What attracts me most to the ABCD framework is how it’s not designed for start or stop – it’s designed for evolving and changing. When it comes to community work, pursuits of social justice, or advocacy for equitable systems, we will never be done. Society is a living, breathing, evolving opportunity, not a “problem” to be “solved.”
I want to tell you a story about Jared.
Jared’s whole life changed one day when he wandered into a corporate retail store I managed in Boston, Massachusetts in Fall 2008. It so happened that my boss’s boss – the Regional Manager – was doing a visit and offered some overbearing “customer service” to this twenty-something man shopping for a Sympathy card. Jared, being personable and charming, made an impression on the Regional Manager, who then declared that I would absolutely offer him a job, should he want one.
Jared looked at me and I looked at him. He was wearing a bowtie and giving me a once-over. I barely had the hours to give to the staff that I had, shoestring retail life that it was, but, hey, it was my boss’s boss. I’d at least give the kid an interview.
Eventually, Jared joined my small but mighty team under the auspices of “seasonal help.” He was very part time, not because of his skill or ability but because of payroll constrictions and lacking seniority. Even so, he never missed a shift and was willing to fill in whenever we needed him to, so it more or less worked out fine.
At the time, I managed two locations of that corporate retail chain with an Assistant Manager at both and one other part time employee besides Jared. I was paid a living wage, as were my AMs but part time retail workers certainly were not. So I decided that December to host a friendly contest for my two part time workers. The goal was to see which of them could upsell our gift wrapping service the most – and both Jared and my other part time employee were up for the challenge. The prize was something like $50, paid out of my own pocket. And to be honest, I don’t even remember which part time employee won.
“What I remember is how this contest changed Jared.”
Previously, he’d always showed up to work on time and neatly dressed – but energetically, he was dragging, he was bored, he was really the right attitude for a poorly paid minimum-wage worker. But during and after the contest, Jared came into work with a big smile on his face, ready to offer that level of customer service that might make someone go for the added fee of a gift wrapping job.
Turns out, Jared loved gift wrapping.
And not only did he love it, he was excellent at it.
I paid attention to this and slowly started to turn all gift wrap related tasks over to him. I could gift wrap and make it look pretty enough, but I didn’t love to do it nor was I as good at it as Jared was. Somehow, that holiday contest had unlocked this undeniable truth that Jared had this gift to share – he had this skill not only to do the craft of making this the most gorgeous present anyone has ever laid eyes on, he had the sales ability to convince customers to spend sometimes more on the wrapping than the gift inside had cost.
Jared flourished after that and eventually climbed the corporate retail ranks to be a store manager himself. All because he tapped into his passion and was given a chance to shine.
I love to share this story with folks I work with now that I’m no longer a retail manager but serving as a community-based social worker – because it’s an easy manifestation of the power of Asset Based Community Development (ABCD), a framework I’d utilized long before I ever knew it even existed.
I can’t remember a time in my life where I wasn’t slipped into the role of being in-charge. Maybe it was for a school project or maybe it was at my high school job or maybe it was with friends. I often was the organizer, the energizer, the ignitor – the woman with the idea and the plan to carry it out. But my method of leadership is best described through the example I shared about Jared: I looked to my team or the people around me to see what made them light up and designated that as their focus for our time together. I learned early on that when people are put in a position to succeed – when they are utilizing their skillset in a productive and meaningful way – that the work not only gets done, it gets done well, it gets done on time, and it gets done with pride. By giving Jared the keys to the gift wrapping palace, he uplifted us all by not only doing sensational store displays but by coming into work with a skip in his step that, in turn, put a skip in ours, too. This was true of each of us who worked in that space – we each had the opportunity to focus where our energies would be best spent. And it made the whole endeavor a success as a result.
It wasn’t until I stepped foot in the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University in Fall 2019 as a graduate student that I learned that this method I employed as a small business manager had a name: ABCD. As a writer and lover of words, it only made it that much more poetic to have this as the acronym for the framework I’d gravitate towards. ABCD, I learned, was a strengths-based perspective developed by John Kretzmann and John McKnight in the 1990’s as a means of empowering communities instead of looking at them as problems to be solved. By identifying assets (or useful, beneficial, positive, strengthening aspects of a place or community), folks could start to flip the script from need to opportunity.
In my current job as a community-building programs manager in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, I run a leadership workshop for residents and when I explain ABCD to them, I use a simple metaphor: the ol’ glass – is it half empty or half full? In the standard problem/solution model, we might look at that glass and say, “Well, there’s only half the amount of water here and so these are some steps to get more water” or, in more dire circumstances, “We only have half the water so it’s a no-go – pack up your stuff, we’re out.” But! If we employ Asset Based Community Development to this half glass of water scenario, we would say, “Wow, we’ve got this entire half glass of water – think of all the things we can do with that.”
With ABCD, the approach isn’t about scarcity or impossibility or even success or failure – it’s about opportunity.
Recently, I was meeting with a resident who works with an organization that does quite a lot of community-building and so we were nerding out a bit about ABCD. He had learned about this framework a decade or so ago and was clearly utilizing it in his own work – but maybe had forgotten a bit about why. I offered him this scenario:
Let’s say a house in our community burns down. So we get everyone together and we identify that the PROBLEM is that the house burned down, but, hey, lucky us, we’ve got everything we need to FIX THE PROBLEM: Joe is a carpenter and Alice is an electrician and Pat is a plumber and so on and so forth until our community has successful rebuilt the house. Hooray! We have a big party and everyone comes out to celebrate how we FIXED [CLAP] THE [CLAP] PROBLEM [CLAP].
But then in a year, a ceiling fan in the house breaks. Paint starts to chip. The shower drain clogs. We start to feel less enthused about our house – and frustrated, too, because didn’t we FIX THE PROBLEM? Even though we did that, it turns out the house still ages and requires maintenance and so it becomes a problem to be solved again and again, in small and large ways. What happens over time to our feelings about how successful we were at solving that PROBLEM?
What if, instead of looking at the house as a problem to be solved, we looked at it as an opportunity to bring people together and utilize their skills and talents in a meaningful way? Then when the house needs repairs, we won’t feel like we failed to fix the house – we will know that we took the opportunity to work on the house as a community, something that doesn’t really have an end-date but is something always on offer, whenever we might need it.
After I shared this analogy with the community member, he shared a story with me about a man that many considered a nuisance because he often panhandled in the neighborhood. “I got to know him,” he said, “and learned that he was a skilled carpenter. And it just so happened we had a project that we could hire him – and I swear, he walked taller after that.”
People aren’t problems to be solved – they’re full of opportunities for meaningful connection.
While utilizing the problem/solution model might feel good in a check-list kind of way, it also has the potential to make us feel like we failed or were unsuccessful over time – whereas ABCD offers the opportunity to celebrate the skills, talents, and gifts of everyone involved in a continuous way.
Exact same scenario, two completely different vibes. Which one is more energizing? Which one makes you want to raise your hand to get involved? Which one is the most realistically sustainable?
There are a few easy ways to begin implementing ABCD as a leader doing community work. First, invest in round tables. This can be literal or figurative – moving away from long conference tables where someone is at the “head” can help create a stronger sense of democracy – that everyone at the table has equal buy-in. What happens next is an assessment of everyone at your round table and what skills, talents, or gifts they are bringing to the endeavor. It may quickly become evident who should be put in charge of what based on this discussion – and may also open doors to possibilities you hadn’t considered. Oh, Angela plays guitar? Maybe your event could open with her leading a singalong. Awesome. This exercise also empowers members of the team to self-identify where they feel like they can contribute most effectively to the project or initiative – especially when you’re working with volunteers, this can be a difference-maker in how committed folks are to seeing the project all the way through. And finally, doing some asset-mapping – literally making a list of all of the people, places, and things that make folks feel excited about the work or the place where the work is happening can set the right tone for what you’re hoping to accomplish together.
Another easy metaphor to understand this: think of it as everyone bringing ingredients to a dinner party. On the count of three, everyone puts their ingredients on the table. Then, and only then, do you determine what you’re all having for dinner. Going into it with a preconceived notion of what “success” looks like isn’t a bad strategy – but hold on loosely – because you never know what piecing together these ingredients might create.
What attracts me most to the ABCD framework is how it’s not designed for start or stop – it’s designed for evolving and changing. When it comes to community work, pursuits of social justice, or advocacy for equitable systems, we will never be done. Society is a living, breathing, evolving opportunity, not a “problem” to be “solved.” By defaulting the approach to emphasize assets and strengths, we are set up for success instead of failure – because we’ve accounted for the probability that our work has no ending – no Jared-style-gift-wrapped-to-perfection “look we did it, we’ve solved racism” (for example), but, instead acknowledges we inhale, therefore we exhale, and so the breath of life goes on. And doesn’t that better prepare us for the work we do?
"ABCD is the life for me."
Sarah Wolf (MFA, MSSA, LSW) is a community-building programs manager in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. She’s maintained a daily writing practice since 1/1/11. Visit wolfstarpress.com for more information.