The ABCD Workshop – What we Learned and What's to Come

Posted on May 23, 2018
By Heather Keam

From April 17-19 Cities Deepening Community held an Asset-Based Community Development workshop in Kitchener, Ontario with John McKnight, Cormac Russell, Donna Thomson and almost 200 community changemakers. You can imagine there was a lot of learning to absorb! We have done our best to sum up our primary aha's! into a few takeaways.

We are also keen to keep the learning going and have highlighted, at the bottom of this post, some upcoming opportunities that will be valuable for those of you invested in making positive change in your neighbourhoods.

John McKnight’s keynote takeaways

  • To learn how to keep people healthy, we need to ask people what they think they can do to be healthy in their own space. Find out and start with what people think about health, rather than what we know about health. People care about different things and are more likely to act upon what is meaningful to them.
  • Associations are the mechanisms of our social relations – the product of people coming together. There is a growing body of evidence of the relationship between social connections and health. For instance, joining just one group, will extend a person’s life by five years.
  • Associations are waiting for institutions to come as a precipitator or inviter rather than an expert or service provider. 
Cormac Russel's keynote takeaways:
  • Crossroads - Cormac likened taking action to or for people to the charity model, where we try to rescue those who are less fortunate. Even doing with people can be harmful and he suggested that there is a fourth way: doing by. This is showing up in a way that is not supportive or directive, but where we enable people and communities to help themselves.
  • Discovery not delivery - Instead of working on determining a model for delivery, those of us working within institutions should let go of our agendas for a while and start a conversation about what we need to discover.
  • Start with what’s strong, not what’s wrong - Is the glass half empty or half full? Trick question - it’s both! Cormac reframed this age-old question, as: Where we are going to start the conversation? We tend to begin engaging people by asking them what they are miserable about, often in the form of a needs assessment. If we want change, we’ve got to change the conversation.
Donna Thomson's keynote takeaways:
  • Introduced her family - Donna's son Nicholas was born with severe cerebral palsy and has complex medical needs. For years, belonging was difficult – it was an ad hoc thing. They fell apart from their community even though they were living in it.
  • She had a revelation - Donna discovered Amartya Sen's Capability Approach: A good life should not be based on an individual's economic advantages alone, but on their choices and capabilities to live that good life. We need to ask people what kind of life they value. We are NOT a society of equals.
  • She discovered that the extraordinary exists within the ordinary – The choices we make in circumstances of adversity can spell the difference between fulfillment and misery. Where some may see limitations, Nicholas sees possibility. He can look at his assets and leverage them to live a good life.
Asset Mappingasset mapping table

This event was as inspirational as it was informative. We heard from six ‘ABCD in action’ participants from across Canada and learned how they are implementing ABCD in their community.  We also experienced asset mapping in action. Asset maps are used in lieu of needs maps which focus solely on negative aspects of communities. Asset maps focus on a community’s assets, abilities, skills, and strengths to build its future. We asked participants to bring a token along with them to represent a personal asset. It was inspiring to see the breadth and depth of gifts existing in our workshop space alone. In the room, we discovered:

  • Connectors and Facilitators
  • People good with children and/or consider their family their primary gift
  • People connected with the land
  • Growers and harvesters of the land
  • Cookers and Bakers, and even Picklers
  • Travellers and Orienteers
  • Sport lovers

I encourage you to visit the ABCD Canada website to learn more about asset mapping. You will also find the link to sign up for our NEW ABCD Community of Practice, and in coming months, a series of learning blogs authored by John McKnight.  

Now, I challenge you to keep the conversation going about Asset-Based Community Development and try one or two tools to help you discover assets in your own neighbourhood, community or workplace.

Learn more


ABCD, Community Development, Heather Keam, Cities Deepening Community

Heather Keam

By Heather Keam

Heather works with municipalities and organizations to build strategies that put people at the center using Asset-Based Community Development. With over 22 years of experience in community development, she uses an ABCD approach to center people and belonging in the development of community plans and strategies through coaching and training staff teams, facilitation, and writing about ABCD and Belonging. She has a passion for the power of people and believes that people and communities are the solutions to local problems. She believes that we need to build a sense of community belonging so that people are connected to their community, and their place within it and get involved in decision-making. She also believes that municipalities need to shift the way they show up in community from doing “for” to supporting communities to do themselves.

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