By Rev. Stacey Harwell, Centenary UMC, Macon, Georgia
The philosophy behind Roving Listeners: Asset-based community development
As opposed to traditional needs-based models that chart a community’s deficiencies, an asset-based model of community development looks at what gifts are already present. Especially in an impoverished community, people are constantly asked to prove how bad things are to get assistance, grants, or attention. Too many organizations go into a town/neighborhood to “fix” it without realizing that there’s a treasure trove of gifted individuals right under their noses that simply need to know one another and mobilize.
Too often, nonprofits and churches do projects that don’t get neighborhood support, leaving them to wonder what they are doing wrong. The problem tends to be that they haven’t gotten to know their neighbors and their incredible gifts. Alternatively, asset-based community developers focus on what the individual and community can do instead of what they can’t.
There are multiple levels of gifts, from individuals to institutions and everything in between. The goal is to establish a gift-based economy: a place where everybody’s gifts can be used. This can only be accomplished if everyone’s gifts are known and cherished. Although there are different techniques and skills we can use to gather the assets of a community, there’s really only one way to learn about the gifts of individuals – to talk to one another and build relationships.
These are the underlying philosophies of the Roving Listening project:
- Every single person has a gift. We recognize and celebrate the gifts of everyone with whom we come into contact, especially individuals who society has marginalized or assumed to be inherently deficient.
- There are many types of gifts. Gifts aren’t limited to physical or intellectual ability. We believe there are gifts of hands, head, and heart, as well as gifts of wisdom. The questions we ask during a Roving Listener interview are designed to help uncover those gifts.
The work of the Roving Listener project is to bring communities together with the tools to tackle problems on their own with minimal outside help. We are all in need, and we are all capable of making a contribution. When we discover where our needs meet others’ gifts, we create space for mutuality and relationship.
Every Roving Listener or Community Listener project must be contextualized. By choosing to enter into relationship with our neighbors, we resist the temptations to use a “one-size-fits-all” approach or assume that we know what others need or desire. Roving listening is a process, not a pre-conceived destination.
The “original” Roving Listener is a man named DeAmon Harges who worked this idea out of Broadway Christian Parish and Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, Indiana, alongside Broadway UMC senior pastor Mike Mather. Stories of their work can be found in textbooks on asset-based community development for faith communities. They have also compiled a book on the subject called “Sharing Stories, Shaping Community.”