Last weekend I spent some time in the West Garfield Park neighborhood of Chicago with Dr. Mary Nelson’s “Restoring Urban Communities” class. If you haven’t heard about Mary Nelson you’ll want to – especially if you’re involved in community development, community organizing, or just live in a neighborhood you care about. Just as Dr. Nelson’s approach to C.D. (everyone in this field loves acronyms) is firmly rooted in the context of the community so is her May SCUPE/Loyola class.
On the particular day I visited with the class Mary had us all cram into a 15 passenger van as she zoomed around the neighborhood. At every corner of every block there was a story about a struggle the neighborhood had faced and how the community overcame, or at the very least challenged, the issues. In 30 years of existence, Bethel New Life (the non-profit started by the Bethel Lutheran congregation) has joined the neighborhood in its joys and its struggles and has provided a model for the way church should be.
Two key elements of the way of church-life which Mary teaches are listening and an asset-based approach to looking at communities. Listening is probably the more difficult of the two while Asset-based community development (ABCD) is the more counter-intuitive.
The reason for this is that we are all quite used to going into communities and situations with our analytical minds probing for deficits and deficiencies. Actively seeking out assets and proficiencies is hard-wired into the human brain. From the dawn of conscious thought ancient humans analyzed their environment in search for the “wrong” factors that might prove dangerous: a sharp sudden cliff, a structurally un-sound cave, a bog stiff with lurking log-like snouts of crocodiles. Our very survival has for centuries, and does still, depend on our ability to scout out what is wrong with a situation or an environment.
Looking for assets thus goes against a natural grain in our thinking. This, I believe, is its wonderful offering to us though. Looking at a community through asset mapping allows us to think in a different frequency and to see things that we would have otherwise ignored or written off.
We must learn to listen, to ask the right questions, and to look forward our neighborhoods walks, to unexpected conversations, and even community changes as chances to see what jumps out at us. Maybe that lion is also a source of food!