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Stroke Work

I am a subpar swimmer. Growing up in the middle of the United States– far from an ocean of any kind– predisposed me to be more adept on solid ground than water. I never participated in a swim team and never spent significant time in the pool. That was the case until  a few years ago when I fell in love with the sport of triathlon. As a lifelong runner who developed an obsession with cycling, the addition of the third sport was a must. I’ll never forget the first day in the pool — gasping for air after a mere 25 yards — afraid that I was going to be the first fatality in the long history of the East Side YMCA. But, I made it, and I’m proud to say that I’ve done a few triathlons since– even completing a Ironman 70.3 (half ironman) event a couple years ago (for those unfamiliar that is a 1.2 mile swim in open water with a bunch of other people who are likely to kick you in the face under water). Fun times!

Despite this progress, I have never been fast. Despite my level of fitness, my heavy legs and absence of any form of form make me more prone to sink to the bottom than to glide forward. I know this. I have tried so many things to amend it with only incremental progress.

So now, I am once again in that crazy, life-sucking/life-exhilirating cycle called triathlon training. A few days ago, I awoke in the morning (or more accurately sometime north of 5 a.m.), dreading the early morning trudge to the pool– coming off a sad swim the week before, doubting myself— secretly wishing the person in charge would not show up to unlock the doors. No such luck.

Reluctantly, I made my way to the pool, jumped in and started my slow-mo version of a 400 meter freestyle warm up. Upon completion, I gazed up at the coach through my semi-fogged goggles, and she said the most shocking of things: “Your stroke looks pretty solid.”

You said what!? I had never heard that before. I had seldom felt that my stroke resembled anything close to being “solid” as grandmas and people twice my girth whizzed past me in the next lane.

But, there it was. “Your stroke looks pretty solid.”

I know that she could have been lying– or just trying to be nice– but despite my awareness of such a fact, that one statement affected my entire attitude and approach. I went on to have the best swim yet of this training series and felt positive as I left the pool and got on with my day.

Did this comment fix all the things that are wrong with my stroke and turn me into Michael Phelps? Of course not. But, it did change my outlook and it reminded me of how this simple concept might work in our approach to communities.

Mothers (and fathers even) all across the world have been known to implore their kids “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”. This sage advice is designed to suppress excess criticism or at least to connect it with praise. We know from research that positive reinforcement has a bigger impact on modifying behavior than does punishment. An encouraging word goes a long way. If I were being told– as other coaches have done– to “fix this” and “don’t do that”– it can become overwhelming and perpetuate a self-belief that inhibits performance and desire to push through. But, emphasizing what was good about my stroke changed my entire outlook.

The same is true for communities.

One of the biggest mistakes that is made by well-intentioned people looking to create change in communities is to begin with identifying what is wrong. These are often the stimuli that draw us into the fray– we see data or hear stories of malnourished kids, unsafe living conditions or environmental injustice, and we are drawn to act, to unleash our fury on the problem to fix the community. Face it. Sometimes those things are glaring– staring us in the face like a large graffitied-wall. This approach is even embedded in our processes that require “needs assessments” and the incentives to make things sound bad are strong—making it more likely that you’ll succeed in winning a grant or recruiting volunteers.

The reality is that, much like my swim stroke (debatably), most communities are “pretty solid”. Sure there are disparities and visible challenges–but most often there is also incredible resilience and dynamic resources that are already at play. An approach which begins with “what is wrong” at best risks missing out on these opportunities and at worst layers another level of damage on a community that needs someone to see what and build on what is good.

Fortunately, there are approaches that flip the script and begin with “what is right” with a community, rather than what is wrong. These “asset-based” approaches have been defined by my colleagues at the Community Tool Box define as “anything that can be used to improve the quality of community life”.  As with many topics, they have a helpful guide for folks who want to learn more about asset-based approaches. I highly recommend it.

Another place to learn about this is explore the literature on “Asset-Based Community Development”. According to organizations like the ABCD Institute at Depaul University, asset-based community development (ABCD) is “a large and growing movement that considers local assets as the primary building blocks of sustainable community development.” They describe five key assets: individual residents, informal associations (e.g. clubs, institutions like government agencies or businesses), physical assets (e.g. parks or buildings) and connections between these other entities.The basic argument of these approaches is that in order to create community change, one should take into account the resources already at play in the community of focus and use them as building blocks to address the needed change.

While this is essential, there are two caveats that should be mentioned. First, these resources should not be considered solely as tools to remedy a problem, but as remarkable accomplishments in their own right. True asset appreciation must be divorced from the deficit conversations–otherwise they may been seen as a means to an end and not appreciated.

The second issue is that asset-based approaches should also be participatory. There is always a tension between an outside-in, helicopter approach in which well-meaning individuals or organizations bring their ideas and resources in from afar to fix the situation– which may or may not incorporate the assets involved. A better approach would be to identify those assets and work collaboratively with them to create bottom-up change.

These approaches have been outlined in methodologies like community-based participant action research. In these approaches, local knowledge is utilized and — importantly– power is shared between the external resources and the internal ones. An ideal situation is one in which the power to make decisions about direction are shared equally between the organizations and the individual resources within the community, but this is seldom put into practice for a number of reasons including the demands of funders, the desire of people with power to keep it and the logistics of engaging real people and not just those who are paid a salary to work in a place. However, these are obstacles that can be overcome.

When combined with a participatory framework, asset-based approaches have the capacity to be efficient, to maximize impact and to generate sustainable empowerment. Just as my mindset and motivation changed with a simple affirmation that I wasn’t seen as a horrible, slow swimmer– we can do the same by affirming the joy, wisdom, resilience and innovation that already exists in all places– even those with some significant challenges.

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