ABCD is the new E=mc<sup>2</sup>

I’ve been a community organizer for most of my life. I only began to understand what I could be doing after hearing John McKnight speak about Asset Based Community Development. (ABCD) This led to a lifelong friendship with John and an invitation to be part of his ABCD faculty at Northwestern. There is a lot of energy in the simple elegance of ABCD. Someone recently described it as the 21st century version of E=mc2 . (You can read more about ABCD below.)

This week in Edmonton Vickie and I participated in the launch of ABCD in Canada. John was there as were a couple of hundred other community organizers. It was like old home week. The initiative was launched by Paul Born and the wonderful folks at Tamarack. Here’s the new ABCD-in-Canada website. It is rich with links and downloadable resources. 

I wrote the following piece in honour of the launch. (It’s a three minute read.)

ABCD in Canada

There is nothing extraordinary about Asset Based Community Development (ABCD).

It’s as ordinary as looking out for your family, your neighbours or preserving the purity of the environment. Or extending a hand to people who are down on their luck, struggling or vulnerable. Or banding together with others to fix a common challenge.

People have been demonstrating their ABCDs pretty well since the beginning of time. Before there were institutions, bureaucracies, experts and professionals. When people only had each other to depend on.

When people are left to their own devices they take stock. They figure out the extent of their challenge. They assess the resources they have. The resources they might need to acquire. Then in a flourish of abundance they problem-solve.

Sound familiar?

It should. It’s been happening in Canada for a very long time. The early settlers would not have survived our harsh unforgiving climate and rocky soil without the helping hands of indigenous people. Indigenous people would not have survived the ravages of residential schools and attempts at genocide without relying on each other. And, of course, as we have seen most recently, the destruction of the Ft. McMurray fire was tempered immediately by ordinary citizens doing what they do best, rising to the occasion.

Ft. McMurray is just the tip of the iceberg. What is happening beneath the surface is in many ways more astounding. Every day, everywhere just about everyone is involved in taking care of family, friends, neighbours and co-workers as well as the water, birds, rocks, trees and indeed all life. Freely. Voluntarily. Lovingly. It is hard to imagine society functioning without these millions of small acts.

Paradoxically even though something is omnipresent and fundamental, it can remain undiscovered for a long time. Or ignored, dismissed and disrespected as Einstein experienced.

That’s the gift that John McKnight has given us. He reveals our caring and ingenuity with such elegance that we can appreciate its beauty and respect its power.

ABCD codifies the extraordinary achievements of ordinary people especially when they act together. John didn’t invent it. He observed it.

Here are three of his observations that have always struck me:

  • Communities become healthier and more resilient when those who typically contribute step back and start receiving from those who aren’t typically expected to contribute.
  • Citizens, acting through voluntary associations are the richest source of ingenuity and problem solving we have in a democratic society.
  • Professionals, intentionally or unintentionally, can undermine the capacity of individuals, families, networks and associations to take responsibility for each other and the environment.

Like all magnificent concepts, ABCD ignites the imagination. It’s impossible to look at the world in the same way once you see it through the lens of ABCD. It has changed my life in so many ways. It certainly helped Vickie and I anchor PLAN’s work exclusively to the power of neighbourliness.

On the surface ABCD makes you feel better. Applying it to one’s work is another matter. It requires discipline, rigour and a commitment to let go of a lot of what you hold dear. ABCD is not a recipe. It’s a work in progress. Therefore it continues to learn and grow. For example, it’s still sorting out its relationship with government, professionals and money. Plus ABCD is playing teeter-totter with powerful societal forces such as the momentum of outmoded approaches, consumerism, the iron rule of the economy, our fascination with technology and our deference to experts.

That’s where you come in.

Growing ABCD in Canada is a job for farmers not mechanics.

We know our ‘soil’ contains the right ingredients: caring, hospitality and ingenuity. Nurturing the right conditions for it to grow healthy crops is another matter. I can think of no other way to do it than to put on our ABCD glasses and extract ourselves from the need maker’s grasp. That means defining our challenges on our terms, taking stock of the treasure trove of resources we already have at our disposal, swallowing our egos and rallying the caring power of all Canadians.

Now, that would qualify as extraordinary wouldn’t it?


Don’t it always seem to go

That you don’t know what you’ve got

Till it’s gone… Joni Mitchell

And here’s the musical accompaniment for this post, Big Yellow Taxi performed by Sarah McLachlan and a bunch of women friends.


A River Runs Through John

Drive a Stake Through It

You Don’t Need a Weatherman

Loving Strangers – A Vital Source of Social Innovation

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Advocate

A Robust Society is a Feminist Society

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One Comment

  1. april Doner

    A wonderfully refreshing, down-to-earth description of ABCD. I especially love your three observations, and that you lead with the shift in contribution. I also appreciate your candor about the challenges of applying ABCD.
    Thank you so much for this, Al–and congratulations, Canada!

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