Ron Dwyer-Voss

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Last year Jim Diers posted a thoughtful reflection on the work of advancing social justice and the limits of ABCD in that work. This got a lot of us talking about ABCD, systems change and social justice.  The board of the ABCD Institute has subsequently drafted a values statement stating social justice as an inherent part of true ABCD work.  As this was happening Indigo Bishop and I wrote a little article for ShelterForce sharing our experience and perspective on the matter.  I would love to hear folks' thoughts!

ABCD and Social Justice - Shelterforce article

When Disaster Hits, Your First Responder Probably will Not Be a First Responder

Original Article on Shelterforce

“If there were ever a place for top down systems, it is in disaster response.” That was the observation of a colleague as he explained the ICS — Incident Command System—utilized by most disaster response agencies.

The ICS is pretty top-down. The system was developed in the 1970s when an investigation of a series of urban fires in California showed that death and destruction were not the result of lack of response resources, but rather inadequate coordination and collaboration between them. Emergency response planners developed a single system that allows for efficient and effective coordination between first responding agencies. The system has also been widely adopted by recovery and relief agencies and organizations.

Incident Command System chart.

It all makes sense. Nothing brings order to chaos like a top down system.

But it turns out not all the chaos is bad. Neighbors running around without an incident commander is essential to rescue and recovery. Social scientists Daniel Aldrich and Michelle Meyer reviewed all the recent research on disaster recovery and tell us that before the coordinated ICS agencies arrive, before the Red Cross and all the other recovery groups descend with legions of volunteers, there are neighbors.

While disaster situations may typically call forth images of trained professionals and formal rescue operations, scholarship has shown that informal ties, particularly neighbors, regularly serve as actual first responders. Neighbors check on the well-being of others nearby and provide immediate lifesaving assistance. Following the 1995 Kobe earthquake, for example, the majority of individuals who were pulled from the rubble of their collapsed homes were saved by neighbors, not firefighters or rescue workers (Aldrich, 2012b; Horwich, 2000; Shaw & Goda, 2004). Following the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdowns, survivors in Japan indicated that many of the elderly and infirm were saved from the incoming tsunami not by their own actions but by the assistance of neighbors, friends, and family (Aldrich site visits, 2014).”

Recently we saw a similar phenomena in Houston. The “Cajun Navy” consisted of hundreds of boats and thousands of volunteers self-organizing and self-coordinating to rescue people caught in floods. People used Facebook and Twitter to call for help and respond to calls when the 911 system was overwhelmed.

That’s right. The FIRST assets in a disaster are neighbors. If you know and connect with your neighbors that is a good thing. If you don’t, less so. In fact, it turns out that while your neighbors have everything to do with your immediate chances in a disaster, your neighbors and their collective extended connections determine how well and how fast your community will recover.

The more connected the community before a disaster hits, the stronger it’s ability to bounce back after disaster hits. Emergency planning people call it resilience. FEMA defines resilience as “the ability to adapt to changing conditions and withstand and rapidly recover from disruption due to emergencies.”

Put another way “Community resilience describes the collective ability of a neighborhood or geo- graphically defined area to deal with stressors and efficiently resume the rhythms of daily life through cooperation following shocks” (Aldrich, 2012c).

We all do better if we are part of a resilient community. Especially after disaster hits.

It turns out, social capital (our relationships, networks and neighborhood trust levels) have everything to do with resilience. There is a whole pile of social science research that shows that social capital is a bigger driver of recovery than income. Well connected poor communities recover better and faster than wealthier counterparts with little social capital. So much so that after a Tsunami, Japanese officials started setting up ‘third places’ for people to gather and access their networks because the government agencies could not do it all. “Third places” are unofficial gathering places like coffee shops, senior centers, bars and parks.

Even FEMA, the official sponsor of the ICS, encourages social capital development as a critical disaster preparedness strategy.

How does a community create social capital?

Over 30 years of working in and with local communities have convinced me that the best and most accessible way for communities to grow and strengthen their social capital is through Asset Based Community Development (ABCD), a style of community organizing. ABCD refers to resident-driven, locally-focused processes that identify, map and connect community assets in a way that strengthens the community as defined by said residents. As participants and “co-producers” of their future, not as passive and powerless recipients of services.

ABCD is about taking individual and group gifts and skills and turning them into social capital.

Therefore, in addition to organizing a local ICS, the best thing a community can do to ensure its resilience in the face of the Harveys and Marias of the future is to engage in some Asset Based Community Development. And the folks that fund ICS agencies, levees and storm surge barriers would do well to fund a few community organizers to facilitate ABCD work in every disaster vulnerable community. Can you imagine how efficient the Red Cross would be if half the recovery volunteers were from the community that is recovering?

A version of this article originally appeared on Medium.

This is an interesting read. Anyone else committing to avoid these terms?

Community Development Cliches

Cup Mail

By Ron Dwyer-Voss, 2011-07-05

This summer I a spent a week observing life in and around The Falling Rock Cafe in Munising, Michigan. No, I did not receive a MacArthur Grant or other fellowship for observing coffee shops, although if you know of any I would love to apply. I was there visiting family. But I was struck by the communities that have formed in and out of this little establishment.

The Falling Rock Cafe and Bookstore is a sandwich/coffee shop/ice cream place with a bookstore and community space attached. The owners have put in tables where groups as large as 15 can gather and meet. They also have several picnic tables and other places where smaller impromptu groups can strike up conversations. The Falling Rock serves up coffee and treats and sells books, but they also create space for and welcome community. The results are amazing. By simply creating space and providing basic hospitality, the Cafe has created a spot for many groups and asset based networks to meet and plan activities and projects. This has created connections across groups that otherwise would never have discovered their mutual interests.

How did a coffee shop become a hub of community connections? It seems to be the little things that matter. Furniture placements and a welcoming environment certainly provide a great start! I don't think a saw a "NO" sign anywhere. Of course the proprieters would prefer if people who use the space buy some goodies, but it is not a requirement. They probably are required by health code to insist that each of us wear a shirt and shoes when we come in, but that is not the first thing they tell you when you approach the door. In fact, the Cafe staff are more part of the background music to the main stage of neighbors and tourists interacting and sharing observations about the news, weather or coffee.

When you walk in the first thing you notice are the mugs. Coffee mugs. All over the walls. Anybody can pay $25 a year to be a member of the mug club - you get your own Falling Rock logo mug, your own peg to hang it on, and coffee for 1/2 price all year. A good deal? Yes. Is that why people buy it? No way. They buy it because it gives them something that is theirs each time they walk in. AND, that something hangs among their neighbors mugs as well as those bought by regular visitors to the area. There are 2,000 people in town and 300 mugs on the walls of The Falling Rock Cafe and Bookstore. Each one with a neatly printed name under it. It is YOUR mug.

The mugs make a beautiful sight that says "there is a community here" as soon as you walk in. But if you stand there for 5 minutes you realize something else is going on. There are slips of paper in some of the mugs. It turns out that these slips of paper are articles from newspapers or magazines that one member thought would be of interest to another. Others are notes from one to another. The owner tells me the customers invented this practice and call it "cup mail." My curiosity was too much, and I could not think of any federal penalties associated with tampering with cup mail, I peeked. "Jenny will be in town this weekend. Stop by!", "Fred wants to go out on the lake when he gets back, wanna fish?", "Are you helping at the Farmer's market this week? Call me."

The second thing I noticed was an abberation. One cup had a newspaper article taped to the outside instead of rolled up on the inside. It was an obituary. I asked the owner about it. Turns out that the obituary was for the owner of the mug and her family asked to keep it there in her memory.

"What about the hat?" There was a mug on the top row of one wall mostly covered by a stocking cap with some momento pins in it. "That was Harvey's hat. He passed away last year and his wife keeps the mug membership. He wore that hat everyday."

People are so connected by their mugs and associations made in this cafe that they stick around after they are gone!

From cup mail to book clubs to the local art's association's planning for the summer art fair, the Falling Rock Cafe and Bookstore is cooking up community as well as coffee and cupcakes. And it is doing it by creating space and hospitality, not through programming or pontification. In other words it is facilitating the community's efforts to create their own connections and networks.

What other examples have folks seen of businesses contributing to community through the assets of space and smiles.

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It's the Community, Stupid

By Ron Dwyer-Voss, 2012-03-13

(repost from

Its the Community, Stupid!

The presidential race in 2012 is already increasing attention and interest in local economies and small business. So far the debate has focused on perceived economic drivers such as tax incentives and an educated workforce (or not, in the case of Senator Santorum). These have their place, but a 3-year study by the Knight Foundation and Gallup shows that local officials and community groups do better to focus in three areas:

*Increasing the Welcome Factor how well does a community welcome and embrace all types of people

* Aesthetics how nice does the community look

* Social Opportunities how strong and plentiful are the opportunities to bump into and associate with other people

These are the three most common and powerful drivers of community attachment. Community attachment is how good we feel about where we live. Sounds like warm and fuzzyies? Like frosting on the cake? Like luxury over basics?

Not really. It turns out that economic productivity is dramatically influenced by community attachment. Gallup first learned this in their study of corporations, organizations and schools. The more people liked and felt good about and were engaged with their company, organization or school, the higher their performance. In companies that translated to higher profits. In schools that translated into higher test scores. Directly.

In cities and towns, whether Aberdeen, South Dakota or Miami, Florida, the consistently strongest drivers of community attachment were welcoming, aesthetics and social opportunities.

Check it out:

So local officials and community organizations can influence their economy be increasing community attachment. This appears to be best done by improving the welcoming environment, creating abundant positive social opportunities and paying attention to arts, streetscapes, parks and other physical amenities.

Blight or Asset? - depends on your perspective

By Ron Dwyer-Voss, 2012-07-12

That's the Beauty of It

Sport Utility Boxes

Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.

- Confucius


A utility box in its normal state



An uncommon sight on a footpath



The perspective is surprisingly well done...



It even looks good from the side.



School of birds (I think this one is my favourite)



The handle can pose a bit of a problem at times


Needs versus Seeds

By Ron Dwyer-Voss, 2012-04-15

Here is a story from The Greenhouse, an afterschool program in North Sacramento. I love the last line. I think the context of the story is important. The Greenhouse runs right next to an 800+ unit apartment complex set aside for residents who make under 60% of the median income. In the 2000 census this census tract had the highest density of children under 18 in the Sacramento MSA. A traditional model would expect these kids to be raising money to help themselves and their families. But consistently, over the years, the young people here have chosen projects to help others: clothing drives, feeding homeless folks that regularly walk through their neighborhood and now, Haitians effected by the earthquake. I did some "leadership training" with them a few years ago and was struck by the fact that they did not buy into or act out the labels that all the social service and housing providers had placed on these kids. They didn't see themselves "at risk", they saw themselves as givers and doers. And they proceed to give and to do. Fortunately, the staff of The Greenhouse see these young people for all they are and not just as "needy children."

"Community Led Project Raises $1100 for Haiti!

After the devastating earthquake in Haiti, we asked our youth a simple question, "What can we do to help?" One fifth grader named Perla replied, We could sell tamales. It was a brilliant idea.

The next week, Perla began knocking on doors, asking women from the neighborhood if theyd be willing to make tamales for the project. The women were eager to donate their time and talent to help out. Before long, several of them had signed-on to make over 300 homemade tamales.

Around that same time, Community Presbyterian Church gave one of its members $100 and an assignment: to multiple the money and then give it to a worthy cause. The timing was just right. That $100 became the "seed" money that purchased the ingredients for the tamales.

On February 28, Perla and a friend helped gather the nearly 300 fresh, warm tamales and transport them to Sanctuary Covenant Church where they were sold for $2.00 each. Around $600 was raised on the tamales alone. Others from Community Presbyterian Church caught wind of the project and began to make cash donations. In the end, the Tamales for Haiti project raised $1100 for Heartline Ministries in Haiti! We are so proud of Perla and all of the GreenHouse kids who helped with the project. And, we are grateful to all of the women from our neighborhood who sacrificially gave of their time, talent, and resources to make the tamales. This project was a demonstration of asset-based community development at its best. An idea from the community, relevant to the community, using the gifts of the community can make a powerful impact!"

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Asset Mapping Steps

By Ron Dwyer-Voss, 2015-02-13

The post title is intriguing, isn't it? Step by step instructions to follow and, whallah!, you have an asset map.

OK, that's a little, no, a lot, oversimplified.

For years I have been asked for 'the steps to creating an asset map." I resisted. One of the great values of ABCD is that it starts and ends with the local context. A neighborhood. A town, A group of people joined by their shared experience with the labels they share, or their faith, or their employment in the same organization. So it seems a little disrespectful to the local contexts to presume I, or anyone, knows what steps are best in that context.

That said, I have noticed over the years that there are some common steps that work for most groups. Mike Green and Henry Moore provided some ideas and direction in their amazing book,When People Care Enough to Act and on Mike's website. Americorpsin the USA, Sustainable Communities Northeast Initiative (SCNEI)in England, and other large networks that have to train lots of people on ABCD have attempted to simplify the asset mapping process into steps. They have done a great job of capturing the essential steps to creating and using an asset map.

Habitat for Humanity International recently asked me to create a 1-2 page document of "steps" for their National Affiliate Conference. I tried to take the best from a variety of resources and createdOne Way to Create an Asset Map in Your Community.

It's not fancy and certainly proves my simplistic graphics skills. But, it is a start on steps. The key to using this or any other asset mapping tool is to remember that the map is a means, not an end. In ABCD it is a community organizing guide, not resource directory. Asset maps should be used to create relationships and connect assets so a community can strengthen itself and realize its potential.

Asset maps should be done by a group or team, not an individual. The act of creating the asset map as a group will create a stronger team and reveal unforeseen opportunities.

Asset maps should be fun to create. If your are not having fun creating your asset map, you are doing it wrong.

Finally, remember, an asset map can be the first step to creating social change. Prepare to be amazed.

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