Community Transformation

Remarks on Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) from Former First Lady Michelle Obama

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.

Human Rights Education

Human Rights: Building Strength and Power Through Action

Human rights are based on the principle of respect for the individual. Their fundamental assumption is that each person is a moral and rational being who deserves to be treated with dignity. They are called “human” rights because they are universal.

Each of us has an individual right to enjoy freedom from fear and want, and to make decisions that impact our lives, while maintaining our obligation to be good citizens and neighbors.

In 2010 the Mental Health Empowerment Project held four regional conferences across New York state. The purpose of these conferences was to educate and expand people’s knowledge of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Our hope was to bring to life the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that deals with our economic, social, and cultural rights as individuals and how working collectively we can have greater impact over our lives and our communities.  In the words of anthropologist Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Who will ensure that human rights are respected? Eleanor Roosevelt, a primary author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, responded to this question by saying:

“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”

What can you do to promote human rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? In order to persuade governments to fully implement the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there must be effective and sustained action at a grassroots level.  Human rights advocacy is accomplished by individuals and groups taking action. What CAN you do?

United for Human Rights suggests a variety of advocacy activities for both individuals and groups, a few of which are listed below. You may also visit their website for more information on human rights:

1. Research and contact your local elected representatives to find out about current human rights legislative issues. If there are issues that you’d like to support, send a letter asking them to enact that legislation (or prevent legislation that is harmful).

2. Find out what can be done to make human rights education part of the general curriculum in schools, and push for this to happen.

3. Unite and join forces with other organizations who share your values and educate them about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; share materials to promote the Universal Declaration, and suggest collaborative activities.

4. Arrange for a showing of the DVD, “The Story of Human Rights” to groups in your network to educate others on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

5. DO NOT REMAIN SILENT in the face of a human rights abuse. SPEAK OUT! Elie Wiesel, a Nazi concentration camp survivor and Nobel Peace laureate said, “Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Utilize human rights laws. Speak Out. Take Action.

(Adapted from: Bringing Human Rights to Life: Educator’s Guide. United for Human Rights. 2010.)

Read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Read the plain language version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

View the The Story of Human Rights.

Human Rights Learning Communities and the Learning Community Wheel

Once you have increased your knowlege of human rights and see opportunities for taking responsible action, how can you move forward with others who share a common vision? What tools are available to help create a community which is dedicated to strengthening respect for human rights?

Kristi Rudelius-Parker offers the model of a Human Rights Learning Community, which serves to promote and enhance effective leadership and responsible action for the realization of human rights, as well as to support and strengthen the personal and professional development of the participants. A Human Rights Learning Community includes both individual and collective learning and practices.

The Learning Community Wheel

The Human Rights Learning Community Wheel can be used as guide to encourage inspiration, exploration, creation, collaboration, and transformation within the community. The eight characteristics are interdependent components for nurturing one’s creative individual and community spirit, and they can aid community participants to challenge themselves and other members to identify what inspires their action and inaction. All characteristics are of equal importance; they are not all-inclusive, therefore a community may choose to add others.

Eight Characteristics of the Learning Community Wheel

INSPIRE: Individuals and communities must identify meaning and purpose to inspire themselves and others to develop and grow as human rights leaders, educators, and activists.

KNOW: Individuals and communities must know their human rights and responsibilities. such knowledge is itself empoering and an important building block for learning.

VALUE: Individuals and communities must value human rights. If human beings do respect the dignity of themselves and others, a safe space for developing and sharing is created.

CONNECT: Human beings need to connect both with their full self (mind, body, heart, and spirit) as well as with other people. How one relates with oneself and others determins whether the individual and community will grow to their full potentials and provide ways to reenergize each other.

HEAL: Every individual and community has suffered loss and pain. In order for the community to thrive, the individual and the collective group must both learn to heal through internal analysis, story telling, sharing with one another, and learning new ways.

ACT: Human beings, both individually and collectively, need to act to improve and realize their human rights. Practicing what one might feel or know is “right” empowers the individual and community with an acknowledgement of justice.

REFLECT: Individuals and communities must reflect on the other seven characteristics of the Human Rights Learning Community Wheel. For example, have their values and actions led to improvements of human rights conditions for themselves and others? What have they learned, individually and collectively?

CELEBRATE: Individuals and communities must take time to celebrate ways they have been working to foster respect for human dignity and the rights of others. The recognition of the time, commitment, and dedication must be adequately supported for the individuals and community to feel revitalized and cherished.

(Excerpted from: The Human Rights Education Handbook: Effective Practices for Learning Action and Change. Human Rights Resource Center, University of Minnesota, Minn. MN, 2000)

In using the Learning Community Wheel, here are some questions the individuals and the community may discuss and consider:

INSPIRE: What does Human Rights mean to you/me? What is the purpose of your/my work as Human Rights leaders?

KNOW: Discuss “What are Human Rights Principles?”

VALUE: What rights are valued? How is sharing created and valued?

CONNECT: How do I see myself in connection to others?

ACT: What actions can I take that empower myself and others?

HEAL: What stories need to be told?

REFLECT: Did we achieve our intent?

CELEBRATE: How can we celebrate our growth, learning, and development, both individually and as a community? How can we invite others to celebrate our achievements and encourage their involvement with us?

Please contact the Mental Health Empowerment Project at 518-434-1393 for assistance in starting a Human Rights Learning Community in your area! Visit our Learning Communities page for more information on developing Learning Communities.