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Jubilee and community organizing: As easy as ABCD

December 13, 2010

Leaders from a collection of community and faith-based organizations in Waterloo, Iowa, gathered in November to ask themselves questions not often asked in this struggling city:

 

Questions like: What gifts do we have? What assets do we – as individuals and as a community – possess that we could build on? What’s our fondest vision of what our community is and can become?

 

It was a different way of looking at Waterloo, where often as not, the focus is on what’s lacking rather than what’s available, and the answers to the community’s problems typically come from outside rather than inside.

 

“I could have asked you to talk about your most nagging deficiencies,” said Mike Green, executive director of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute in Denver, who facilitated the two-day conference in Waterloo, thanks to a grant from Jubilee Ministry. “We get a lot of messages about that. TV never tells me that anything good is happening in my life: my hair is the wrong color, I’m the wrong age, I need to be fixed. In some ways we’ve been conditioned to see the glass as half-empty rather than half-full.

 

“Communities get labeled that way too,” Green said, that they’re only broken places without gifts. We use certain words to describe those communities: ghetto, barrio, reservation, enterprise community, low-income neighborhood, projects, at-risk.”

 

The conference, hosted by the Mount Carmel Missionary Baptist Church of Waterloo, grew out of one Jubilee Ministry center’s experience of reaching across the Cedar River, which divides the affluent college town of Cedar Falls from neighboring Waterloo, and seeing first-hand not just the poverty but also the richness of relationship to be found there.

 

Last year, the Rev. Maureen Doherty, Episcopal campus chaplain at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, won a $15,000 Jubilee Ministry grant to create the Jubilee Community of Prayer, Learning and Service. She had envisioned it as an on-campus residential community. But it didn’t work out that way.

 

Instead, the student community formed around partnering with another organization, New Cities Ministry, to offer meals and youth enrichment activities, and to build community in nearby Waterloo. Recently, Doherty took over the position of director of New Cities Ministry.

 

“Students from UNI came here to feed, and they found themselves being fed,” said the Rev. Chris Johnson, Social and Economic Justice Officer for the Episcopal Church, and National Jubilee Officer. “The opportunity for us is that we enter into relationship. I told Maureen, ‘Let’s bring Asset-based Community Development here. God only knows what that will look like. We don’t have the answers. But you do. You don’t need someone outside Waterloo to tell you what the answers are. You just need to bring them to life.”

 

The conference is the first of several that Johnson hopes Jubilee Ministries will host during 2011. The church is presently accepting applications for grants to fund six such conferences in 2011.

 

The conference led participants through some hands-on visioning activities, to help them assess their communities’ strengths, and to identify the relationships that could be built upon. Among them:

 

* Conversation to discover gifts: Form pairs. Have a 20-minute one-to-one conversation to discover the other person’s gifts. For 10 minutes, let one person be the asker while the other describes his or her gifts. Focus on telling about gifts you enjoy giving in your personal life. Then switch roles.

 

“People are always surprised at how many gifts each person has,” Green says. “It is also striking how often the energy rises in the room during these conversations. Participants can discover previously uknown gifts and talents in people they have known for many years. The opportunity to find new capacity exists in every work group, neighborhood, association or congregation. All it takes are conversations in which people inquire about capacities and then listen carefully.”

 

* How many associations are you connected to? In a small group, list association connections for each person. Identify all the associations you or your loved ones are connected to. Total the number of associations for all the people in your group. Guess at the total number of individual members among all the associations on your group’s list of associations.

 

“A group of 10 people might easily be connect to 50 associations with an average membership of 20 people each, for a total of 1,000 possible connections. People doing this exercise are often amazed by the number of people they are already linked to,” Green says.

 

* Conversations to discover motivation to act: Two people listen to each other discuss what is really important to them, about the things they care enough to take action about.

 

“What often gets interpreted as ‘a community that doesn’t care’ simply means they don’t care about what the outsider wants them to care about,” Green says. “For example, we may try to engage parents around tutoring, and if they don’t respond, the conclusion is that they don’t care about literacy. But the reality may be that the tutoring group meets at a time when the parents are at work, or they can’t read themselves. Generally, when people don’t respond, we say it’s bad listening on our part, not lack of care on their part. I’ve never been anywhere where people don’t care. They just may not care about what I would like for them to care about.”

 

One of the participants at the Waterloo meeting was the Rt. Rev. Alan Scarfe, bishop of the Diocese of Iowa. Bishop Scarfe was moved after watching a short documentary about Beyond Welfare, a community-led program in Ames that tries to provide people with friendship and meaning, as well as basic human services.

 

“What cocoon am I in, that I’ve never heard of Beyond Welfare until today?” Scarfe asked. “I’ve been bishop for seven and a half years, I’ve been to Ames many times, and I’ve never heard of it. That’s the problem.”

 

The Asset-Based Community Development Institute has a number of resources available for download for those interested in learning more.

 

 

 

 

 

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From → Advocacy, Model ideas

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