By Faith Chong, trainer-facilitator at Skillseed. She is someone who enjoys the outdoors (a lot), loves exploring new experiences and engaging people.

From the time of entering the Skillseed team to being offered a chance to conduct an Environmental Stewardship course in West Bali, I had eagerly absorbed much of the methodology needed in our training programmes and walkshops. [If you’re not so familiar with this term, it’s a workshop with an added element of walking to explore the hidden gems of your own backyard and/or other communities.] One of the methodologies that has always intrigued me is the Asset-based Community Development (ABCD) methodology because it is central to much that we do. 

Right off the bat, “Methodology” may sound intimidating, but I promise you that it is less scary than it is refreshing. ABCD is adopting a strengths-based perspective instead of focusing on needs/ deficiencies, and through mobilising the assets of individuals and communities drive change from within the community, for the community. 

The theoretical comes alive when there is application. ABCD would come alive for me during the Environmental Stewardship course. In October 2019, I was whisked away on a 6-hour long bus ride from Bali’s Denpasar International to an eco-lodge in the middle of Bali’s pristine Barat National Park, with a group of energetic students from Beijing’s Keystone Academy in tow. The privilege to observe from a facilitator’s point of view, the interweaving of ABCD into the trip was handed to me. 

Meeting Our Community Partners

When we reached the park, we were greeted warmly by our community partners. 

For many years, Skillseed has worked closely with our community partners and experts in Bali; Sierra Silverstone from the Biosphere Foundation and Nono Supastri from Friends of Menjangan. Our organizations possess similar values in areas of sustainability and conservation and their wealth of knowledge has been an invaluable resource for and inspiration to numerous batches of our youth participants. 

Cues ABCD- the awesome methodology I shared before, of which Sierra and our organisations share in common. Through ABCD, we have simultaneously preserved the dignity of the communities we try to help in Bali, while effectively co-creating solutions alongside them. I’m happy to report that during this trip, I ended up noticing elements of ABCD not only with our partners – but amongst the Keystone Academy youths as well!

They Come Bearing Gifts

On this trip, I had the honour of meeting Sierra, a scientist on the Biosphere 2 project. She has been a stalwart partner to the Skillseed team over the years, and an exemplary representation of how one can utilize their gifts of the head and heart. 

Utilizing one’s gifts of the head and heart requires tapping on your intellectual capital and passion in service of creating social impact – and Sierra has both of these attributes in spades. She possesses a wealth of deep knowledge about Balinese biodiversity and harbours a burning passion for environmental conservation, of which she shares through the many international and local outreach programmes organised by the Biosphere Foundation.

Sierra is far from the only one with such passion and intellectual capital; indeed, much of the foundation’s team has contributed their research and expertise on biodiversity and ecology. This capital allows the Foundation to execute projects which require such expertise – for instance, exploring and researching crops suitable for dry-land farming suitable for the Balinese climate. 

Gifts within the Community

ABCD does not only manifest in individual gifts like Sierra’s but it was also apparent in community gifts. For example, it was shared to the Keystone youths that the Foundation works closely with local Balinese communities on the ground - viewing them as partners instead of ‘beneficiaries’. The assets of the local communities are, in fact, quite central to all of the Foundation’s work. All their projects are designed to include collaboration with Balinese groups on the ground – for instance, in their trash management programme, they train and empower locals to go door-to-door and distribute brochures to households about how to sort/ recycle/ throw their trash. 

Keystone youths lending their hands and efforts in a beach clean-up, alongside the trash management advocates from Biosphere Foundation

Keystone youths lending their hands and efforts in a beach clean-up, alongside the trash management advocates from Biosphere Foundation

A local group they collaborate with for their coral reef and recycling programmes is the Friends of Menjangan (Friends), of whom we had the privilege of interacting with.

Nono Supastri started Friends in 2011. They are a community movement formed by a group of environmentally-aware locals. They envision a world without plastic waste in the oceans or environment, and aim to cultivate awareness about the environment, the ecosystem and biodiversity on Menjangan Island, a beautiful island off the shores of Bali’s main island.  

One of the ways they aim to cultivate this awareness is through coral reef protection expeditions, led by experts within the community. This project involves various aspects - including the careful removal of the detrimental ‘crown-of-thorns’ starfish to protect the coral reefs and installing buoys to prevent boats from anchoring and destroying reefs. The expertise of local divers is essential to such a program and this is a great example of how community initiatives can tap into the assets and strengths of the local community. Not only do these divers possess gifts of the head and heart, they also possess gifts of the hands: their deft diving abilities are crucial to the coral reef protection expeditions.

These divers aren’t the only examples of community-based gifts of the hand. With an environment free of plastic in mind, they launched a unique ‘Recycling Plastic into Bags’ project where women in the community used the gifts of their hands to intricately ‘weave’ plastic waste into bags and purses. These bags and purses are sold to visitors and tourists, and the sales revenue provides both employment for the women, as well as financial support for the coral reef expeditions.

Keystone youths learning the art of weaving plastics into purses and bags as part of the ‘Recycling Plastics into Bags’ project with Friends of Menjangan.

Keystone youths learning the art of weaving plastics into purses and bags as part of the ‘Recycling Plastics into Bags’ project with Friends of Menjangan.

After meeting the women weavers, the Keystone youths utilized their financial capital to buy all the purses available. And they didn’t stop there: upon returning home, they organized a school donation drive, put together a video on environmental conservation based on their trip and sold these purses to their peers at a higher price. The drive was wildly successful, and they raised more than USD $500 which was channelled back to Friends to support their conservation efforts. This trip empowered students to call upon both their gifts of the head (they knew how to appeal to teachers and students back home) and gifts of the hands (they tapped into their design, video-making skills to share all they had learnt from our community partners). It was heartening to see youths of their age want to play their part in contributing to a greater social and environmental cause and giving back to the community they interacted with on this trip. 

The gifting of culture

One of the unexpected ways that I observed ABCD being communicated through was the channel of culture. Culture gave space for talents like the Chinese calligraphy to be honed. These youths from keystone spent years perfecting their skill down to the smallest of strokes, and it was this skill that they gifted to the locals. Likewise, the Balinese students had been given an avenue through their culture to perfect the craft of traditional Balinese dances. Every arching of their back and delicate movement of their feet were stories of their hard work. Both sides worked in tandem to gift the other the arts of their culture through the experiential learning course itinerary. The Keystone youths were engaged in a Cultural Exchange session with a group of local Balinese high school students on the fifth day of the trip. During this session, the Chinese students translated the names of their Balinese counterparts into Mandarin and transcribed them using Chinese calligraphy, while the local students performed their traditional dances to the rhythms of traditional Balinese music.

The Cultural Exchange session where the Keystone youths shared their gifts with the Balinese students through Chinese Calligraphy.

The Cultural Exchange session where the Keystone youths shared their gifts with the Balinese students through Chinese Calligraphy.

ABCD: a model for sustainable change?

Through this trip, I have come to see ABCD in its many forms. 

It is fair, I think, to say that Skillseed, the Biosphere Foundation and Friends of Menjangan all believe that in order for ABCD to work, we must recognize that each and every community possesses assets which can be leveraged upon to create social change in a manner which they desire and would be sustainable. It is only after those assets and desires are identified within the community that external forces and resources can be supplied in support of the community.

As outsiders looking into local communities, we must remember that we are not working for them, but with them. In many ways, this trip was a reminder of that.

This was also a reminder as to how infectious the idea of ABCD is. The Keystone youths activated their own gifts, leading them to start an initiative of their own back home, becoming ambassadors of environmental sustainability. As facilitators, we set out to educate these youths about the value of environmental conservation over the course of the trip. When the trip ended, I realised (in a positive way) that these students encouraged me to enjoy stepping out of my comfort zone and definitely made my first experiential learning course a memorable one!

Group wefie on the last day of the trip!

Group wefie on the last day of the trip!