Relating for Gold (Part1)

Over the next few weeks I’d like to share with you an article I have written on the importance of Asset Based Community Development and Relational Thinking in relation to strengthening individuals in the context of working with marginalised communities.



I wonder how do you see the people that you work with? What are the views you hold of the communities that you seek to change? As you reflect on your answers to these questions, a challenge for us in the thrust and parry of the everyday of caring community work, is to remember that each person we come across, whether an old friend, work colleague or a new connection from the street has inherent worth, because they are a loved creation of our creative God. Each one is made in His image and innately reflects something of the divine (Ps8:4-9). However for some, this spark of gold is hidden under layers of hurt, rejection, pain and heartbreak.

If we are to be true to the high value God bestows on humankind, we need a framework that will help us dig below the surface that elements such as emotional and existential pain present. Asset Based Community Development (ABCD)[1] together with Relational Thinking (RT)[2] establishes such a framework and provides for us a rationale and demonstrable methodology or set of principles for our community work.

Through the exploration of community I will unpack the importance of local connections and how they unearth hidden strengths, opening the door for personal and community empowerment. This process will help to shape a theology of engagement that recognises God’s Kingdom is in the world and that he invites each one to play a part in its advancement.

Local Communities

Think with me for a moment about your local community, either where you live or where your work is based. What are the elements that make up that community? Sometimes it’s hard to stop and analyse the waters that we swim in or the air we breathe. In each of our communities there will be elements that seek to meet the needs we have, whether they present as physical, emotional or spiritual. These include the business community, schools, medical care, friends and family, sporting clubs and other varieties, churches and the religious expressions of other faith communities, libraries, local government, social services, media outlets and so on.

If these elements of the community are working well and in harmony, they form an interconnected web of relationships, structures and institutions, where people can gain a sense of belonging and support to discover and live out their place and purpose as contributors in the world.[3] If you like, a safety net of relationships has been established which affords the individual the opportunity to explore more of their external and internal worlds. There may even be the opportunity to explore new abilities in this context.

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Figure 1 Jane’s Community. The ideal community recognises the individual placing them in a relational web, which provides for their physical, emotional and spiritual needs and those of their family.

Unfortunately we know only too well that our communities aren’t like this and in fact the relational web that provides this safety is broken in so many places. The causes of this rupture are numerous including; individualism, consumerism, family breakdown, domestic violence, tall poppy syndrome, selfishness, addictions of various types and the list goes on. The results are equally as devastating both for individual psyches and communities more generally.

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Figure 2 Effects of the Broken Web. These are just a few of the results of a broken relational web, as we look at our communities the story is way too familiar.

During the time I spent leading a missional community in Pakenham, on the South Eastern outskirts of Melbourne, I sat on the welfare committee of one of the local primary schools. Each Wednesday of the school term we gathered in the staffroom to work through solutions to some of the most concerning issues that the young students were facing. One morning we discussed the unfortunate divide present in many families and its effects on the children. Pakenham was a sleeper suburb with over 70% of the population leaving the community everyday to go to work. It was also one of the fastest growing suburbs in Australia. These two factors had a number of immediate implications. Firstly it meant that many parents spent long hours each week commuting up to 120km a day into the CBD. As well the time away from the community often led to the focus of the parent’s lives being elsewhere, even recreation could be removed from the place where there house was situated. On the other side of the equation the children were in the community. They lived their lives in the local community, were encouraged to become active in it, learnt about its history. In a sense made their ‘home’ in the community. We saw direct links between this disconnect and children ‘acting out.’ They couldn’t name it, yet the divided focus they were asked to live with and the confusion it caused was palpable.

Even within a household the relational web can be broken leaving the members floating and feeling disconnected from each other and broader society. Some would argue if the basic building block of a community is broken, ie the household, is there any point looking to a more utopian hope for our communities. Sociologist Jim Ife believes that we must start there, as it provides inspiration and a framework for development that moves us from reaction to a focus on medium to long-term goals.[4] From a Biblical perspective the prophet Isaiah outlines what a community could look like. He sees a place where; there is joy, the young and old are valued, each have what they need in terms of shelter and food, there is a strong connection between work and purpose, and the people recognise their dependence on God (Isaiah 65:17-25). The building block for this type of world is the local community.

(next week I’ll show the importance of the local community and introduce you to Steve)

[1] Asset Based Community Development is a methodology for community worked designed byJohn Kretzman and John McKnight. They have established the ABCD Institute that furthers this thinking around the world (

[2] Relational Thinking refers to the work of Michael Schluter, from a Kingdom of God viewpoint he has designed a framework of Relational Proximity which can be used as a guide to establishing life promoting relationships (,

[3] Working definition of a community, developed and taught by Andre Van Eymeren.

[4] Jim Ife, Community Development: Creating Community Alternatives – Vision, Analysis and Practice (Melbourne: Longman, 1995), 98.

Forcing us to Think Differently

As with most things that attract my attention lately, this is an incredibly deep and complex issue and in the space of this article I can hope only to scratch the surface.

My son has attended both Stop Force Closures rallies in the heart of Melbourne. He reports them to be peaceful events, using disruption as a way to gain people’s attention. Numbers estimate that 10,000 – 15,000 people turned out to the last rally. I haven’t seen many photos but one that sticks in my mind is an aerial photo that shows the intersection of Flinders and Swanston streets completely blocked to traffic with people sitting around a central circle. I can’t help thinking that perhaps if we got together more like this, ie sitting in the round facing each other, prepared to work on positive solutions to the issues we face, we might be in a better place as a society. But I digress.

The core organisers for the Melbourne rally were a group known as Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance (WAR). On their Facebook page they describe themselves as a collective of young aboriginal people committed to the cause of decolonization and the philosophy of Aboriginal nationalism – resistance and revival. (

 According to their press release in the lead up to the May 1 rally, WAR sees the closures in WA in clear defiance of the well expressed will of the people. They see these closures as another step towards the genocide of the Aboriginal people. WAR believes it is routine in the Australian colonial state for the government to degrade, discriminate and disrupt aboriginal people.(

Lets stop for a second, this group of young Aboriginals and I’m sure many others feel that the Australian government that is in place to protect them, include them, defend their human rights, work for their economic prosperity and the equality of their opportunity (as they are meant to work for all Australians) are in fact their enemy. That systematically, perhaps since white settlement the government has in fact worked against the Aboriginal people.

Whether you believe the above is true or not, I find it incredibly sad and disturbing that a group of people, feel this way. In Australia, the lucky country, that many see as so open and friendly, we find such a strong sense of disenfranchisement and from our own indigenous young people. Initially as I was reading some of this material, I’ll admit to feeling a little fearful, not sure where the white fella fits with this agenda and indeed the declaration of Aboriginal Nationality. ( However as I let the truth of their feelings sink in a profound sadness overtook my fear.

I contrast their feelings with what I perceive my son and his friends feel, they may be disillusioned with the current government or wish some of the conditions with which they live were different, ie aspects of school / Uni, home-life, social life or their part time job, but ultimately for most, I believe if they take the time to ponder would feel there are many opportunities before them and that in general the government and broader society are there to help them. Now please forgive me I am caricaturing and from years as a youth worker I know the journey for many young people is not simple and disenfranchisement can result. However it seems the disenfranchisement that indigenous young people feel is fuelling a new radicalism, which is spreading around the globe.

According to the Stop Forced Closure of Aboriginal Communities in Australia Facebook page ( there were 96 gatherings globally standing together in solidarity with the Western Australian remote communities. They took place in every capital city in Australia, many smaller regions and country towns as well as diverse places like the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic of the Western Sahara, Hong Kong, Canada, the US, Germany and the United Kingdom to name a few.

It seems this may have had a positive effect. With an audience of 12 million worldwide, providing the foundation for a good funding base sustainable solutions to power, water and maintenance are being explored for the remote communities.

Perhaps all this is heading in the right direction. As I became more aware of the forced closures I began to think about approaching the issue from a strength base, one that takes into account a form of research called appreciative inquiry (AI). This form of research starts with the strengths of a community. It asks what do you like about living here? What is working in this community? Where would you like the community to be in 5 years? From this basis an asset or strengths map of the community could be drawn up taking into account the skills of individuals, organisations, institutions as well as the power inherent in the connection with the land, dreaming and tradition. Both methods work together to highlight the aspirations of the community and provides for self-determination towards those aspirations.

I don’t for one moment believe this would solve all the issues or in some way right the wrongs that have been done in the name of the colonial government, that will take humility, reconciliation, forgiveness, restitution, recognition… we still have a long way to go till any of this is achieved.

However one thing that could begin to be reversed almost immediately is the effect of generations of welfare that we have forced on the indigenous people, robbing them of the right to live the way that is congruent with their culture. This welfare whilst seemingly well intentioned led to the stolen generation, sit down money and a plethora of other initiatives that were counter cultural to the Indigenous way of life, including of course the Northern Territory Intervention.

The process to any kind of meaningful restitution such as a treaty that recognises the nationhood of Aboriginal people or a change in the constitution is a long one, however on that necessary journey self-determination may be a conduit rather than an end.