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June 27, 2003

asset-based development

Terms like "Asset Based Community Development" and the "developmental assets" approach to working with adolescents are extremely popular today in foundations, schools, and social service agencies. One could dismiss such language as a mere effort to sound positive and uplifting, unconnected to any substantial change in philosophy or methodology. But I think that would be a mistake. The "asset-based" approach (for lack of a better term) is being used by people who come out of the Left, and it represents a real change in their views and methods.

My favorite example of the old ways is now somewhat out of date, but I can't resist using it. In March 2002, ACORN organized protests against federal welfare policy. The angry crowd that they had assembled shouted down the sole member of Congress who chose to address them, Rep. Charles B. Rangel of Harlem, demanding that he answer their questions and meet with them in New York City. One of the rally's organizers (a Harvard graduate) explained: "Most of the crowd are people living with the reality of fairly extreme poverty in their own lives, and they are rightly angry." A colleague added that the Administration's welfare policies "are an attack on poor families in America."

The organizers of this protest apparently believed that they could speak for poor people, whose main need was more federal welfare spending. Their strategy for winning such aid was to parade welfare recipients before Congress and the press, emphasizing their deprivation and anger. (They also displayed the political naivety and weakness of these people.) The protest organizers implied that anyone who did not completely endorse their demands was their enemy. And of course they failed completely.

An assets-based approach would look quite different. It would treat the welfare recipients as potentially powerful and skillful political actors, capable of working as peers with selected allies in Congress. It would also recognize their capacity to build things of value in their own communities, regardless of federal welfare policy. Poor people do need outside resources, both capital and government assistance. However, they are unlikely to get such help unless they have first organized themselves as a powerful political force. The best way to organize is to identify, advertise, and build up local assets, even before powerful outsiders offer aid. If residents are used to working together, have identified their own assets, are confident and experienced, and have created their own new institutions, then they can win outside support. They can also handle the influx of aid without being overwhelmed by corruption or manipulative outsiders.

Posted by peterlevine at June 27, 2003 03:10 PM

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