If you care about changing society, focus on strengths

Asking “What is wrong with our community?” will produce quite different answers to asking, “What would our ideal community be like?”  

Graeme Stuart
7 July 2015

Permaculture in Auroville, India, created by the Transition movement. Credit:

Social movements, including those opposing globalisation, environmental destruction and racism, typically start with a problem; a sense that things aren’t right and that change is needed. Often, they are fed by anger at the injustice, the violence or the environmental destruction surrounding us. They are often premised on struggle and resistance. 

In 2009, after both my daughters had started school, I was ready to become involved in social change groups again. A few years earlier I had become immersed in strengths-based approaches to working with communities and wanted to explore this approach in the context of social change.

The Transition movement offered this possibility. It addresses some of the big environmental challenges we face – including climate change, our addiction to oil, the skewed economy and the myth of endless expansion – by creating alternative visions for communities and starting practical projects that help get there. 

It sees the crisis we face as an “opportunity for doing something different, something extraordinary”.

The aim of Transition is to help you be the catalyst in your community for an historic push to make where you live more resilient, healthier and bursting with strong local livelihoods, while also reducing its ecological footprint. (From What is Transition)

The Transition movement is an example of a strengths-based approach to social change. Rather than focusing on all the barriers we face in creating more sustainable communities, it focuses on opportunities and potential. Transition groups attempt to create the change they want to see. 

They might create local currencies like in Brixton, UK; kitchen gardens like in Auroville, India; community owned power companies like in Fujino, Japan; or start local conversations exploring what neighbours can do together that they can’t do alone, as in Newcastle Australia.

Adopting a strengths-based approach to social change can feel a bit like walking a tight rope. If, generally, social change movements critique how things are and challenge the status quo, strengths-based approaches look for, and focus on, strengths and opportunities. Social change movements have a tendency to rely on conflict and confrontation, while strengths-based approaches essentially rely on cooperation and collaboration. 

Strengths-based approaches are based on the belief that everyone and all communities have skills and strengths, and that change is more likely and more sustainable when we focus on these strengths and possibilities rather than focusing on problems and challenges.

Strengths-based approaches recognise that people are the experts of their own situations and people working with them - social or community workers, for example - should not position themselves as experts with the all the answers. Strengths-based approaches, such as asset-based community-driven development, are community-led and rely on building and strengthening relationships. 

Asset-based community-driven development starts with communities identifying their assets. This includes the skills and passions of individuals, voluntary community groups like local sports clubs, and their physical and economic resources. They then explore ways of building connections between them.

A strengths-based approach is not blind optimism or looking at the world through rose-coloured glasses. We don’t ignore problems, or pretend they don’t exist, but see them within a broader context. Change is dependent on using available strengths and resources. We make a conscious decision to focus on the CPR of strengths:

C – competencies, capacities, courage, creativity and character
P – promise, positive expectations, purpose, possibility and potential
R – resources, resilience, relationships, resolve, and reserves.

To take the metaphor of a half-full/half-empty glass, you might say that social change starts with the half-empty part of the glass (what is missing), while a strengths-based approach starts with the half-full part (what we have to work with).

When adopting a strengths-based approach, particularly in social and community work, there is a danger that we might reinforce neoliberal notions of individual responsibility – problems are due to the limitations of individuals and communities.

Unless we’re careful we may not pay enough attention to the broad political and social context, we might gloss over structural issues (such as the way in which economic inequality is perpetuated) and avoid conflict between competing interests. Strengths-based approaches therefore need the more critical input of social change movements and it is essential they have social justice at the heart of their work. 

But social change movements can also learn from strengths-based approaches. Social change happens when new ways of doing things replace old ways. Rather than putting all our efforts into stopping what we don’t want, strengths-based approaches can help us discover what we want to create instead. In a strengths-based approach to social change, our critique of the current social, political and economic context includes the things we value about the way things are. 

We create a positive vision of where we want to head and actively look for people and resources that can help us get there.

Looking at big social issues like climate change, discrimination and poverty can be overwhelming. It can be hard to know where to start, and focusing purely on the problem can make it seem insurmountable. By noticing exceptions to the dominant way of doing things, looking for examples of what is working and creating an alternative vision, possibilities can start to emerge that assist us to move forward. We can see this approach in the sharing economy which challenges our current economic system by offering alternatives. It’s also much easier to retain our energy and sense of optimism in long-term campaigns when we are conscious of signs of hope and change.

The questions we ask, the language we use, and the images we create have a large influence on how we see people and situations. Asking “What is wrong with our community?” will produce quite different answers to asking, “What would our ideal community be like?” Similarly, think of the different images created by talking about ‘illegal immigrants’ rather than ‘families seeking safety and refuge,’ or discussing ‘collateral damage’ vs the ‘death of innocent civilians.’ A strengths-based approach means that we also think carefully about our how we view, and talk about, the people who disagree with us.

A strengths-based approach can help us imagine the transformation we want to see; it can help us find the things we love in the world as well as the things that need to change; and it can help us start creating a new way of being that are consistent with our vision.

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