By Jade Hines

On two recent episodes of the Good Neighbour, a Toronto-based podcast that explores the intersections of faith and marginalized identities, Dr. Agnes Thomas was invited to share her thoughts on asset-based strategies within community development. Dr. Thomas, a leading community development practitioner and academic passionate about social justice issues, community building, and organizational transformation, brings a wealth of knowledge to this topic.

An asset-based approach is a common strategy within community development that seeks to emphasize the strength and potential of community members rather than solely focusing on what is lacking. Hosted by Jesse Sudirgo, Director of the Masters of Divinity Church in the City program at Tyndale University College & Seminary, Dr. Thomas raised concerns that the fixation on ‘assets’ may potentially dehumanize the very people that such strategies hope to help. She stressed the importance of approaches that emphasize and respect an individual’s inherent worth and dignity as a human being, rather than viewing them as an ‘asset’ to be exploited.

Both half-hour episodes are filled with wisdom accumulated throughout Dr. Thomas’ accomplished career and include topics such as:

“There was so much community that happened in silence.”

When speaking to communities where languages and/or abilities posed barriers to traditional speech and communication, Dr. Thomas emphasized the need to identify stereotypes and prejudices about communities and people, then seek to understand their genuine stories and concerns on their terms.

“There is so much to be discovered in a human person, but we are so quick to judge based on education, and criteria, and how that person speaks, how that person presents themselves, all kinds of judgments.”

The Importance of Being Present

Dr. Thomas outlines how we must not only create spaces for people to communicate but be patient in understanding them. “How do you encounter the other person, and how willing are you to listen?” The idiosyncrasies of individuals might be confusing, even off-putting at first, but to be present is to set aside preconceived notions of how one ought to be and instead accept an individual as they are. “That willingness to listen, creating space for understanding, will lead the way, and it changes the way that you understand different perspectives.”

Balancing the Needs of all Involved

The reality of non-profit work under neoliberalism “… is not simple, because we have accountability towards the funders, or [other stakeholders].” Dr. Thomas speaks to the constant push and pulls of organizations such as CCS, which balance quantified, concrete progress and metrics with clients’ nuanced and individual needs. “We make a bunch of assumptions with our training or our observations, and to say: ‘this is your pathway.’… the person will feel further marginalized by that experience.”

These are only a few topics discussed in the first half, and this episode of the Good Neighbour podcast featuring Dr. Agnes Thomas is available on Spotify.

Check out the Podcast on Spotify here