Building on our Assets

While many might not understand its significance, it was by far the most meaningful speaker’s gift I have ever been given.

I was presented with a beautiful eagle’s feather after delivering a workshop at an Indigenous community capacity building conference. The eagle plays an important spiritual role in aboriginal culture as it is the eagle that is identified as the messenger of the Creator and the creature who flies the highest and sees the furthest. I was told that when one receives an eagle feather, that person is being acknowledged with gratitude and respect.

It was another reminder for me of how much there is to be gained from better understanding Aboriginal culture. Recently I’ve learned more about the powerful lessons of the medicine wheel as well as the seven sacred teachings honouring the basic virtues that are intrinsic to a full and healthy life – love, respect, courage, honesty, wisdom, humility, and truth. I see the wisdom in the powerful message of each generation being responsible for ensuring the survival of the seventh generations to come and the reminder that the decisions we make today will affect many others tomorrow. Grounded in centuries of history, these, like many other Aboriginal traditions, remain wise and relevant to this day. 

And yet, despite these wise traditions, there are still far too many who see Aboriginal communities as something needing to be fixed.  Just as with other communities and cultures, the reality is that we instead need to shift from a needs-based view to one that is more capacity focused. In other words, shift our thinking to understand that every individual and every community has strengths or assets. Instead of focusing on deficiencies, problems, or needs from a top-down or outside-in approach, we need to recognize the skills, talents, and gifts that each individual and community already possess.

If we are truly committed to strengthening individual capacity, we must build from our respective strengths. And, if we want social and economic revitalization, we need to start with what is already present within a community - not only the capacities of the residents as individuals, but also the existing businesses, social profit, and government organizations. This asset-based approach to community development, promoted by John McKnight from Northwestern University, typically begins with asking a community, “What has been successful in your community that you could share with others?  Citizens, informal associations and community organizations, land (and everything on it), formal institutions, and the economy (things that are shared, purchased, traded or exchanged) are the types of assets that need to be mapped or inventoried.  As ultimately it is people who are the answer, McKnight suggests it is critical to focus on finding who has what assets in a community and how they can be connected and used to address challenges. The advantage of this asset-based approach to community building is that it also reinforces the idea that citizens and local community stakeholders can be active change agents rather than passive beneficiaries or clients.

It is this focus on local strengths and the connections between them that will strengthen the social capital within our communities and the degree to which a community trusts, networks, coordinates, cooperates, and collaborates for mutual benefit.

The individual capacities of residents are the basic building blocks of any community.  Everyone has strengths and assets and everyone and every community is a glass of water half full, not half empty.  Aboriginal culture, traditions, and teachings are valuable assets that provide a solid foundation for strengthening us all. 

Posted on 05-02-10

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