My time at Public Allies gave me the opportunity to work with John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann, who developed the Asset-Based Community Development approach to neighborhood development, and that really influenced how we worked with communities. Some of you may be familiar with this approach, but the approach acknowledges that all of us, every single one of us breathing in this community, in this planet, those of us serving and those of us who are being served, that we’re all both half-full and half-empty.
We all have skills and talents that make us good friends, family members, workers, and leaders, and we also have needs and shortcomings that come along with those strengths. We can’t do well serving these communities, I learned with Public Allies, if we believe that we, the givers, are the only ones that are half-full, and that everybody we’re serving is half-empty. That has been the theme of my work in community for my entire life — that there are assets and gifts out there in communities, and that our job as good servants and as good leaders is not only just being humble, but it’s having the ability to recognize those gifts in others, and help them put those gifts into action. Communities are filled with assets that we need to better recognize and mobilize if we’re really going to make a difference, and Public Allies helped me see that.
At Public Allies, we endeavored to do this also by bringing these young people together from diverse backgrounds. We worked with African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, white, gay, straight, you name it, college graduates, ex-felons, we brought them all together every week to work in a group.
And truly, that’s where the magic happened, when you saw those kids from all those different backgrounds really tussling it out and trying to figure out their philosophies in the world in relationship to their beliefs and stereotypes.
The law school graduates realized they had a lot to learn about how communities really work and how to engage people. There’s nothing funnier than to watch a kid who believes they know it all — (laughter) — actually come across some real tough problems in communities that test every fiber of what they believe.
And then you see the young person with a GED realize that they could go to college because they’re working with kids who are just as smart or not smart as them who are going, and they gain a sense of the possibilities that they have. They know that their ideas are just as good, sometimes even better. That’s when those lights go off. That’s what we think about when we think of Asset-Based Community Development — that a kid from Harvard and a kid with a GED are both full of promise.
Everyone learned to build authentic relationships with one another where they could recognize each other’s strengths and provide honest feedback on their challenges. They gained a blend of confidence and humility that prepared them to be able to lead from the streets to the executive suites.
You could take any one of those Allies — and it’s not just Allies, there are kids like this all over the country, and you could plop them down in any community, and they would know how to build relationships. You know, that’s not just important in non-profit, that’s important in life. These are the kind of gifts that we can give people through service.
And as we move forward to implement the Serve America Act, my hope is that the Office of Social Innovation that’s going to do some of this funding will help us identify the wonderful concepts out there like Asset-Based Community Development. There are other wonderful approaches out there that are working in communities all over this country. This office hopefully will identify more of them and help them grow and develop the best solutions, and replicate those ideas throughout the country.