Communities First Association Invited to Join Panel Discussion

Jay Van Groningen

Jay Van Groningen

May 9, 2012 – CFA Executive Director, Jay Van Groningen has been invited to participate in the first annual meeting of the Global Leadership Network in Atlanta, GA. The GLN was launched by the Chalmers Center and CEO Dr. Brian Fikkert, Professor of Economics and Community Development at Covenant College and author of When Helping Hurts. The focus of GLN’s inaugural event will center on unpacking the question: What are the implications of When Helping Hurts’ school of thought for Christian philanthropy?

The panel discussion is titled: “Reflect and Effect of the Implications” and is scheduled for May 19th. It will be moderated by Dr. Michael Abrahams, Founder and Portfolio Manager of New Markets Financial Fund & a Global Leadership Network Member. Panelists include:

          Dr. Robert Lupton, author of Toxic Charity,
Jay Van Groningen of Communities First Association,
Steve Perry of Sacred Harvest Foundation,
Paul Park of First Fruit, Inc.,
Josh Kwan of David Weekley Family Foundation,
Norris Hill of Provision Foundation, &
Cole Costanzo of The Maclellan Foundation

Global Leadership NetworkThe Global Leadership Network (GLN) is a community of resource partners committed to informed generosity in poverty alleviation and supporting and advocating for church-centered, gospel-focused, microeconomic development strategies. Members of the GLN empower the Chalmers Center’s mission through contributing a minimum of $5,000 annually. Members of the Director’s Council commit to giving $25,000 annually. More information about the Global Leadership Network can be found here.

Ms. Samuels, Peterson Ave, and God’s Glory

Bethany Dudley–Requip

Written by Steve Blom–Imag(in)e, Sauk Village

When I joined the Beautification Committee of Sauk Village this past Summer I saw it as a unique opportunity to be a part of something positive that the community was already doing.  It would be a chance to use my head/heart/hand gift of landscaping, and to develop some relationships.  Little did I know…

As a committee, we re-instated the Hootsie Awards.  This is an annual award given to those nominated by their neighbors for the work they put into maintaining and improving their properties.  As committee members, we were asked to judge the nominated properties in various categories.  Unable to go out with the rest of the committee on a Saturday, I went by myself on a Monday afternoon.  Almost through with the list I turned onto Peterson Ave.

What’s important to note is that Peterson Ave. is “that” street in the Village with the reputation.  It is labeled and avoided.  Comprised of a series of duplexes connected by mismatched siding, boarded windows, and uneven roof-lines people from outside of Sauk Village stereotype the rest of the community using Peterson Ave. as the standard.  My greatest concern was that being parked on the side of the street taking pictures would be viewed by some of the neighbors as another bank photographing a foreclosed home or worse.

“What could anyone possibly do with this tiny piece of property in this neighborhood to be nominated for an award?” was my judgmental thought-of-the-day as I pulled up to Ms. Samuels’ house.  I sat there, somewhat stunned, thinking to myself “THIS is what someone can do.”  A couple of minutes into my note-taking the garage door opened and out walked a woman who is looked at me suspiciously.  I rolled down my window and introduced myself.  Immediately her demeanor changed.  I told her that I loved her yard:  her use of fountains, the pavers and planters, the various ornamental trees and shrubs…”It’s beautiful!”  Ms. Samuels began to cry, looked to the sky and said, “Thank you, God. You have no idea what that means to me today.”  She told me that she understood the reputation of the street she lives on, and that she felt called by God to bring some beauty and peace to this neighborhood.  She shared that she is a breast-cancer survivor, and that she wants to live every day for God’s glory.  This landscape, this simple act of creating beauty, is one of the ways she is connecting with her neighbors.  We talked for a while that afternoon, and before leaving she blessed me with one of those hugs that makes you feel like you are a child being embraced by the Savior himself.

A month later, the winners were announced at the Village Board Meeting.  When Ms. Samuels’ name was read for 2nd place, she jumped over her husband’s legs, danced her way to the front, hugged every person on the committee and the Mayor.  She thanked God not for allowing her to score a touchdown, but for giving her the joy and ability to share his love in this way.  Ms. Samuels’ joy was being 2nd place.  In a room often filled with anger and arguments, this woman from Peterson Ave. filled it with love and peace.

We’re still learning about and developing trust within this community, and we probably always will be, but one of the greatest affirmations up to this point is that God is here in ways I hadn’t imagined.  Despite the labels we are so quick to assign others and ourselves, the evidence of redemption at work is irrefutable.


Friday Food For Thought: Teens and Transformation

A recent post at highlighted the often overlooked giftedness of teens within a community.  We read in the local paper about “troubled youth” and the rising concern over teen apathy, but many teens have found ways to add to the neighborhood story in a positive way.  (And, my guess is that many more would join in if given the opportunity).

The post, written by Laura Fulton, points out the value and energy that teenage youth and enthusiasm can bring to a neighborhood, and five ways to start the process of connecting with teens in your area.  One commenter said that teens in her neighborhood are employed to do community listening and connecting.  Imagine a part-time job where a teen’s voice and ideas are heard, creativity and socializing are viewed as gifts, and relationships and leadership skills are formed.  Sounds like a perfect match!

Teens today are often typecast as surly, disinterested, and uninformed.  I challenge you to talk to a teen in your neighborhood. Ask about their interests, about what they see that works and doesn’t work, and what they would do to change things.  Listen.  Listen.  Listen for their gifts and passions, and begin to rewrite the character description of young people in your neighborhood’s story.

The “Who” of Community Development


Wendy McCaig–Embrace Richmond, Richmond, VA

One of my most challenging tasks as an Executive Director is answering  the question, “What does Embrace Richmond do?”  When people focus on the “what”, I find they miss the more important question of “who.”  The “what” sounds like, “We helped the residents start a community center that includes a computer lab, a mom’s support group, a food pantry, monthly community fellowship events,  a clothing closet, activities for seniors, an afterschool creative and performing arts program, gardening projects, GED tutoring, vocational mentoring and leadership development training.”  While all these activities meet real needs within a community, the activities themselves are not as important as the residents from the neighborhood who are doing all this work.

When we entered the Hillside Court community more than three years ago, the recreation center had been closed down for several years.  There was a sense of despair in the community.  We heard stories like this one shared by a long-time resident, “Used to be that the recreation center was open to the community and they had all kind of activities for the residents.  Different groups have been in that building over the years;  they always leave.  I don’t believe anything will ever change around here.  I don’t think anyone really cares about this neighborhood.”

The recreation center is once again bustling with activity and over the past three years, we have seen dozens of residents step up and take on leadership roles.   This coming fall, Embrace Richmond will be leading by stepping back.  Our resident leadership team is now strong enough to lead the effort with Embrace Richmond simply contributing the financial and spiritual support they need to keep the center open to the community and thriving.

Above are the pictures of the key leaders who will assume control of the Hillside Recreation Center.  If you ask me “What does Embrace Richmond do?”  I will likely show you these pictures and say, “We support neighbors who build great neighborhoods.”  This is what true community development success looks like, neighbors helping neighbors.

Jobs Equal Justice

This post was written by Wendy McCaig, the founder and executive director of Embrace Richmond (a CFA partnering organization).  You can find the original post here.

Robert Lupton’s book, “Toxic Charity”, issues us all with a strong challenge – to move away from “an entrenched giveaway mentality” that destroys human dignity and damages communities in the long run. For this mentality to shift we have to “restructure our established one-way charity systems” and create opportunities for people to work.

There are three basic approaches to poverty; relief, individual betterment and community development.

Relief programs are focused on “giving a fish.”  Lupton warns us of the down side saying,

“Loading an area down with poverty programs and human services can virtually ruin its chances of economic rebirth.”

Individual betterment programs (tutoring, mentoring, training) are focused on “teaching people to fish.” Lupton writes,

“Betterment programs do make a difference. Yet, as important as these services may be (essential, some would say), serving people is distinctly different from developing people.”

Community development is focused on improving the “condition of the pond.”  Many of our urban communities have become so toxic that no amount of relief or betterment programming is effective because everyone is swimming in polluted waters, often made worse by undisciplined giving.

A healthy pond requires “ownership by the community of their community.”  For a community to assume ownership of its own future, residents have to care enough to get involved.   The goal of the  community developer is discovering the unrealized hopes and dreams of the neighbors.  For the past three years, that is what we have been listening for in the Hillside Community where Embrace Richmond has been engaged.  We have found these words from Lupton to be true,

“The dreamers are seldom connected to the resources that provide nutrients to give those dreams life—that is, until by chance or by providence, someone in the village meets a connected person with a heart, a person who has time to listen, a person with both imagination and resources.


Hope, smothered dim under years of survival pressures, begins to flicker once again. In time, after the trustworthiness of the connecting person can be tested, after the opportunity is subjected to ample reality testing, hope can have free rein. It is a dangerous, fragile, exhilarating moment when the poor cast off their restraints and begin to believe. And this transformative moment, more than any other moment, is what the community developer lives for and what the community thirsts for.”


I have been blessed to have witnessed this beautiful reclaiming of hope and faith many times, but in each case it took years of listening, dreaming, encouraging, and investing.  We now have a handful of individuals that we call our “street saints.” These individuals have come from difficult circumstances and they want to help others in their neighborhood thrive.

  1. Charles’s dream is to expand access to affordable housing and employment for those with barriers
  2. Patrice’s dream is to strengthen families by strengthening the sense of community
  3. Rudy’s dream is to reach older youth and help them avoid the dangers of the streets
  4. Denise has a gift for hospitality and cooking and dreams of breaking down the walls of isolation
  5. John’s passion is making sure no one goes hungry in his neighborhood especially the elderly
  6. Joseph’s hope is to help residents increase their economic opportunities
  7. Johnny would like to see people living healthier lifestyles through gardening and exercise

All of these individuals have dreams that they cared enough about to invest in.  They are committed to doing what they can with what they have and are inviting others from their neighborhood to join them in making these dreams for their community a reality.

However, simply engaging people in shaping the future of their community is not enough.  Lupton asks this question,

“Will the proposed activity be wealth-generating or at least self-sustaining for the community?”

This is the question that I have been asking myself a lot lately.  In six months, Embrace Richmond will let go of our AmeriCorps funding which currently provides 75% of the funds that support our community development efforts.  The majority of these funds have been used to provide stipends for the dreamers named above.  I have watched each one of these individuals find new hope, meaning and purpose through the work they have done in the Hillside Community.  Our goal now is to figure out how to help them turn these hopes and dreams into “wealth-generating” or at-least “self-sustaining” initiatives.  As difficult as it was to build this amazing team, I suspect this next step is going to be even more challenging.

However, I strongly agree with Robert Lupton that creating sustainable employment opportunities is one of the most important elements in caring for the spirit and soul of people.  Lupton writes,

“One of the surest ways to destroy self-worth is subsidizing the idleness of able-bodied people. Made in the image of God, we are created with intrinsic worth. And anything that erodes a rightful sense of pride and self-respect diminishes that image.  Life offers no fulfillment without work. Work is a gift, a calling, a human responsibility. And the creation of productive, meaningful employment fulfills one of the Creator’s highest designs. Because of that, it should be a central goal to our service. LITTLE AFFIRMS HUMAN DIGNITY more than honest work.”

Lupton tells a story in an earlier book titled, “Compassion, Justice, and the Christian Life”, about a church that started a clothing closet where everything was free and over time that clothing closet became a thrift store that ultimately created jobs.  He also tells the story of a church that took its benevolence fund to start a jobs bank and how a food pantry became a food coop. It is this kind of “social enterprise” thinking that we all need to engage in more.  Making money is not an evil thing.  Creating jobs for our friends is far more compassionate than expecting them to stand in lines with their hands out for the rest of their lives.

To go beyond charity and really get to the core issue underlying poverty, we have to create economic opportunities in low-income neighborhoods.  There is no other way to create a sustainable healthy neighborhood.  How many jobs could be created by churches if they used the funds that are supporting “relief” ministries to create social enterprise opportunities?

I know first-hand that it is far harder to develop neighborhood leaders, create sustainable employment and change a community than it is to simply give handouts.  I pray more Christians will awaken to the fact that one-way giving approaches are harmful but also recognize that they can be restructured in a way that could be life giving to the community if they were turned into community owned social enterprise opportunities.

What relief programs is your church involved in?

How open is your church to restructuring its one-way giving activities?

How could your current relief program become a social enterprise in a struggling neighborhood?

ABCD Resources: Jay’s Picks

Someone recently asked me, “If you were going to recommend three books on Community Development in the US context what would you recommend?”

Here is my preferred beginner’s list:

1.  The team that I work with wrote a book called Communities First - it needs a re-write, but it still introduces the themes I work with today. You can order it here.   I recommend the main text without the workbooks as a starter. The workbooks go a little further into application.

2.  Toxic Charity by Bob Lupton is a book along the lines of When Helping Hurts.   It is a good read and goes beyond naming the problems to proposing solution directions.

3.  Peter Block and John McKnight have an excellent book titled The Abundant Community.

A few more resources (because I can’t resist):

  • A website I recommend for Asset Based Community Development and training is  Mike has been a mentor for us.  Another is  Both sites list excellent resources.
  • Peter Block also wrote a great book called Community: The Structure of Belonging.
  • CCDA’s  beginner’s primer by Mary Nelson called Empowerment. You can find it here.

Asset-Mapping: “What I’m Doing…Is Crazy and Wonderful and Maddening”

The following post was originally published on March 2, 2012 by Sherry Johnson over at A Thread Of Connection.  Sherry grew up with working-class roots and encountered poverty and racism.  Passionate about equity and community, she recently attended a CFA training in Minneapolis, and lives and works in the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood putting Asset Based Community Development principles into action.

What I’m Doing…Is Crazy and Wonderful and Maddening

I’m in an incredibly blessed place.

For about the last three years, I’ve been delving deeper into the subject of community: what it is, how it’s formed, how to sustain it, and why it’s so rare in this culture. I tried to form community through charity and nonprofit formation at my old church, which largely failed. I joined with a small but intrepid group of de-churched Jesus-lovers to make a community here on the Bluff. That’s still growing. I studied neighborhood leadership at the Wilder Center for Communities, and its history at Minnesota History Center. I read loads of books on the psychology of community. And I fell in love with asset-mapping at an Asset-Based Community Development Institute retreat in Chicago.

So what the heck is asset mapping? It’s what I’ve been doing on my own for over a year now. I’ve been systematically listing all the assets–all the good things–our neighborhood has. Its places. Its associations. Its institutions. Its churches. And most daunting but important, the gifts of its people.

And lo, in the middle of my scattered slips of paper and to-do lists and Google maps, I was offered a job. Do your dream in 12 hours a week with the Dayton’s Bluff Community Council. Recruit a staff of researchers from underrepresented populations in the neighborhood. Train them. Listen to the community you love.

I keep gratefully asking myself, “Who gets to create their own dream job?”

I also keep following up with the question, “What if you fail at your dream job?”

How on earth does one break through decades of institutional racism and cultural isolation and Eastside melancholy to build hope again? Everyone around me says they “love the diversity” of this community, but then why is most everyone around me Caucasian, despite my efforts to broaden my network of friends and acquaintances?

So I keep contacting nonprofits and churches and friends and clubs, asking for references: Whom do you know in the community that loves this community and wants to see it grow? I get silence and gracious referrals and suggestions of where else to look. And I go deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole.

Ask, Listen…ACT!

Jay Van Groningen

Talk is action…it’s not cheap. How do you see your role in the story of your neighborhood? What would you improve about your street? If resources were unlimited, what is the first area you would address?  What about your neighborhood keeps you up at night? How would you describe a good neighbor?  A great neighbor?

Start with questions not answers, one of the many principles of Asset Based Community Development discussed on February 24th and 25th at a recent CFA training in Minneapolis, MN.  Facilitators Jay Van Groningen and George Montoya spent two days with 18 participants presenting practical and powerful methods of ABCD as an approach to effective community development work. Participants included neighbors, nonprofit workers, church leaders, professors, agency leaders, and others seeking to develop more connected and engaged local communities. Topics covered included:

Twin Cities Training at Calvary Church in inner city Minneapolis.

  • Methods to discover individuals’ gifts and their voluntary associations, including churches.
  • How to build more community engagement and involvement.
  • Approaches to sustain community organizations and leaders.
  • Ideas for building successful agency-resident partnerships.
  • Finding and mobilizing organizational and community assets.
  • Practical ways to expand social networks and local connections.

In addition to covering the fundamental principles of taking ABCD and community building and organizing into action, the trainers and participants spent time dreaming and believing together. See CFA events page for upcoming training opportunities.

ABCD training activity

Asset Based Community Development: Vision Begins With Listening

ABCD asks “What can this community do itself to achieve its own goals and dreams?”

ABCD is a practice of engaging citizens in the things that can affect them!  It involves finding out, through listening and asking, “What do you really care about?  ABCD engages “learning conversations” to discover what neighbors care enough to act upon.

ABCD adds community development to individual development in order to effect sustainable, long-lasting change.  Community mobilization uses learning conversations, the discovery of “motivation to act” and a connector/leader to bring all of the resources together.

Neighborhood Transformation: Whose Vision Is It?

“Community ministry involves more than just starting another program or running another event.  Effective community ministry requires working with a community to capture pictures of what could be different and better.  Community vision that is effective grows out of long-term, sustainable, and relational interactions with community residents.”

Excerpt taken from page 28 of Communities First.  Click here for more information on this resource.

Asset Based Community Development: A Story of Sharing

Kimi Zimmerman–Community enCompass

What is ABCD?

It’s simple really.  At its best, Asset Based Community Development comes out in life stories.

Take Linda for example.  I honestly don’t know much about her.  She’s a retired nurse and new to the McLaughlin neighborhood.  Judging by her kind disposition, I’d venture to say she was the kind of nurse that people remembered and wanted to thank because she made an unpleasant doctor or hospital visit more bearable.

I met Linda one day at Sacred Suds.  She wasn’t doing laundry or showering. Instead, she was taking blood pressure for neighbors that were using the facility.  She wasn’t doing it for money or in any official capacity.  She was doing it because she cares about her community.  She was doing it because she has a passion for people and for nursing. It’s in her DNA.  She has a God-given gift and she can’t help but use it.

This is ABCD - neighbors using their gifts and talents to enrich, change, help, care for, and love the community they are a part of.  Neighbors like Linda.  But the story doesn’t end there.  Linda used her own blood pressure equipment, but found she didn’t have the right size cuff for some of the neighbors.  Another neighbor heard about it and contacted a local agency to see how they could go about getting a larger cuff.  When the agency heard about the volunteer work Linda was doing at Sacred, they couldn’t help but support the cause and donate the equipment.  ABCD is contagious!

This is a simple story about one person doing good by sharing her gifts with her neighbors.

What is ABCD?  It’s neighbors sharing the best parts of themselves to help build a stronger community.

Asset Based Community Development: Working “With” the Community

CFA Executive Director, Jay Van Groningen, responds to a comment from a recent post, and discusses the idea of “In, To, or With:”

“How does one listen to neighbors in a way that: 1. Discovers what neighbors care about enough to act on it? 2. Discovers what gifts they bring to the things they want to work on? 3. Helps neighbors discover their neighbors who care about the things they care about – so they can work on them together?

Personally,  I resist those programs and ministries that churches want to start, control and implement to/for their neighbors. I think it is much healthier when church comes along and supports the good things neighbors care about doing. Then the church and community can work together on how to sustain the good work. If ministry is done really well, the church does not need to own or control the ministry, it gets to support it in the ways that bless ministry and the congregation. If ministry is done really well, the community eagerly accepts and embraces the church members participation on a level, respectful, playing field (with respect to power in and control). They enjoy getting good things done together.”

Here are some further thoughts…

The Church “With” the Community:

  • desires to influence the community.
  • desires community stakeholders to influence it.
  • spends significant resources (time, talent, goods) in the community.
  • utilizes planning and assessment processes that are influenced by both church members and community stakeholders, and makes decisions based on the impact desired by church members and neighbors.
  • serves and develops the community for reasons and with with methods that bring transformational impact to the community and church alike.
  • looks for and unleashes the gifts, skills, and resources already present in the community.
  • is a convener of the community, a servant to the community, adding value to residents and the community as a whole; a net contributor to the community even though it does not pay taxes.

(Communities First, p. 10)  Go to the Store for more information on this resource.

Community Impact

Al Santino-Northeast Community Transformation

CFA’s network has impacted over 450 neighborhoods across the United States.  One example is Common Grace Community Connection in the rural town of Athens, Maine.  CFA member, Al Santino, came alongside Tim Curtis as he worked to form this community action group.   The group has grown in size and impact as they go about the work of community development.  Some highlights over the past year have included increased participation in Common Grace, continued initiatives such as a local garden pathway project, and new working relationships being formed among four area churches.  Training and exploration of asset based community development principles have led to more involvment and a neighbor led initiative called, “The Bridge.”  This outreach benefits residents of a local women’s shelter who have the opportunity to learn skills such as gardening and canning while being encouraged spiritually.  Excitement continues to grow as neighbors seek to impact their community in positive ways.

To learn more about the work of CFA members click here.


Neighborhood Change: A Better Way

View this great video from one CFA member, and see what happens when neighbors,
“…call out each other’s gifts, and fill in for each other’s weaknesses.”



A Better Way from CFA Videos on Vimeo.

Kimi Zimmerman, Community enCompass


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