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.