XXIX.5 September - October 2022
Page: 34
Digital Citation

Critical perspectives on ABCD: A conversation with Akwugo Emejulu

Akwugo Emejulu, Lucy Pei, Aakash Gautam

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We spoke with Akwugo Emejulu, a professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick, to learn more about her critique of assets-based community development (ABCD) [1]. ABCD is a community development framework that has been a source of inspiration for some of the assets-based design work carried out in the fields of human-computer interaction, design, and technology development. Such work, however, has rarely explored the political context in which ABCD has been advocated. While the commitments of AB CD's founders and proponents may seem to align with those of designers and HCI researchers working toward social justice, our conversation explored the ways our design work might be haunted by the neoliberal and anti-welfare values that Emejulu argues are sedimented in the rhetoric of ABCD's founders.

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Emejulu argues that neoliberal and anti-welfare values are sedimented into the rhetoric of assets-based community development's founders.
Designers should continuously question the power dynamics that underlie the premise of intervention and actively assert their own chosen values into their assets-based design work.

Emejulu's critical analysis of ABCD is grounded in her work as a community organizer and trade union organizer prior to becoming an academic. Her community organizing work and subsequent academic research focused on how to help marginalized groups advance their interests and articulate their goals. In a 2014 paper coauthored with Mary Anne MacLeod, "Neoliberalism with a Community Face? A Critical Analysis of Asset-Based Community Development in Scotland"[2], Emejulu and MacLeodargue that ABCD advances a neoliberal agenda. Emejulu agrees with the idea central to AB CD that communities should not be seen as passive recipients of aid who are defined by their deficits. However, she argues that the political context of anti-welfare backlash against civil rights in the U. S. must be taken into account when drawing from AB CD frameworks. ABCD's emphasis on community assets is tied intimately to an individualistic, by-the-bootstraps view of addressing poverty. It assumes that state redistribution of wealth through welfare or reparations is equivalent to dependency and has no role in social progress. This perspective is in stark contrast to the view of HCI and design scholarship oriented toward social justice, which strives toward redistributing resources to communities that have been and continue to be oppressed. Our conversation with Emejulu sheds light on important implications that HCI researchers should acknowledge before trying to adopt assets-based design in their practice.

ins01.gif Clockwise from left: Akwugo Emejulu, Lucy Pei, Aakash Gautam.

In our conversation, Emejulu further made a case for HCI researchers working with communities to move away from interventionist impulses and play a supportive role in a community's existing movements to realize emancipatory transformations. We hope this article encourages designers to continuously question the power dynamics that underlie the premise of intervention and to actively assert their own chosen values into their assets-based design work.

Our Zoom conversation took place on a rare sunny day in Glasgow, connecting us across time zones in the predawn hours in California. We were eager to know more about Emejulu's relationship with ABCD and how she came to write a critique of the framework. — Lucy Pei and Aakash Gautam

Akwugo Emejulu: Before I moved into academia, I was a community organizer. I was also a trade union organizer, and I was really interested in the dynamics on the ground. Particularly, how do you organize and mobilize people, especially the most marginalized, to help them advance their interests, to articulate their goals, and then also work toward those goals?

It didn't start off that way, but I found myself in this position as a critic. Community development is often positioned as a radical intervention in communities. But what you see when you actually read the texts and listen to interviews with a lot of the key community development proponents, is that they don't necessarily see community groups as active agents for change. More often than not, they see community groups as delusional and passive, as not knowing their own interests. Community development often assumes the requirement of some sort of practitioner to intervene to help them think about themselves and the world differently.

When you study the history of community development, you run across ABCD, because that's one of the really interesting and important models that emerged in the post—civil rights landscape. It's important to understand that ABCD emerged in a time of defeat and disillusionment with left-wing politics. It emerged at the same time as the so-called New Right in the United States, meaning the backlash against Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs, the backlash against the entire civil rights framework. ABCD emerges in the context of Reagan coming into power in 1980, in the context of the dismantling of the very fragile gains of welfare rights and civil rights. ABCD emerges in this context to try to find a new model for working in communities, but in ways that distance community developers from the radical demands and imaginations of the welfare rights and civil rights activists of that moment.

Having been inspired by the paper "Neoliberalism with a Community Face? A Critical Analysis of Asset-Based Community Development in Scotland," we asked Emejulu to share the key arguments of the paper for our HCI audience.

AE: The key argument is that ABCD, even though it espouses a radical egalitarian idea of working with community groups, is in fact quite unconsciously—though actually I think the proponents are quite clear and conscious of it—advancing a neoliberal agenda for thinking about social problems. I mean neoliberalism as a political ideology that puts the market first. It says market solutions are the best in terms of trying to solve social problems. It's a focus on individualism. It's the idea that even though capitalism has caused all of these problems, all we need is more capitalism and somehow that will make everything better.

ABCD folks argue that in community development, community groups are problematically treated as passive objects who require intervention by practitioners, and on this we agree. But their solution is to shift away from a focus on problems, which I disagree with. They say we need to focus on strengths rather than weaknesses, and we need to focus on the positives, not the negatives. And, in so doing, we will activate community groups to mobilize in their interests.

Part of the problem with a focus on weaknesses, according to ABCD folks, is the welfare state. The welfare state itself is a problem, because the welfare state constructs welfare recipients, community groups, and people in poverty as fundamentally passive and needing support. In general, part of the right-wing critique is to say the state should not intervene, because you have to focus on that American ideal of, Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. You can't have these kinds of interventions because it'll make people lazy and they won't work. ABCD effectively makes that same argument, but from a liberal left perspective. For me, that's a problem, because research shows that a strong welfare state is the most effective way of intervening to address key social problems. That doesn't mean the welfare state is perfect or the only solution, but there are consequences for healthcare and social inequality when the welfare state is gutted.

So the fundamental debate between ABCD folks and essentially everyone else is, What is the role of the state here? Should the state play an active role in people's lives? In the U.S., the ABCD folks are really in lockstep with a broader American context of saying the state should be shrunk down, because this will unleash the potential of the individual to go out and address issues and problems themselves. But social science tells us that that's not how this works.

Given the critique that Emejulu and MacLeod lay out in the paper, we were curious to find out how different practitioners responded to the increasing popularity of AB CD. The paper has an empirical aspect that centers on community health practitioners in Glasgow sharing their perspectives as AB CD was being introduced in Scotland.

AE: I think the people on board with ABCD were probably already skeptics of the welfare state. ABCD gives them an opportunity to try to work differently with their community groups. They believe part of the job is to try to shift community groups away from expecting something from the state, and expecting to be put in this hierarchical relationship with the state. The goal is then to figure out what they, as community groups, can do for themselves. The focus becomes shifting away from so-called dependency culture.

On the other hand, folks skeptical of the ABCD approach are concerned with the persistent poverty in Glasgow. Here we have what's called the Glasgow effect, where people are in poor health and die earlier than anywhere else in Europe. Part of it has to do with the collapse of the shipbuilding industry and the manufacturing sector. You lose your large manufacturing sector, your high-paying trade union jobs, and all that's replacing the industry is either nothing or poorly paid temporary service sector jobs. This has a huge psychological effect, and it has real material effects in terms of income and more.

ABCD skeptics say we do actually have to talk about persistent poverty. They say that if you're serious about people's assets, you need to talk about how an entire industry collapsed and nothing has replaced it. What do we do in this context of no jobs or poorly paying jobs that then have these very real long-term health effects? ABCD only has the tools to think about these issues from a purely individualized perspective, with the idea that you, yourself, focused on your strengths, can go out and change things, which we know from social science isn't how poverty works.


And it's not about denying individual agency. I study activism, so I'm very interested in how individuals come together and try to make change. But that doesn't mean the state doesn't have a role, or that the welfare state is the only problem. I'm not a defender of all aspects of the welfare state, but I'd rather have one than not have one.

Providing a contemporary example, Emejulu pointed to the Black Lives Matter movement to exemplify how community organizing starts with assets even as it holds the state accountable for violence. This is markedly different from ABCD proponents' critique of the state as creating problematic dependency in welfare recipients.

AE: Black Lives Matter and other renewed movements are interesting because they are leader-ful movements, meaning they are full of ordinary people who have gotten together because they see the crisis of police violence, prisons, and poverty. People were able to organize themselves on the basis of assets and strengths. They also say the state is a problem, but not in the way that the ABCD people say the state is a problem. Black Lives Matter organizers note the state exacts a very particular kind of structural violence, and some people say the state should be abolished. That's a totally different argument from the ABCD folks, who say the state should be abolished for providing too much welfare.

Given all of the baggage of the proponents of ABCD, we asked about different literatures from which to draw when we seek to counter deficit approaches to community engagement. Emejulu suggested drawing on the literature that comes out of the self-organizing done by communities of color. Particularly in Black feminism, the idea that the personal is political is a starting point from which to consider one's own strengths.

AE: I come from a tradition of Black feminist organizing and women of color organizing—these groups that have been despised, disrespected, and dismissed, and that people say have no ability to organize for themselves, have no ability to articulate for themselves, have no interest outside the home or their family. A different starting point is that the personal is political, as stated in the Combahee River Collective Statement of 1977 [3]. From here, your everyday life becomes politicized. Your everyday interactions are fraught, problematic, unequal, and bizarre, and you are radicalized, as you have to find a framework to make sense of your experiences. You join with others to say, "Huh, I'm also experiencing what you're experiencing." And through this process of consciousness-raising, people join together to try to make a change.

So ABCD doesn't own this idea that individuals are able to organize for themselves, and it's actually really insulting, but it also shows how ahistorical the movement is to believe that these spaces did not exist before and these actors weren't there.

We began to discuss the different perspectives of community self-organizing and the assumptions that underlie professionalized community development work. Emejulu's argument problematizes the interventionist impulses that underlie much of HCI's community-based work.

AE: There is an implicit assumption in ABCD and in other traditions that come out of social work departments that a professionally trained practitioner goes into a community. And it's a community you most likely have no ties to besides the fact that it's your professional area. You don't live in the community, and you don't necessarily have any connections or any historical links to the community. And even if you are from the community, more often than not you've been professionalized in a particular kind of university setting, and then you're walking into communities assuming that people don't know anything. And there's a sort of saviorism—you're here to save people.

I don't come from that tradition, and it's funny to me that people would assume that that was at all a good thing to do. The idea of an outsider coming in is not necessarily problematic, because there have to be spaces to build coalitions to work with people who are different from you. But it's that assumption that I have to make this intervention, because these people are not doing it for themselves. And more often than not, what you find is actually they are, but maybe not in a way that you like. Especially now, we see a lot of these interventions are purposefully underground and outside the sites of professionals so that people can work without interference from outsiders, without surveillance by security forces.


Inspired by our discussion about intervention and self-organizing, we shared some of our experiences with assets-based technology design engagements across different communities and asked Emejulu for her thoughts and advice. She reminded us that when outsiders or professionalized insiders engage with communities, we need to remember that communities themselves are not homogeneous. As is advocated in many participatory design traditions, Emejulu agreed that engaging with communities is best done from a role of support.

AE: If you are invited in to help and support, that's always best because it means you know communities have identified for themselves what their needs are, what the problem is, and you're coming in to support them in a process that's already ongoing, that is meaningful to them. If you're going to come in and tell people, "Here's what the problem is, and here's what you need to do," that's already putting the cart before the horse. If it's truly a support role, then be the support, but that starts by having a very clear and open conversation about what people actually want from you.

A genuine partnership starts with dialogue. There should be no assumptions about what the issue is. There's a need for dialogue about what's working and what isn't. The next step is to think about what resources need to be in place to address the issue. And that's going to look different for every community you're working with.

Emejulu then reminded us that even before engaging with communities, technologists need to consider the material practices that undergird the artifacts we work with. Technologies cannot be separated from the social, material, and political contexts of their construction.

AE: For me, there's a much broader conversation to have before we even get to the conversation about entering the community for help and support. And the best example of course is Facebook. You cannot separate Facebook from its material practices in Silicon Valley in terms of gentrification and more, and you can't separate it from the effects of the profit-driven policies that have had devastating effects in places like Burma [4].

Finally, Emejulu recommended reading about the history of community organizing for inspiration. She emphasized that community organizing cannot be divorced from context. Reading about past movements can inform our future engagements and remind us that context is crucial—something that is often lost in a how-to that tries to abstract context away.


AE: You can't abstract the practice from the context. So many of these successes happened because of a particular moment in time. These particular actors working on these specific issues can't be replicated, but there are lessons to be learned about what went on in those spaces that can then be applied elsewhere.

We hope the HCI community finds value in our conversation with Emejulu about the origins and political context from which ABCD arose, and the different kinds of community engagements and community self-organization toward which we can strive. For further reading about community organizing and critiques of neoliberal policies against welfare, see the list of suggested books on the topic.

back to top  References

1. Kretzmann, J. and McKnight, J. Building communities from the inside out: A path toward finding and mobilizing a community's assets. The Asset-Based Community Development Institute, 1993.

2. MacLeod, M.A. and Emejulu, A. Neoliberalism with a community face? A critical analysis of asset-based community development in Scotland. Journal of Community Practice 22, 4 (2014), 430—450.

3. Combahee River Collective. A Black Feminist Statement. na, 1977.

4. Recent lawsuits seek accountability for Facebook's policies in Myanmar, where hate speech was amplified by the social media's algorithm and inflammatory posts were not taken down. These negligent social media policies facilitated the genocide of Rohingya people in the country.

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Akwugo Emejulu is a professor of sociology at the University of Warwick. Her research interests include the political sociology of women of color's grassroots activism in Europe and the U.S. She is the author of several books, including the forthcoming Precarious Solidarity (Manchester University Press) and Fugitive Feminism (Silver Press, 2022). [email protected]

Lucy Pei is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine. Her research is focused on understanding the dynamics and discourses of tech-for-good intervention, especially in the context of migration and forced migration. [email protected]

Aakash Gautam is an assistant professor in the computer science department at San Francisco State University, where he codirects a yet-to-be-named lab that explores the design of sociotechnical systems for social good. [email protected]

back to top  Sidebar: Suggested Reading

Diamond, S. Roads to Dominion: Right-wing Movements and Political Power in the United States. Guilford, New York, 1995.

Katz, M.B. The Undeserving Poor: America's Enduring Confrontation with Poverty. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, U.K., 2013.

Payne, C. I've Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. Univ. of California Press, Berkeley, 2007.

Piven, F.F. and Cloward, R. Poor People's Movements: Why They Succeed and How They Fail. Pantheon, New York, 1979.

Polletta, F. Freedom Is an Endless Meeting: Democracy in American Social Movements. Univ. of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2004.

Ransby, B. Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision. Univ. of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2003.

Soss, J., Fording, R.C., and Schram, S.F. Disciplining the Poor: Neoliberal Paternalism and the Persistent Power of Race. Univ. of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2011.

Taylor, K.Y. From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2016.

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