Monday, March 16, 2015


Worm composting and English as a second language. Taxes and behavioral economics.

I’ll tell you what connects these in a second.

For most of this last week, David and I were back at Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s offices in Atlanta, Georgia for another training session. One important aspect of our training was learning more about asset-basedcommunity development. An asset-based approach to development tries to focus on what a community has rather than on just what a community needs. It starts with a community’s assets rather than its deficits and seeks ways to mobilize a community around those assets.

But what assets are in a community? How do you figure that out?

Sometimes, all you have to do is ask. One of the exercises in our training asked our group of 14 or so to pair up and then ask our partners two questions:

What do you know well enough to teach? What have you always wanted to learn?

That brings us back to worm composting and taxes. I was a bit overwhelmed with the question that asked what I knew well enough to teach. I know a little about a lot of things, but as I tried to think on the spot, nothing was coming to me. I resorted to things that I had somewhat formally taught: ESL and composting techniques (thanks to my year spent working at EarthLinks).

Picking two things I want to learn was easier. I have a long list of subjects I would love to know more about. We had spent that morning talking about the complexities of ministerial and overseas taxes, so I chose taxes for my first subject.

Perhaps not making me sound any more interesting, I chose behavioral economics as the second thing I would love to learn more about. I have been learning about economics over the last couple of years (mostly through listening to economics podcasts (1, 2) while washing dishes and doing laundry), and I see it as both fascinating and relevant to the development work I will be helping with in Cambodia.

We each worked in pairs to write down what we could teach and what we would like to learn, and then we wrote these down on sticky notes. Afterwards, we presented each other’s skills and curiosities to the group, collecting our sticky notes on the wall.

I was amazed to watch as our random assortment of offerings began to match up. One person said he could teach basic home renovations. One person admitted that she had always wanted to learn how to use a power drill.

I was also surprised to hear people say that they wanted to learn things that I actually knew about. Someone wanted to learn how to drive a car. I could teach that! Basic graphic design skills or pottery? Surprisingly, I have a lot of information to share on those topics as well—even though I would have never thought to write them down.

One of Cambodia's surprising assets: lots of rice bags that are repurposed in numerous ways

Afterwards, we moved the sticky notes around and created projects based on the skills, talents, knowledge and interest we had as a group. There were a surprising amount of options. The exercise was a simple but powerful way for each of us to realize that the community we were in was full of assets.

It’s good to remember the community you are a part of has numerous strengths, even if they aren’t obvious. It’s also helpful for us to remember that even though when we first move to Cambodia, we will be mute, illiterate and incapable of driving in the capital’s traffic, we will still have assets to offer.  

We are really excited to frame the work we will be doing in Cambodia in terms of utilizing the assets of the community. We don’t really know how that is going to work…but we are excited to learn.

We will no doubt be talking more about an asset-based approach to community development here on the blog as we learn and apply these principles to our work in Cambodia, but if you would like to learn more, you might start by reading When Helping Hurts, ToxicCharity or Discovering the Other.