John McKnight has said that he knows of few people who have implemented Asset-Based Community Development more courageously or completely than Mike Mather. Read this excerpt from Mike’s latest book to get a sense of what John means by that.
Six years ago, I was speaking to the local neighborhood development corporation. One of the leaders asked me how the church would articulate the principles what guide us in our work. I, in turn, posed that question to the leaders of the congregation, and we came back with these six principles that named why we do what we do and what we expect from others.
1. Our neighbors are God’s people. Act like it.
We believe all people are beloved children of God, so we expect institutions that serve them to treat them accordingly. Institutions largely ignore the people of the neighborhood as anything other than recipients of their service, viewing them as people to be fixed, people in need, people who are empty. While this perspective may not reflect their feelings about people, it captures their practice.
Organizations we partner with could ask the people they serve, “Who loves you, and what do the people who love you say is the best thing about you?” They could ask, “What three things could you teach that you already know?” (But they should ask that only if they’re going to try to do something concrete with the answer.) In other words, they could treat people with respect and greet them with loving curiosity. Helping organizations aren’t going to stop providing their services, but they can treat the recipients as if they have something valuable to offer to the world and their community.
2. Everything begins with and builds on the gifts of our neighbors.
We are committed to identifying the gifts, capacities, talents, dreams, and passions that people have, and to investing in them. We expect institutions to acknowledge the gifts of the people they “serve,” and to find some way to utilize those gifts. If the people who are being served are the first people involved in the effort, then it has a good chance of being something that those being served really want (and might use!). One phrase that reminds us to begin with the people we serve is “Nothing about me, without me.”
While investing in what people were already doing wasn’t a complex idea, making room for their enterprises by giving up on our own pet projects was challenging. Building on the gifts of our neighbors took time and intention. We encouraged our partners not to bite off more than they could chew, to start small––to find the easiest, most evident gift to build from and see what happened. Then we could celebrate it and tell others about it.
3. Parents and guardians are the first and best teachers. Respect this.
Because we know any child’s parents and guardians are his or her first and best teachers, we do all we can to show children that we see and acknowledge the value, primacy, and gifts of these significant people in their lives. So, when we work with children, we talk with the parents and guardians, learning about them and who they are, and at least informing them about an activity before involving the children in it.
Organizations and institutions serving youth can begin their work by paying attention to one parent and building on something the parent has to offer. They can ask the parent to tell them what they see and notice about their children. They can ask the children to tell them the best things they can think of about their parent(s). Gathering this information and then celebrating it with the whole group or agency, and then publicizing these words and affirmations, can help open everyone’s eyes to what is so often missed.
4. We invest first and foremost in the good the people of the neighborhood seek.
Doing things for people and involving neighbors in what “we” (as institutions) do hasn’t been effective. At our church, we experiment with ways to invest in the good things our neighbors are doing before we ask them to be involved in what we’re doing. The church asks other institutions to think about this as well––first asking not “How can we involve people?” but “How can we be involved with people?” Asking the right question can lead us to new awareness of the power that is present and active in our communities. Institutional leaders who have often felt lonely and isolated in their work can find themselves invigorated as they grow more aware of the abundance around them.
Organizations and institutions need to remember that often they came into being because a few committed, gifted, passionate people came together around something they deeply cared about and created these formal groups. Encouraging those organizations to allow others to do the same can help them rediscover their roots and their passion.
5. Money must flow to the neighborhood.
Our neighborhood is low-income, which means we don’t have a lot of money. So, if money is available, most if not all of it should end up in the hands of people who live in the neighborhood.
The flow of money can be a difficult subject for individuals, associations, and organizations working with low-income and other marginalized people. Fighting the paternalism that comes from controlling the purse strings is difficult. But that fight is worthwhile, because institutions can help to grow the power of the community by bringing money to and keeping money in the community.
Many institutions can’t imagine putting money into the hands of the people they serve—in part because institutions don’t always trust these people, and in part because all institutions could use even small amounts of money to support the administration of their organizations. But at Broadway, we’ve found that when we equipped our neighbors with money, we got a substantial return, because investing in our neighbors helped encourage more and more of them who were doing good work. We noticed the increase in our neighbors’ energy and public activity.
Institutions and associations can direct funding into the hands of people who don’t have a lot. In our case, doing so hasn’t cost more; it’s simply required redirecting the funding we already had. Our process hasn’t hurt our bottom line for two reasons. First, when things are better for our neighbors, they’re better for everyone. And second, our actions have caught the attention of other organizations that wanted to think with us about the issue we were working on. Those organizations have often returned to us with ideas for investing in our neighbors, and sometimes those organizations have invested money—like the hospital that put $40,000 into the hands of gardeners in our neighborhood.
6. Practice neighbor love.
Practice hospitality. We ask our partners—institutions both inside and outside our neighborhood that want to work with us—to treat each other as neighbors. It’s easy to talk with each other like you would talk with someone at your dinner table. In fact, we encourage our partners to share meals together as often as possible.
At the center of neighbor love is curiosity—about the world and about other people. When we’re in love with someone, we’re in a constant process of discovery and learning. Together we’re growing something powerful and life-changing. That happens regularly around a dinner table and hardly eve around a conference table.
When we got out of our building and opened ourselves up to receive hospitality as well as to share it, the learning and discovery expanded. Organizations and institutions can find ways, maybe just a few times a year, to put their people in the homes of the neighbors they serve. If, in gathering together, people intend to listen and to learn from one another—not about some issue, but about each other’s lives and gifts—then new doors will appear and open.
There are good questions to ask at those times. How did your passion—this love of art, music, mathematics, literature, business–develop? What would people who know you best say about that? These questions work for gang-bangers and Wall Street bankers. You can ask people what’s on their bucket list and what’s the bravest thing they’ve ever done. The challenge is to pay attention and to follow where the story leads, not just listen for the answer, check it off in your mind, and go on to the next question.
My coworkers, our congregants, and I often talk about these six principles with one another. We consider how they’re useful, and we ask if they need any revision. The principles remind us what we need to pay attention to as we live in community with one another. They remind us that people don’t live on bread alone.
- The Major Taylor Bicycle Recycling Center and School (Mather)
- Adelita’s Gift: The Value of Asking the Right Questions (Mather video)
- Death and Resurrection of an Urban Church (Faith and Leadership)
- Building Community, Economy and Mutual “Delight” (Harges, Thompson, Neiss interview)
- Wednesday at Broadway: Tacos, Art, Abundance (Doner)