The first group was large, a cohort of over 60 students from Engage Chicago, a summer field study program offered by Northwestern University. The second group traveled far, a delegation of four senior officers from Singapore nonprofit Yayasan Mendaki. Both groups came to ICA this July to learn about the organizing model that underpins our work.
ICA Program Director Seva Gandhi led the training for the Engage Chicago students on the afternoon of July 8th. She emphasized how an asset-based approach is distinct from the more traditional needs-based approach, the latter of which focuses on deficits in as problems to be solved. Where a needs-based lens treats people as clients whose problems can only be fixed with interventionist programs, asset-based practices see people as producers whose collective knowledge and gifts create endless opportunities for future development. This distinction was followed by an applied activity so students could start conceptually thinking about the assets of a space rather than just the perceived deficits.
The students broke into groups to explore the Uptown community. Each group was given a different route through the neighborhood and told to write down as many “life-giving forces”, as they could find on their walk. After an hour, the groups reconvened at GreenRise and transcribed their noted assets onto post-it notes, which they used to organize the assets according to four different frameworks, including: 1) Gross National Happiness, a philosophy of the government of Bhutan; 2) permaculture design, which emulates natural systems; 3) a nine program model developed by ICA in the 80s; and 4) ICA’s Characteristics of Sustainable Communities.
The small groups reflected and reported on their findings from the activity, considering questions such as “what was helpful and limiting about the framework?” and “what did this activity allow you to see that you might not have otherwise?”
The half day training was reminiscent of ICA’s monumental accelerate77 project. From the fall of 2011 through the summer of 2012, ICA trained over 240 students and interns to identify sustainability initiatives in every community area in Chicago. Although the three-phase project formally concluded in 2013, accelerate77 continues to serve as a demonstration of ICA's approach to community organizing. The clearest demonstration of the project’s success is the Chicago Sustainability Leaders Network (CSLN), which continues to connect grassroots leaders and activists working across the spectrum of sustainability to collaborate and build a stronger collective voice.
Exactly one week after the students visited, four senior officers from Singapore-based nonprofit Yayasan Mendaki came to ICA to learn about accelerate77 and CSLN, having learned about the projects through the Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) Institute at DePaul University. They met with ICA Program Manager Caitlin Sarro and ABCD Board Member Terry Bergdall, who explained how accelerate77 and CSLN embody ICA’s asset-based approach. After an in-depth conversation driven by questions from the visitors, the group took a brief tour of ICA GreenRise.
As a token of appreciation, the Yayasan Mendaki officers gave ICA a plaque commemorating the visit. The plaque has been hung up in the ICA office alongside others tokens of appreciation from partners around the world, becoming part of the constellation of relationships that is fundamental to our asset-based approach.