In Your Community Q&A: Luther Snow on Asset-Based Community Development

Last month Consumers Energy brought Luther Snow, author of The Organization of Hope: A Workbook for Rural Asset-Based Community Development and The Power of Asset Mapping, to several Michigan communities. Luther also is the creator and facilitator of the concept of “Quick and Simple Asset Mapping”. Below is a portion of a question and answer session with Luther. You can read the full interview in our publication Strategies for Sustainable Small Town and Rural Development.

Q. What’s the significance of community “assets”?

Community assets are things we care about, such as individual talents; associations and networks; institutions; physical assets; and economic assets. Sometimes we take these things for granted. Sometimes we are told our assets don’t count. Sometimes we don’t see the assets right under our noses. It’s easy to get caught up in our needs, thinking about what we don’t have. But, the pioneers of Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD), John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann, demonstrated that communities are successful when we focus on the “half-full cup,” rather than the “half-empty cup.” When we recognize our community assets, gifts and strengths, rather than our needs and deficiencies, we are empowered to act on these assets together to get things done.

Q: What is Asset Mapping?

Asset Mapping is a not a system or a method, but a way of thinking and acting that reminds us of the assets all around us and the success we have when we work with these assets together to get things done as part of a larger community. The process I call Quick and Simple Asset Mapping Experience helps groups understand, create and take asset-based action for positive community benefit.

Q: Does Asset Mapping “work” in rural communities?

Yes, Asset Mapping is very much rooted in a rural tradition and mindset.

Rural communities are familiar with “asset thinking,” because we have always had to “use what we’ve got, to get what we want.” What else are we going to do? No one is going to do it for us. And we can’t use what we haven’t got! We have to build rural community ourselves, from what we have. That’s why there is such a strong rural tradition of thriftiness and innovation. To a great extent, asset thinking is already here.

Every aspect of rural community is shaped by our ability to recognize assets and connect with each other. Our businesses and economy, for example, are developed when we encourage diverse entrepreneurs to grow locally appropriate enterprises. At the same time, young people, workers and businesses want to stay and engage here when we invest in our quality of life and make sure no one falls between the cracks. It all multiplies in a kind of “snowball effect” of asset thinking and action over time.

Q: What are some assets and strengths in rural communities that are sometimes overlooked?

Rural people have been told “no” so often we’ve sometimes come to believe it ourselves. We’ve been told that rural communities are “obsolete.” Add that to the real hard times and painful changes many rural communities have experienced, and it’s not surprising we sometimes put ourselves down too, and even lose hope.

But in every rural place I’ve visited, I’ve met people who really care about their community and the rural quality of life. We want to make a living so we can live and invest and prosper here. That’s the first and most important rural asset.

Dig a little deeper and you see that rural communities have a special ability to “network” across distance. Rural means spread out. Because we are spread out, we have learned two things: how to be independent, and how to be interdependent. In everything we do, from our sports teams to our schools, from grain silos to mutual insurance companies, from our congregations to our utility companies, we take advantage of local resources, flexibility and innovation, and then we connect across distance to get things done as part of a larger network.

If you think about it, this rural skill at networking across distance is exactly what is called for in a global economy. This is why I believe rural communities are well suited to support entrepreneurship, new manufacturing networks, new food markets and new networks for culture, recreation and tourism. No, things aren’t the same today as they were before. But we have real skills and knowledge that are in demand in a global economy. We’re not obsolete. We’re on the leading edge!

This material is copyright 2008 by Luther Snow and used, with permission, by Consumers Energy. Any other use or reproduction of the material requires the express approval of Luther Snow.