Differences in Framing Community Work
Kretzmann and McKnight first described asset based community engagement as a significantly different way of framing community work in 1993. To make their point about the importance of framing an issue, they used the metaphor of the glass half-empty or glass half-full.
When you frame community work using a problem or deficits frame, you look at the glass as half-empty. Your focus is on what is missing in the community. You start your community work by identifying needs or deficiencies.
In contrast, when you frame community work using a strengths or assets approach, you look at the glass as half-full. You focus on what is already present in the community. You start your community work by identifying capacities and assets.
How you frame your community work matters because your framing sets the tone for your relationship with your community partner. If you start from a place of negativity (e.g., what's missing, deficits, problems, needs), you reinforce a sense of inadequacy. If you start from a place of positivity (e.g., what's already working, assets, capacities, gifts), you reinforce a sense of optimism and possibility (Zander & Zander, 2002).
Sometimes community work is affected by an imbalance of knowledge, power, or resources. In a deficits frame, community partners must turn to experts or others outside the community for the resources they do not possess. This framing reinforces the idea that they are the "have nots" and must turn to the "haves" to solve their problems.
When an assets frame is used, both community partners and experts have gifts and talents to contribute to the community work. Because everyone has something to offer, the differences between the "have nots" and the "haves" are diminished and play a lesser role in the relationship. Outside experts are not the only people who can improve the community.
A Nature Trail at a Local School
Derrick is a junior majoring in environmental studies and hopes to someday work at a nature center teaching young people about ecosystems. He asked the service-learning center to find a placement for him where he might gain experience working with school teachers and middle school students on environmental issues.
He was matched with an after-school club at a local school, where he meets each week with Mrs. Poole, the teacher in charge of the club, and 8-10 excited middle school students. During fall semester, he helped Mrs. Poole with fun activities like identifying leaves, making rubbings of tree bark, and identifying animal tracks in the mud.
Even though the club stops meeting during the winter, Derrick kept up his once a week meetings with Mrs. Poole. Together, they started working on an idea for a nature trail on the school property.
Mrs. Poole met with the other science teachers and the principal to see if there would be much interest in a nature trail on the school property.