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A River Runs Through John

There is a warm line between you, your heroes and their mentors that unites memory and imagination. I witnessed this in 1995 at the first gathering of the Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) Institute. John McKnight opened the gathering providing an overview of ABCD bedrock – asset focused; internally reliant and relationship driven. 

Then he paused, looked each one of us in the eye and said. “That’s what I’ve learned. I give these concepts to you. I trust you to take them to the next step.”

Aside from a few polite comments 20 of us left the room in silence. Perhaps we were tired. It was late and many of us had travelled long distances. In fact we were stunned. We woke the next morning and realized we had been blessed. John, the man we dearly admired, had just handed everything over to us. The division between him and us had dissolved.

In retrospect this was classic John – open hearted and generous. When he was offered money to create an institutional centre for his ABCD work he declined. Instead, he and his co-founder Jody Kretzmann invited a number of community organizers from across North America to join them.

Asset-Based Community Development has never gone out of style but it has never been more relevant. Indeed it is the only way it has ever been done. Today it curates an international movement that nurtures the capacity of citizens, families, neighbourhoods and communities to resolve their challenges. 


That’s why Cormac Russell’s new book Looking Back to Look Forward, is such a gift. As one of the newest members of the ABCD network he immersed himself in its roots by visiting John at his Chicago home. Cormac is from Ireland, which must have fired up John’s Celtic roots. I imagine their conversation flowing over concepts as pure as time and as fresh as tomorrow. How I wish I’d been a drop of water in their whisky glasses. 

Thanks to Cormac’s pilgrimage our conceptual ancestry has risen to the surface in this highly readable and essential book. Some of them we know – some we should. Judith Snow, Saul Alinsky, Ivan Illich, Robert Rodale, Frank Haiman, Robert Mendelsohn, Jerome Miller, Stan Hallet and Peter Block. Their wisdom is ennobling. Linking our humble efforts to theirs and yours.

Looking Back to Look Forward is the river running through John McKnight. It reminds us that when we are in flow, our activities and those of others, past and future merge into one. The world is made fresh and we are no longer as alone as we thought. 

Now it really is up to us.

Click here for Al’s new book Impact: Six Patterns to Spread Your Social Innovation.

This blog was originally posted on the Nurture Development website, and appears here with permission.

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Al Etmanski is a community organizer, social entrepreneur and author. He is a founding partner of Social Innovation Generation (SiG) and BC Partners for Social Impact. Previously he co-founded Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network (PLAN) with his wife Vickie Cammack and Jack Collins. Al is an Ashoka fellow, and a faculty member of John McKnight’s Asset Based Community Development Institute (ABCD). He once played air guitar with Randy Bachman of BTO (Bachman-Turner-Overdrive) in a rock video which convinced him to stick with his day job.

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