Asset-Based Community Development and Critical Social Theories: One Community Practice Social Worker’s Theoretical Toolkit

Stocking My Community Practice Theoretical Frameworks Toolkit

While there are many theoretical frameworks and contexts readily applicable to my projected future life as a social worker, this essay will examine two umbrella theories: Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) and Critical Social Theories, especially Critical Race Theory, Feminist Theory, and Intersectionality.  By utilizing these frameworks and lenses, my goal is to see beyond the surface and discover places to dig deep into the work of supporting community groups and policy initiatives in such a way that it is the impacted community members themselves who self-determine who they are, what they stand for, and what goals they’d like to set to strengthen their shared world.

Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD)

In 1993, Kretzman and McKnight wrote a “guide about rebuilding troubled communities” that was meant to be “simple, basic, and usable” with “wisdom flowing directly out of the experience of courageous and creative neighborhood leaders from across the country” in which they coined the phrase “asset-based community development” (p. 1).  Assets, in this sense, could be related to individuals, associations, institutions, physical spaces, and connections (Gutiérrez et al., 2018) and “are tangible or intangible resources that have potential… [to] grow or be better used to achieve something new” (Alexiou et al., 2016, p. 181).  By discovering what gifts or skills community members can offer to the collective, an organizer such as myself can assist by offering additional tools or facilitation, but the outcome will be determined, constructed, and carried out by the community members themselves.  Ultimately, ABCD is for community-based organizations to connect with their communities in this empowering way (Alexiou et al., 2016).

Critical Social Theories

As a white woman, it is crucial that I acknowledge my own social privilege, especially as I hope to work in diverse, urban settings.  Even when working with white clients or populations, it is still necessary to have a clear grasp on the role race, racism, and systemic racism plays in any given circumstance.  According to DiAngelo (2018), “The term ‘white’ first appeared in colonial law in  the late 1600s… To have citizenship -- and the rights citizenship imbued -- you had to be legally classified as white… Now the courts were in a position to decide who was white and who was not… In other words, people already seen as white got to decide who was white” (p. 17).  Even more specifically, colonial white men were enabled to make these decisions, meaning that the construct of race permeated social determinations long before the nation’s founding.  Going further, the notion of intersectionality -- the point where multiple points of subjugation, such as being both Black and female, create a double jeopardy of social disadvantage -- wasn’t even part of the lexicon until the late 1980s (Crenshaw, 1989).  While it was en vogue for progressive whites to proclaim “colorblindness” as an adequate bandaid to be applied to this stark inequity, the fact remains that the lived experiences of non-white people in the United States created significant disadvantage and hardship.  Shying away from that conversation is counterproductive and may even create harm. One major professional goal of mine is to work with populations impacted by such injustice and alleviate social inequity. Entering all spaces with a Critical Social Theory lens will help me call out where racism, sexism, ableism, classicism, ageism as well as LGBTQ+ discrimination or targeting is in play and take action to change or redefine the situation.

Asset Based Community Development

ABCD and social inequality

The work generated by Kretzman and McKnight (1993) pulled the focus to a few key truths.  First, they address the unspoken “benefit” of keeping a blighted neighborhood or community in that headspace, referring to them as “client neighborhoods” (Kretzman and McKnight, 1993, p. 2) that are needs-focused. When evaluating from a deficiency vantage point, neighborhoods typically requiring interventions are thought of as having an endless list of problems which leads to fragmented efforts to provide solutions and denies community wisdom; directs funding to providers not to residents; stalls the formation of community leadership; perpetuates the notion that only outside experts can help, which creates cycle of dependence; targets individual solutions, not community-wide solutions; and ultimately does not lead to serious change (Kretzman and McKnight, 1993).  As a social worker, the way I shift this, then, is to change the focus from where these neighborhoods are deficient and look, instead, at where the opportunities and assets are.  What this means, according to Green (2010), is that “communities often have more options than they think” (p. 179).  Given that so many of these so-called “bad” neighborhoods are populated by people of color, Gutiérrez et al. (2018) notes that ABCD is “particularly appropriate for use within and between different cultural and racial groups” (p. 259).  If I am able to empower community members to create their own goals and define their own meaning of success, neighborhoods will grow stronger and more cohesive than when residents felt like clients merely waiting for a social service to be enacted on them (Keith, 2015).

An important element of this process is called out by Green (2010): “Asset-based development often requires communities to think differently about themselves and not necessarily get locked into viewing their resources the same way they have in the past” (p. 179).  Part of that self-definition means looking critically at how community assets are value-laden and are derived from a social process rooted in values/cultures/interests and may not be identified the same by everyone (Green, 2010). While it is true that ABCD can help residents think beyond problems or constraints, it is also best utilized when communities have a clear vision of their preferred future (Green, 2010). Confronting and openly discussing social inequities is foundational in the successful outcome of this process.  ABCD as a method works best when all stakeholders can engage with it freely and is not limited by economic constraints: everyone has gifts, knowledge, skills, and other significant means in which to be a valuable resource in a strengths-based framework.  Mathie and Cunningham (2003) note that ABCD is a response to dramatic changes in social, political, and economic landscape that inspires positive action for change that does away with a deficiency-based approach.

The compelling nature of ABCD

By definition, ABCD is compelling.  In a world where problems are so heavily emphasized, especially in the realm of social services, what this method does is create a sense of possibility that can lead to real, sustainable change.  Garoutte (2017) writes, “While existing assets are used in new ways or mobilized for the first time, and/or new relationships between assets are formed, nothing from outside the community is brought it” (p. 147).  This goal of self-sufficiency is quite inspiring, especially for neighborhoods that have for many years (perhaps even decades or generations) not experienced such a sense of efficacy before.

ABCD emphasis/highlights

According to Garoutte (2017), a lesson from Kretzman and McKnight is that using an asset-based approach “overcomes many of the pitfalls associated with traditional forms of community development by focusing on strengths or assets of a given community” (p. 145).  When the community can mine its own value in this way and even self-define, it helps determine what work should be prioritized as its action plan is enacted.  Kretzman and McKnight (1993) write, “Community development takes place only when local community people are committed to investing themselves/their resources to the effort” (p. 5).  The result is the development of policies and activities based on the capacities, skills, and assets of the residents in the neighborhood itself.

ABCD strengths

Mathie and Cunningham (2003) writes, “The appeal of ABCD lies in its premise that people in communities can organize to drive the development process themselves by identifying and mobilizing existing...assets” (p. 474).  This creates local economic opportunity as well as establishing long-term plans that can be carried out by the residents (Garoutte, 2017; Mathie and Cunningham, 2003).  Alexiou et al. (2016) term this a “creative citizenship” that “intrinsically leads to value generation” (p. 181).  The core of ABCD is the belief that all communities are asset-rich (Garoutte, 2017).  This is a massive strength for uplifting and amplifying the voices of those residents and community members who may have felt disempowered not only to advocate for themselves before but to be the actual vehicle for change.  Realizing that such potential is already embedded in the community is liberating and powerful.  Kretzman and McKnight report, “Every single person has capacities, abilities, and gifts” (p. 13) -- using those gifts makes a person feel valued and the community stronger.

ABCD limitations

The strengths-based approach isn’t without its critics or limitations.  Gutiérrez et al. (2018) notes that with it being the result of the neoliberal movement, ABCD doesn’t acknowledge power differences amongst community groups.  Additionally, it provides very little guidance regarding how to deal with injustice.  Finally, some find the approach to be too optimistic, especially in that severely blighted neighborhoods might find the sing-song notion of “if we all try our best, good things will come as a result” too simplistic (Gutiérrez et al., 2018).  To me, the key to overcoming these deficiencies is to pay close attention to what the residents want to see happen and guide their steps from there.

ABCD application to practice

As a social worker, there are many ways to implement the ABCD mindset into community practice.  First, I must bear in mind that strengths-based work is done with community members, not to them. It is a strategy for community-driven economic development that restores power to community members (not external agencies) while still offering them opportunities to enact the bridging and bonding functions of social capital (Mathie and Cunningham, 2003). While there is no strict blueprint for across-the-board success for the ABCD mindset, some practical strategies I would be likely to utilize include storytelling, asset mapping, forming steering groups, building relationships, and leveraging outside resources (Mathie and Cunningham, 2003).  What is clear is that those -- such as myself -- who find the ABCD approach attractive are often disenchanted by deficit-based approaches and realize that by “focusing on strengths and capacities...communities can outgrow a problem or redefine its solution as a product of renewed collaborative action” (Mathie and Cunningham, 2003, p. 479).

One tangible method commonly associated with Asset-Based Community Development is the practice of asset-mapping. According to Lightfoot et al. (2014), asset mapping can be an intervention that builds trust, develops capacities, and fosters community pride as well as produce an asset inventory that can be used to solve community problems and promote development. Alexiou et al. (2016) reports, “Asset mapping is a methodology used with community groups and organizations to unearth, capture, and visualize existing resources and capacities, which may otherwise be undiscovered or underused” (p. 182). In my work at FutureHeights last year, I did this exercise with community members. Creating asset maps provided folks with a meaningful opportunity to name existing neighborhood strengths, which inspired and informed grassroots-level pride and gave residents a chance to plant the seeds of community building to watch them grow into actionable projects.

Additionally, I am interested in the notable ties between ABCD and Appreciative Inquiry (AI), a practice that promotes positive change by focusing on peak past experiences as shared through interviews and storytelling.  Community action is then generated following an analysis of what elements yielded group-defined success. AI assumes reality is socially constructed and language is a vehicle for reinforcing shared meaning and that communities move towards what gives them life and energy (Mathie and Cunningham, 2003).  Applying AI to an ABCD framework could be an alternative approach to asset-mapping since both aim to identify community strengths.

Critical Social Theories: Race, Feminist, and Intersectionality

Critical Social Theories and social inequality

By definition, theoretical frameworks under the Critical Social Theory umbrella speak to social inequality.  With my focus here on Critical Race Theory and a blend of Feminist Theory and Intersectionality, the demarcation line is drawn between white men who are traditionally placed in the highest point of the social hierarchy and, really, everyone else. Crenshaw (1988) writes, “Racism is a central ideological underpinning of American society” (p. 1336) but also asserts that “the adoption of single-issue frameworks for discrimination not only marginalizes Black also makes the illusive goal of ending racism and patriarchy even more difficult to attain” (Crenshaw, 1989, p. 152).  The complicated truth is that prior to the conceptualization of Intersectionality, women of color were largely muted in their struggle for social equality as they were devalued or left out of the conversation both in the battle for civil rights and the first and second wave of feminism (Dow, 2014). 

I fully embrace adopting a deep wealth of knowledge around the complexities related to an array of critical social theories in order to engage holistically with diverse populations.  What a Critical Race Theory lens provides me is understanding about the oppressive aspects of society that can yield societal transformation by acknowledging that “race is a social construction, race permeates all aspects of social life, and race-based ideology is threaded through society” (Ortiz and Jani, p. 176).  What a Feminist lens reveals to me is “a response to what we would now view as a quite shocking array of sexist attitudes and practices that had until then gone unchallenged in radical circles” (Freely, 2010, p. 211). What an Intersectional lens exposes to me is how “single-axis thinking undermines legal thinking, disciplinary knowledge production, and struggles for social justice” (Cho et al, 2013, p. 787).  Each of these theoretical constructs, as well as others related to them, are vital for me to engage with bravely every single day in order to call out and combat inequities in order to strive for a more socially just society.

The compelling nature of Critical Social Theories

What these theories do is emphasize the divide between those in a place of social power and those who are not. To wit, Coates (2015) writes:

The elevation of the belief in being white was not achieved through wine-tasting and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies (p. 8).

Crenshaw (1989) cautions, too, about the problematic nature of treating race and gender as mutually exclusive categories.  These radical ideals are intended to awaken the sleeping giant of complacency by shining a light directly in its face.  In 1968, second-wave feminist Kathie Sarachild wrote, “Some people said outright they thought what we were doing was dangerous” (p. 146) -- a somewhat shocking statement when what it is that women were demanding was things like equal pay or the ability to self-define womanhood and femininity.  Noting how difficult it was to amplify female voices at the start of Women’s Liberation, it’s hardly a surprise that it took twenty years to fit Black women into the equation.  Crenshaw (1989) writes, “Dominant conceptions of discrimination condition us to think about subordination as disadvantage occurring along a single categorical axis…[that] erased Black women in the conceptualiation, identification, and remediation of race and sex discrimination” (p. 140).  These theories examining race, gender, and the cross-hairs of the two are vital in my ability to understand the complexity of systemic issues and oppression and take action as a result.

Critical Social Theory emphasizes/highlights

This umbrella of theory emphasizes and highlights the gross inequities the patriarchal system established hundreds of years ago.  Indeed, Coates (2015) writes, “The question is not whether Lincoln truly meant ‘government of the people’ but what our country has, throughout its history, taken the political term ‘people’ to actually mean” (p. 6). Certainly, how the social definition and distribution of power is established results in communal understanding of how human life is valued.  Yancey (2005) asserts that the power to assign meaning to a word like “racism” (for instance) and deny legitimacy of the other definitions is the power to control how people think about the subject.  Let’s boil it down: words matter.  Attitudes matter.  Status matters.  The mere existence of Critical Social Theories illustrates which groups are at a disadvantage and need that extra attention and consideration to be properly elevated and integrated to equal footing with the dominant culture.

Critical Social Theory strengths

Knowing that “the foundations for racial definition has been based in folklore, the legislative and judicial process or, in most cases, a combination of the two” (Ortiz and Jani, 2010, p. 177) generates a strong understanding of Critical Race Theory. In turn, this helps construct the narrative of US history, how and why certain groups are marginalized or oppressed, and illuminate the purposeful separation and stratification of anyone not classified as a white male.  When second-wave feminists were dismissed as being focused on frivolous topics, the movement clapped back with their slogan, “The personal is political” (quoted in Dow, 2017, p. 140) to assert that women’s issues were serious.  Where that stumbles a bit is when feminist theory and politics that “claim to reflect women’s experiences and women’s aspirations do not include or speak to Black women [and] Black women must ask, ‘Ain’t we women?’” (Crenshaw, 1989, p. 154).  This inches towards resolution with the incorporation of Intersectionality, which “helps reveal how power works in diffuse and differentiated ways through the reaction and deployment of overlapping identity categories” (Cho et al, 2013, p. 797).  Indeed, confronting all angles of Critical Social Theories is a delicate balancing act that I am ready to take on.

Critical Social Theory limitations

As noted by Crenshaw’s (1989) assertion that “Feminist Theory remains white, and its potential to broaden and deepen its analysis by addressing non-privileged women remains unrealized” (p. 154), the biggest limitation of Critical Social Theories is how they each only capture a selected snapshot of the overall picture.  For instance, hooks (2000) writes:

Neighbors tell me the lack of diversity has nothing to do with racism, it’s just a matter of class.  They really believe all black people are poor… Yet when rich black people come to live where they live, they worry that class does not matter enough, for those black folks must have some poor relatives and there goes the neighborhood (p. 3).

The racial bias clearly constructs a world where Black equals poor, regardless of anyone’s true socioeconomic nature. hooks (2000) writes, “It is impossible to talk meaningfully about ending racism without talking about class” (p. 7), adding, “If the citizens of this country want to live in a world that is class-free, then we must first create a system that is just.  To work for change, we must know where we stand” (p. 9).  Deconstructing the biases associated with the various aspects of Critical Social Theories is necessary to suss out blindspots and create true equity.

Critical Social Theories’ application to practice

The application of these theories to practice starts with intentionality around language.  DiAngelo (2018) recounts a story about Thomas Jefferson asking scientists to investigate what natural differences there might be between races, which they agreed to do.  What is notable is that “these scientists didn’t ask, ‘Are blacks (and others) inferior?’ They asked, ‘Why are blacks (and others) inferior?’” (p. 16). When a bias is apparent like right from the start, it demonstrates the frustrating inability to move the conversation forward.  Additionally, DiAngelo (2018) writes, “We can’t challenge our racial filters if we can’t consider the possibility that we have them” (47).  This certainly applies across all other aspects under the Critical Social Theories umbrella. In summation, Crenshaw (1989) writes, “The goal...should be to facilitate the inclusion of marginalized groups for whom it can be said: ‘When they enter, we all enter’” (p. 167).  

How These Theories Work Together


Asset-Based Community Development and Critical Social Theories marry well in that they sprouted from the same patch of earth.  Each was divined to address the specific circumstance of marginalized or oppressed people. ABCD is complementary to empowerment theories and other practices that emphasize collaboration, diversity, and building collective power (Gutiérrez et al., 2018), which links succinctly with the origin stories associated with Critical Race Theory, Feminist Theories, and Intersectionality.  For my purposes as a social worker, what this marriage of theoretical contexts does as well is emphasize the potential in building bridges and forming bonds with others in the community, even if there are racial, ethnic, or other differences -- because each person has gifts they bring to the collective.  Being able to share and exchange these gifts bonds folks together, reduces intolerance, and creates an imperative to establish a democratic system where all stakeholders can powershare.


Where ABCD is known to be optimistic, most Critical Social Theories do not follow suit.  Even though the intention may be for an asset-based approach to empower community members to take ownership of their neighborhoods, set their own goals, and be the masters of their fate, Critical Social Theories would point to history to caution against such aspirational intention.  

Take the example of artistic place-making. Webb (2014) writes that creative initiatives “change not only the aesthetics of the place but also the aesthetics of belonging” (p. 35).  Such efforts in urban settings are recommended to follow the model that defines inclusive places as being for the collective good, yielding a measurement of empowerment, providing cultural stewardship, and demonstrating community attachment.  Robert Bedoya, the Executive Director of Tucson Pima Arts Council said in 2012:

There is a lack of creative insight in creative placemaking discourse and practice that does not acknowledge nor address the politics of belonging or dis-belonging that operate in a civic society… Before you have places of belonging, you must first feel like you belong. [italics mine] Before you have a vibrant street, you need to understand the social dynamics of that street (quoted in Webb, 2014, p. 37).  

Bedoya argues that creative placemaking is tied to the “allure of speculation culture and its economic thinking of ‘build it and they will come’ is suffocating, unethical, and supports a politics of dis-belonging employed to manufacture a ‘place’” (p. 38).  Webb writes, “Before we can envision placemaking, we must first acknowledge our legacy of place-taking [italics mine] and seek to establish places of connection, social equity, and economic opportunity for everyone” (p. 38).  Such an example illustrates having a deep and thorough understanding of the people, the community, the neighborhood, and all of the history associated with it.  Simply identifying strengths without exploring and acknowledging challenges around the history of the place and the people may result in a dissipation of efforts to complete the intended project.

Blindspots or areas of vulnerability

The biggest blindspots and areas of vulnerability are tucked inside the nuances of the asset-based approach’s relationship with Critical Social Theories.  For instance, at the Community Innovation Network, a few of us have an on-going conversation about racial equity in Cleveland’s AsiaTown neighborhood.  The conflict resides in many of the Asian community members not connecting with the Black Lives Matter movement, which creates tension between the two groups.  The question, then, is how to resolve this issue.  Is the best practice to bring Asian and Black community members together?  Is the best practice to dig deeper into what it means to be Asian-American, since that terminology means very little to the people it labels?  Is the best practice to explore the relationship between Asians and white people?  Is the best practice to educate Asian-Americans (especially those who immigrated to the United States) about the history of Black and white relationships in this country so they better understand the Black Lives matter movement?  What does it mean to be a minority group in the United States that is not Black but also can never be white?  We don’t know for sure but liken it to being “the middle child,” perhaps overlooked or glossed over while the major battle between the most deeply entrenched sense of racism dominates the conversation (Son, 2014).

In the case of Asian-Americans, often thought of as a “model minority,” they are people of color who are perceived to behave in alignment with the majority.  According to Chang (2018), that translates into Asian-Americans being “racialized positively” (p. 242). While it’s possible that some whites see Asian-Americans as “superior” to Black people, there is still no sense that Asian-Americans will ever be assimilated as white (Son, 2014).  Even so, many Asian-Americans may still opt to endorse a more colorblind approach than other racial minorities do with the hopes of separating themselves further from other groups that are clearly beneath them in the social hierarchy (Son, 2014).

What this illustrates is how difficult it may be to bring folks from different racial or ethnic backgrounds together to utilize a strengths-based approach to whatever community issue they’d like to resolve.  Perhaps exploring where the tensions highlighted by Critical Social Theories originate would be well advised.  While it’s true that working together to achieve a common goal could be enough to bond unlike people together, taking the time to understand where all engaged parties are coming from could be a meaningful exercise that will make the strengths-based approach all the more powerful when it comes to fruition.


Coming into this course, I was skeptical about the peak relevance of theories in community practice social work, but I can honestly say that I see great value now in being aware of the frameworks and how they can be utilized in practical ways.  I immediately gravitated to the ABCD approach because I realized I’d been taking a strengths-based approach naturally in other leadership roles and so the combination of my intuition and my deeper knowledge about this theory makes it an obvious choice to keep using.  Similarly, my experience working with diverse populations gave me some insight into my own privilege and made me stop and think about Critical Social Theories before I knew that terminology.  It’s not merely about carrying a history lesson or two in my back pocket (though that is part of it) -- it’s also about seeing the entire picture, which helps identify assets and gifts others might bring to the table.  Our world may feel very divided and disconnected, but our humanity bonds us.  It’s merely a matter of finding the common threads and starting to tie them together -- and if that is impossible, a lesson taken from Critical Social Theory might be well equipped to explain why.  

In my community practice social work, my dream is not to instill confidence in others but to give them the tools to see they are equipped to instill confidence in themselves -- that they are able to identify their strengths and see how their strengths can be paired with the strengths of those around them while they work to achieve a self-determined goal.  I know from personal experience what it’s like to feel very small and unimportant -- to be silenced or made to feel like my voice not only didn’t matter but was unwanted.  No one should ever feel this way.  My call to social work is to have as many opportunities to spend time with individuals or groups to support their inherent right to live bravely, dynamically, and without fear -- that their lives have meaning, they have abilities and intelligence worthy of being shared, and that the status quo doesn’t have to define them.  Maybe that means creative place-making.  Maybe that means standing up for a cause.  Maybe that means voting in an election.  There are countless ways to realize individualized power, strength, and purpose.  As a community practice social worker, I want to be a champion of self-worth, driven through active societal participation that can’t and won’t be squashed or rebuffed because of systemic racism or the white patriarchy.  I will store the elements of Asset-Based Community Development and Critical Social Theories in my toolkit and I will carry them with me wherever I go.  To me, they are the keys to successful interventions in places where deficit-based thinking has long been the “norm.”  Together, we will self-define our own norm and rewrite the status quo in our own words.  That is successful community practice to me.


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Research paper written as part of my MSSA (Fall 2020)

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