Getting a BEAD on Community Asset Mapping
Thursday, August 25, 2022
Getting a BEAD on Community Asset Mapping
How Community Development Can Aid Your State’s Broadband Planning
“Achieving digital equity is a matter of social and economic justice and is worth pursuing.”
—Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act
“There has never been a need that solved a problem.”
— John McKnight, ABCD Institute, DePaul University
Digital equity is a key promise of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. If successful, the new law will lead to everyone and every community around the country having the connections and skills they need to fully participate in our increasingly digital economy and society. It seems like a tall order.
To reach such a lofty goal, the infrastructure law and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) require thoughtful broadband deployment and digital equity planning from the states, territories and tribes that will receive federal funding through the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) and digital equity programs (referred to as eligible entities).
To support eligible entity universal broadband planning efforts, NTIA is dispersing money that supports:
- Outreach and communications support related to broadband planning, deployment, mapping, equity and adoption. This outreach is to include community-based organizations, community anchor institutions, underrepresented communities, and unions and worker organizations.
- Asset mapping to catalogue broadband adoption, affordability, equity, access, and deployment activities.
- Local coordination and collaboration with local, regional, and Tribal (as applicable) entities (governmental and non-governmental).
States, territories, and tribes are also creating digital equity plans that include:
- An asset inventory—including current resources, programs, and strategies that promote digital equity for underserved populations; and
- A coordination and outreach strategy—including opportunities for public comment by, and collaboration and ongoing engagement with, representatives of underserved populations with the full range of stakeholders.
Fortunately for those implementing these requirements, the field of community development has a well-documented, adaptable and sustainable approach to identifying, engaging and activating community assets. The approach, often called Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD), combines practices that marginalized and oppressed communities have used for generations across the globe to gather and implement resources for achieving community goals in spite of contexts of caste, segregation, apartheid, economic inequity, colonization, and other marginalizing systems.
Articulated and promoted by John Kretzmann and John McKnight at Northwestern University in the 1980s and 1990s, the ABCD approach is used around the world by communities seeking to achieve goals in ways that maximize community planning, design, implementation, and stewardship. The engagement of resident stakeholders and their associations and institutions has made ABCD solutions adaptable and sustainable over time.
ABCD methods vary but the approach has several elements that are essential for effective asset mapping. Foundationally, community practitioners have learned that the vast majority of community assets can be found in one or more of six ‘buckets.’ Gathering community residents and stakeholders together to brainstorm the assets they know—using these bucket categories as lenses—is very productive for both the inventorying of assets and the engagement plan.
The six buckets are individual residents, voluntary associations, formal institutions and agencies, physical assets, local economy and exchange, and culture and stories.
- The first ‘bucket’ of assets are the individual residents and families of a community, and they are essential to every asset map. Their knowledge, skills and abilities are often overlooked and even displaced by well-meaning agencies implementing programs without the residents’ engagement. In addition to their own assets, residents bring connections and relationships to any table. This is the social capital of a community. Plans and programs that engage and share power with residents and their social capital expand ownership and increase resilience.
- Voluntary associations are the second asset bucket. Associations are simply groups of people who gather around a common interest: Rotary clubs, Chambers of Commerce, book clubs, religious communities, ethnic and cultural groups, bike clubs, walking groups, etc. The hallmark of an association is that most of the group’s activity or work is done by members rather than paid staff. This makes associations extremely adaptable and able to mobilize strong webs of relationships toward other purposes when they desire to do so. Associations amplify the knowledge, skills, abilities, and relationships of individuals in the way a choir makes more than the sum of the parts of its voices.
- Institutions and agencies, the third bucket, are also groups of people organized around a common interest or purpose but their activity and work are primarily done by trained, paid staff members. Institutions have formally defined purposes and production goals that are generally not adaptable except through a prescribed process involving leadership, a board of directors and/or investor/owners and ‘procedures.’ Institutions usually have (or have access to) tremendous resources as well as skilled staff but are often controlled by people who are not residents of the community within which the institution works.
- Physical assets are the spaces and place on, under and/or in the earth that are human or ‘nature’ made. Sometimes they are well utilized and sometimes their potential is latent. But every community has them and looking at all of them through a particular lens, such as digital equity, can reveal new possibilities in existing physical assets. These can include vacant land, hills, light towers, plazas where people gather, trees, bike paths, water features, etc.
- The fifth bucket, local economy and exchange, is filled with everywhere people engage in productive work and exchange—including buying, selling, sharing, giving, trading, and bartering. Small stores, farmer’s markets, online marketplaces, the kid who mows people’s lawns, and the Saturday lemonade stand on the corner. These are places where an economic transaction often also involves a local relationship or taps into existing social capital. Large stores, like national chains, are usually considered institutions since their decision making happens primarily outside the community. Whereas small corner stores controlled by an individual or family fall into this bucket because they involve a different quality of relationships with the community and are able to make decisions without needing to ‘check with headquarters.’
- The final bucket is culture and stories. Longtime community practitioners have found that many of a community’s assets can be revealed by asking about and identifying cultural practices and the values they represent. We ask for stories about when the community came together to accomplish a goal or overcome a challenge, including when the community is at its best and the events around community heroes whether it is the grandmother who checks the report cards of the children on her block (and rewards with cookies) or the young person who led a clothing drive for unhoused people in the area.
Asset mapping is the process of identifying, engaging and mobilizing these assets. A community asset mapping is entirely distinct from a resource directory which simply lists assets and provides contact information. This distinction is around purpose and rooted in its creation process. Asset mapping is done by gathering community residents and stakeholders and facilitating discussions about what and where the assets are and how they might be engaged and activated towards a community goal. There are a variety of ways to do this and the ABCD Institute at DePaul University has numerous worksheets and templates available. The most effective process I have used goes as follows:
First, gather community residents, leaders and connectors in person or online (if that can be done in an equitable way). Include some key non-resident stakeholders but keep residents, of different ages, in the majority. Nonresident stakeholders who can be very useful in this process include teachers, small business owners, chambers of commerce staff, clergy, school social workers, library staff, and municipal/county/tribal employees such as park and recreation workers, planners and utility workers. This process works especially well with 35-55 people but can be adapted for larger groups. Once gathered, follow these steps:
- Randomly divide the large group into six sub-groups.
- Assign each group to an asset bucket or category (usually posted on walls around the room)
- Give the groups 5-6 minutes to brainstorm and write all the assets in that category that can be found in the defined community (neighborhood, town, county).
- After 5-6 minutes ring a bell and have the groups rotate to a new asset category. Give them 4-5 minutes at the new station.
- Repeat until all sub-groups have added their input to all asset categories.
- Ask each group to rotate one last time to return to the asset category they started with and have them read what was added by other subgroups.
- Ask a representative from each area to read the assets from that category to the whole room. Often some discussion will result in recategorization of assets and many assets will appropriately appear in more than one area (e.g. a church is an association that often has physical assets and resident leaders). This will feel long and redundant for the facilitator – but the process creates a cumulative effect on participants. Hearing all the strengths of one’s community for 20 minutes is empowering and energizing and prepares the participants for the next steps.
- Seat participants at tables (or send to new breakout rooms if virtual) and ask groups at tables to look at all the assets and answer three questions:
“What can we do with what we have to ________?” The blank would be the purpose of the convening. It could be as broad as “… to make our community stronger.” It can also be specific like “to make our community heart healthy” or “to achieve digital equity.” (Have a definition handy to help focus the discussion.)
What can we do with what we have and some help from others outside the community?
What do we need others outside the community to do?
- After 10-15 minutes ask each table to identify 1-2 ideas that they are particularly excited about.
- Have each table present their best ideas, using some descriptor words written on paper then taped to the wall.
- Ask everyone in the room to think about actions that they want to work on and to which they want to contribute their time or talents. Then invite participants to stand next to the piece of paper with the action idea they want to work on. (Remind participants “It is OK to not stand – honor your limits.”)
- Give each group a flip chart sheet to use to identify the assets they might use to implement their action and make the change they want to make. Also, have them write down when and where their action group is meeting next to plan/implement.
- Have each action team share out and give participants an opportunity to ‘change teams’ or add their name to a team.
- Celebrate and let everyone know when and how follow-up will happen.
While many of the technological and financial resources required to move a community to full digital equity may need to come from outside the community, the process of resident-driven asset mapping will make clear how existing community assets can be built upon to maximize the appropriateness and effectiveness of those outside resources. Asset mapping, done this way, honors the power and value of community residents, taps into their social capital, and advances their ownership of existing and future digital inclusion. The process also lays the groundwork for future listening conversations, focus groups, and community education campaigns.
The ABCD Institute at DePaul University has doubled down on its mission to support communities marginalized by racism, poverty economics, xenophobia, and other disenfranchising systems. Digital equity is compatible with and essential for many of the Institute’s social justice values and goals. ABCD stewards can support states and/or local communities putting together and implementing an asset-mapping plan. The Institute also has numerous publications, workbooks, templates, and other written resources on its website that can provide further insights and examples of Asset-Based Community Development.
In closing I offer John McKnight’s oft-quoted axiom, “There has never been a need that solved a problem.” Engaging communities solely to catalog their needs and deficiencies is oppressive, disrespectful and ultimately ineffective for any problem-solving endeavor. Engaging communities in asset mapping (identification, connection and mobilization) creates and activates local power, respects local and indigenous strengths, and contributes to the identification and implementation of effective solutions.
Ron Dwyer-Voss is the founder and lead consultant for Pacific Community Solutions, Inc. PCS support leaders, organizations and agencies shift power to create positive social change through community organizing, asset-based community development, evaluation and learning, and organizational strengthening.
The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.
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