By Julie Plaut
Minnesota Campus Compact just held an orientation for the College Health Corps VISTAs yesterday, and the asset-mapping session was a powerful reminder of the importance of focusing on assets rather than deficits. The individuals in the room brainstormed some of the assets they possess: knowledge of health issues; experience with community organizing and youth development work; patience, empathy, hope; communication skills (listening, speaking, and writing); being culturally competent, tech savvy, multilingual, detail oriented, big picture thinkers. Then we identified some of our deficits: talking too fast or with an accent; holding stereotypes; being shy, bad at names, impatient, tactless, distracted, impulsive, tone deaf; having no sense of direction; speaking only one language; being unable to spell even in one’s native language.
A stranger walking into the room could legitimately focus on either list and treat us accordingly. Both lists are true. Yet the results created by focusing on one or the other would be extremely different. When the VISTAs started considering their assets in greater depth and imagining how they might combine them to develop specific projects increasing health care access, they came up with all sorts of creative and promising ideas. Some ideas drew on skills and connections seemingly unrelated to the issue. Within ten minutes, for instance, building on one person’s passion for cooking, a group had sketched out a plan for healthy cooking classes that could be held in a local community center serving a low-income community, with leaders in healthcare from surrounding clinics and the State Health Department as volunteer instructors or sponsors, and with produce from a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farmer; benefits to the community might include healthier eating habits, greater awareness of available health care services and local foods, reduced waste, and expanded community relationships.
Earlier this fall, in conversations with practitioners about Minnesota Campus Compact’s future priorities, “shifting power relationships” emerged as one of the principles that might guide our work. While these practitioners wanted to see more shared power between higher education institutions and their community-based partners, they also sought a different interpersonal dynamic – one that encourages all people to claim their power and recognizes all people’s assets, including those of people who might traditionally be defined as “needy” or “clients” or “recipients of service.” Research conducted by John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann supports the practitioners’ enthusiasm for this principle; a deliberate focus on discovering and mobilizing everyone’s assets is a vital common element in effective community change efforts.
The framework and exercises we used with the VISTAs draw on McKnight and Kretzmann’s Building Communities from the Inside Out, and Luther Snow’s The Power of Asset Mapping. These books are valuable resources for anyone interested in asset-based community development — or simply effective civic work. At the same time, not even the best texts in the world can substitute for actually thinking and talking about your gifts and others’, then mobilizing those gifts to address a common goal.