by Shari Finnell, editor/writer

More often than not, when Indianapolis neighborhoods like Riverside, United Northwest and Clifton Place are mentioned, the conversation is likely to veer toward what needs to be fixed. Or what’s wrong with them, according to De’Amon Harges, the co-founder of The Learning Tree, a nonprofit focused on using asset based community development (ABCD) to change that narrative about many low-income neighborhoods.

This approach to sustainable community development avoids a focus on handouts — or outside solutions — for challenges like food insecurity, food deserts, high unemployment, vandalism and crime.  Instead it explores the strengths, skills, resources and experience among the members of the community and finds ways to mobilize them into action to address those challenges. For The Learning Tree team, this work begins with one-on-one conversations with people in the communities they support.

Harges, who also consults with organizations globally about ABCD, offered an example on how it can differ from prevailing approaches used by many well-meaning organizations and government agencies.

When a beautification project was launched to enhance Indianapolis urban communities, including the ones served by The Learning Tree, artists were called upon to apply for a grant for the project. “There was probably $150,000 on the table to pay someone else from outside to do the work,” Harges recalled.

Because of their previous interactions with residents throughout the communities of Riverside, United Northwest and Clifton Place, The Learning Tree team already had identified 45 artists who were capable of producing the artistic pieces.

“We ended up getting that grant, putting that money into the hands of people with talent right here in the neighborhood,” Harges said.

Indianapolis Deputy Mayor Jeff Bennett, who became aware of Harges’ impact in local neighborhoods more than 15 years ago,  said the relationship-driven approach to community building has numerous advantages. “There is more to community development than just dollars in, dollars out,” Bennett said. “As much, if not more, impact can be made at the human level through relationship building. So, often at the government level, we can be so top down. We devise and fund programs that we think communities want or need without listening to what a neighborhood says it could use in order to direct their own future.

“That’s where an organization like the Learning Tree excels so well,” Bennett added. “They can get to the heart of a neighborhood’s concern much more quickly and comprehensively than other organizations that do community development.”

Transforming neighborhoods, one individual at a time

ABCD is not new as a methodology for the sustainable development of communities. During the 1990s, John L. McKnight and John P. Kretzmann of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University, coined the term. They explored the benefits of this approach in the book, Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing A Community’s Assets.

Broadway United Methodist Church, located on the city’s Near Northside, followed the guidance of ABCD about 20 years ago when a pastor tapped Harges to become a “roving listener.” In that role, Harges engaged in one-on-one conversations with his neighbors throughout the surrounding urban neighborhood.

Instead of focusing on what was wrong with those neighborhoods, Harges sought out meaningful connections as a way to discover talents and gifts among his neighbors, which in most cases, were previously hidden from view.

He continues those types of conversations in his role at The Learning Tree.

Tysha Ahmad, owner of Mother Love’s Garden, is among the neighbors he connected with while walking through the area. 

Ahmad had already unknowingly put ABCD into practice by teaming up with a group of neighbors to develop a food co-op after Marsh grocery stores in the area simultaneously closed, creating a food desert. Ahmad retired from her work in the insurance industry to become an urban farmer, producing produce to support the co-op. 

“Those who have the means pay more for a bag, which helps cover the costs for those who don’t necessarily have the means, including seniors and those who have SNAP or EBT,” Ahmad explained.

And after that chance encounter with Harges, she now regularly hosts a summer camp to teach youth about growing produce, agricultural careers and the health benefits of fruits and vegetables, a project supported by The Learning Tree. 

Other projects that have developed under The Learning Tree include a bike shop run by local youth as part of a summer program, workshops hosted by entrepreneurs who have been tapped to coach youth in business skills; living documentaries captured by poets, storytellers and photographers; and regular community gatherings catered by neighbors.

“There are people in neighborhoods, especially Black and brown neighborhoods, whose talents are untapped,” Harges said. “We need to find those gifts so they can be utilized in ways that build community, economy and mutual delight.”

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