerned residents organize themselves and begin to advocate for change. These associations are at the heart of our democracy.

2. Be deliberate about mapping associational assets.

If you are already committed to addressing a particular issue and your project meetings are only attended by people whose jobs brought them there, then you may not be recognizing the assets of associations. Early on in your planning process, identify community stakeholders and try to identify even a few formal and informal associations to lock arms with in your efforts to improve the community. Even if these associations dont immediately seem like they would share your project goals, try anyway. Think of the adopt-a-highway programs all around the country. Most of the student councils, local businesses, and book clubs that volunteer to pick up roadside trash dont have mission statements about littering or environmental stewardship (if they have mission statements at all).

3. Allow institutions and associations to do the things that they do best.

It is necessary for institutions to produce goods or services under fairly strict controls. When you are on the operating table, you would probably not be comfortable with the surgeon looking for a general consensus by asking: Where does everybody think I should cut now? When that surgeon participates in her neighborhood book club, however, nobody expects her to take control by instituting rigid protocols and standards for everyones participation.

4. Provide opportunities for residents voices to be heard.

There are countless ways to find a communitys associations. There are the usual lists that folks at a Chamber of Commerce or a Welcome Wagon might have, but there are also types of civic engagement that can help unearth the often invisible groups in a community. Citizen journalism, oral history, and community arts projects are just a few of the ways to listen to residents, and to have them lead you to associations you may not know about.

For an expanded examination of these ideas and others see Asset-Based Community Engagement in Higher Education.

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John Hamerlinck