Looking Back to Look Forward: The Intellectual Heritage of Asset-Based Community Development

by Cormac Russell on July 14, 2015

Tagged as: Gifts / Hospitality / Association / Kindness / Generosity / Cooperation / Acceptance of Fallibility / Forgiveness / Raising Children / Local Economy / Food / Safety / Health / Land/Environment / Care of People on the Margin

In 1995 John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann convened a circle of friends to help them establish the Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) Institute at Northwestern University. The Institute was built on John and Jody’s work and research over more than forty years and is now at the center of a global movement for citizen-led action.


In June 2015 ABCD Europe marked the 20th anniversary of the Institute by hosting “The ABCD Festival.” The five-day gathering in Blackpool, England brought together people from around the world who have fostered place-based, citizen-led, and asset-based social movements.


That week Festival Convenor and ABCD Europe Co-Director Cormac Russell also launched his book Asset-Based Community Development: Looking Back to Look Forward, which he described in a recent post on his blog Nurture DevelopmentCormac’s book is available from iTunesAmazon and Barnes & Noble.



 ©Richard Perry


Looking Back to Look Forward is a prequel to a longer book I’m writing called Altered State and seeks to explore the intellectual heritage of Asset Based Community Development.







 John McKnight

In direct interview with John McKnight I explore how — between the late 1950s to date — ten radical thinkers have helped to shape this hyper local, citizen led perspective.These include:

Poignantly, Judith Snow provided the art work for the cover of the books two weeks before she passed. Making what was already a wonderful experience —the writing of the book —even more meaningful. The piece of Judith’s art is entitled “Altered State.”

The central thesis of the book, as with ABCD, is that we need to make small the new big. In a citizen centred democracy citizens produce the future, and the state creates a protective and equitable dome of protection around that, within which citizen led /community invention can flourish.

This book reminds us of the limits of defining democracy in government centric, instead of citizen centred terms. Its central assertions are:

  1. Communities are the primary inventors in a democracy, the work of ethical civic professionals is to support that invention; not replace it, overwhelm, or undermine it.

  2. Citizens are the producers of the future. 

  3. We need more radicals, connectors and heretics who help us figure out ‘our way’ particular to our context. Many current leaders are stifling such impulses because of their drive to recruit followers for “their way”.

It is clear that ABCD has a rich and varied intellectual heritage. And that it does not espouse any one way, but rather is grounded in the belief that we’ve got to figure out our way, where we live, together with our neighbours, and be prepared to continue to revisit and revisit in an endless effort to broaden our circles of participation. In this regard it reaffirms the values of localism, and a belief in the significant capacities of indigenous communities. Which largely go unnoticed. 

Of course ABCD recognises that there are external forces at play that must be challenged and changed. It simply questions the merits of exclusively trying to change those forces before we’ve done the work of identifying, connecting and mobilising the local forces and resources internal to communities. 

The inherent promise being that if more people come to the democratic table, to secure more income, community, choice and control we will alter the State of things at all level. I hope you enjoy the book as much as I enjoyed writing it.


John McKnight, Jody Kretzmann, Cormac Russell. ©Richard Perry





Excerpts and photos from Nurture Development re-posted by permission of the author. Home page image: Tim J. Keegan.