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ABCD Institute Makes DePaul Home

​​In late 2016, DePaul welcomed the Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) Institute to the Steans Center as its new home. Founded at Northwestern University more than two decades ago, the Institute has made a global impact on community development and organizing  through its emphasis on how communities use their assets to define who and what they are and how they shape their future. DePaul now directly benefits from  decades of wisdom developed through research, engagement, and scholarship in communities employing ABCD throughout the world.

community assets
Courtesy of the ABCD Institute

ABCD is a strong match for DePaul. For one, the Institute reflects the university’s mission, recognizing the dignity of individuals, their knowledge and talents, regardless of their status, title or degree. ABCD is rooted in a deep respect for the skills people embody and their capacity to create local associations to transform their own realities. The talents of individuals is at the core of a community's assets.

ABCD was coined by Northwestern University professors John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann whose deep engagement with urban communities dates back to the mid-twentieth century. Their foundational book, Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community’s Assets, published in 1993, has sold over 100,000 copies.  The book is an integral tool for community organizations, but the Institute also houses a vast array of published resources on applying ABCD most of which are available for free.

McKnight and Kretzmann
McKnight and Kretzmann

McKnight recalls how the idea first occurred to him, Kretzmann and the late Stanley Hallett, an urban planner and innovator who co-founded Chicago's Center for Neighborhood Technology, South Shore Bank and Northwestern University’s Center for Urban Affairs (Institute for Policy Research). 

“What we realized is that many people in the world of academia – and in government, foundations and media for that matter – looked at neighborhoods as places where there were problems, issues, poverty. It was all negative. It struck me that all of the focus was on deficits  – and community needs.”

ABCD went the other direction. “The foundation of ABCD," Kretzmann notes, "remains the same as it did when we were first visiting communities. Don’t start with the ‘glass half-empty’ view of communities. Understand that communities have a lot to offer.” 

What McKnight and Kretzmann found in their initial years of research was reaffirmed repeatedly over 40 years: at their core, communities embody and reflect a wide variety of assets that are sources of resilience, organizing and innovation. The Building Communities book shared stories and observations from hundreds of communities.  Over time, a group of experts, referred to as "ABCD Institute Faculty" emerged as highly skilled practitioners -- trainers, workshop leaders, coaches, and speakers -- providing guidance for the many and diverse constituencies interested in this approach. They work with organizations on community development projects, in universities, government, and in a wide variety of community spaces including neighborhood groups, churches, consulting groups and health organizations.

While ABCD initially focused on urban communities, over the years it has become the basis for development, organizing and resistance among rural and indigenous peoples and as part of a variety of social movements throughout the world. In recent years, ABCD practitioners held international conferences in Blackpool, England, Goa, India, and this year, in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.  There are also ABCD networks across the globe, including ABCD Canada, ABCD Europe, and ABCD Asia Pacific.

McKnight and Kretzmann
McKnight calls what happens when communities apply ABCD “a paradigm shift.” While it may seem obvious for communities to focus on assets, putting it into action is what leads to tangible results. ABCD is about community development from the ground up, a practice that people can learn about through the Institute and its programs, but also through interacting with others online. Through, people can connect with a wide range of resources and perspectives on how ABCD works.

The first question asked is ‘What can we do with what we already have?,' says Dan Duncan, an ABCD faculty member and a senior consultant with Clear Impact, a Florida-based organization that employs ABCD with organizations and communities through a process called Results-Based Accountability. “Asset-based organizing really gives us more tools in our toolbox to build strong communities. It’s not about waiting for outside organizations to rescue us.”

ABCD at DePaul

Monsignor John J. Egan, the nationally recognized advocate for civil rights and social justice who worked for DePaul and whose statue proudly stands on campus asking 'What have you done for justice?'  A year after the statue was dedicated, in 2005, the still nascent Steans Center brought Kretzmann and Michael Bennett,  ABCD Faculty Member and, at the time, director of the Egan Urban Center, to train staff on employing ABCD when engaging communities to build service learning partnerships.

Today, with the ABCD Institute in house at the Steans Center, DePaul has the potential to transform thousands of students each year by helping them better understand how they can respectively and appropriately engage with communities by first learning about their strengths and how they already support community development. Students who learn about ABCD in classes will have an opportunity to deepen their understanding of DePaul's mission. “ABCD aligns well with DePaul – and it’s already been an important part of how we have viewed communities for years,” says Howard Rosing, Executive Director of the Steans Center. “More and more over the last few decades, we’ve been seeing how academic service learning can be a means for universities to partner with communities and for DePaul, the starting point is understanding community assets and capacities and not simply what is wrong or missing. First and foremost, the approach respects the knowledge produced in communities.”

For DePaul students engaged in communities through coursework, learning how to appreciate community assets will increasingly become a fundamental part of their educational experience. Students will learn more about ABCD in classes and faculty will have greater access to ABCD Institute trainings and their fellowship program. “ABCD will give students – on the undergraduate and graduate levels another strong theoretical foundation for their work in communities,” says Caryn Chaden, Associate Provost for Student Success and Accreditation and an Associate Professor of English at DePaul. “It will connect students and faculty with ABCD’s extraordinary network here and abroad.”

ABCD gives you a more holistic way of understanding communities and issues – it unmasks wonderful gifts and stories that deserve to be told.

John Zeigler, Director, Egan Office

John Zeigler, Director of the Egan Office for Urban Education and Community Partnerships, also at the Steans Center, says that ABCD “gives you a more holistic way of understanding communities and issues – it unmasks wonderful gifts and stories that deserve to be told.” The Egan Office has applied ABCD for years and is currently utilizing the approach as part of its Multi-Faith Veteran Support Initiative (MVI). MVI supports faith communities in engaging veterans and their families by working with faith institutions and training veterans (as community assets) to support other veterans across Chicago. “One idea is that veterans want to have a system for how they can reach into communities,” says Zeigler. “ABCD has provided a baseline for how this is working. When it’s done right, it’s not only part of a movement – it’s about cementing authentic partnerships in communities.”  

ABCD Faculty member Mary Nelson contributes to co-teaching in the veterans project. Nelson, who recently retired from her role as Executive Director of the World Parliament of Religions, has been organizing in Chicago since the 1960s and co-founded Bethel New Life, an important community organization in Chicago's West Garfield Park neighborhood. For Nelson, “ABCD at DePaul is so clearly appropriate because of the university’s mission. It will give students a framework that has some substance to it that students can latch onto. It’s a way of looking at things – and understanding the gifts of people – that can be applied to many disciplines.”

Mary Nelson
Mary Nelson at ABCD Workshop

Professor Michael Bennett of DePaul’s sociology department is currently the university’s only ABCD Institute faculty member.  Bennett, who has a longstanding relationship with McKnight and Kretzmann, says that ABCD can make a significant impact on students: “Through ABCD, students can learn about the strengths of the community – and how that affects the community as well as what they are doing there. What are some of the gifts coming out of a community you are working in? Maybe there’s an evening recreational program, or a parent who used to be on the road as a professional musician, or folks who teach kids how to cook.” He adds, “the Steans Center is going to be pivotal in getting faculty who teach service learning to engage students in the ABCD methods.”

Bennett’s prediction is already happening. John Schlichtman, associate professor of sociology, says he plans to integrate ABCD into classes. "ABCD can introduce to students the richness of what is already present in communities,” he says. “They will see that there are already programs in the community they can learn from.”

Similarly, Adrienne Holloway, formerly an assistant professor in the School of Public Service, says that ABCD “gives faculty members a way to view communities – and students the chance to learn tools of community engagement.” Before leaving DePaul, Holloway taught a community development course that used the framework of ABCD. “Students identified a community they’d like to learn more about,” she says. “They did asset inventories, asset maps and interviewed individuals and people with institutions to gather information. And they saw that ACBD is not just theoretical – it’s practical and doable.”

Kim Hopes, the Steans Center’s Assistant Director for ABCD Partnerships, adds that with DePaul as its new home, one of the Institute’s goals will be “to do regular on-campus trainings of faculty and community partners.” Ultimately, she says, “our goal is also to have some kind of international conference on ABCD at DePaul.”