by Luther Snow
“Building on assets” is a popular concept and terminology among both grantmakers and grassroots groups. Now 14 years after McKnight and Kretzmann’s seminal work on Asset-Based Community Development, more folks are coming to understand that asset building is more than just counting up businesses or parks, it’s a change in mindset that shapes how we work together in community. In one community, for example, residents found that their greatest asset may be “not fitting in.”
Organizations who support self-employment and microenterprise often complain that they don’t “fit in” with traditional categories of funding and programming. Microenterprise has been called “too small” for business finance, but “too risky” for job training; “not immediate enough” for social service yet “too concerned with the poor” for economic development. Besides microenterprise, other groups and programs also smart when they are categorically excluded from participation.
A microenterprise organization in Olympia called Enterprise for Equity shares office space with the Community Foundation of South Puget Sound. E4E leaders decided that they would look at their situation as a strength, rather than a weakness. Because microenterprise directly relates to a variety of programs and organizations, they decided that they could play a convening role to bring people together.
E4E asked me to facilitate my Quick and Simple Asset Mapping experience among a diverse group of resident leaders who had never worked together before: young and old, native and newcomer, people active in economic development, community health, the environment, tribal development, banking and finance, jobs, tourism, and education. From recognizing many community assets, participants were able to “connect the dots” to brainstorm actions people could take together, that they could not take on their own. For example, a network formed to work on green business development. One green bed and breakfast owner and entrepreneur offered to open up her place for regular gatherings of residents to spur and develop these ideas. The network has snowballed and given birth to other new and unusual collaborations.
The larger significance of “asset building” is really “asset thinking.” Because when we look at the half-full cup, we are moved to connect our gifts with each other, and to contribute and gain from a whole that is larger than the sum of its parts.