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Professor John McKnight: Capacity Building Beyond Community Services

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Five basic resources people use to make things better

We could tell from reading those stories that the people used five basic resources whenever they made things better. There were five things there that...that needs finders didn't know about, right? And those five things were first that in the stories of how things were better, always the principal resource was the local residents, and their gifts and their skills and their capacities, not their deficits, problems, and needs.

And then the second resource was and is the local clubs, groups, organizations, and associations, the smaller face-to-face groups where the members do the work and they're not paid, although they may have a paid member like a pastor or an organizer or a secretary, but basically they're local people who come together to do things and they do all kinds of things from form choirs to block clubs to veterans organizations. There are just hundreds of local, we call them associations. And these are groups of individuals. These associations multiply their gifts and capacities.

And the third resource that's there is some local institutions, some businesses, some not for profits, and some government institutions. There's usually a school or a park or a library, or maybe even a police station.

The fifth [sic] resource is the land of the neighborhood, because that physical space, everything on top of it, everything under it, the land itself. Those are all resources that people often use. A vacant lot can become a community garden.

Ah, and then the last resource is the fact that people were constantly sharing things, bartering, trading, exchanging and buying and selling things locally.

So those five resources we called assets and said that it is basic to understand that community building starts with the use of those five assets. And if you start by saying what we know is what's wrong, what's missing, then you won't be community building. What you'll be is injecting neighborhoods with professionals, social workers, outsiders, university researchers.

And so that idea that there are local assets has spread over the last twenty years since we published the initial book. The initial book we published is called Building Communities from the Inside Out. That's not to say there isn't a place for outside resources, but you have to start with what you have and then move to an understanding of what you need after you know what you have. So that's the ABCD Asset-Based Community Development story in brief.

One of the things about outside resources is that the people who are providing them aren't going to stay, but equally, if not the more important thing, is they do a needs survey, they say what's wrong with the neighborhood, they go to government, they go to foundations, they go to United Way. They get paid, they're not from the neighborhood, to do something, hopefully, that will make things better, and then they leave with the money.

Well, the main thing, if there is something that people are short on in these neighborhoods it's money. But the needs... the needs process, produces money for people who aren't there. And the unusual thing is that if funders wanted to know what's the main thing you could do to help along these neighborhoods, if we call them low-income neighborhoods, is focus on income, not services, not interventions in individuals' lives, but supportive economy.

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