Many social movements, non-profit organizations, and philanthropic endeavors frame their work from a deficit-based approach, especially when their work surrounds issues of identity and inequality. A deficit-based approach is focused on filling a need, fixing a problem, resourcing the underresourced. It asks the question “What is missing that we must go find?” Contrary to a deficit-based approach is an asset-based approach, which is focused on creating opportunity and leveraging the strengths of a community. It asks the question “What is present that we can build upon?”
For example, consider a non-profit organization that provides workshops and trainings in corporate settings on gender equity in the workplace. A deficit-based mission statement for this non-profit might read something like this: “X organization provides interactive workshops to eradicate inequity and microaggressions that are currently widespread against women and other genders in the workforce.” An asset-based mission statement for this non-profit might say: “X organization engages professional communities to empower their non-male employees and create equitable and just workplace environments.”
I propose that both allies and those who identify with the communities at the center of activism can benefit from framing their work around an asset-based framework in addition to a deficit-based framework.
In the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, I strive to be an ally. As an ally, when I frame my activism in support of BLM from a deficit-based approach, it implies a savior-type mindset that reinforces the injustices I am trying to fight. For example, if I volunteer for an organization that facilitates college prep programs for African American high school students in West Oakland, and I think of my work as providing resources for an underresourced, high-need community of at-risk youth, I am viewing my students as victims and myself as a savior of sorts, fixing a problem and serving a need. But if I see my work as engaging students to achieve their goals and become leaders in their community, I am viewing my students as opportunity-driven individuals and celebrating their potential and aspirations. This mindset shift can turn misinformed but well-intentioned “saviors” into genuine allies.
Additionally, community development and social change through a deficit-based approach is by nature contradictory. By victimizing a community and focusing on what it doesn’t have, the social movement becomes dependent on that community continuing to face problems. Not very productive for a movement intended to empower that community!
I’m a woman and a feminist. Take Women’s March, a feminist movement founded with President Trump’s inauguration. Despite the controversy it has found itself in since its inception, its main mission statement is an admirable one: “The mission of Women’s March is to harness the political power of diverse women and their communities to create transformative social change.” This statement is emblematic of an asset-based approach. It highlights the inherent strength of women as individuals and as a community. When a movement uses this framework, its potential becomes exponentially higher, because it is no longer confined to the limitations of the problems of a community. Instead, it examines the potential and the opportunity that the community presents and builds from there. Think of the difference in describing people who have experienced sexual assault as “survivors” vs. “victims.” It evokes quite a different image.
In an examination of local, community-based efforts, The Guardian recommends the following building blocks to asset-based development:
- Move the discussion away from people’s needs and towards communities’ assets, and build this into strategies and plans
- Build and update a map of personal and community assets
- Bring people and their assets together through peer support, local area coordination, care navigators and social prescribing, which involves primary care professionals referring people to a range of local, non-clinical services
- Create an environment for an asset-based approach to thrive, for example by commissioning more services to be delivered by small voluntary sector providers
- Monitor how your area is doing, and share your successes — as well as looking at how some of the challenges are being addressed
This is all not to say that issues and problems should be ignored. Deficit-based approaches can be integral to raising awareness and educating people. Seeing problems and responding to needs can provide the motivation to continue and grow a movement. It can ground a movement in a set of concrete goals, and absolutely serves its purpose within activism. But when paired with, and perhaps eventually replaced with, an asset-based framework, the scope of activism can be exponentially expanded.