This blog is part of an online learning platform which includes the Pathways to New Community Paradigms Wiki and a number of other Internet based resources to explore what is termed here 'new community paradigms' which are a transformational change brought about by members of a community.

It is intended to offer resources and explore ideas with the potential of purposefully directing the momentum needed for communities to create their own new community paradigms.

It seeks to help those interested in becoming active participants in the governance of their local communities rather than merely passive consumers of government service output. This blog seeks to assist individuals wanting to redefine their role in producing a more direct democratic form of governance by participating both in defining the political body and establishing the policies that will have an impact their community so that new paradigms for their community can be chosen rather than imposed.

Friday, October 7, 2016

My Critique of a Critique of a Critique of Asset Based Community Development

Recently, Cormac Russell asked for my public comments of his blog post 
Neoliberalism with a Community Face? A Critical Analysis of Asset-Based Community Development in Scotland?, and the debate with the article with the same name, sans the last question mark, more generally. 

Now there is a bit of, "Wow, Cormac Russell asked me to write something, that is so cool,” to this but I have more reason for putting this upfront. I have to admit that I don't really know that much about Asset Based Community Development or ABCD.

I have done a couple of blog posts on ABCD, one of which received praise from Cormac. I created an ABCD page on my wiki which makes clear that good deal of what I have learned so far has come from Cormac. I have been adding to my own growing ABCD list on Twitter, in large part due to connecting with Cormac. Also raised ABCD as an alternative or at least a supplemental approach in an online collaboration with an effort to establish a food truck for the unsheltered homeless in Portland, Oregon, the series "Modeling the Last Mile to Feed the Homeless

Still I am a fledgling convert and, to a large extent, an outsider. So any critique I do is susceptible to criticism for both being not knowledgable enough and too naively fanboy.  As Cormac said in his own post, one needs an "ability to understand their subject and on whether they have read everything under their purview in order to do so."

So, now upfront, if I get something wrong, I can honestly say, "It's not you, it's me."

Another issue is that I am one of those, one of those “systems guys”. I am an advocate of ABCD not an absolute adherent. I have hopeful faith in ABCD which I am building upon. I have confident conviction in systems thinking. Cormac has been kind enough to engage in what I call “above the comments section conversations” The comments section being where many of the stature of Cormac online would relegate followers. In these conversations I have sometimes tweaked Cormac’s twitters with a systems thinking perspective. Also have to add that my post, Asset Based Community Development Lessons for Systems Thinking despite being fairly recent, received the fourth most page views in this blog's little over five year history.

Also have to mention that I seem to remember coming across the original article, “Neoliberalism with a community face?: A critical analysis of asset-based community development in Scotland (MacLeod, MA & Emejulu, A) 2014” over the last year or so, or perhaps it was a review or synopsis but couldn't find an open publicly available copy when I went back to refresh my memory. So I requested a copy through ResearchGate which, if I can, I will link here. The article can be downloaded from the Edinburgh Research Explorer, the link has been provided courtesy of Cormac.

My first question then for Cormac is why did this take so long and why now?

According to Cormac, the original “Neoliberalism with a community face?” article is “one of the few critiques of Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) out there. We need more. Critiques are critical to ensuring a deepening of practice and philosophical rigour.”

This brings up my second question arising directly from Cormac's article. Why aren't there more critiques of ABCD but even more generally, how do you critique ABCD? I am really not clear about how ABCDers would go about doing that themselves. 

From what I remember of the Macleod and Emejulu article, I agreed with Cormac that it was a Straw Man argument. Their three points on individualization, marketization and privatization also fell flat with me even with my then particularly limited knowledge of ABCD. My initial reaction was to discount the Macleod and Emejulu article as at best an outlier in the general ABCD literature. 

At the time, I could not or perhaps did not particularly try to ascertain where they were coming from? Were they coming from an establishment perspective attempting to usurp certain portions of ABCD and omit the parts inconvenient to authority or a particularly radical antiestablishment perspective that felt ABCD did not go far enough in being disruptive? 

 I found a followup to the article, What’s the Matter with Asset-Based Community Development? 22 April 2015, on the What Works Scotland website, so I now know it was the later. The article features guest blogger Dr. Akwugo Emejulu, (my link works), at the University of Edinburgh, moving soon to the University of Warwick.  What Works Scotland is, an initiative to improve the way local areas in Scotland use evidence to make decisions about public service development and reform. While I disagree with Dr. Emejulu’s perspective on ABCD, there is a good deal on the What Works Scotland that I do find appealing. 

Returning to Dr. Emejulu’s perspective on ABCD, both Russell (Cormac) and Emejulu start with a hypothesis of ABCD being a theory and practice of empowerment and social change but in Emejulu’s view ABCD not only fails at achieving this but is a hindrance. 

"Thus, it is important to understand that ABCD emerges, not as an alternative to deficit approaches to community development, but as a movement to displace and neutralise radical community organising and development." (MacLeod and Emejulu 2014)

This seems to me to be not so much an, “If you're not for me then your against me” as an, “if you’re not against them then your against me” outlook. I suspect that in attempting to define ABCD Dr. Emejulu has taken what I learned to be of American origin based on a tradition of local community participatory democracy, independent of individual economic perspectives and placed it within the larger economic movements of Europe which defined the myriad of political parties by focusing on the larger political movements in America rather than those smaller local sources of community participatory democracy. 

Now Dr. Emejulu is apparently anti-capitalist.

“ABCD is not necessarily a bold stand against the disempowering practice of well meaning but ultimately misguided social welfare professionals. Instead, it is an attempt to re-purpose community development to make it more acceptable to the emerging neoliberal order under Reagan.” 

Reagan is the ultimate example of the political embodiment of capitalism.

She goes on to say, “Capitalism, fundamentally, is about maximising profit for the owners of capital. It is not designed to address issues of fairness, equality and justice. Indeed, as the 2008 economic crisis and subsequent austerity measures have shown us, capitalism is the source of inequality—it is not a remedy to it.” ABCD is presumed guilty by assumed association.

Now, I agree with Prof. John McKnight that ABCD is of no interest to, either one of our limited to two party system because, “Republicans are about empowering corporate interest and Democrats are about growing government interests.” There is a tradition in America of organizations like Heartland Democracy, that have been featured in this blog, working within communities focusing on the importance of civic empowerment as a means to reach disengaged populations. ABCD is another approach to doing this. 

Though I sense Cormac as not being a capitalist and as being anti-corporatist, I also do not see any economic perspective as being an essential part of either the tradition above or necessarily of ABCD. I can readily see an entrepreneurial, free enterprise perspective being able to be included into ABCD. If I am wrong about this somebody needs to tell me. 

Now let me be clear about this. I am not saying that ABCD is particularly pro-capitalist or pro-free enterprise. It would be constrained if it were. Dr. Emejulu sees ABCD a being anti-statist and using capitalism as a counterweight, which I do not believe to be true. It is not anti-anything as far as I can tell. ABCD is pro-community. The effort to empower communities, particularly focusing on what is strong rather than what is wrong defaults to helping disengaged populations, which is why it is not of interest to those in political power. 

Dr. Emejulu's view, I would say, leans more to expansive and complicated social movements, gathering disciples fueled by dissatisfaction, for large scale social upheaval, while ABCD focuses on the smaller, refined, nuanced, complex relationships found in communities and neighborhoods and seeks to bring out the emergent and creative qualities of those communities and neighborhoods.

So why would a systems thinking guy seek out a truth to be found in ABCD? I have to confess that I sometimes find systems thinking lacking, not fundamentally but it misses something which ABCD seems it might provide. Now this is not really quite right because I still find it easier for systems thinking being able to realize its limitations, not that they, systems thinkers, necessarily do but it is there more than I see it for ABCD. I have more to learn.

Past Posts