I would like to invite you along for a journey I’ve taken toward developing a tool I’m quite excited about for cultivating “community, economy, and mutual delight” (as coined years ago by community practitioners in and around Broadway United Methodist Church here in Indianapolis.)
It begins at what (for me) was the beginning of this story, the first time I can recall feeling the hunger pangs for neighboring and homespun economy.
. . .
When I was 8, my parents divorced. My father moved out and into a new neighborhood just 7 miles away. During this time, my dominant memories are less around loss — loss of the unity of my parents’ marriage or the wholeness of our family — and more around all the things I gained: a new room to decorate! A new house! And, a new neighborhood.
This neighborhood was very different than the one I grew up in, where my mother’s house remained, because rather than woods, it was filled with PEOPLE. And in keeping with the dominant demographics in much of that quiet, wind-swept part of East Coast Florida between Melbourne and Sebastian we called home, it was filled with older people — retirees who had chosen our sunny, beachy land as their place to enjoy their last days. It was called Barefoot Bay and was populated with modest, prefabricated homes set close to one another within windy, logically packed streets.
For the first time, I had more than trees, palmettos, ditches and streams to explore in my daily wanderings. There were houses! STORES! I have such fond, sun- (and sometimes rain-) soaked memories of wheeling my yellow tricycle around
But no memory is quite as fond as the weekends, Saturday mornings if my memory serves, because those were the days my father would hand me $5 to go out and see what I might find among the temporary treasure troves which would magically pop up along this along Lantana Ave., Wedelia St., or Robin Dr., signaled to me by hand-drawn signs affixed to lamp posts or metal frames driven into uniformly green, well-kept lawns on the corners of our main streets.
I would hunt down the advertised house number and arrive in gleeful hunter mode, curious and excited not only about what interesting trinkets or fabrics or clothing I might find, but also, I think (now), the humans I would meet. These humans who were my neighbors – living a 5 minute walk or a 10 or 12 minute tricycle ride away from me – filled with lives lived, stories, and offering up things they’d collected along the way for me to now make part of my life. I think now that more than the things (and there were VERY fun things) I found during these yard sale hunts, it was the connectivity, and the sense of power I got from being able to participate in a home-made, human scale economy.
I also remember having a weird (for a child) obsession with business cards. I collected them from a pretty young age — maybe 7 or 8? — and would bundle them up together into bulging stacks which I’d tuck into the base of my massive dollhouse. I had basically no money nor much purpose to use any of the services or goods printed on those cards… for a plumber, a florist, a physical therapist, or a locksmith. But something in me felt infinitely excited about knowing the skills and talents people held, which they were willing to share with others, and also how to get in touch with them if I wanted to.
. . .
Fast forward about 34 years. I’m in my early 40’s and have followed my passion for neighborhoods, community and connectivity from those early neighborhood roving days, through many phases of immersive research, learning, experimentation, and relationship-building.
As part of that journey, I discovered and then joined practitioners of Asset-Based Community Development, a beautiful philosophy and set of tools that, I believe, stems from that healthy instinct I first felt as a child — to know one’s neighbors, to turn to them for their gifts and assets, and to know that there is power in this, is the basis for not only an enjoyable life but also a more powerful and well-resourced, localized society.
I’ve stepped in and out of many spaces of ABCD practice and seen a wealth of variations to ways people go about “Asset Mapping” — giving form to the gifts, resources, and capacities within a community so they can be be better utilized, connected and celebrated.
Through these experiences I’ve also come to understand quite profoundly how much this activity of learning and surfacing talents can build power where it has been denied previously. This can happen for and with those who have been economically marginalized, overlooked and alienated due to having different set of abilities than the rest of us (known as “disabled”), folks who are unhoused, or any other situations where people have become an “outsider” and seen as more of a burden than a boon to one’s community.
I’ve also witnessed how a consistent, creative, caring gathering of information about a community’s assets can restore everyday peoples’ sense of their own capacity to take on issues large and small that concern them, as well as dreams they hold for their lives, neighbors and places. (Examples include here in Indianapolis, Denver, and Minneapolis.)
Yet one thing I have not seen and have been obsessing over for years, is a practical, every-day use asset map that satisfies and engages me as a community cultivator, an artist, and a neighbor myself with a busy life to lead — and which I can genuinely imagine will engage my neighbors as well to get excited about being in exchange with one another.
I’ve noticed that when one is going about the work of cultivating relationships, learning and celebrating assets, and helping folks move together on the priorities or shared interests they have in common, most often the thing that falls by the wayside is the information, captured and made available, to neighbors or community members so that they themselves can make use of it… but is also up-to-date, and does not rely on a single organizer or community facilitator to manage day-to-day.
This has bothered me in part because while I am someone who, like I did as a child, geeks out over learning neighbors’ gifts, talents, and how to get ahold of them, I know that most people just don’t share that obsession. They have busy lives and need things to be accessible and efficient.
And with all the wonderful (and not so wonderful) information systems and platforms we have out there, very few serve the same function as my rubber band-bound stacks of business cards did for the many, not just the one information-collector. That is, I had yet to find any system, like Google Maps or business directories, that felt as personal-yet-efficient as my old paper stacks of cards and would allow more than just one person to enter (and “own”) the information as much as a single creator of a traditional directory might do.
. . .
So, literally years go by where this nagging idea is flopping restlessly around my head. But 2023 would be the year I finally found a possible solution, and it came from an unexpected direction: helping plan and host a national gathering on solidarity economy.
As the planning team, we wrestled with how we might create some kind of directory that was crowd-sourced, co-created, and didn’t require any of us to administrate… since we all had a ton of other things to do for this event, and this was not our day-job!
The idea arose to use the interactive feature of Google Slides, and invite all participants to introduce themselves by creating their own slide and filling in pre-made boxes that held prompts. (This is something I’d seen done before by two highly creative and community-oriented event facilitators I know.)
Overall, it worked well. Not everyone filled in the slides, but enough of us did that this slide deck served before, during and after the event as a valuable “asset map,” organizing and relationship-guiding tool for us all in working toward a more cohesive solidarity economy movement in the US.
Experimenting with this tool sparked something in me around my age-old conundrum about neighborhood asset maps. Could this work? It would not require a big investment in new technology or depending on any professional coders to make this work. And, as an artist, I appreciated the power it gave us to fulfill another core need I bring with me into all things: to “make it pretty.” (After all, most major companies invest quite a bit of money into design – of promotional materials, advertisements, logos and physical spaces to keep us attracted, consuming and coming back. So I have always felt that including beauty and good design belongs very much in the field of community cultivation and economics.)
This gathering also served to light a fire under me in other ways to simply stop circling my own head with “what ifs” and analyses about the “right” way or time to prototype a tool of my own, in my neighborhood and my own practice. I had definitely fallen into a deep “analysis paralysis” around this idea of the perfect asset map, worrying about so many things that I simply could not act.
The US Solidarity Economy gathering not only granted me a chance to test out this new tool idea (the Google Slides) within a fresh community, it also gave me grounding in a larger movement that profoundly validated, in a new way, all of those childhood instincts I’ve long held around economy and community. It drove home that the yearning for an economy infused with human values — love for our neighbors, local control, balance and ethics — is not only real but is growing into a more concretely and densely formed movement, in cities, regions, nations and the world, than perhaps ever before. I felt myself at home in a new way, surrounded by experimenters ready to share their failures, tools and stories.
I also encountered a sense of shared urgency that may have also been what I needed most to shake me out of my paralysis. We discussed the rise of fascism not just in our country but across the world. We reaffirmed the strong correlation between extractive, growth-oriented economic systems (capitalism) and the climate change that threatens to deny our children, our children’s children and the many other living beings on our planet a safe and salvageable life. And, we acknowledged the financial anxiety and moral despair the majority of people now live in, with wealth gaps yawning wider than they have in decades, rents and everyday costs for living soaring beyond belief, and workplaces that offer little to no sense of meaning, personal satisfaction, power or belonging.
Without a substantive re-thinking and re-building of our economic system from the ground up, from our neighborhoods and across cities and regions, we sat in the knowing that none of these things will ever change.
I returned ready and determined to just… do it!
. . .
I am happy to say that this holiday season, I launched the Mapleton Fall-Creek Neighborhood Shopping & Business Directory.
I have found it an incredibly liberating and energizing experience… the building of it, sharing of it, refining of it. I am learning so much. Mainly, perhaps, that just doing this thing I’ve been percolating in my brain forever — pulling the trigger to put it out in the world even before I had all my questions answered — was THE way to give gas to all of the other community and economy cultivating work I have been also a bit confused and stuck about in my own neighborhood.
Through the many great conversations this directory has now spurred me to have with other “community-minded” neighbors, I’m planning to now host a “soft-launch” event this or next month in partnership with several other local, resident-driven projects, and also build in a less business-focused activity that will introduce the idea and experience of “alternative” economy using a wonderful tool called the Offers and Needs Market.
So far, the reception has been nothing but positive. Neighbors are excited and enthusiastic about being featured in the directory — especially those who are cultivating budding small businesses, or who only mentioned their talent to me in a passing conversation a few months or years ago.
I chose to lead with a business directory and to launch it in holiday time, because buying things or services is where we are currently focused as a dominant capitalist culture, especially during this highly commercialized season. For me, this is a form of starting where people are, which I’ve learned is a core principle of successful community organizing or building. And while I think it’s also feasible to more directly invite neighbors to a less economic form of bonding or being in community, this directory made sense to me as a kind of “low-hanging fruit” to move our current collective psychology toward something more collective — in other words, it’s a way I think most of us can most immediately imagine coming into greater mutually beneficial exchange with our neighbors.
In practice, it has become clear to me that the directory provides a natural pathway for opening up dialogues and inviting folks into experiences of alternative forms of economy including mutual aid, care economy and other forms of solidarity economy. I know many people with connective spirits struggle with an “opener” for inviting their neighbors into greater mutuality and relationship. Perhaps creating a (humanistic, celebratory, crowdsourced) directory like this might provide some such connectors with a helpful excuse to start conversations, hold gatherings or celebrate their neighbors?
There is much more to share, and I hope to provide updates on this tool — and the processes it helps spark — as I go. But for now, I want to release this modest little prototype of a “prettified,” crowd source-able, simple neighborhood asset map to the greater community.
Please feel free to send me feedback, questions, or anything else it sparks for you.
- Let’s Get Explicit: Social Justice in Asset Based Community Development (Bishop & Dwyer-Voss)
- How to Map Assets & Expose Real Wealth for Shared Futures (MacLurcan)
- Neighborhood Scavenger Hunts –– and More –– at the Sarasota Community Studio (Stephen)
- Discovering Assets of a Small Town (McKnight, Block & Mooney)