Start With What You Know. Build on What You Have.

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There’s a quote attributed to the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, “Go to the people. Live with them. Learn from them. Love them. Start with what they know. Build with what they have. But with the best leaders, when the work is done, the task accomplished, the people will say, ‘We have done this ourselves.’”

While I keep looking for the original source of that quote, let’s turn to another source of ancient learning, the movie I watched more than any other between the ages of 8 and 13. In Three Amigos!, Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, and Martin Short play actors famous for their silent film roles as bandit fighters. Fired by their movie studio, they steal their costumes and travel to Mexico to help a village protect itself from a real bandit, the murderous El Guapo. 

In one scene, when hope is all but lost, the entire village gathers along with Lucky Day (Martin), Dusty Bottoms (Chase), and Ned Nederlander (Short). “We want to defend ourselves,” a villager says, “but how?”

Ned replies, “By using the skills and the talents of the people of Santa Poco. This is not a town of weaklings. You can turn your skills against El Guapo! Now, what is it this town really does well?”

The villagers think for a long, long, long moment. And then, the voice of a village matriarch: “We can sew!”

“There you go,” says Dusty. “You can sew. If only we’d known this earlier.” 

Dusty is unconvinced, but Lucky sees the potential. 

CUT TO: El Guapo’s men riding at full gallop toward Santa Poco, while the people of Santa Poco sew furiously. 

I won’t spoil the ending.

Whatever your style—ancient Chinese philosophy, or 1986 John Landis film—there’s wisdom in starting with what you have and building on what you know. It’s at the heart of the Strong Towns movement, which eschews high-risk, low-probability megaprojects that can take generations to recover from, in favor of low-risk, high-return investments (little bets) that well up from within the neighborhood, are responsive to real-life needs, and are adaptable. 

It’s also at the heart of what I think of as “kindred spirit movements,” including Asset Based Community Development (ABCD). “The appeal of ABCD,” says one report, “lies in its premise that communities can drive the development process themselves by identifying and mobilizing existing, but often unrecognized assets, and thereby responding to and creating local economic opportunity.” 

Strong Towns talks about starting with the need (“Humbly observe where people in the community struggle.”). ABCD reminds us to address that need by starting with what we have. Rather than becoming, at best, passive observers to the change we want to see—or worse, the clients of large, impersonal, and uncontrollable outside forces—a bottom-up, strength-based approach is active and empowering, creative and flexible, all while nurturing new relationships.

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